HELIX CEO James Roche on Smart Buildings Now and Into the Future


Interest in smart buildings has exploded since the pandemic began, and with peaked interest comes many questions. What’s the ROI for smart buildings? What use cases does it serve? How does occupancy data influence design choices? Spatial data experts HELIX CEO James Roche and Density Product Manager Chantal Wirekoh, both with an extensive background in the architecture industry, sat down to answer these pressing questions and many more.

Below is a summary of their conversation.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Building utilization data helps companies answer questions about what the post-pandemic workplace should look like.
  2. Data from smart buildings is only useful when the information combines easy-to-understand insights with a user-friendly dashboard.
  3. Storing your building data increases ROI by allowing for efficient decision-making with historic occupancy data as new challenges arise.

Smart buildings lead to smarter design choices

The need for real-time, accurate data on when and where your spaces were being used became a priority as the return-to-work movement began. This need highlighted a once-unnoticed gap in the availability of workplace utilization. “We really don’t know that much about how people like to use space, especially given today’s climate [with] coronavirus and everything that comes along with that,” Chantal says.

Utilization data provides insights into building performance at scale, supporting businesses as they try to understand what workplace design should look like now. “Should it just be all hoteling desks and conference spaces? Should it be like a SoHo club, like a comfortable place where you like going there better than your own home? Or is it something else?” James asks. “We just don’t know the answers to this.”  He explains that with sensor technology, “what we have now is the ability to test our hypotheses. We can start trying new things and seeing if things work right over time…Data starts informing the hypotheses, and we just get smarter and smarter.”

Smart buildings allow workplace leaders to design a space as a product. Workplaces that digitize their buildings have the usage data they need to define how their workspace is being used and where changes can be made. Office design choices that are backed by data optimize employee productivity and help attract and retain the best talent.

Real estate investors also benefit from using building performance data to design a better product. “I know the whole real estate world has fundamentally shifted, and it’s not anywhere near complete yet. What we have is an environment, where for the next number of years, things are going to be in motion,” James says. “If I owned a bunch of office buildings, I would be very worried. How do I differentiate my space? If you make a decision [about your building], and you’re missing some critical piece of information, you’re losing money.”

Building technology is only useful if the information is accessible

Outfitting your building with occupancy technology is an essential first step, but it’s also critical to consider the software interface of the technology you select. If it presents your data in a heavy, complicated way, you’re not going to derive any significant value from it. “What you have to keep in mind [when designing an interface] is that people are busy. They don’t care as much about your software as you do,” James says. He believes that data should be so simple and accessible that “grandma can get on there and do sophisticated cross data queries…that’s the grandma standard.”

The ultimate test of whether building technology is really doing its job is this: “Can somebody use this without special software, without special training, without 100% of their attention and still get good value?”

How to put building performance data to work now and into the future

Once you have building data compiled in a digestible format that’s easily accessible to all stakeholders, it’s time to put that information to work. “You have to pick your success metric. What is ‘good space’?” James says.

“If I’m a real estate owner, it’s space that gets leased for the most amount, gets operated for the least, and sells for the most in the end. If I’m Google, I want to know what space helps me attract people, the right kind of people. How do I create environments that attract and retain and improve the performance of my human capital?” When you collect data to apply to a specific success metric, you have a “clear path to ROI right away,” Chantal says, in terms of efficiency, money savings, and time savings. But you’re also laying a path for future ROI.

“What if I want to answer a question I don’t even know I’m going to ask yet?” James says. “I’m collecting and storing all of this information, and I don’t have a use for it [yet]. But it’s not very expensive anymore, so I just keep it. Then down the line, somebody says, ‘Hey, you know, we could…’ and we’ll just go hit the database. So there’s an ongoing value.”

“Once you have [that data] documented, it has a snowball effect within your organization,” Chantal says. As new business needs develop, you have access to all that stored data. If it’s organized, annotated, and easily searchable, it can support new projects and answer questions as they come up.

James believes teams should have a clear strategy for the type of data they support. “Store data that doesn’t expire. Store data anonymously. Be thoughtful about it. If there’s a reasonable possibility that some data is going to have a long lifespan, then you might have some [future] use for it.”

The pandemic has left many workplace and real estate leaders thinking about how they can “future proof” their companies. We don’t know what the future holds, so creating a truly future-proof business is challenging, if not impossible. Instead, we can invest in a smart, flexible future by collecting, organizing, and storing building data in an accessible format that’s readily available when new challenges arise.