FM & Smart Buildings

As the smart building dream gets ever closer, can technology provide the complete FM solution? Compton Darlington, Business Development Director of FSI (FM Solutions) Limited, argues for technology, backed by common sense and the human touch, to deliver truly smart buildings.

The use of technology to enhance our living and working environments is undoubtedly a good thing. A quick tour of any home - devices in every room, online games consoles and streamed TV- demonstrates how integral it now is in every aspect of our lives. And this is equally true of FM; the application of technology has revolutionised working practices for providers and the service they are able to offer clients. The latest developments are bringing the reality of the much-trumpeted smart building dream - with smart-thinking technology built into the fabric of the structure - to fruition.

Smart building benefits

The advantages are plentiful. Motion-sensing detectors automatically switch lights off when a zone is unoccupied. Sophisticated systems can adjust air conditioning throughout a building to match local variations, for example, increasing filtration to eliminate pollution on a side that faces a busy main road and running less voraciously on the side that overlooks a quiet back street. Heating controls can recognise when a room is not being used and drop the temperature a degree or two; if a meeting room becomes packed it can similarly make an allowance for the natural warmth of body heat. At a time of ever-increasing energy costs, such intelligence delivers huge benefits.

The way organisations use their workspace is also developing continually, and today's ever smarter buildings are improving the efficiency of the evolving workspace. With open-plan design and hot desking, meeting rooms and zones for private discussions are increasingly valuable. But companies no longer have to police bookings: new devices can sense when a room is occupied, signal the end of the booking and indicate to passers-by if a room has been booked but is not being used, meaning the resource isn't wasted.

Building Management Systems (BMS) are also delivering increasingly smart maintenance solutions. By locating where a piece of equipment is in a building, the system can identify if it is in a high-use or low-use area and schedule maintenance accordingly, rather than on a one-size-fits-all calendar. It's the difference between servicing your car when you reach a certain mileage rather than routinely every six months, regardless of use.

Technology traps

These advances illustrate how technology is delivering smart buildings, which in turn are delivering smart - and efficient - FM solutions for both providers and clients. But technology on its own is not necessarily the panacea to efficient, cost-effective FM that also delivers a good customer experience.

The first thing that can impact negatively on customer experience is how the technology is rolled out. All too often, providers fall into the temptation of rushing to apply the technology, making refinements as glitches are uncovered during the real-life application. For technology to bring real benefit, the fine-tuning should be done during development so that implementation delivers the right solution first time, not merely v1, followed quickly by v2, v3, v4...

The second health warning is the need for a large dose of common sense to be applied at every stage. The rush to apply what technology can do, rather than thinking what the client might want it to do, was seen in the early days of FM report automation. Clients were routinely provided with a huge tome filled with detailed information on planned and reactive task information in a form no-one would ever want to read, simply because the new systems could deliver this level of detail. The common sense layer came as exception reporting was developed, providing relevant, focussed, useful information.

A similar trap lies in the increasing trend for CAFM that provides for client interaction. The casual user will not want to be met with the full weight and necessary complexity of a full blown CAFM solution. Time taken on simplifying the portal to provide the relevant information in an accessible format for the client is essential to provide a good customer experience.

The human touch

A slavish pursuit of technology also doesn't allow room for common sense to play its role. In the early days of BMS, there was a zealous over monitoring of anything with an output, with a Pavlovian response to every alarm. When the dust settled, experienced engineers realised they understood the nuances and interdependences of the various systems better than the outputs they were presented with. The solution was a blend of experience and technology, with modification for non-critical alerts. So, our move to smart buildings is best delivered with the restraining influence of old-school experience.

Technology alone also creates the danger of a faceless, anaemic service, with little or no human interaction. It's worth weighing the costs of providing human interaction with the gains of new and retained business. In some situations, technology trumps: FM systems within the NHS allow for online fault reporting or requests from the nurses' stations, because the most crucial factor is speed. In other situations, a personal touch may be more essential to a positive customer experience.

The difference between the need for speed in some organisations and the need for human interaction in others shows the danger of one-size-fits-all CAFM solutions. To get the right solution, it is essential to detail what you need the technology to deliver. It is also essential that it is delivered in a way that works for you. It is very easy for CAFM providers to blind you with the complexity of technology and what it can deliver: it requires far more effort to deliver a CAFM solution that is well thought out against your needs and easy to use.