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Karen Fletcher looks at how the construction industry is adapting to cope with social distancing

The term ‘social distancing’ entered our vocabulary in 2020 and looks set to be in circulation for some time to come.

The construction industry has worked hard to work with the restrictions, with cleaning rigs and restricted personnel flow.

In fact, some reports say that there have been fewer contractual issues in the industry as the spirit of ‘all in it together’ has taken hold.

But there are still major challenges for areas such as maintenance of existing building services.

Getting engineers to buildings and working in restricted spaces, as plant rooms so often are, has obvious risks.

Our current adversity is proving time and again that it’s an accelerant for major change

Karen Fletcher Karen Fletcher Content Director of Rocket Content

AI systems

However, more clients, manufacturers and maintenance teams are looking to technology to overcome these issues and keep their equipment operating or simply to ensure the equipment is compliant with regulations.

As with so much else, the virus in our midst has not only created new ways of working, it has accelerated changes that were already underway.

For example, artificial intelligence (AI) was already shifting the world of building controls. Systems based on AI don’t simply monitor building performance, they can spot patterns and send alerts when any performance levels shift away from the expected.

Team this with the growing connectivity of most building services equipment, and alarms can be sent directly to a remote facilities company – before the occupants find that hot water or heating are suddenly unavailable.

This is already happening widely across the property sector, though application of AI in buildings for facilities management is still in its early stages.

Near Field Communications

The next stage of technology will move things to another level. Take Near Field Communication (NFC).

This describes developments in wireless communications protocols that would allow a mobile phone, for example, to communicate with the IoT network in a building.

So, as an occupant (or visiting engineer) approaches the building, systems can prepare for arrival – doors can be unlocked that allow that individual to enter only certain parts of the building according to their requirements (and security).

This sort of preparation means that planning for maintenance is easier, and it’s more straightforward to ensure that people can work as safely as possible if they are unable to wander into the wrong part of a building.

Virtual technicians

However, there are problems in the plant room that might require more input than a lone installer or technician can manage.

This might have meant further delay, and sending another person to the site to fix things. And working side-by-side with another expert is sometimes the only way to solve an engineering issue.

How does that work in the world of social distancing? Property consultants Cushman & Wakefield predict these issues will drive the rise of the ‘virtual technician’.

Technology such as augmented reality (AR) is becoming more accessible and affordable. C&W envision a not-so-distant future where one engineer is on site, equipped with tech that enables him or her to share a visual of exactly what’s going on in the plant room.

This sort of AR equipment is also shrinking in size, allowing a shared view and hands-free operation.

This means that a single engineer can benefit from the know-how of a remote colleague and even other experts (from the manufacturer, for instance) while they work to fix the problem.

The benefits are not simply faster solution of breakdowns. Virtual checks can be used to keep buildings compliant without sending engineers out on expensive and time-consuming site visits.   And the remote technician could also visit sites without breaking lockdown regulations.

Augmented reality

While this might seem like far-fetched future gazing, let’s not forget how quickly technology moves.

Augmented reality is on the rise. Apple and Google have invested heavily in mobile AR that will allow developers to work on AR apps more easily – in the past 18 months the amount of mobile AR-enabled devices has tripled the number of active users.  

The cost of devices such as AR ‘smart’ glasses for wearers is currently quite a wide range. You might pay about £3,000, but there are some on the market for half that, or even in the hundreds of pounds bracket.  

Not something you’d necessarily splurge on for yourself, but it could be regarded as an investment for a forward-thinking FM or engineering business. And that price will inevitably fall.

Our current adversity is proving time and again that it’s an accelerant for major change. In a world where connectivity, data and wireless technology are changing everything, building management and maintenance will be no exception.

Karen Fletcher is former editor of Modern Building Services and CIBSE Journal