Optimizing Space: Technology Keeps Tabs on Building Usage

Optimizing Space Image Credit: Shutterstock / Imageflow / ArtistDesign29
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Imageflow / ArtistDesign29

Building intelligence and sensor technology have been driving energy efficiency. On the horizon is a next level of intelligence based on capturing data about how occupants use a space and then applying that information for a wide variety of purposes: from tailoring services according to a room’s occupants to providing wayfinding to making recommendations about scheduling. Facility managers and owners will be able to use the data to adjust the way a building’s spaces are scheduled and used.

Companies are building space management systems as retrofits to offices, multi-unit residences, and public spaces such as malls and airports. However, the systems are also being built into new structures, and technology is even used on construction sites to bring intelligence to complex work sites.

It’s still early days, technology companies report, but the deployments are growing more common. Many things are pushing occupancy and space management, said Jeremy McCullough, Schneider Electric’s consultant solution architect. On a basic level, systems can help building owners and tenants save money, and they also can provide comfort for occupants.

Energy efficiency

The low-hanging fruit for space management systems is energy consumption tracking. By building occupancy sensors into intelligent building systems, a facility can also adjust its energy use. Very simply—lights power off when people leave or light up when the occupancy sensor detects an individual. While LED lighting has reduced the cost of lighting in commercial and office buildings, the cost of HVAC and lighting on a large scale still affects a building’s operating expenses and raises the company’s carbon footprint.

For that reason, systems such as Schneider Electric’s building automation controls can employ passive infrared sensors to detect human movement within its field, such as at doorways, and easily control indoor lighting accordingly.

Therefore, if a meeting space sees little use, temperature and lighting can be reduced, saving money. Additionally, occupancy sensors are helping building managers understand how the rooms—most commonly conference areas—are being used. If a room stands empty, a building owner can consider repurposing that space or even renting it out.

Tenant comfort and convenience

Today, some companies are aiming to bring the convenience of smartphone apps inside. Most people are using phones to navigate through outdoor spaces, whether predicting traffic or finding the lowest price gas.

With some added sensors, the same kind of features are available indoors. They could then use a network of such indoor sensors—wireless or wired—to understand the space usage in a similar way, McCullough said.

For example, if an individual on the seventh floor needs a conference room, and if sensors are deployed around the building, the networked technology could provide that individual with information about the occupancy of nearby conference areas, including which ones might be available.

Or maybe the individual wants to use the gym. The technology could let him or her know how many people are already there. The technology can go even further with analytics. If the office worker usually uses the gym during a lunch break at noon and the gym is filling up at 11:30, the user’s app could display a message that a schedule change might be a good idea.

Sensor-based intelligence can help manage building operation processes as well. If an elevator detects it is full, for example, the system instructs the elevator not to stop on any more floors on its way to the lobby.

Bluetooth, RFID and Wi-Fi

Much of the intelligence comes from sensors such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons that can be installed around a facility as an easy retrofit. Those beacons can be installed inside an LED lighting fixture, for instance, and the advent of the Bluetooth Mesh protocol means the sensors can forward data in a network from one beacon to the next, all the way to a gateway.

Technology company HID Global’s HID SAFE software solution can manage not only the level of occupancy in a given area but also the identities of people long after they move through access control. The software enables users to create zones and track data about who enters or leaves each zone, a company spokesperson said. That data can be collected with RFID readers or BLE beacons and can then be shared with security or business management.

“Much of this isn’t being done yet, but it is certainly at the forefront of consultants’ and end-users’ conversations,” McCullough said.

Most of the work is beginning with conference rooms. Companies are “deploying sensors in a building to see how conference rooms are being used. Then they figure out how to use the space more efficiently,” he said.

One of the most common follow-ups to managing conference room occupancy is wayfinding. Large buildings or campuses, especially hospitals, benefit from providing a system in which people unfamiliar with the area can view where things are, find the most efficient way to get to their destination and even see if others are already there.

Johnson Controls, Siemens, Schneider Electric and other companies all offer systems to better track the physical location of people using wired or wireless sensors.

Other systems rely on the internet of things (IoT) functionality. Space Analytics software from U.K.-based Arm leverages off-the-shelf IoT devices, such as smart lighting, connected locks and badge readers. The system is designed to capture insights into traffic patterns, room occupancy and usage trends. With the information, properties can improve energy efficiency, monetize their spaces and enhance their occupants’ satisfaction, said Dave Weidner, Arm’s senior director of ISG market development.

The software gathers and analyzes data from sensors and IP cameras, badge readers, locks and smart lighting and then begins analyzing and predicting space usage. Over time, the software’s AI capabilities provide analytics about how property owners can further boost efficiency and maximize revenue.

Mobile workforce

“I can see trends of how my space is being used and predict how that space might be used in the future,” Weidner said.

For instance, companies that rent out temporary office space use the data to track non-peak hours in a building and then offer discounted pricing to mobile workers to draw them in during those slow times. They can also schedule their cleaning and tailor room lighting based on specific users’ preferences.

What it comes down to is that people are changing the way they work, and facility managers need to change with them, Weidner said. Fewer people work in a single work space, or from 9 to 5, five days a week, so building use can be less predictable. Commercial work spaces are becoming increasingly flexible by necessity.

For building managers, the question is how to deliver office space that is being used the way it was intended. If they add amenities, such as a foosball table, management would like to know if and when it’s being used. Desks can be removed or added. Underused space can be rented out or sold.

Companies such as Arm are finding some level of IoT technology is already in place in nearly every building, so as the hardware-like sensors, cameras and access controls are added, they can all be brought into a single software system.

“If they have existing Wi-Fi, beacons, sensors [or] cameras, they can use our IoT data platform,” Weidner said. The systems can serve both tenants and building owners. For instance, if a company wants to add automated window shading, they can measure the temperatures around windows. The technology can leverage wireless sensors to capture the data about the temperature, which is linked to occupancy information, in order to understand how that might affect the comfort of workers.

Arm works with partners to install the hardware that is used by its software solutions. Many of the devices are also doing edge computing, so the data is captured and processed locally before being fed to the Arm or other IoT software.

“We offer cloud-based software but can also offer on-premises software,” Weidner said. “They may not want to send all that data back to the cloud. Instead, we can gather info on the edge, and users can then be efficient with what they send to the cloud.”

Construction site management

Construction sites are starting to use the technology as well. By installing BLE or RFID sensors at a work site, general contractors can view the movement of traffic at their sites, see where staging should be better placed to optimize traffic or understand when potential hazards might have been introduced, such as heavy equipment working around workers.

“They might find bottlenecks [or] safety concerns. Everyone flowing through a small path,” Weidner said. Companies such as Arm are seeing deployment across multiple verticals, but one of the early drivers is working spaces.

Other companies such as OEMs, industrial, hospitality and healthcare are beginning to deploy space optimization technology.

“Our expectation is this starts with a focused area,” such as work spaces, Weidner said, and it will continue expanding from there.

As space management systems and technology become more sophisticated and commonplace, possibilities and applications for how they can be used will multiply That means serious efficiency and convenience implications for the general user. For contractors, this tech represents an opportunity to improve their businesses as a means of streamlining operations and as a source of revenue.

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.