Author: Kieran Balmaceda     Co-Author: Amber Keogh

There will be much to take away from COVID-19, and naturally all eyes will be on minimising the likelihood such an event could happen again. At least, not with such an aggression and inability to detect, monitor and protect as effectively.

While it may not seem one of the first places to look, PropTech is shaping up to be a valuable tool in the front line of defence against contagion. Already known in the property industry for solutions which support the management and optimisation of safety and wellbeing of occupants, solutions are being 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 per cent 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 per cent when including organisations that seek to include PropTech investment in their five-year Asset Management strategies.

Investment in PropTech companies and service providers is likely to see an increase throughout the year and likely into 2021, with already exceeding $2.31 Billion according to Unissu’s March total.

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 focussed primarily around 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 have swiftly placed health, safety and wellness front of mind recently and is expected to be a primary focus into the future.

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.

Overall, while the impact of COVID-19 will leave a significant impression on society and business for years to come, this may be the catalyst to a wealth of positive decisions around what buildings can do to play their part in preventing the fallout from future outbreaks and prioritise health.

From a PropTech perspective, many improvements which have yet to be implemented will become necessary anyway, with over 72% of building stock being over 20 years old and expected to require retrofitting in the next few years to meet new standards of performance and sustainability.

Considering COVID19 is 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 undergo changes to existing environments.


Emphasis on buildings health & the health of occupants.

How strong is the connection between a building’s “Health” and the health of its occupants?

Tenant wellness had until recently been placed 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 can be implemented today for a direct benefit to the health and wellbeing of occupants, and of those, 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, and a source of much scepticism in industry as stakeholders feel fatigue 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, property industries notoriously risk adverse decision makers must be willing to first; place emphasis on building & tenant health objectives, and be agile & open for collaboration to potentially develop the technology or concept to fit within their tech stack, as well as be beneficial 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:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Light
  • Thermal Comfort
  • Sound
  • Materials
  • Community, and
  • Innovation

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 & Green Star certifications are critical elements as the spotlight on health grows, and are incredibly valuable to a building’s commerciality, particularly as sustainability markets continue to grow rapidly.

Despite market hesitation, there is a great deal which 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 well-being and performance.”

Factors such as CO2 concentration, lighting, temperature and humidity are all 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 proved their hypothesis that healthy buildings reduce the number of sick days, increase productivity and make it easier to recruit and retain staff.”

To control a building’s “health” we need to look at the components which play a role in controlling aspects such as air quality and hygiene.

These in turn depend on the operability, reliability, maintenance and longevity of core systems, which include 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. Air purification solutions currently in use throughout Scandinavian healthcare facilities, and more recently in Wuhan hospitals, demonstrate the limitations of traditional HVAC methods of filtration against purification.

Realistically, there are several areas in which we can make a significant impact to health and wellness, many of which start at the build phase.

(For example, cost-cutting in areas that prevent water ingress which leads to a compromised building environment, promoting mould, increased humidity and ultimately impacting both 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”, which discussed “design and analysis for protecting traditional buildings against airborne disease transmission, mold 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, lending to greater control over resource allocation and the ability to enact preventative measures proactively. Whilst this is predominantly focussed around the degradation of assets and impact on building performance, we now have a lens to model the impact of systems integration on health & wellness.

Owners and operators will be put in immediate spotlight, tasked with enabling healthier environments due to COVID19, we however 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 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 & integrating technologies that can demonstrably meet your objectives (potentially multiple), can integrate with your existing systems and provide long term ROI.

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 are required to ‘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 who come in at different stages in the building life cycle, and 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 observe objectives that can be placed in three discernible categories;

Prevention:

Which covers any measure that aids sanitation and upholds elements such as Indoor Air Quality, hygiene and waste for optimal occupant wellness and minimisation of 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 minimize the survival rate of viruses; and
  • Other air systems, including purification
  • White light LED disinfection technology

Detection:

Systems and procedures which can more effectively classify, isolate and provide alert 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 as part of building infrastructure as a new form of Building Security
  • Sensors – for indoor air quality – temperature/humidity, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) such as Mould, Asbestos or Pathogens
  • Tenant/Building Apps – sharing of personal health – which may aid self-identification or alert to critical risks. “Imagine an app that that does for public health what WAZE has done for traffic congestion”- Harvard Business School

Management:

The ability to respond effectively and with agility, as incidents that impact health or life safety arise, and have clear records of management to optimise future performance.

  • Building Management Systems– which enables automation of critical assets
  • Emergency response & broadcast apps that enable one-touch emergency procedures for contagion, environmental emergencies & security-
  • Tenant Apps – which will enhance communication and use of space
  • Big Data & Analytics – all of these solutions feed data, now 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 & pivot of providers to meet the challenges we’re experiencing.

Skibniewski also argued that, by implementing smart building monitoring, maintenance and data collection systems through means such as interconnected devices and the Internet of Things, we might be able to realise the idea of an Immune Building as a consequence of also achieving our aim to create intelligent, green and secure buildings through a “unified architecture”.

This would be a huge benefit in the modern day, as a smart building would consolidate each of these objectives within the one approach. Low energy, low cost, high protection.

Realising value: Creating increased tenant loyalty and value

As we’ve covered in a previous story, a practical and purposeful application of PropTech does more than just 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, a 2018 study by the European Commission on Macroeconomic and Other Benefits of Energy Efficiency reported increases of as much as 11.8 percent in lease value where PropTech is being utilised.

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”

Given the current uncertainty building owners are experiencing with regards to long-term tenancy and tenant loyalty, now is a valuable time to invest in PropTech infrastructure and measures which are going to appeal to the tenant as we each emerge from the impact of COVID-19 and naturally place a greater spotlight on health and life safety.

Features like Indoor Air Quality and WELL ratings are also expected to “diffuse through the rest of the economy.” 


            How can you integrate building functions digitally for greater control?

PropTech, at its core, enables knowledge and control; being able to integrate operations, performance and tenant experience priorities and areas of risk for more effective decision making and capital allocation that creates value instead of draining resources.

What we don’t want to encourage is to take a kneejerk approach to the adoption of PropTech or similar smart-building technologies. Too many technological innovations are already viewed as being 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 COVID19 we will be seeing a change to the commercial use of buildings, and success will be fundamentally tied to those who are collaborative, who look past short-term ROI & who prioritise safer, smarter and more sustainable buildings cities and communities for all.

Start the strategic process now, to make informed decisions when the time comes. Speak to our head of Asset Optimisation, Derek Jones, via email at Derek.Jones@hendry.com.au to discuss a staged approach to smarter asset management across your portfolio.