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Information for today’s “buildings of tomorrow”November 2020

by Nick Blake,
BSRIA Principle FM Consultant.

Climate Change, the coronavirus pandemic and the fourth industrial revolution are all driving immense changes in the way we design, run and maintain our buildings. In response, the following trends have developed:

  • an increasing demand for comfort cooling in our buildings as the UK has had the hottest 10 years in its 179 years of recorded history within the last 20 years,
  • a rapid increase in adopting connectivity and the technologies enabling remote working, driven by an unprecedented national lockdown,
  • an increasing demand for installation of new ventilation systems and independent verification of existing ones to ensure their effectiveness in reducing the spread of respiratory-syndrome viruses (MERS, SARS, COVID-19 and future ones) and to improve indoor air quality (IAQ),
  • the fourth industrial revolution has grown out of the manufacturing arena and is now reshaping almost every sector in the country and indeed the world.

As technology in buildings evolves with the time, facilities managers and their teams are increasingly working with technologies that combine hardware, software and human resources. Robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, fifth generation wireless technologies (5G), 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, and the internet of things (IOT) are all making breakthroughs and finding their way into our buildings, adding complexity to the systems and increasing management challenges. People are benefiting from these advances but are also being challenged as they try to integrate with the fast paced advances that we are experiencing.

The increase in complexity of our buildings with respect to design, M&E services and ultimately their use, emphasises the need for well documented and accurate operations and maintenance manuals. BSRIA guide BG 79/2020 Handover and O&M Manuals is a document designed to help achieve this accuracy and comprehensiveness. This guide complements several other topic supportive BSRIA publications, including BG 26/2011 Building Manuals and Building User Guides.

The content of the required building and building services documentation has not changed a lot in the last decade. What has moved on in leaps and bounds are the delivery methods. The traditional hard copies in multiple leaver arch ring binders have stood the test of time, however with several drawbacks. They do not lend themselves to easy updating, and where updating is undertaken, it is not assured that all copies will be updated. Moreover, sometimes, a record of the original may get lost. Furthermore, information can be hard to locate, may become damaged, or end up missing altogether. It is not unknown for hard copy operating and maintenance manuals to be deliberately destroyed.

The content of the required building and building services documentation has not changed a lot in the last decade. What has moved on in leaps and bounds are the delivery.

Digital O&Ms, Building Manuals and Building User Guides

With multiple backup systems such as solid-state drives (SSDs), solid-state hybrid drives (SSHDs) and other portable storage equipment, traditional back up tapes/discs, and off-site cloud storage, version-controlled copies of O&M manual can be kept secure.

Further controls could be tenable by employing secure by design, decentralised, redundant, or distributed ledgers — some using blockchain technologies. These can be accessed by managers and supervisors from anywhere where a secured network is available, for example their office or home, and by engineers and technicians whilst on the “shop floor”. Unauthorized access can be prevented by securing the network employing a series of private keys or virtual private networks, and for the most ambitious, a decentralised blockchain network. Digital documents offer much improved indexing and searching functions over paper documents. This enables users to identify component characteristics, manufacturers and details of spare parts more quickly.

Whilst these technologies are more common on newer buildings, there is less adoption by existing buildings. This is despite great advances in OCR (optical character recognition) technologies that can scan a printed sheet and convert it to an accurate, searchable and even editable digital sheet.

Building Information Modelling for Facilities Management (BIM4FM)

BIM allows better information management. A 3D model of the building is produced, and all relevant information can be stored at the appropriate location within the model. This allows facilities teams to access all relevant information quickly and easily for the area that they require. If, for example, a spare part is required for an HVAC unit, the unit can be located on the model and all information about this unit can be reviewed or searched, including (if they have been requested and uploaded) detailed exploded diagrams for the parts.

To achieve such quality and technicality of deliverables at building completion, it is essential that all the necessary information needed by the future operator and FM team of the building is correctly identified and transmitted into the relevant project documentation during design and construction. Support for this complex task can be found in documents such as BG 6/2018 Design Framework for Building Services 5th Edition and BG 54/2018 Soft Landings Framework 2018.

Digital Twins

Digital twins are a digital representation of a physical entity. They can be produced from BIM models or independently of this technology. Use of digital twins allows for scenarios to be run in a virtual space to gauge the effect in the physical space. Reliable results can be obtained for security, efficiency, environmental and financial scenarios, to name but a few. 

Virtual Reality (VR)

VR can be used to visualise buildings and sites in real-time 3D. As well as a useful design tool, VR can assist facilities managers with maintenance planning. For example, VR walk-throughs can be used to identify locations that require less frequent cleaning, thereby reducing the use of water and cleaning chemicals. The use of VR can also reduce the need for travelling to sites or preparing engineers to attend site ensuring they have all the necessary equipment and permits to do the work as safely and efficiently as practicable.

Augmented Reality (AR)

AR can be used to enhance the human performance and bridge the skills gap. When combined with artificial intelligence and other smart systems, a very powerful solution can be provided. For example, an air handling unit that is performing poorly could analyse itself, recognise that its filters are becoming clogged (thus requiring more energy to provide required air quality levels or thermal comfort) and order some new filters. It could then alert a human to the arrival of these filters by generating a work order, that lists what tools are required. It can then lead the human to the exact location even on an unfamiliar site and highlight on the actual machine what procedure is required to access and change the filters in the manufacturer-recommended way. This allows a mechanically sympathetic, trained human to work on unfamiliar equipment with the same or higher level of efficiency as people who have been in a building since leaving school and who are now nearing retirement. 

Robotics

Robotics is a field that is now starting to find applications in the operation and maintenance of buildings and sites. Robotic lawnmowers are now commonplace, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs — better known as drones) are used for site surveys and inspections. Robotic crawlers can be used for inspection of sewer pipes, identifying leaks, blockages and misconnections before they cause pollution incidents. Robots may soon be available for carrying out routine cleaning and inspection / maintenance tasks in dangerous or hard-to-reach areas, reducing the need for maintenance engineers to access those locations.

The above examples of technology applications in building and building services operations carry the potential to improve quality, security and cost effectiveness in buildings’ operational and maintenance practices. Some technologies stated above require higher skilled staff than the others, some are more CAPEX heavy than others. Each organisation needs to assess their own cost/ benefit ratio. Most new technology related benefits are achieved when new solutions are adopted with a well understood purpose, are simple to navigate, simple to store, simple to retrieve and simple to update. There is, however, the age-old adage that the information that can be received from the digitally operated systems will only ever be as good as the information that is put into it in the first place. Therefore, the need for solid, verified and thus reliable documentation related to the buildings operational assets and systems is firmly established.

For support in establishment or review of buildings operational assets and systems please contact BSRIA experts at consultancy@bsria.co.uk or +44 (0) 1344 465578.