Co-founder with Elizabeth Nelson and Wouter Truffino of smart building certification, Nicholas White is also a partner at Lab: Learn Adapt Build, where research happens on the work environment and the effect of buildings on people.
Introduction : Nicholas, could you give some context of your work ?
From a research perspective, we faced the complexities of building living labs from scratch, which takes a lot of time, a lot of money and can be quite political and difficult to do. Once we have the technology in place it is easy to research, as people in the smart building space know the data can be transformative.
We would also be disheartened when we would leave projects because that technology wasn't embedded in the business process and so it would go to waste. We would leave and then nobody would use that technology moving forward.
So we approached Global Proptech and Holland Contech proptech, which are two major ecosystems of real estate property technology, and we started talking to them to find a standard that we could plug into.
After lots and lots of discussions, everybody agreed we needed it, and everybody also agreed that it didn't exist. But we also thought "it is coming". We knew it is coming and then we started to get a little worried about what would it look like, what would it be and we thought it would just be a checklist of what technologies are in place: “here's your stamp thank you very much” and that would be the certification.
We thought based on where smart building is now, it needs to be a lot more than that, it needs to be not only about the technology but what do we do with it, what can we learn from it, how do we mature smart buildings together.
At the beginning of 2020, we launched SBC, which was a very interesting time to launch a new venture and it's been a great energy and great success so far, we're enjoying it very much.
Hugo Gervais: Smart building is an expression that people have been hearing for more than a decade. That said, the smart building definition remains a bit vague. Would you have a definition in simple terms of what a smart building is?
Nicholas White: The industry is maturing. We're growing into something so I think that definition is also going to change over time. If we look at the definition now it would be a building's ability to adapt, evolve and optimise based on data. You know that we can actually pull data off of a building and we can do things with it to make the building better. It can make the asset more valuable, make the engagement with that asset better, making the performance of that asset better, all of those things are reliant on having the right information at our fingertips.
What we could see happen over time is a change in the definition: a building that autonomously changes based on technology and data where it no longer needs human interaction. I think we're quite away from that and human action and interaction are still very important.
H.G.: You mentioned the capacity to evolve, to use data, the ability to optimise a building. Could you list the top three or top five items necessary to get to this capability of evolution, data optimisation, and autonomous usage?
Nicholas: Especially now with covid and all the things that are going on I think we first have to look at the result of what are we after, what are we trying to accomplish with these buildings, and then work backward from what technology is required to achieve those results.
For an asset to be worth more, for us to get more out of an asset, I think we really need to be able to measure and optimise and control how the asset is being used; so looking at occupancy data, looking at how the people are interacting with the data, how they're coming in and out, and what they're doing while they're there I think that's a really important piece and what are they also taking advantage of and what are they not taking advantage of.
Are people using particular rooms, or not? From that you can actually make an optimisation plan of changing the asset to be more useful for the people that are deciding, letting the market decide.
The other really interesting piece is about technology helping us measure and manage how the building is performing. If you think about energy consumption, if you think about waste, if you think about all of those aspects that are either sustainable and going in the right direction or we are using too many resources based on the actual requirement or need of the building.
And then one can see a lot of standards and certifications related to the health and the well-being of the people in buildings. So putting technology in place that really focuses on the indoor environment, on how people are: you know the air that people are breathing, the light that they're being exposed, to these types of things. If you look at the kind of results that we are after, there are I would say hundreds, if not thousands of technologies and systems that are on the market to help you achieve that goal and they all do it in very different ways. So I think it's about making informed decisions but with that end in mind.
H.G.: What role and importance has maintenance towards other smart buildings topics?
Nicholas: It's a critical piece, right? I mean if you look at sustainability and you look at optimising process and optimising use of people and time.
I think that preventative maintenance and how we maintain the different systems and different aspects of the building are critically important. I think the technology Urbest has created is included in that mix.
The technology is getting better at making the process easier, but also giving us an insights when different systems and things are up for maintenance and servicing. Having sensors on devices to see when they're in use versus when they're not in use when they start to overheat versus when they don't, I mean they now have little sensors that you can put on every single device in a building and you can see how it operates normally.
