Turning empty offices into smart business decisions

Outdated building systems often keep the lights twinkling in empty offices, which is bad for energy usage and bills.

December 29, 2015

Full holiday schedules make for empty desks but you wouldn’t know that from seeing the average well-lit office building – and the energy bill.

Outdated building systems often keep the lights twinkling long after the office staff have gone home.

“Buildings are typically less full around the major holidays, but that may be a glimpse into the future of office space throughout the year,” comments Bob Best, JLL’s Head of Energy and Sustainability. “ ‘Tis the season to take that opportunity to reassess how we manage our buildings’ energy use year-round.”

For many forward-thinking organizations, that assessment includes adding smart building technologies to their holiday wish lists.

Paving the way for tomorrow’s norm

During holiday season, even the most buzzing office team tends to shrink down to five people at their desks on any given day. And yet, it’s business as usual for many building heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting systems, with air quality controls on autopilot and lights illuminating entire half-empty floors.

In many buildings, however, those inefficiencies aren’t just happening in December. “The mobile workforce and new workplace strategies have changed when, why and how people use their office spaces,” explains Best. “People are going virtual, working at home and remotely during the holidays—and other times as well.”

In Best’s view, empty offices are a good opportunity to review building performance data—if available—and consider ways to save energy use and operate more efficiently. Building managers can take advantage of lower occupancy rates during the holidays to test new ideas, such as asking workers to use task lighting to reduce overhead lighting demands. They can also shut down a few elevators for safe, easy energy savings.

How buildings can get smarter now

Commercial property owners and occupiers are getting on board with high-tech building systems and using the voluminous data these systems generate to not only conserve energy, but also to improve occupant comfort and support today’s mobile, flexible workplace strategies. According to IDC Energy Insights research, smart building technology spending is on pace to grow from $6.3 billion in 2014 to $17.4 billion in 2019, with the most “aggressive” adoption in Asia/Pacific, North America and Western Europe.

Lighting, safety and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are common starting points for smart system upgrades, according to Best. As chronicled in JLL’s The Changing Face of Smart Buildings report, today’s smart building systems can automatically adjust themselves in response to number of occupants, air temperature, humidity, availability of natural light and other factors.

Automatic adjustment can save energy when workers aren’t around—and also make sure that the workplace is well-lit and productive, when they are at their desks working.

Some smart building technologies improving holiday—and year-round—productivity include:

  • LED lights

Indoor and outdoor lighting comprise a major energy expense, and holiday lighting only adds to the total cost. Best recommends that companies convert all lights to LED lights, which can be combined with daylight sensors, motion sensors and timers to provide exactly the right amount of light in the right places. One example: the 47-story Miami Tower replaced outdated metal halide fixtures with LED-based arrays and saves an estimated $250,000 annually.

  • Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning

Ironically, more energy is required to heat a workspace with few occupants than one with many, because people and their computers generate significant warmth. However, a smart HVAC system can save energy nonetheless by directing heat to where it is most needed and responding to a lower ventilation requirement.

  • Hot water heaters

A typical office building can get by with slightly less hot water in kitchens and bathrooms during holidays, using programmable thermostats.

True, not every building can jump into the future as quickly as this iconic Chicago building, with its cutting-edge circuit sensors enabling pinpointed control. However, from smarter lighting to more efficient heating, there’s plenty of opportunity for office buildings to join the fast-growing movement to get smart.