Healthy buildings: how can we achieve better results?

While the impetus for creating healthy buildings seems greater than ever, there are some historic barriers to progress.  In the final instalment of a series of articles, Paul Wells sets out a roadmap for change

The health of people, buildings and cities is higher on the workplace agenda than it has ever been – but as identified in our previous article, making significant progress in achieving healthier buildings has been held back by a number of different factors. Realising the benefits of healthier buildings for people and organisations has clear business benefits but will require some deep shifts across the construction industry and beyond. In this article, the final piece in our short IM&M series on creating healthy buildings, we look at how to achieve better results.

Creating policy and demand

First, wide-scale change will need shifts in both policy and demand, creating both a top down and bottom up approach. At government level, this means new policies, incentives and enforceable regulations. For new construction, this could mean bringing in and enforcing sustainable procurement policies, providing incentives to use renewable energy and regulating building materials using a polluter-pays approach throughout the lifecycle of a building.

‘This could mean enforcing sustainable procurement policies and providing incentives to use renewable energy…’

At the other end of the process, clients need to build requirements around healthy buildings into their briefs, and ask their consultancy teams to meet these targets. From an end user perspective, if a healthy building becomes part of broader workforce expectations, then the drive to attract and retain talent will incentivise organisations to make these demands. We should all be asking for more.  Do we need to expand with examples?

Integrated teams and expertise

Achieving truly healthy buildings will need a new approach to the design process. Rather than a waterfall structure in which disciplines hand off work to the next in the chain, design teams need to be integrated from the outset to look at construction, services and technology solutions as a holistic package instead of having to retrofit and rationalise decisions that are limited by earlier work. This inevitably ends up leading either to compromises or to significant added costs.

New roles and expertise will need to be built into these integrated teams – smart buildings in particular are generating new areas of specialism. One example of this is the Master Systems Integrator, technology consultants who develop software layers responsible for the integration, aggregation and communication of the building systems. Roles such as this are vital to ensure that data is accessible and usable, maximising the potential of smart building technologies. Building projects which don’t draw on this kind of expertise are likely to fall behind very quickly.

Intelligent data

There is incredible potential for smart buildings to achieve sustainability targets, but this can only be realised when the data collected is used intelligently. There can be thousands of sensors and IoT objects relaying information back – in addition to other potential inputs. This means that asking the right questions and creating clear, customised dashboards that present business or function-relevant outputs is key. These dashboards should react in real-time to changes across business infrastructure, with impactful visual cues to bring important changes to the relevant person’s attention.

Developing naming conventions is also helpful in managing large data streams. The lack of these might mean that BMS engineers in different rooms use different names for the same data points, which can make structuring and simplifying data more complex. A common naming convention for each device allows for data to be unbound from specific technology, enabling much easier ongoing updates.

Research and shared best practice

Financial and practical limits make it impractical to adopt every possible innovation. To make decisions easier, there’s a need for more research in order to understand what adds value at scale, allowing organisations to make practical decisions about what will benefit them most. Making data open and shareable would be a significant step forward in this direction. There’s often a reluctance to share information – particularly where something hasn’t worked well. However, sharing global best practice to explore the performance and transferability of new technologies would be an important step towards rapid innovation. While some solutions may end up being context-specific, information-sharing on a global scale seems the surest way of successfully overcoming the challenges ahead of us.

Thinking flexibly

Given the speed of technological, economic and social change, the potentially short shelf-life of any single solution has always been an issue. A 15-year lease is likely to see at least two or three significant refreshes of the technology. This makes designing in enough adaptability for the use of the space to flex without having to make resource-intensive alterations to infrastructure crucial. It also allows us to use built assets more efficiently, repurposing space rather than having to knock a building down and start again. Being able to minimise the amount of space sitting empty by understanding real-time usage would also have a measurable impact on total emissions.

A three-step process

These are big challenges to solve and it won’t happen immediately. However, this doesn’t mean that we can’t start. For organisations looking to introduce new healthy building initiatives, it can be as simple as picking a single starting point for focus – for example, reducing power consumption around lighting and heating. Once that is right, then move onto the next focus area.

This can be implemented as a three-step process:

First, ‘investigate’; look at what you have, where it is and how is it used. If you don’t know what you have, where it is and how it is being used you cannot possibly move on to stage two.

The second stage is ‘manage’, where based on the output of stage 1 you start to gain visibility and control.

Finally, ‘maximise’ – with the visibility and control that you have obtained from completing stages one and two it now allows you to  create cost and process efficiencies, fix the pain points, and work with a team of different specialists to maximise what you already have. Over time, this will enable organisations to create an intelligent building that is environment and people friendly, and able to adapt to future change and challenges.

Paul Wells is CEO at IM&M, a leading provider of intelligent building solutions to lower your carbon emissions, create better working environments, improve efficiencies and integrate your systems. More on IM&M Suite here.

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