Retrofit reasons to be cheerful

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At Smart Buildings Show last month, market engagement specialist Justin Kirby moderated the Why is Retrofit Not Taken More Seriously in the Climate Change Conversation? panel. He’s picked out some key talking points from the session that he thinks are worthy of exploring further to help overcome barriers and drive adoption.

Over the last year, ‘I have mostly’ been looking at retrofitting. That has involved two round tables I’ve rounded up for this magazine and moderating a series of relevantly themed panels, including one at the recent Smart Buildings Show. Rather than just repeat the talking points from those two articles, I’ve picked out some that emerged from the panel, which I hope to explore as part of my ongoing engagement. That includes my forthcoming guest hosting of some retrofit-focused episodes of the Forever Forward podcast series from Umesh Bhutoria at decision support specialists Xempla. The plan being to share our conversations with range of experts as part of facilitating better understanding among the growing number of stakeholders, touching upon some of the following themes:

Retrofit reasons to be cheerful but still challenges to overcome

Smart Building Magazine columnist Matthew Marson thinks we can be bullish about retrofit. He sees occupancy rates creating an appetite and funding for the delivery of smarter capabilities. And with that going beyond just energy performance to include greater agility particularly around workplace experience i.e., as occupiers demand more software capabilities of buildings. 

However, there are challenges starting with the term retrofit, which can often be confused with large scale refurbishment. Or where it is perceived as just tinkering at the edge(s), resulting in not enough budget being allocated for any real impact and that having a knock on when it comes to finding further investment. 

British Land’s head of digital placemaking Fiona Sawkill explained that using the term ‘smart enablement’ has been helpful because it makes a distinction between the Digital and Physical. But it is the cultural resistance to digital transformation that is a greater challenge. Exploring how to overcome that could be the key to driving adoption, which takes me to ‘where’ might be interesting to explore as a starting place.

More experimentation and looking for what good looks like

One of the problems with retrofits is there is a belief that they can never be as smart as new/rebuilds. But as WiredScore’s Global Director of R&D Sanjaya Ranasinghe points out, retrofitting by likes of British Land and Skanska with their 51 Moorgate London office are great examples of what good looks like. At the same time, he sees their experimentation helping prove principle when it comes to both strategies and the technologies deployed. 

The importance of the (action) learning from that experimentation on the smart enablement of their own buildings and offices was echoed by the other panelists, with Fiona adding that the sharing of what’s learned including data insights helps to foster more collaborative relationships with clients. Their collective projects, and those like them, represent case studies to explore. Unpacking them, could be a means of highlighting the best practice ‘how’ rather than just latest thought leadership on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. And particularly if looking at what failed rather than just showcase the happy accidents of success.

More education required

I highlighted the skills gap issue in one of my previous roundups mentioned above. That’s a real problem with those at the hard FM sharp end involved with operating and maintaining of all the technology deployed. And one that all the talk about Soft Landings and supporting frameworks has seemingly not solved. 

That skills gap is why Smart Spaces CEO Dan Drogman more budget should be allocated for training and be seen as part of the low hanging fruit of retrofitting. In his experience, their best projects have been when they’ve worked with clients that have teams who are fully up to speed with what can be done with the building technology. This allows his team to plug in their platform straight away to provide greater functionality and show impact.

There are already online learning and development platforms to help make that education and training more affordable e.g., the Smart Building Bootcamp one Matthew co-founded. But those efforts may also need better employee engagement to be carried out in parallel i.e., to explain not just what all that change is for but also what’s in for those participating. That alignment could be key to unblocking the cultural resistance mentioned earlier and is one of the topics I look forward to discussing with guests a part co-hosting Umesh’s podcast series. It’s one that is close to his heart and something he’s been looking into and in depth. 

Solving the retrofit strategy conundrum?

The strategy 101 progression starts with figuring where you are at, where you want to get to and why. And that being the basis for planning how you get there. Retrofitting strategies, however, are not straight forward given different building types, age, use, users and longer list of other factors including financing e.g., Opex vs Capex. 

The difficulties of figuring out the base line, what can be achieved/is achievable and the (common) journey map, is something that Sanjaya thinks industry bodies have a role to play in helping with by coming together. Given what happened with the NABERS rating in the UK, it remains to be seen whether we’ll see a collaboration of that kind any time soon, even with a common goal like sustainability. And it’s not clear who would lead one along those lines, let alone where those lines get drawn given how many are now involved and how the lines continue to blur.

More positively, there is crosswalk and alignment work being done by the various rating bodies, particularly around sustainability and health and wellness. Workplace evaluation and employee engagement are likely to follow. Coupled with case studies, those crosswalks and alignments could not only provide the basis for helping to define smart visions but also offer practical steps for their delivery, including what to assess/audit as part of any baseline analysis i.e., based on what is being done already by their respective APs and using comparative analysis to help improve practice for all.

Even with their competing agendas and respective commercial interests, I am optimistic that we will see more collaboration among the newer breed of rating bodies than with the older established ones and their trade organisation counterparts. And that collaboration possibly being based around continuous improvement of their frameworks and/or assessing technology capabilities and promises. Either way it would also be interesting to hear more about how those rating bodies see retrofitting evolving, including the ‘what,’ ‘how’ and ‘why’ of performance e.g., as Matthew recently touched upon in his article on ‘The three sensors you need for a sustainable building’ for this magazine that was also discussed on the panel at Smart Buildings Show.

Repurposing of the technological, not just the physical assets

Retrofitting is usually framed in terms of the repurposing of existing physical assets, and that being part of the rebuild vs retrofit cost calculation including the factoring in of sustainability considerations. What’s not clear is whether those calculations accurately reflect how much existing technology can be repurposed with upgrades and better integration thanks to ongoing edge innovation in smart buildings. And because that’s rarely the purview of those making those cost comparisons.

That was something Simmtronic’s commercial director Jess Costanzo highlighted, because understanding what existing technologies can be used can reduce the cost of smart enablement and arguably be more sustainable than replacing it. Lighting being a case in point given it is like a spine that runs throughout a building that can be connected to and is being e.g., to help platforms like Dan’s Smart Spaces get occupancy and other data. Again, case studies can shine a light on what’s being done along these lines, but also how likes of LoRaWan technologies are being used, or how Unified Name Space and AI/ML to name a few are being deployed. 

And the validating those case studies against what is being rated can also help with solving the honesty problem the industry is having that Matthew wrote about recently.

What next?

Based on previous experience in other domains, trying to find common agreement on definitions can be a fool’s errand. However, unpacking definitions is great starting place for shining a light on where current thinking and practice is at and what might be on the horizon. That includes the direction of technology travel, whether we will see an agreed minimum viable technological foundation or architectural philosophy for smart enablement any time soon, or even more simply just some discussion about how that tech landscape might be mapped. The ROI of smart buildings is another possible area to explore, along with whether if and how what’s being done in related areas might feed into this e.g., plugging the skills gap mentioned above and return on employee experience – particularly given occupancy rate issues. The scope of that is more than Umesh and I can or would want to explore with the podcast conversations we are planning. But there’s no reason why those conversations couldn’t feed into a wider engagement programme, ideally in collaboration with others. Hopefully, more on both soon.