April 2021

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“The Only Constant is Change”

Virtual reality is just not quite the same as the real deal, but in alignment with this month’s publication theme “Adaption”

Phillip Kopp, CEO Conectric Networks


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philIt’s been well over a year now since I attended the AHR Convention in Orlando, in what would be my last in person conference experience. Shortly after AHR, Ken Sinclair invited me to write a couple of articles related to his series on Wireless Ways, in which we discussed retrofitting wireless IoT sensors to make buildings more flexible and adaptable to changing and dynamic conditions (“What does Yoga have to do with building systems” April, 2020 edition). Little did we know what the pandemic future was holding at the time…


Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. Although I didn’t get to go to any other conferences during the last year, I sure have spent a lot of time on Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms. Virtual reality is just not quite the same as the real deal, but in alignment with this month’s publication theme “Adaption”, I have actually learned to adapt.


In fact, with this new virtual world my company is getting some of the best marketing results ever. Probably better than any of the hundreds of in-person events I have spent ungodly sums to attend over the last 20 years. Now we can actually collect empirical market intelligence and learn more about what is driving captive decision makers during virtual webinars. A practical step up from piles of business cards, chicken scratch notes and anecdotal conversations remembered foggily after a few too many vendor sponsored adult beverages. It turns out you don’t have to embarrass yourself in a karaoke bar at 2AM to close deals after all (I’ve personally been on the wrong side of that debate more than once before...).


A large crowd of people at a convention  Facilio Webinar poll: Which of these is your most immediate objective to improve sustainability/ESG-related projects?


OLD                                                                                       NEW

Before 2020 conferences were about good times with good people. But with virtual conferences and webinars we now get hard data that can directly inform business decisions.


Humans are very good at adapting and that is likely an underlying reason for our success as a species so far. But what about our assets? All of the physical systems we have designed to help us in our quest to survive in our dynamic Earth home and propagate out into the rest of the Universe. In particular, those buildings we have developed in order to live in all types of conditions and climates around the world (and space… in the not-so-distant future). Arguably one of the oldest and most important adaptation tools in our inventory. Are our buildings adaptable to the constant change? What if the environment they were built to endure changes around them? What if the end-use they were designed for is no longer relevant? Just for example, all those giant convention facilities and office buildings that have been empty for over the last year. These are very important questions for the owners, operators and users of those very costly assets.


A swimming pool in a building

Retail shopping malls were already being abandoned prior to the pandemic. Imagine what happens next? (Image source)


In researching material for this piece, I came across an interesting National Geographic educational article titled Adaptation and Survival (accessed 3/23/21, no author cited). The article describes that there are actually two distinct types of adaptation: Structural and Behavioral. It goes on to explain that Structural adaptation is when the physical structure of an organism adapts over time to better suit its environment. For example, plants that live in extremely wet or dry climates have different structural attributes for storing water. Behavioral adaptation on the other hand, is when an organism changes the way it reacts to changing conditions, even if its underlying structure remains the same. For example, the migration of animals from North to South during different seasons of the year.


I believe this has a lot of relevance to the current discussion on how to adapt our countless building assets to keep up with the faster and faster pace of change. Not only have we seen drastic changes in building occupancy and potentially end uses over the last year, but also a more systemic and long-term impact they have on the globally accepted need to act more sustainably towards our environment. Especially with the dramatic increase in electricity expected to be used by buildings in emerging economies, probably exceeding OECD countries during the next few years.


Let’s look first into the structural component of how our buildings will need to adopt to these new paradigms. It is not only possible, but necessary to rethink how we design and build in the future to make our structures more adaptable and resilient to changing conditions. However, the reality is that our entire industry is not well suited to this kind of sudden, major change either. This begs a kind of reengineering of the entire industry stack. From how stakeholders like engineers, architects, technicians, builders and consultants are trained and deployed, to how buildings are financed and later operated. Building a structure to meet a specific end use makes it inherently inflexible. This can be closely tied to local zoning ordinances and master planning that require certain types of structures to be built in certain areas. The expected use of an asset over its life facilitates financing its development. But what if needs change so dramatically that a once a busy shopping mall dies, and must be repurposed as a corporate office campus or a multi-family complex? With cities in drastic need to build resilience to extreme weather and public health or safety crisis, it’s very likely we will see a rethinking of these zoning systems in the coming future to facilitate new kinds of multi-purpose buildings.  And with those buildings, a new kind of construction process which de-emphasizes the importance of any particular stakeholder during early construction and adds much more value in providing ongoing services to these adaptable structures, which may be in constant change over their entire useful life. This is a fundamental shift in the distribution of resources across an entire industry, including how buildings will be owned and operated. 


