Occupancy detection and reporting is one of the most praised tools when it comes to smart building technology. Knowing exactly how many people are inside your building can have a massive impact on energy efficiency, cost reduction, and sustainability practices.
It’s a wide-ranging subject, lots of different solutions, focus, there’s a lot to cover. So, let’s break it down piece by piece and discuss how occupancy data is collected, what it can offer to building managers and landlords, and why exactly knowing your building’s occupancy is the most important facet in how you manage your building portfolio.
How It’s Done
There are several ways to monitor and calculate occupancy within commercial buildings, each with their own pros and cons. One of the most common ways is through access control, where information is gathered through the usage of access points such as turnstiles, door locks and lifts. As we have move to more client convenience, the access control gates require a tap-in but in many cases, they open automatically on the way out, therefore delivering no data on exactly who is in the building. Convenience that kills insights. Even with data on all occupant’s ins and outs, gaining this data in real-time is rarely an option.
This technology is relatively easy to install, its expensive, so floor by floor access gates are rare. However as most commercial buildings already have access systems in place, it does give a view of how many people are in the entire building. Ideally access control detection would be used in tandem with an occupancy detection method that can provide more granular-level data, such as how many people are on individual floors, or in individual rooms.
Something that can provide that data are people counting sensors, small devices that are typically placed within hallways or above doors. As people enter and exit over the threshold, they are counted as in or out of the particular room, floor, or zone. These sensors are usually anonymous and work well within both large and small spaces, however they often still provide only an estimate of occupancy and can’t differentiate if those being detected are employees, contractors, visitors or facility management staff.
Facial recognition, sometimes known as vector recognition cameras can also be used to add another layer of detection for increased accuracy. These cameras record images of occupants as they enter the building or specific areas within. They are identified via a database of employees and logged as occupants. Although detection methods such as this can bring up concerns of ‘Big Brother’ environments, facial recognition can be attuned to only capture the vectors of an occupant’s face, eliminating the need to store any photos of occupants and ensuring privacy, but it will not detect or be able to manage visitors who won’t be in your database.
On a more individual level, there are desk sensors and room sensors, which can collect data on how many desks, booths, or rooms are in use. From here, space optimisation techniques can be implemented, ensuring the layout of each floor of a building is as efficient as possible for energy efficiency and employee experience. Desk sensors can also provide information such as indoor air quality, measuring CO2 and humidity measures, both of which an excess can cause discomfort and drops in productivity, however they have proved in the UK specifically to be deemed intrusive with many organisations faced with a backlash from employees. Being battery powered, they have some issues here too with maintenance in many cases.
Access control in theory is ideal but in reality, it presents other difficulties, one of which is tailgating. Tailgating is when two people pass through an entryway in close succession, with only one being registered as entering. Again, in many buildings the access control is passive, meaning exits often don’t need the NFC card detection. Tailgating whether intentional or not, skews occupancy detections, with the tailgaters delivering unreliable data sets. This can also pose a threat to security, as people can enter floors without being recorded. Having additional occupancy detection methods present at access points, such as counting sensors or vector recognition cameras, dual-technology access cards greatly reduces the potential for entrants to slip in unnoticed, ensuring that occupancy counts are as accurate as possible.
Employee key or ID cards can also be utilised to increase detection using RFID technology. A chip is meshed into the individual cards and, when a card-holder passes a sensor, they are detected from several meters. In these dual or even triple-technology cards, his has the benefit of informing building or facility managers of who is in a particular part of the building. These cards can also be used in conjunction with people counting sensors for further detection accuracy of visitors without cards. The other advantage is automated alerts can be triggered for tailgaters who should not be on specific floors.
Never Been More Important
The days of all employees being in the office Monday to Friday, 9-5 have for many disappeared since March 2020. Collecting accurate occupancy data doesn’t just stop at the sensors, it enables you to look at your building in a completely different way. In this new world of hybrid working, post-pandemic anxieties, and approaching net-zero targets, knowing exactly how your building works is vital. We have also seen clearly an increase recently in office usage brought on by sky-high energy costs at home for many employees, many now using the office rather than heating and lighting their homes during office hours.