You will just see that every day it does the same thing and then all of a sudden if you see those sensors start to go up or down as far as heat or lack thereof you can see that there's something wrong, so that's really critical.
We also see some really smart solutions when it comes to water consumption, as an example, where they can start to detect leakage and waste much more easily and much more quickly.
I think it's all those types of solutions that really start to help us make maintenance much easier and less time-consuming with better processes and more optimisation of teams.
H.G.: In the last 18 months did you observe some change in practice? If you were able to score different buildings did you see some evolution recently?
Nicholas: Absolutely I think if you look at the tech space from things that are essential to cover relief or making sure that we are being conscious about covid: social distancing, ventilation, air quality. In these types of services, there are a lot of solutions coming out for disease prevention as far as killing the disease at the source. So wherever there are technologies that have supported that they are going through the roof everybody is really interested in it.
It's fantastic if we can get back to the way things were and hopefully we've learned things and do things even better than we used to, but what I hope is that we realise now that we know how to prevent these things in the future. I hope we still put those things in the building so that if this happens again we can have a different experience with it.
H.G.: Today, what barriers or what constraints do you see for people to get into smarter buildings, to put in place better maintenance system energy systems, engage into using data to improve services? What kind of things are restricting or slowing down the diffusion of new Technologies?
Nicholas: Where is the constraint? Is the constraint on the technology or is the constraint on the people?
I think that technology is there, I think we know that the technology is there and the technology will, of course, continue to improve and continue to evolve and we are going to see more and more robust technologies emerge. But I think where we are suffering a little bit as an industry and as a group from noise, there are so many technologies, so many different concepts, there's a lot of conversation about smart solutions versus smart building.
I think there are two very distinct differences. Very often there are buildings owners that say "oh I tried a smart building once, it didn't work so I’m not going to do it again". Whereas the most likely tried a smart solution that was a start-up or a scale-up that wasn't completely proven yet or tested and that's their definition of what a smart building is. I think that really is hindering our ability to move forward faster so we really as an industry and as a collective need to start breaking down these silos, looking at smart building more as a holistic view of what it is, and get everybody on the same page as to what that smart definition is and then from there, we can start to accelerate things much more quickly.
The other thing that's challenging is where we are in time. People are not necessarily willing to take the risk of making these big investments into smart buildings until there are case studies that prove the value to the asset, prove the value to whatever the thing is that they're trying to do and you can't get those case studies until you've taken the risk. It's kind of chicken and egg of how do we get people to really take the step to implement smart buildings and that's a really big challenge as well.
Probably the experience will enable people to stack up more technologies. Once people get confident with one technology they will more likely use more; for example, people who never did a Visio in their life, two years ago once they did once they would be inclined to try the others and they would learn to get up to speed much much faster and I see the same thing in building management. People who already adopted some technology are much more inclined to take a new one implement it in a week or a few hours potentially and there is some gap and some difference between people who adopt technologies quickly and some others are always a bit skeptical waiting for the business case, for the error to show up. It's interesting to see the difference, early adopters people who are waiting for the mainstream solution to come up.
The other thing that's really interesting is the context. The context for a smart building is everything because different asset classes, different businesses, different stakeholders in those businesses are going to use smart buildings for different reasons. Be it the optimisation of the space for remodeling it or changing it or being part of ESG and corporate sustainability and looking at energy consumption or HR and health; so everybody uses it for different reasons.
A smart building certification is actually just the first step to get into smart building. Several investments need to happen until exponential benefits come.
H.G.: There are a lot of technologies which can be fashionable. If we look back a couple of years ago it was AI then people talked about tokens then you had machine learning etc.
Did you identify some trends that you think will be consistent over time and not just the fashionable thing in 2021 until is fades away?
Nicholas: What we see is that things are happening below the surface that is quiet and are going to take off. The sensor technology is only getting better. The insights and the dashboards and the ways of viewing that data are becoming more insightful, more useful, more engaging and I don't think that those themes that you just mentioned of AI and machine learning are going to accelerate.
These buildings will become autonomous at some point in certain areas. I mean there are some things that you can never automate. There are you human behaviors and humans aspects you don't want to make autonomous because it's part of life and it's part of the experience of life and we need to foster that as well. But some things can be improved and made efficient through machines doing it for us and then we can focus on the important things.
