How Can PropTech Improve Health and Wellbeing?
While it may not seem one of the first places to look, property tech (PropTech) is shaping up to be a valuable tool in creating ‘immune buildings’. As a result, PropTech can improve the health and wellbeing of buildings and services in the defence against COVID-19.
Table of Contents
Life after COVID: What can PropTech do?
There will be much to take away from COVID-19. So, naturally, all eyes will be on minimising the likelihood such an event could happen again. At least, not with such aggression and inability to detect, monitor and protect as effectively.
While it may not seem one of the first places to look, property tech (PropTech) is shaping up to be a valuable tool in the front line of defence against contagion. PropTech is already known in the property industry for solutions that support the management and optimisation of occupant safety and wellbeing. Additionally, solutions are evaluated and purposed to introduce a new level of health, hygiene and safety control across the built environment.
Industry appetite to integrate smart-building technologies has steadily risen. Recent studies by KPMG have found that 65% of organisations surveyed are now looking to invest in PropTech in the next 12 months as part of their Asset Management strategy. That figure increases to 86% when including organisations that seek to have PropTech investment in their 5-year asset management strategies.
Investment in PropTech companies and service providers is likely to increase throughout the year and likely into 2021, with already exceeding $2.31 billion according to Unissu’s March total.
PropTech’s focus on health, safety and wellness
In terms of priorities, PropTech discussions have shifted significantly towards both the health and wellness of tenants and mitigation of future pandemic or contagion events. Industry conversation has previously focused primarily on the economic value of building automation and enhancing sustainability to meet current regulatory or legislative standards.
However, recent growth in popularity for initiatives such as the WELL rating has swiftly placed health, safety and wellness in front of mind. As a result, the industry expects it to be a primary focus.
The necessity to prioritise general health and wellness in buildings may also become regulated alongside existing life-safety compliance measures such as Emergency Planning or Fire Safety.
The impact of COVID-19 will leave a significant impression on society and business for years to come. Overall, this may be the catalyst to a wealth of positive decisions around what buildings can do to play their part in prioritising health. In addition, it may help prevent the fallout from future outbreaks.
From a PropTech perspective, many not-yet-implemented improvements will become necessary. For example, over 72% of building stock is more than 2 decades old and expected to require retrofitting to meet new performance and sustainability standards in the next few years.
COVID-19 may significantly alter the way we approach space utilisation and operability. The decision to integrate practical technologies now will be far more effective on cost as we change to existing environments.
PropTech emphasises building and occupant health
How strong is the connection between a building’s health and the health of its occupants?
Until recently, many people placed tenant wellness alongside notions of sustainability and idealistic concepts of the future of workspaces and what they might look like or how they will perform.
The key here is to distinguish which technologies and practices we can implement today to directly benefit occupant health and wellbeing. And of those, recognise which can integrate fluidly and facilitate ROI and which are more idealistic or conceptual. This distinction has been at the heart of speculation in PropTech investment. Additionally, it’s also a source of much scepticism in the industry as stakeholders feel fatigued over the mounting proposition of aspirational concepts.
In no way does this mean that these aspirational concepts do not have a place in solving the problems of today’s built environment. However, to be adopted, the property industry’s notoriously risk-averse decision-makers must be willing first to emphasise building and tenant health objectives. Additionally, they must be agile and open to collaboration to potentially develop the technology or concept to fit within their tech stack. Finally, they must also consider the benefit for the broader stakeholder ecosystem.
Emergent tools such as WELL ratings introduced and coordinated by the International WELL Buildings Institute and endorsed by the Green Building Council of Australia have become a popular global standard for critical elements of building design and performance across health and wellbeing factors such as:
- Thermal Comfort
- Community, and
The EY Centre in Sydney, a commercial building and location of the new Mirvac headquarters, was the first project in Australia to be awarded WELL Certification at the Gold level.
Other leading ‘first-mover’ firms continue to transition to this approach as they understand that WELL and Green Star certifications are critical elements. As the spotlight on health grows, this approach is incredibly valuable to a building’s commercialism. Particularly as sustainability markets continue to grow rapidly.
