Future influences

Karen Fletcher considers two of the main drivers of change in how buildings are being designed and operated

If you were in any doubt that technology is driving how we design, construct and use buildings, then the Facilities Show 2019 was here to open your eyes. Numerous presentations and demonstrations touched on the topics of digitisation, data use, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

However, there is a second important influence at work in the buildings sector – people. Presentations at the show on physical and mental health at work were packed, demonstrating an enormous interest in keeping humans happy and healthy.

The two influences seem to be coming from opposite ends of the technical spectrum, but they’re not as incompatible as they seem. Technology is supporting FMs in doing their jobs better. With the advent of Big Data from advanced control systems, the ability to apply machine learning and AI to sorting the informational wheat from the chaff is crucial. And offering pleasant, supportive workplaces is regarded as crucial to attracting the generation of workers who can make the most of this technology, not only in FM but in all areas of today’s business – from R&D to social media marketing.

One of the major themes of the event was how to make use of data collected and broadcast by various technologies around the building, including HVAC equipment. In itself, this is not new. We are accustomed to the idea that a building management system (BMS) should be collecting and collating data. But with greater connectivity, via the Internet of Things (IoT), facilities managers can not only collect more data, they can access and use it in more ways.

But more data implies more work to try to spot patterns or anomalies. That’s where the concepts of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) enter the picture. MBStv interviewed some of the leading Facilities Show speakers, including David Bruce, FTTP innovation principal for Openreach who explained: “Neural intelligence is the way that a human thinks and processes information to make informed decisions. Artificial intelligence is about how we can create computers to do that – to make intelligent decisions and learn, just like a human would learn.”

Paul Smedley, founder of The Forum, is a specialist in data analytics. He also emphasises the importance of data: “AI is about learning and links to big sources of data. More systems are tracking data and that’s almost too much for a human to understand. Trying to get intelligence out of that isn’t what we’re good at, but it is what machines are good at and that’s what digital transformation is doing.”

All of this leads of course to the concept of the truly ‘smart’ building. While that’s a term with numerous definitions, data gathering and analysis are pushing the boundaries of ‘smart’ ever-further. John Gleeson, WSP associate director spoke to MBStv: “A building can be considered smart when it can learn what happens from the occupants in the building and from the systems that are being used. It can learn and harvest data then display that for people who are operating the building to allow them to make informed decisions.”

Essentially, Gleeson views a smart building as one that can measure itself against the original design intent, understand if that is being achieved and adjust accordingly if not.

Yet if technology is changing the workplace, it’s also changing how we work. The same technological advances have unchained workers from their desks, in theory at least. Work is something that no longer happens in a single place. Instead, we are seeing the rise of ‘agile working’.

Kitchen, founder of Workplace Change, specialises in helping companies achieve a smooth transition to ‘agile’ working. She told MBStv: “Agile working means working in a way where you are not tethered to a particular place. Whether it’s a desk or a building. You can work where you want as it suits your requirements that day. It might be a quiet room for concentrating on producing a big document; it might be on a collaborative table if you are working with a team. It might be at home or at a client’s office. It’s more than hot desking it’s a whole mindset.”

Kitchen points out that people are not always happy about changing to this new way of working. “People do not like change, especially when it’s imposed upon them and any change management project will be fraught with difficulty because people will resist it,” she explains, adding: “Companies need to not impose it in a hurry. I always advise a long consultative planning period to set everybody’s expectations and to address concerns.”

However, she adds that in her wide experience, the vast majority of staff do like the benefits of agile working, and once the change is managed, most happily settle in to a new way (and places) of working.

For building services the messages are clear. The ability to gather data from building services systems is increasingly treated as a valuable business asset. And the focus on building occupant health and wellbeing is such that even as employees are freed to work anywhere, a high-performance workspace, with well-designed services, is regarded as increasingly important.

picture credit: Jamesteohart/shutterstock

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