H.G.: All these technologies will reshape the way facility managers work or how property manager works; on our side from Urbest we see a lot of tasks which can take much less time and then it reshapes the role and the job description of people in facility management in property management.
What's your view on the evolution of these jobs ? Do you already notice some change in the job description in new skills that people require to operate these smart buildings?
Nicholas: We had an intern who joined us last year, from one of the facility management schools, here in the Netherlands and I asked her “What are you guys learning at school these days? because facility management to me was always about you know the machine monitoring and maintenance and making sure everything works”. She said “we learn a lot about the senses of smell, taste, sight, hearing, empathy”.
They go even beyond the general senses and it's all about how are they going to better meet the needs of the people using that space.
So in a way facility management is moving towards concierge-user experience-making sure everything works. But it is changing and I think there's a lot of talks now about those older or more traditional skills that facility management had that very few people are filling those roles now and they're not learning about those skills.
That becomes a really interesting subject in itself because you start to have this gap between how do we keep these buildings running and we don't have the people to keep them running anymore; so it's going to be a challenging and interesting time and I have all the faith in the world that we will solve those challenges and then on the other side the facility management companies.
I think on one side we're going to be managing these buildings with far more detail, with far more insight, and I believe at a reduced cost I don't think it will cost as much as it did because we don't have as many people working on it, so I think with that there's going to be a big shift in facility management for sure.
H.G.:To finish, would you have some advice to give to people who work in building management today?
Nicholas: I think there's a lot of value in the traditional ways of doing building management. It can't all be solved by technology and there's something to be said for the human touch and you have all these facility managers and these property managers, building managers, who discuss regularly to figure out what's going on and I think there's always going to be value in that.
If I would advise somebody from a smart building perspective, if they wanted to get involved in smart building and they wanted to improve the building based on smart building, I would suggest that they try and take good account of how well the asset is meeting the needs of their stakeholders. One can do this through surveys and hopefully, more and more real-time, where they can hear from the people using their building. Because in the end, that's the most important thing that these buildings can do and then very often we don't know.
So I would say get a third party in there, hopefully, independent and of course smart building certification is very prime for that role but it's looking at a snapshot of where you are with your building, with how smart it is and then having a think of where do you want to go.
But you don't know what you don't know so try and get a view from an external party that shows you where you are against the total picture of smart building and then from there start to educate yourself on different, hopefully, low-cost low-hanging fruit solutions that you can just implement very easily but you know there's also room in a lot of these areas for higher investment.
With those higher investments you just have to make sure you get that higher value for them, but I think coming from you are try learning about it and figure out how far you can go and what's out there, and then build a plan.
From that, we should be looking at smart buildings in a holistic view instead of pieces.
H.G.: You mentioned the word "educate", at Urbest we create some content to also feed people with evolution to make them understand some CMMS evolving into collaborative job tracking, the link with iot, etc.
Do you plan to share some content with people to improve themselves as a person but also have some milestones to work on? Because people have the skills they learnt from school 10-20 years ago. How do you get people up to speed ? What is needed today?
Nicholas: We believe that the certification we created is a wonderful baseline for understanding and benchmarking buildings against each other, so you can learn from other buildings.
But it's also a tool in helping us to get to better buildings faster. The other part of the tool is about building an ecosystem of universities, real estate companies, startups scale-ups, big property managers, all of the people that are involved in real estate and property technology; we're bringing them into an ecosystem so that we can constantly have discussions, innovative hackathons, exchange information about solutions, have demo days, and allow people to learn about a smart building, but also then be in a position to make informed decisions and those people who want to innovate.
Bringing people together to innovate has to be a collective effort where we all bring these things together. I’m very open to the ideas of bringing in job opportunities to think about where people can go and then starting to think about. We're building an assessor program; which is not only about helping us assess buildings but it's about personal development, it's about personal networking, personal growth, getting insights and skills to do things differently and better and contribute to space.
I think with an ecosystem you can do all kinds of fun stuff like that and I think we just need to stay humble, open, transparent, and collaborative with everybody and I think that's where we really focus our attention.