Tracking office space usage post-pandemic

Building managers turn to data collection and AI to help control systems like air quality, heating, lighting and even flow of workers

A security camera with machine-learning abilities in a co-working space at 717 Texas Avenue in Houston, Texas.
PHOTOS: NYTIMES
Two occupancy sensors affixed to a conference room ceiling in a Houston building are part of tests by US development firm Hines to track the number of people and their movements. PHOTO: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - Property developers are harnessing a growing obsession with data to improve office buildings in ways that could cut costs and streamline operations, saving owners millions of dollars annually.

Property technology, or proptech, has become a booming sector in commercial real estate as building managers seek to use data collection and artificial intelligence to help control systems like heating, lighting, air quality and even the flow of workers.

As building owners juggle the complications of workers safely returning to offices after the coronavirus pandemic, investors are pouring money into proptech start-ups like Cherre and HqO.

But this data collection is raising cyber-security concerns: A report from Deloitte this year found that "cyber threats are increasing in sophistication". Thieves have become more adept at hacking, even using the thermometer in a fish tank to gain access to the network of a Las Vegas casino.

The increased use of Internet-connected sensors is turning high-rise offices into "computers with a roof" that need to guard against breaches, said Mr Arie Barendrecht, chief executive of WiredScore, which certifies digital infrastructure in buildings.

"There's a flip side to everything smart and connected, and that's increased risk," he said.

But the post-pandemic re-evaluation of corporate real estate plans amid an oversupplied office market means there is more pressure to improve commercial real estate.

"There will be a dramatic increase in the information we have about how people use our buildings, and sensors will be more common," said Mr Charlie Kuntz, innovation officer at Hines, a large real estate investment firm.

In Houston, for example, the planned office tower known as 1550 on the Green aims to be a state-of-the-art addition to the downtown area. It is expected to open in 2024. Skanska, a Swedish developer, hired Danish architect Bjarke Ingels to design the 28-storey tower, which will feature an array of environmental controls and smart building features.

The project will include a network of sensors tracking movement, occupancy and efficiency. Skanska, which handles both development and construction, plans to install thousands of sensors to collect anonymised data across the project's 375,000 sq ft, including cameras, optical sensors, parking scanners and QR code readers on security turnstiles.

"Before, we'd build first and then talk about adding a certain technology to a building," said Mr Robert Ward, president and chief executive of Skanska USA Commercial Development. "Now, it's, 'How do we build the building around the technology?'"

An array of apps and sensors, and the artificial intelligence that will analyse the data they collect, will provide tenants with more information on productivity. While the immediate focus will be on how to get employees back into the office safely, the technology also promises to uncover areas to streamline.

Some sensors will be able to monitor air quality and even environmental performance, improving energy efficiency and meeting municipal emissions codes.

This data will eventually become part of the standard disclosure between property buyers and sellers, said Mr Kevin Danehy, chief executive of North America at Willow, a building tech firm in Sydney.

"The only place where the owner and occupier used to have shared concern was the lobby," he said. "Only in the last three or four years have these systems become affordable and scalable".

Mr Dan Ryan, chief executive and a co-founder of VergeSense, a company that makes optical sensors for buildings, said: "The philosophy that we can all operate remotely, is being adopted by every company."

The technology being used to monitor office activity tends to be nondescript. The VergeSense sensor, shaped like a smoke detector and roughly the size of a deck of cards, counts the number of people in a space and measures foot traffic. The firm has a proprietary algorithm that can tell if a space is being used passively by someone who has momentarily stepped away. Cisco and other enterprises with 10,000 or more employees have signed up to use the devices with a subscription service.

All this prompts questions about privacy and cyber security.

VergeSense, Hines and Skanska all say they use only anonymised data and do not track individual workers, while a new SmartScore certification just introduced by WiredScore includes cyber-security qualifications and has already been embraced by dozens of large global landlords.

But it can be tempting to expand occupancy tracking, said Mr Doug Stewart, head of digital advisory at Cushman & Wakefield. He pointed out: "Is it important to know there are three people in a conference room, or who those three people are? The slippery slope is when we start naming names."

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