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How next gen FM’s will help save the planet

As smart building technologies advance, training people to understand them becomes crucial
Thursday, February 26, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

Climate change is no longer a debatable, foggy topic, but rather a flurry of factual evidence, synchronized with environmental and cultural discourse around the globe. A recent survey conducted by the Environics Institute for Survey Research and the David Suzuki Foundation found the majority of Canadians accept the scientific facts that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity.

Acceptance aside, Environment Canada now warns us that, unless new action is implemented, the country may not meet its 2020 target of a 17 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Building strategies to help reduce carbon emissions have never been more critical.

With 50 per cent of Boomers set to retire from the facility management sector, there remains a probable gap successive generations must fill. And whether or not millennials entering the workforce find global warming a viable cause, there’s little doubt the planet faces difficult challenges; accordingly, Generation Y has no choice but to respond and help reverse post-industrial damage.

At a PM Expo seminar in December 2014, titled, “Is smart the new green?” Jiri Skopek, managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), urged attendees to consider how future facility managers will definitely be part of climate change action, mainly through their involvement with smart building technologies. Millennials are computer savvy, surrounded by a state of environmental urgency.

However, with the advent of smart technology comes a potentially small workforce—one that may or may not understand how to operate such systems—along with less enthusiastic facility owners and board members who remain skeptical of issues like capital versus long-term costs.

Skopek remains positive in light of such barriers. “Any kind of cultural change takes time, especially with an older generation who may be reluctant to adopt smart technology,” he says. “Younger generations, however, will be more attuned to know how to operate this technology.”

The marketplace will soon see several new systems of varying sophistication, from simple energy monitoring to full building analytics and ongoing commissioning. For instance, Skopek sees JLL’s IntelliCommand by Pacific Controls at the forefront, a global, smart-building, cloud-based portfolio management solution that provides 24/7 real-time remote access to control buildings and reduce carbon footprint and energy costs by 18 per cent.

Addressing the training gap

Yet, complex systems need someone who can understand and maintain them. Jim Bechard, professor of architecture in the facility management program at Conestoga College, says although building changes are undeniably advancing, smart technology isn’t always helpful — some owners don’t have resources to fully implement technology properly or workers aren’t trained in managing it correctly.

“The technology younger generations are adopting is communication technology, like access to basic info, but when you switch to computers tied to technology in buildings, you still have to have training,” says Bechard. “They might adapt to it easier than older generations, but it still takes understanding of what all those parts do.”

The program at Conestoga College is more management-based, where students are schooled in thinking about how this technology functions and is useful.

Through courses like building automation and control systems to the role of sustainability among people and technology, the classroom addresses smart technology according to how vendors will be selected and what software best connects to different business needs, which vary by organization.

As systems advance and more job positions open up, in-depth training in operating smart technology will become pivotal. “It will be absolutely necessary,” adds Skopek, who remembers the early days of management, when companies would hire computer experts who knew computers, but nothing about facility management.

“They sat behind a computer the whole day and played Solitaire while the building ran in default mode, defeating any advantages of building automation systems,” he says. “Advanced systems without the interpretative help of subject experts will make the untrained operator dumber. Training and expert help must be combined.”

Steve Lockwood, accreditation and academic affairs director for International Facility Managers Association (IFMA), has been in the facility management industry as a teacher or manager since 1977. “If you don’t have an internal staff who knows how to maintain systems, you lose all the value,” he adds. “You have to have a knowledgeable and competent skill source. And as students graduate, the value they’re bringing are these competencies that can immediately impact a company.”

According to Nancy Sanquist, real estate and workplace industry lead at Manhattan Software and chair of the research committee for IFMA, companies are gradually recognizing the value students will bring and responding to the training gap. “They’re creating training programs to create the workforce they will need to operate connected buildings of the future,” she says. “It’s actually the private sector getting involved in many ways, providing technology that schools can’t necessarily afford.”

In Canada, companies like Cisco have been providing technology for programs like George Brown College’s relatively new Advanced Diploma in Building Automation – Electromechanical Engineering Technology. This program teaches students to install and operate smart technology in all building types, while also placing them on a career path to various management roles, such as property or facility management.

At the same time, Sanquist says Manhattan Software, for instance, is developing new programs such as virtual reality gaming technology to aid “smart” learning at an early high school level.

Such engaging programs are connected to IFMA’s Global Workforce Initiative that Sanquist originated along with Diane Coles Levine to entice students to consider facility management as a career.

As for the ease of understanding rapidly advancing technologies at the post-secondary level, Sanquist feels one of the most important aspects of training is that students leave a program with a thorough knowledge of technology, and this goal should only become more attainable.

“Because of the consumerism of technology, the applications being developed now are going to be easier to use and very mobile,” she says. “You’re seeing the same characteristics on enterprise systems that you would with consumer technology. They won’t be quite as difficult to use or implement as they are now.”

Strategic work

“Smart will make people smarter,” adds Skopek. “The advancement of technology will actually help people manage a building more effectively. They’ll be given pointers on what to look at. The technology will offer information on what does and doesn’t work and what needs fixing. Whether workers are experienced or not, they’ll constantly be reminded of how to be more effective.”

For example, the HVAC equipment. Sanquist envisions a future where HVAC systems will predict when they’re about to breakdown, ultimately repairing themselves.

“Rather than the tactical work that’s being done today, people will have time to do more strategic work, looking at how buildings are optimized; they’ll become more productive, devoted to a higher level of work.”

As smart buildings reach beyond their own walls and into the surrounding community, in a sense influencing the local economy, sustainability and the climate change movement, strategic work will ultimately broaden in scope.

Sanquist refers to John Schoettler, Amazon’s director of global real estate and facilities, who was recently on the front page of the New York Times. Part of the reason Schoettler made the cover was because Amazon is building more than a dozen buildings in downtown Seattle. Because of this “Amazon neighbourhood,” Schoettler is on the boards of the Downtown Seattle Association and Seattle Metropolitan Chamber, which he will soon chair.

“The linkage between facility managers, buildings and the community those buildings are in, is starting to play a more important role,” says Sanquist. “And that’s part of the sustainability movement.”

In Canada, as the developing Waterfront Toronto community aims to be one of the most sustainable in the world, every building must achieve a minimum LEED Gold certification, surrounded by a pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly neighbourhood, all contributing to larger green goals.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put forth studies showing the planet grew one degree warmer over the past 50 years, and there’s a 15 to 20-year window before the planet hits the two degree mark, where action, such as smart building technologies to reduce carbon emissions can proactively mitigate damage and hopefully create sustainable change.

As sustainability becomes more urgent and energy targets persist, a number of facility managers will retire. If smart is indeed morphing into green, as Skopek and other experts point out, then training and encouraging a future workforce to better understand and operate smart technology could help address both issues.

Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management.