People live and work in buildings. Tech can make them smarter. Source: Shutterstock

People live and work in buildings. Tech can make them smarter. Source: Shutterstock

Can AI make office buildings smarter and more sustainable?

FACILITIES managers work really hard to keep buildings functioning round the clock — and there’s a lot of work involved.

Up until now, the bulk of it was manual labor as anyone can imagine. Checking whether the air-conditioner is working on every level, ensuring lights are all operational, among other things, is cumbersome. Of course, technology makes it simple now, with sensors.

In an exclusive interview with Tech Wire Asia ahead of the IoT Asia summit, MANN+HUMMEL Global Partnerships Director Joelle Chen provides an insider’s view into what AI is really doing to transform the industry.

“Our take is that AI will make maintenance proactive while saving costs by reducing scheduled, but perhaps unnecessary, maintenance. Decisions taken will be based on evidence from actual operations,” explained Chen.

In her daily job, Chen advises businesses about air quality in their facilities and the use of filtration systems.

“While filtration is a small part of building operations, it is not an insignificant part as it impacts the air that is circulated in the building. People drink two to three liters of water but breathe 11,000 to 15,000 liters of air every day.

“It (air quality) is the only health and wellbeing indicator in a building that can cause immediate discomfort and health issues if not addressed, particularly when occupants cannot do anything to improve their air, unlike temperature, or lighting.”

MANN+HUMMEL’s IoT based air-filtration system also relies on AI to help facility managers make their buildings smarter and safer. However, Chen is careful when it comes to collecting and using data to power its AI-models.

“There are generally two key issues for us. Firstly, the issue of data privacy as the amount of air quality data is huge and would only increase; particularly for AI to progress further. Secondly, the potential lack of transparency about what goes into the algorithms that power the AI.”

Although the company’s data management practices ensure compliance with the strictest laws globally (at the moment that is the EU’s General Data Protection Act), Chen does believe that data she uses shouldn’t be a cause for concern in any way.

“Air quality data, like other urban data such as temperature, humidity, and even transportation flows, do not generally affect personal privacy, and hence it is less so of an issue.”

However, Chen isn’t alone in the battle to smart-ify buildings.

Colliers International US President of Investor Services and Real Estate Management Services Karen Whitt recently penned a blog post where she talked about the (growing) importance and relevance of AI in building management.

“In real estate, we’re typically a little bit behind the curve in terms of the latest and greatest tech as we often wait for innovations to mature before we deploy them across our portfolios. However, we are beginning to see the introduction of AI in commercial real estate, and I think this will only continue to grow,” said Whitt.

“While the applications of AI in commercial real estate are exciting, they won’t be a panacea for building management.”

“AI likely won’t enable building owners to cut staffing levels in half or ask a digital Jarvis to fix a broken cooling tower.”

“Some personnel will need to learn completely new skills to make the most of the new technology and there might be risks associated with having machines talk to each other in ways that we cannot understand. How do you fix a machine or computer if it works with a protocol that is impossible for people to read?

“However, the possibilities AI opens up are impossible to ignore. While we have been working with disparate systems that operate in discrete ways, AI could be the thing that unites them and creates truly holistic, ‘living’ buildings,” she wrote.

At the end of the day, AI has a lot of potential to help facilities managers get better at supporting tenants with their needs.

In an ideal case, the future will bring several AI-powered enhancements that not only improve the quality of life for tenants but also make the building more sustainable overall.

From the looks of it, real estate experts, technology consultants, and building managers are working on making the most of the data they have and crafting AI-models to transform their workspaces.

Tomorrow’s smart buildings will soon be a reality for many tenants — in the APAC and across the world.