The need for interoperability in smart buildings

Ieuen Rowe

Faced with a competitive market for tenants, office landlords have turned to smart buildings to give them an edge. In addition to providing landlords with energy saving and operational performance improvements, smart buildings must provide a seamless user experience, which exceeds, or at least matches the home comforts employees enjoy while working remotely. 

Internet of Things (IoT) devices that monitor and analyse temperature, lighting, indoor air quality (IAQ) and presence, create environments that are easy to work in and have the potential to improve productivity in the office.

Interoperability enables IoT devices to communicate, sharing data and responding in unison to changes in the office environment and its utilisation. When they work together, they offer valuable insights on how the workspace is operating.

However, interoperability and integration can pose a challenge for facilities managers. Smart buildings are often lacking in interoperable tech, which in turn reduces the value of IoT. Facilities managers must consider how to centralise the data collected from IoT and ensure smart buildings are fully integrated.  

The rapid growth of IoT

Back in 2020, LMG’s research spelled out an uncertain future for the office. Two thirds of respondents told us that the pandemic had led them to re-assess their real estate strategies – but only 14% said they would be actively making such changes in the next two years.

Now, both employees and employers seem to have a clearer view of what they need from the office. They are looking for comfortable, customisable workspaces that promote employee safety and wellbeing, and this is driving the growth of IoT-enabled smart offices.

IoT investment is accelerating. According to Fortune Business Insights, the IoT market was valued at USD 384.70 billion in 2021, and is predicted to grow to USD 2,465 billion by 2029 (www.fortunebusinessinsights.com/industry-reports/internet-of-things-iot-market-100307). A portion of this projected growth is going into making corporate real estate smarter and more efficient.

IoT’s promise to reduce energy and maintenance costs while pulling in tenants with a frictionless user experience is inspiring a number of innovative use cases.

The benefits of an IoT-enabled office

An IoT-enabled office promotes a positive occupant experience that is as seamless as possible. We tend to associate IoT with features in the home – from voice-operated devices to smart fridges – that tell you when you need to restock. As hybrid work becomes the norm, a building must be enticing enough to leave home for. Bringing IoT into the workspace is a large part of the solution.

The pandemic reinforced office landlord’s focus on biosecurity. Smart buildings can promote biosecurity using sensors that monitor IAQ and occupancy levels. This ensures that occupancy is kept at safe levels and that the space is well-ventilated: a priority as new variants of Covid-19 continue to appear.

On top of that, hybrid work demands flexibility, and IoT has a role to play in ensuring a smooth hybrid delivery. Sensors linked to hot desk booking systems, for instance, mean employees can find a comfortable seat regardless of when they come in. The ability to control access cards, lighting and other devices through smartphone apps allows those not working the typical 9 to 5 to have control over their workspace. 

These smart building and IoT technologies enable the built environment to play a role in improving employee wellbeing and the bottom line. The push to invest in IoT because of this is positive, but a smooth delivery is not guaranteed.

 Implementing interoperability

The wide choice of IoT devices available can be a double-edged sword. Multiple IoT systems may be deployed in a smart building, and this makes maintaining, monitoring and gathering actionable data difficult.

In truly smart buildings, IoT devices communicate with each other about the status of the built environment. For example, the lighting and temperature control systems in a building may turn on when presence is detected or occupancy levels reach an agreed threshold, to conserve energy. This interoperability reduces the workload of the facilities manager, who can set up these systems to match occupants’ schedules.

Access control also benefits from interoperability. Sensors can permit and monitor access in and out of a building. Facilities managers optimise this feature by deploying it onto a common building network, combining it with mobile and Wi-Fi data to provide a more detailed, real-time view on occupancy and activity levels – knowing what spaces and services are being used where and when.

IoT on this scale requires the ability to connect devices via wireless and wired protocols, and demands a robust, open but secure IT infrastructure.  

Siloed maintenance

However, most smart buildings are not currently achieving this level of integration. The new gadgets found in high tech offices are often handled by specialist contractors, who maintain their devices individually.

But what happens when an incident occurs, or a device fails? Facilities managers must contact several subcontractors, with various support staff in the diagnostic process. The costs also accumulate, as landlords handle each contractor in isolation.

IoT should be cost effective, since smart devices should detect maintenance issues before they worsen. A siloed maintenance structure means that facilities managers are not reaping these benefits.

London office occupancy rose to 42% last month, but uncertainty about the future role of the office continues. As maintenance mishaps recur, they become a regular distraction for office workers, potentially ruining their experience. They risk making the office seem less appealing at just the moment that many employees are hesitant to return.

Furthermore, since the data collected from IoT is siloed, it’s much more difficult to glean insights into how occupants are using the workspace. Consequently, landlords will be less responsive to the changing use of the office.   

The gateway to interoperability

Smart buildings are only truly ‘smart’ when their components are properly integrated. Facilities managers must therefore consider how to centralise disparate data collected from multiple sensors and other devices.

The true value of IoT comes from the data they generate – enabling businesses to analyse spikes, identify trends, and use this information to make informed business decisions.

IoT gateways, both wired and wireless are key to enabling interoperability and underpinning data capture in the built environment. These specialised gateways support a wide variety of devices, meaning that landlords can bust siloes and create truly converged IoT networks. Wireless gateways and sensors are particularly quick to deploy and tackle the problem without hours of effort. 

These gateways transmit data to cloud-based software, meaning data from all sensors is easily accessible. Facilities managers can visualise their data using this software and track performance and utilisation across the network. Such platforms enable the introduction of complex IoT deployments, even in legacy buildings.

The way forward

Interoperability and integration add value to an IoT deployment. They enable landlords to turn ‘gadgets’ into tools that deliver a great experience for occupants. The level of data aggregation that IoT solutions provide creates a rich source of data and business insights.

Employee expectations have shifted, and the traditional office is now competing with the home office. Smart buildings, powered by IoT, can create a customisable, comfortable and efficient environment to work in.

To achieve this, facilities managers need to move towards a more integrated, common, enterprise grade building network. As the IoT offering continues to expand, and more devices are added, delivering this at scale will become an even greater challenge.

By prioritising their IT infrastructure, landlords can take advantage of IoT technology and make office buildings smarter than ever.

Ieuen Rowe is Director at LMG

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