Occupancy data provides a wealth of information that can be analysed and acted upon. Reports can be delivered with day-by-day around who is using your building down to a very granular level. Features such as location heatmaps can demonstrate where occupant traffic is heaviest on individual floors, and alerts can be triggered in circumstances such as a deterioration in indoor air quality.
Having instant access to occupancy data can also help improve entire portfolios. Data from multiple buildings can be collected and compared to analyse whether certain energy consumption and reduction KPIs are being hit. From here, targets can be tracked accordingly from an individual area level all the way up to a portfolio-wide level.
Why It Matters
Occupancy data is an intensely valuable resource that can radically change your business and building operations for the better. Understanding exactly how your building is being used is the first fundamental step to rapidly lowering energy costs, energy consumption, and improving the overall value and operations of your building.
Accurate occupancy data enables optimisation, for one, HVAC and lighting systems can be adjusted to reflect the actual number of people in the building, instead of lighting empty hallways and heating vacant rooms. We’ve already written about how EPC regulations for buildings in the UK are set to get stricter, but legislation shouldn’t be the only reason to implement more energy efficiency strategies. Just moving one rung up the ladder, from EPC ranking C to B, can save buildings approximately 16% on gas and 6% on lighting.
Cities across the globe are also beginning to hold building owners accountable for the amount of CO2 their portfolio produces with stricter ESG and sustainability targets. By implementing energy saving strategies for HVAC and lighting systems based on real-time occupancy, operational CO2 emissions can be rapidly reduced across entire real estate portfolios. Additionally, greener buildings are fetching more on the market, with studies showing that buildings that contain smart building technology of any kind sees an 11.8% increase in lease value.
Facilities management practices can also be optimised. As the majority of offices have implemented hybrid working patterns, processes like cleaning and catering now have to run on dynamic schedules. Having access to real-time building occupancy can streamline FM to achieve higher efficiency and better performance. Bathrooms can be cleaned when it is best required, and food and beverage ordering can be optimised to account for how many people will actually be eating and drinking.
Accurate occupancy data can increase safety and security protocols, ensuring people and their belongings are kept safe and accounted for. This even stretches to emergency evacuations, where knowing who remains in a building during, for example, a fire can aid emergency services in getting everyone out of the building safely. There are accurate records of who was on every flight globally in 2022, when 175 died, so we need to address the issue around buildings, warehouses and factories and eliminate convenience over accurate occupancy data.
Employee comfort and satisfaction is also a concern. Occupancy sensors can be paired with environmental sensors that measure factors like humidity, CO2 levels, and indoor air quality. If you calibrate your humidity levels this can increase the spread of infectious diseases like flu and Covid-19, and an increase in CO2 levels from 1000 to 2500 ppm can cause employee basic activity alone to reduce by 35%.
Factors improved by energy efficiency are also judged by the leading building certifiers, bodies like LEED, WELL, and BREEAM. Building elements such as networked room automation, automatic demand control, energy monitoring, and sustainable energy optimisation are now becoming mandatory to receive any level of these certifications.
It’s A Win-Win
The truth is, the commercial real estate sector is in desperate need of an overhaul. Inefficient practices have been accepted as the norm for too long. It is time for the sector, and all those within it, to accept that there is a new norm – one that makes the way buildings have been run in the past practically obsolete.
For the past two years, building occupancy has been at an all-time low, and it is only now just starting to recover. Employees are not as keen as they once were on working in the office environment, and building management needs to adjust to this.
Occupancy detection is truly the key to ensuring that costs are kept low, employees are kept satisfied and, in the office, CO2 levels are rapidly reduced. Knowing occupancy isn’t just a perk, it is vital for the survival of the commercial building as we know it.