The impact that building systems have on our health
Despite market hesitation, there is a great deal that we already understand about the impact that building systems and infrastructure have on our health.
According to Derek Clements-Croome of the School of Construction Management and Engineering at the University of Reading:
‘Over the past 20 years, it has been empirically assessed that most building environments have a direct effect on the occupants’ personal wellbeing and performance.’
Factors such as CO2 concentration, lighting, temperature and humidity are linked to employee health and, therefore, the likelihood of illness and spread of disease.
Clements-Croome also pointed out that ‘Miller et al. (2009) surveyed over 500 LEED and Energy Star-rated buildings.’ And that they had ‘proved their hypothesis that healthy buildings reduce the number of sick days, increase productivity and make it easier to recruit and retain staff.’
Controlling a building’s health
To control a building’s health, we need to look at the components that control air quality and hygiene.
These, in turn, depend on the operability, reliability, maintenance and longevity of core systems, including HVAC and other means of controlling Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).
In this example, reduced air quality, measured across elements like CO2 in parts-per-million (ppm) concentrations, can lead to stress and fatigue, impacting the immune system and increasing the likelihood of illness.
We have, in recent years, developed the knowledge and solutions to curb this risk. For example, Scandinavian healthcare facilities currently use air purification solutions. More recently, Wuhan hospitals have demonstrated the limitations of traditional HVAC filtration methods against purification.
Realistically, there are several areas in which we can make a significant impact on health and wellness, many of which start at the build phase.
(For example, cost-cutting in areas that prevent water ingress leads to a compromised building environment. In addition, water ingress promotes mould, increases humidity and ultimately impacts occupant health and asset value.)
Creating immune buildings – part of the puzzle
A paper published by Miroslaw J. Skibniewski in 2008 discussed the then-emerging concept of ‘immune buildings’. The paper discussed ‘design and analysis for protecting traditional buildings against airborne disease transmission, mould contamination, nosocomial infections and the threat of biological weapon agents.’
Looking at this in a more modern context, we can utilise existing infrastructure, technology and connectivity to effectively create a live view of a building’s condition across each level of operations, including sanitation and our management of resources. Building owners and managers, as a result, should be observing the importance of understanding the baseline condition of building assets.
Making this information accessible through digital models has afforded greater accuracy in lifecycle modelling and the modelling of potential scenarios. As a result, modelling leads to greater control over resource allocation and the ability to enact preventative measures proactively. Whilst this is predominantly focused on the degradation of assets and impact on building performance, we now have a lens to model the impact of systems integration on health and wellness.
Smarter health asset management
Owners and operators will be put in the immediate spotlight and tasked with enabling healthier environments due to COVID-19. However, we stress avoiding a kneejerk approach to procuring and implementing solutions.
We promote the importance of taking a staged approach to smarter asset optimisation or management and including health as a key metric. This staged approach entails:
- Establishing a baseline understanding of your assets and their current performance through preliminary audits and condition assessments
- Establishing strategic objectives across operations, performance, tenant experience (including health) and long term value
- Selecting and integrating technologies that can demonstrably meet your objectives (potentially multiple), can integrate with your existing systems and provide long term ROI.
Leading the way to better building health objectives
We understand that some of the best solutions may not be perfect for your systems. They may not seamlessly integrate and may not include some desired functionality. This is where medium and larger firms must ‘lead the way’ in partnering to develop solutions that benefit the broader ecosystem.
This is already happening, with firms such as Cushman Wakefield, Colliers, Stockland and Dexus providing PropTech accelerator programs.
Now is the time to work with stakeholders – managers, owners and occupiers – to set objectives and aim to create returns across the value chain.
Ideally, these objectives should be set in the design and development phase, where developers, builders, architects and investors work collaboratively with stakeholders at different stages in the building life cycle. All need to take responsibility for the experience of the end-user.
So, what health and life safety objectives should we look at, and what PropTech solutions exist to meet those needs? We place objectives in 3 discernible categories: prevention, detection and management.
Immune buildings: Prevention
Prevention covers any measure that aids sanitation and upholds elements such as Indoor Air Quality, hygiene and waste. This prevention leads to optimal occupant wellness and minimises disease transmission or propagation.
