by Earl Geertgens, president and CEO of FreeAxez LLC — This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of FMJ
Machines are often depicted cinematically in a post-apocalyptic world where humans and machines are at war. They are so advanced they no longer require humans to operate. Meant as a warning of over-reliance on technology, these depictions fall short, failing to acknowledge the ingenuity and thought leadership that brought the machines to life in the first place.
Smart technologies are intended to enhance lives, not replace them. This puts people in a watershed moment — one in which both the built environment and how people interact with it through technology are in a delicate balance.
The Internet of Things (IoT), now gaining traction as a household term, is exactly as the name implies — a wireless connection between inanimate objects that are able to interact with and even respond to each other.
Far from the self-sufficient robots of a fantastical future, the term is most approachable by the smart speakers now found on most kitchen counters and the smart objects they connect to such as lights, locks and appliances. While their true functionality is still debatable, the idea of the smart home appeals to the everyday user for functionality and efficiency in our ever-busy modern lives.
While it is convenient to have the ability to lock the house or turn out lights from anywhere with a cell phone signal, outside of the home, IoT is less of a gadget and more of a necessity when it comes to design, building operations, security and sustainability. Adding luxury to spaces throughout a smart building is an undeniable benefit; however, IoT technologies also monitor, and along with building control systems, can send important alerts. Each system (or limb) of the building, be it HVAC, electrical, lighting, shading, security or any other component. can be tied to a central nervous system (brain) that can filter and interpret information in real time.
Sensors can be placed to track and identify heat sources. If triggered, they send alerts and maintain exit passageways. These outperform smoke alarms, which may have not only taken longer but also failed to locate the source accurately and prevented the spread of fire. Another example is indoor air quality monitoring for both the health and productivity of occupants.
Optimization and efficiency are two words that come to mind when thinking of IoT; however, the true potential is limitless. The impact is incalculable as buildings (and their subsequent limbs) begin to incorporate this interconnected system of parts.
But what of the role of the facility manager, whose job it is to ensure functionality, comfort, safety and efficiency of the built environment by integrating people, place, process and technology?
The premise is that while buildings are evolving, this does not necessarily replace the need for human interpretation and intervention. The FM’s tools too must change to keep pace with the growing intelligence of the building itself. While the computer has been a longtime tool for processes like asset management, work and service orders, and scheduling , new technology allows FMs to pinpoint, predict and prevent issues by interacting with the built environment in unprecedented ways. Beyond simply interacting with the building, the IoT is now being offered for equipment tracking, space utilization, conference room scheduling and hot desking.
The two fairly common ways of visualizing the world around us are through virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Both require a wearable object to alter the view but are distinctly different in their approach to such visualization.
In virtual reality, a fictional reality is enhanced by a headset device. The entirety of the surroundings within the headset has been replaced by a virtual world.
Augmented reality, on the other hand, uses a real-world setting, accessed by a headset, goggles or smartphone, to visualize a virtual object or action.
Within an application in a smartphone, for example, an object (furniture) or system (mechanical unit) can be viewed in the real-world setting for a near-exact size measurement.
Big box stores offer free apps that, through AR, place a specific piece of furniture in a space, or even measure the amount of tile required for a new flooring job. The capabilities of AR are beyond the home-improvement stages, but its growing availability to the general public provides clues to how the user can implement technology to interact with their environment.
AR is but one asset in the overall realm of IoT, but it is one that can play a major role in the future of tools for facility managers. Buildings (via the IoT) now have the ability to self-regulate temperature and lighting, independently locate inefficiencies or issues, and interact with their occupants.
AR is one such tool that allows architects, owners, FMs and users to interact with both the physical space as well as potential outcomes in three distinct ways that each affect a different aspect of the lifespan of the building.
AR aids in planning and design (prevention), pinpointing the location of an issue in real time (resolution) and in maximizing the efficiencies of building systems (optimization).
Planning/Designing (Prevention) — The first stage in the life of a building is to design the systems (structure, mechanical, electrical, plumbing) in harmony such that each is located in proper proximities and clearances and is accessible for future maintenance. Augmented reality can help designers, owners and FMs visualize the location and placement of everything before and during construction. While VR can definitely play a role in early designs in terms of virtual walkthroughs and renderings with programs like Lumion and Enscape, AR allows the architects, engineers, contractors and owners to see an outcome (or possible outcome) in the field prior to the construction of a parking garage under five stories of apartments above. The ceiling of this garage space acts as the “physical plant” from the apartments above. It is a maze of hot- and cold-water circulation pipes, as well as black and grey water drainage, not to mention the required fire sprinklers. Each system is designed separately and often by engineers across state lines. The two-dimensional drawings often line up well on paper and provide a different outcome when installed on site. AR allows the architects, engineers and contractors to visualize the three-dimensional implications of required slopes and connections, thereby preventing problems during construction and in the future if installed improperly.
Building Operations (Resolution) — The second critical span is the life of the building that includes maintenance, security, grounds management, etc. Where buildings previously required special, intricate knowledge of their innards to locate and tackle problems, new products are paving the way with new technologies that make maintenance, security and management not only easier but more efficient.
Sustainability (Optimization) — The last (but specifically not final) life of a building and its parts is the future and adaptation. Fifty years ago, buildings were designed and built to last a single lifetime. While it might outlive the architect or the owner, buildings rarely lasted much longer simply because of the kit of parts that constructed them. New products are emerging that are not only built to last longer but, as mentioned before, built to be maintained inherently better. The systems within a building are ever leaning toward efficiency, not just for a reduction in cost, but in the reduction of building emissions (which may well be a reduction in cost). Window glazing and shading systems respond to solar orientation and can optimize both the lighting within the space depending on the task as well as the solar heat gain of the building (reducing or eliminating the need for HVAC).
There is little doubt that the (foreseeable) future is one that incorporates technology. However, rather than use technology to replace everyday tasks, it should be leveraged to enhance experiences. Buildings are the prime example of how owners and occupants can combine and leverage the IoT and augmented reality to create a more efficient, productive and safer environment.
AR offers advantages from the early design stages, through the lifespan of the building, and culminates with individual products finding new life in new buildings. It supports the long-needed move toward sustainable buildings and building products and provides access to important product information through use of QR codes. These store details such as the item’s country of origin, its carbon footprint or a behind-the-scenes look at the manufacturing process.
FMs gain powerful insights on design, maintenance, adaptive reuse and access to information in real time to promote the rethinking of environmental impact of product choice.
About the author
Earl Geertgens is president and CEO of FreeAxez LLC. For more than 30 years his leadership has produced adaptive cabling distribution systems, creating new trends in the built environment.