Exterior, Shipping Container Building Type, Flat RoofLine, Metal Siding Material, Green Roof Material, and House Building Type The two ends of the containers can be opened or closed at a pivot for more or less privacy. Over time, native plants will grow on the roof and north side of the structure.  Kitchen, Wood Cabinet, Plywood Floor, Drop In Sink, Refrigerator, Wood Counter, Ceiling Lighting, and Wall Lighting The marine plywood feature is especially striking in the compact kitchen and its island's geometric design. The cabinetry was built by Z Constructions. 


Could this Australian pivoting container building be a window into our future adaptable modular buildings that can be easily changed over time? (Source article: dwell.com)


Although these concepts may be somewhat further into the future, there is a very real current opportunity to adapt behaviorally, as nature does in response to changing conditions. While many existing buildings may not be able to adapt structurally, it is still possible to implement behavioral changes that result in a more adaptable facility. These kinds of behavioral adaptations are virtually guaranteed given the effects of the pandemic on our ability to occupy buildings safely. This is highlighted by the need to ensure that indoor spaces are healthy to be in, interactive, optimized and environmentally sustainable. If not, it may be difficult to imagine a complete reoccupation of our major commercial, retail and event centers anytime in the near future. This is a transformation we will see in a massive scale over a very short period.


This kind of behavioral adaption mimics the current industry conversations on intelligent buildings, data aggregation and integration of static building systems using smart cloud platforms, wireless IoT sensors that monitor real-time conditions and environmental reporting. Transparent real-time information, automation of buildings systems and enhanced occupant interactivity can allow a safer, faster and more efficient reoccupation of buildings. Through my vantage point as the CEO of a technology vendor providing these kinds of services (disclaimer: I am currently the CEO of Conectric Networks), I do feel a strong sentiment that technology will lead the short-term adaptation to the tremendous changes in social and health protocols. Until now, real examples of these kinds of dynamic building services designed to bring the building and occupants together were few and far between. This was mostly due to the perceived high cost and complexity of implementing them. The cost is continuously coming down however, and the will to ensure continuous occupation by portfolio owners is tremendous. Although technology may play a major role in upgrading our large buildings to adapt to post-pandemic conditions, there is also an important human element. Having participated in numerous smart building projects, I find that it is often the human stakeholders which are not able to adapt quickly enough to these sweeping updates.


The Edge: Amsterdam office building with highest BREEAM score to date | Build Up  Graphical user interface, application

The “Edge” Smart Building Amsterdam                 Room utilization with Conectric IoT sensors on Facilio platform


The “Edge” building in Amsterdam is largely considered one of the most adapted intelligent buildings in the world making extensive use of design and technology to deliver optimum services to occupants (source: buildup.eu)


A very important part of the adaption process will revolve around the operational staff managing buildings who perceive these initiatives as minimizing their importance, and the OEM vendors whose expensive equipment and service contracts may become less relevant. I see these as the two biggest barriers to enable behavioral adaptions in buildings facilitated by technology. The reality is that asset owners are more than happy to make the investments needed to shield their existing portfolios from future risk, and tenants and occupants who demand a more sustainable, transparent and healthier indoor environment will not only embrace, but demand that buildings are able to provide these services. At the end of the day, if a building can proactively inform service requirements, and more data can be pulled out with inexpensive wireless sensors, an expensive annual service contract for a bespoke automation system is not so important anymore. You can be sure there will be plenty of resistance to this change from the automation industry itself, unless they too can adapt to offer new business models and technologies.


I have worked with several modern overlay platforms that provide functions like automated fault detection, vendor ticketing (CMMS) automation, dynamic occupancy utilization, energy optimization and building health reporting. These platforms may reduce the need to have wrenches circulating the property and engineers putting out fires constantly with manual system adjustments. However, for the most part will still require trained operators to manage them effectively, optimize settings and get real eyeballs to diagnose potential problems using decades of field experience that a piece of software may not have yet. We will still need to install and commission these systems to ensure they are functioning properly, and they will still inform future needs to keep the asset functioning optimally which will require new services and installations. Perhaps even repurposing a building use several times over its life.


There can be no argument that change is constant. Our species, like every species must be successful at enduring these changes by adapting to them. And there is no question that we have seen very substantial changes in our environment and society over the last year. Everything from how we eat, to how we meet. As a core part of civilization, our built environment must also adapt to these changes, both structurally in the long term and behaviorally in the near term. But in the end, it will be the people that touch those buildings which must accept and ultimately leverage those adaptations to their own best interests. I believe we will see a substantial push for these changes taking place over the next one to three years by occupants and owners. As a part of this transition, we will surely learn and explore many new skills, ideas, technologies and behavioral adaptions which will equip our industry to not only survive the present, but thrive well into the future.


Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if this article or others on the subject generate new ideas or questions. We must all work together towards the ultimate benefit of the industry and our customers as a team, adapting quickly to changes as they come our way.


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