More advanced technologies growing in use throughout Europe and America in particular include:
- Automated and/or robotic building management, maintenance and sanitation resources,
- The reprogramming or expansion of Building Management Systems (BMS) to monitor and moderate Indoor Air Quality parameters and HVAC systems, including humidity levels, to minimise the survival rate of viruses; and
- Other air systems, including purification
- White light LED disinfection technology
Immune buildings: Detection
Systems and procedures that can more effectively classify, isolate and provide alerts to the possibility of contaminative sources within or external to a location.
- Infrared Scans – used to measure temperature. (Whilst this is not ‘PropTech’, these solutions will likely be considered part of building infrastructure as a new form of building security.)
- Sensors – for indoor air quality – temperature/humidity, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as mould, asbestos or pathogens.
- Tenant/Building Apps – sharing personal health, which may aid self-identification or alert to critical risks.
‘Imagine an app that does for public health what WAZE has done for traffic congestion.’ Harvard Business School
Immune buildings: Management
The ability to respond effectively and agilely as incidents that impact health or life safety arise and have clear management records to optimise future performance.
- Building Management Systems– which enables automation of critical assets
- Emergency response and broadcast apps that will allow one-touch emergency procedures for contagion, environmental emergencies and security
- Tenant Apps – which will enhance communication and use of space
- Big Data and Analytics – all of these solutions feed data. We have sophisticated systems that can learn from the ongoing inputs and signal variations as they arise.
This is not by any means an exhaustive list of solutions. However, we expect a rapid emergence and pivot of providers to meet the challenges we’re experiencing.
Skibniewski also argued that we could implement smart building monitoring, maintenance and data collection systems. Such as interconnected devices and the Internet of Things. As a result, he proposes that we may be able to realise the idea of an immune building. And as a consequence, also achieve our aim to create intelligent, green and secure buildings through a ‘unified architecture’.
This unified architecture would be a huge benefit today, as a smart building would consolidate these objectives within one approach: low energy, low cost, high protection.
Realising value: Creating increased tenant loyalty and value
As we’ve covered in a previous article, a practical and purposeful application of PropTech does more than increase safety or efficiency. Tenants recognise and equally receive the benefits of smart-building design and infrastructure.
Both tenant and buyer appetite will also increase demand for tech-enabled or ‘smart’ buildings. For example, a 2018 study by the European Commission on Macroeconomic and Other Benefits of Energy Efficiency reported increases of 11.8% in lease value where PropTech is used.
Clements-Croome also said that smart buildings’ decrease business costs and energy costs and increase the value of the built asset, as the increasing societal awareness…deepens the demand.’
Building owners are experiencing uncertainty with regards to long-term tenancy and tenant loyalty. So, now is a valuable time to invest in PropTech infrastructure and measures that will appeal to the tenant. Particularly as we emerge from the impact of COVID-19 and naturally place a greater spotlight on health and life safety.
We expect features like Indoor Air Quality and WELL ratings to ‘diffuse through the rest of the economy.’
How can you integrate building functions digitally (PropTech) for greater control?
PropTech, at its core, empowers knowledge and control. Using PropTech, you can integrate operations, performance and tenant experience priorities and risk areas. As a result, you’ll enjoy more effective decision-making and capital allocation to create value instead of draining resources.
We don’t want to encourage a kneejerk approach to PropTech or similar smart-building technologies adoption. But unfortunately, too many technological innovations seem without a practical means of application or ability to demonstrate improvements to performance and ROI.
Here’s how you could be taking a staged approach to smarter asset management;
- Auditing assets, systems and data to provide a clear baseline of asset conditions and performance
- Working with all stakeholders to set strategic objectives across key metrics;
- Analysing solutions against your objectives and working collaboratively with providers and industry to implement successful solutions.
Most importantly, consider the needs and experiences of the end-user. Coming out of COVID-19, we will see a change in the commercial use of buildings. Furthermore, those who are collaborative, look past short-term ROI and prioritise safer, smarter and more sustainable buildings will be fundamentally successful.