Biometrics, wearable tech, BIM, AR and VR, the Internet of Things: growth in digital technology, and in its potential applications across our lives, has been exponential over the past decade. But how can university facilities management teams harness this technology in order to achieve savings on energy, comply with Covid social distancing and cleaning demands and, of course, enhance their student experience?
First, a brief overview. What forms of technology are we talking about? How broad a field is FM technology now? Lucy Black is head of facilities and student accommodation at the University of Plymouth, and strategic FM lead for the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE). “As Dave Coplin from [technology advisers and strategists] The Envisioners has said, technology should be about doing things differently and better, and not just be used to make old ways of doing things more efficient,” she reflects.
“For facilities management teams, this could be about how we incorporate the Internet of Things; computer-aided facilities management (CAFM) and building management systems (BMS); building information modelling (BIM), smart buildings, AI and drones – all of which can help us manage our university estates to give a better experience to students and staff.”
Given all these options, how should facilities managers approach the issue of managing large estates with today’s technology – and how can they know which combinations best suit them?
This year’s global pandemic provides as good a benchmark as any. “The response to the Covid pandemic has required FMs to look at ways to open and manage university spaces safely,” Lucy continues. “We need to balance the amount of space required with the ability to keep these spaces safe and healthy. We also have to integrate staff and students who are working remotely – and those who are now working more flexibly, with a combination of online and physical presence on campuses.
“Technology is being introduced to help this operation. Prime examples include use of sensors to monitor occupancy in teaching spaces (for social distancing purposes); use of BMS to enable/disable heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), based on occupancy levels rather than time, thus enabling energy savings and safe ventilation; and the introduction of electrostatic sanitising technologies to enable frequent widescale cleaning of spaces. In particular, aqueous ozone cleaning ensures supply lines of appropriate cleaning chemicals, with significant reduction in the use of potentially harmful chemicals – thus contributing to universities’ sustainability goals.”
Technology can also assist greatly, not only in responding to where students and staff are congregating, but in helping to manage and mitigate these moments of congregation as well. “Use of cloud-based apps enables universities to provide easy booking systems for workspaces for students and staff, which is even more vital this year with limitations on space use and need for social distancing,” Lucy explains.
“The data from these systems, together with occupancy data from sensors in teaching spaces and student/staff satisfaction data, allows FM teams to flex their services, focusing enhanced cleaning where it is most needed, saving money and providing a better service.”
Use of cloud-based apps enables universities to provide easy booking systems for workspaces for students and staff
Contactless solutions across campus are also on the increase, says Lucy. “We expect various capital schemes that are not yet out of the ground to amend their specifications in order to incorporate contactless solutions – including basic functions such as taps and doors – so as to reduce use of touchpoints.”
Some of these changes may be so wide-ranging (and in need of such constant updating) as to not always be practicable, though. “We have seen some movement towards building access control using biometric fingerprints instead of cards, fobs or phones. For many universities, however, there are multiple buildings and doors incorporated into their access control systems – so any significant change to systems, with a large new group of users needing to be brought into the system at least once a year, would be a major investment.”
Last but not least, technology can impact on the actual training of FM staff, says Lucy. “Use of VR, along with gamification, has potential for supporting training of our FM teams, as well as for the management of teams who may now be working remotely from their manager.”
Paul Jenkins is senior business manager at telecommunications service provider Radiocoms. “Monitoring and managing a university campus is a time-intensive job for a facilities management team. The rise of smart, wireless voice and data network technologies such as unified communications and intelligent automation have paved the way for change. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the higher demand for more intensive collaboration, by both staff and pupils, in order to monitor operations and address potential problems before they escalate.”
Often, Paul cautions, institutions invest in technologies that don’t mesh well with their existing infrastructure, operating instead as a standalone system and costing more to deploy and maintain. “However, there are solutions available that have the flexibility to create one ecosystem. Take, for example, a radio communication system offering real-time inter-team communications. Thanks to developments in video recording, software applications and AI, such as occupancy counting or heat detection, can all be integrated to work as one – thus enhancing safety and reducing overall risk exposure.
“Facilities management will always require a level of human interaction but, in the long term, collaborating technologies can remove the need for labour-intensive manual workflows – and offer improved profitability by controlling operational expenses.”
Energy use is a major area of concern among FM and estates teams.
“The pressing need for carbon reduction is at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” notes Harvey Sinclair, CEO of eEnergy. “Staff, and especially students, expect organisations to take positive steps to reduce their environmental impact.”
However, Harvey argues, the education sector is lagging in terms of energy efficiency. “As the evenings get darker, a key focus – alongside efficient heating – is better lighting. Most schools and universities are still using old lighting, rather than the latest LED technology. Legacy lighting is inefficient, both in terms of cost as well as carbon emissions. It costs £400 per year to light your average school classroom, dropping to £100 with LED lighting.”
However, cost is a factor – and LED lighting is expensive. One option is Light as a Service (LaaS).
“Companies like ours offer to install LED lighting for a fixed monthly service fee and no upfront payment,” Harvey explains. “During a typical seven-year contract, the energy savings achieved exceed the costs.”
Don’t assume that this technology is beyond the financial reach of your institution, either. “The reality is that there is a lot of private-sector investment available for energy-efficiency projects,” Harvey explains. “While the independent school sector is well advanced in this area, universities and other educational institutions should be accessing this money as well.”
There is a lot of private-sector investment available for energy-efficiency projects. Universities should be accessing this money
Staffordshire University has been an early adopter of developments in FM. “We are working towards the opening, next year, of our new Catalyst building – our physical and virtual hub – connecting employers, students, and apprentices from across the Midlands and beyond,” reveals Alison Phillips, director of digital and technical services at the university. “This new building will allow us to bring thousands of apprentices to the region, as well as providing our students with the opportunity to study flexible degrees.”
From room booking systems via remote heating and lighting controls to spaces that adapt to a variety of applications and uses, technology is key to the new building’s mission to deliver an exceptional student experience. “Catalyst is an intelligent building: it will learn from itself and enable us to adapt services and support in a way that maximises the experience for students, staff and visitors alike.”
The building will also feature Blue Dot Wayfinding, a GPS technology that guides users around buildings to their chosen destination. “This makes it simple to find a route to different rooms within the university through a simple app,” Alison explains. “More importantly, it increases accessibility enormously, as it can provide bespoke routes to wheelchair users, for example.
“We plan to roll this solution out across the whole university as it’s a simple solution to improving the lives of students enormously. The technological innovations used throughout our Catalyst building will act as our blueprints for digital capability – and these will eventually be rolled out across our whole campus.”
Staffordshire University Catalyst building: www.staffs.ac.uk/news/2020/10/staffordshire-universitys-40m-flagship-building-the-catalyst-showcased-in-virtual-fly-through
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