Dumb Buildings are the Real Losers in a post-COVID World

COVID-19 is one of the most disruptive events human society has experienced in the last 75 years. Beyond the struggles of 2020, this harsh reminder of the biological threats we face will go on to reshape the way we live for years to come. At the center of this debate is commercial real estate (CRE) — the indoor environments where people of different households gather — where 50% to 100% drops in occupancy levels have been common for months. CRE must now adapt to a post-COVID world that will create new winners and losers to reshape the buildings industry forever.

As lockdowns and stay-at-home orders began to set in across the world, the first challenge buildings faced was being empty. Designed to be full, these facilities quickly realized that they cannot just switch off power-consuming building systems. HVAC systems must circulate to avoid corrosion, security systems must surveil to protect assets, while emergency lighting is a legal requirement, even if another law now prevents public use of that building. The result is that the average commercial building is using over 80% of the power it would at full occupancy, contributing unnecessarily to operating costs and climate change.

“As the fear of second waves of the virus turns into a realization that the first wave is still going strong, we must begin to accept that we are moving into a [low-occupancy] COVID-era that may last quite a while, rather than using all its energy to fight this reality with in-building social distancing and hygiene policies or technologies, the industry should spare some effort to create a stand-by mode for buildings. That single button that can reduce energy consumption down to a minimum, whether for 50% occupancy or for zero.”

We will return to our buildings but only by being able to adapt them to the new post-COVID public health and safety environment. The traditional CRE cleaning market is a big winner with a much greater emphasis on hygiene required to ensure compliance and occupant comfort. Much more comprehensive cleaning contracts will be signed and in-house crews expanded, driving a market that had been largely stagnant for decades. The money flowing into cleaning will drive efficiency and innovation, like UV-light disinfection and the cobot-robot evolution, that were promising niche technologies at best, before the pandemic.

The voice control market was growing steadily in the residential and automotive sectors before COVID but is now expected to find its place in CRE as building operators strive for clean, contactless environments. In contrast, the market for CRE-focused touchscreen technologies could plummet. From long-standing building elements that had withstood the smart technology revolution, to the strongest trends that no one could have imagined losing, COVID-19 has disrupted indiscriminately.

Before COVID-19, modern office layouts were increasingly open-plan, with desks clustered for greater cooperation and cozy meet spaces where employees could gather to share ideas. The greatest minds in office design were focused on stimulating more ‘water-cooler moments’ where workers from across the facility could interact in this friendly and ad-hoc form that is proven to drive collaboration. None of this works in a post-COVID world that makes social distancing a bigger priority.

Occupancy analytics for space utilization sought to maximize the number of people in a space ensuring occupant health, wellbeing, and productivity. These technologies will now find themselves with exactly the same mission but re-configured for a post-COVID world. ‘Occupancy analytics for social distancing’ will be the holy grail for CRE trying to “maximize the number of people in a space” in this new health landscape, by offering the visibility to comply while driving profit. Forcing those buildings without the technology to play it safe with much lower densities than required to avoid the high cost of failure.

This disruption makes dumb buildings the real losers in a post-COVID world, lacking the sensory-intelligence to keep occupants safe and strive for growth in a shrinking market. The economic downturn will bring consolidation in CRE and those buildings with the ability to track movement and monitor occupant behavior to optimize for social distancing will take the lion’s share of the diminished market. This is where the COVID-19 disruption meets the long-running privacy debate, testing the determination of businesses, governments, and societies to uphold the rights of workers and the general public.

China’s relatively quick and painless recovery from its COVID-19 outbreak can be in part accredited to the unrivaled scale and sophistication of its surveillance technology, as well as its ability to enact strict control over citizen movement. European and North American governments attempted to replicate that success with ‘track and trace’ smartphone apps, but with limited success. As the pandemic continues with no end in sight, the economic consequences will force us to reconsider our stance towards privacy or innovate a way around it.

At the end of July, California-based Density closed a $51 million financing round that will help to address “unprecedented demand” for their infrared people-counting sensors, which have no way to determine the gender or ethnicity of occupants, nor perform invasive facial recognition or thermal monitoring. The growing demand makes the technology an example of privacy in a world that is being pressured to give up a lot for the sake of public health and struggling economics.

“Imagine you had perfect visibility into where all large groupings of humans were nationwide, outside of residential buildings and without invading privacy, for just one second. You just snap your fingers, you have access to that data, what would you do differently?” asked Density CEO, Andrew Farah, in an interview with Memoori in April.

“My guess is that you’d have all sorts of new things that you could do. If there are too many people you may close it down, but where there’s a lot of space you can move people in that direction. I think that we now have an opportunity to look at physical space and try to understand what’s missing.”