Making offices smart

Smart windows made by View darken as the sun becomes brighter in a building in midtown Manhattan.
Smart windows made by View darken as the sun becomes brighter in a building in midtown Manhattan.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Developers and landlords are looking beyond location, size and rental price of office spaces to woo business owners and are putting in smart technology

NEW YORK • Office developers and landlords in the United States once had to think about supplying only electricity, plumbing and heating to workplaces, leaving tenants to design their offices to their own technical specifications.

But these days, the providers of office space are being driven to provide telecommunications infrastructure and add sophisticated technology like smart windows to better compete.

Every year, office technology becomes more advanced and developers and landlords have to stay on top of the trends or risk falling behind. Those that have the technological prowess may be able to command premium rents, but those that lack it may be forced to offer a discount.

"It's placing more pressure on buildings to be that talent magnet for tenants rather than just a people warehouse," said Mr Phil Mobley, head of research for Building Engines, a property management software company in Boston, and vice-chairman of the technology committee of Building Owners and Managers Association International.

Real estate experts say traditional considerations like location, access to transportation and floor-plate size remain the main reasons tenants pick one place over another.

But hoping to gain some sort of advantage, some office providers are beefing up other sorts of tech in their buildings, including antennae for picking up and amplifying cellphone signals and lighting sensors that track the brightness of the sun.

In an office pavilion atop a building in midtown Manhattan, the Durst Organization installed smart windows, which automatically tint when the sun comes out. The windows preclude the need for shades, a benefit when your view includes the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings.

The windows were supplied by View, a company in Milpitas, California, that makes "dynamic glass". When the sun shines, a coating between the double panes of glass will darken, like self-tinting glasses.

This reduces glare (which can cause eye strain, headaches and drowsiness) and heat gain (which may require turning up the air-conditioning, thus increasing energy use), while maintaining natural light.

As smart as the windows are, they will eventually become even more functional, said Mr Rao Mulpuri, chief executive of View, which in November announced a US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion) investment from the SoftBank Vision Fund.

He said windows would eventually be used like computer screens, displaying content and used for video-conferencing.

Some expect smart technology to expand beyond windows.

Dr Andrea Chegut, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Real Estate Innovation Lab, predicts that interior office walls will one day be "turned into data centres, capitalising on fibre-optic connectivity".

Already, wall-hung video screens for sharing content, once seen only in boardrooms, have been proliferating.

These types of audio-visual systems account for the largest cost increase in office design in recent years, according to the real estate services company CBRE. Five years ago, audio-visual costs averaged US$5 per square foot. Now, it is common for developers to spend US$10 to US$20 per square foot on the systems.

At the gleaming new headquarters of the electronic trading platform MarketAxess, in Manhattan's Hudson Yards and designed by the architecture firm Spacesmith, screens glow in practically every meeting space on the firm's three floors, including the small "huddle" rooms where employees can duck in for quick one-on-one meetings.

In other ways, however, technology is intentionally concealed at MarketAxess - or it is moved off site.

In the boardroom, there is no messy tangle of wires erupting from the table's smooth marble surface. Drawers under the tabletop provide electrical outlets and data ports.

The room has two jumbo wall screens, but all the equipment powering them is tucked away in a walk-in closet down the hall. The office's main data centre is in New Jersey.

Daylight sensors along the windows dim lights when the sun is bright. Window shades go up and down depending on the time of day.

Despite all the automation, some workers like to maintain a little control over their environment.

At MarketAxess, software developers on the 17th floor decided the overhead lighting was too bright, so they shut off some of the lights in the ceiling fixtures above their desks. And the firm's chief executive Richard M. McVey did not like the constant creep of window shades in his corner office. "We turned his off," said Mr Daniel Wolff, global head of infrastructure for the firm.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2019, with the headline 'Making offices smart'. Print Edition | Subscribe