Webinar takeaways: ‘The role of data in driving sustainable and operational excellence'

February 12, 2023

Building Management is a dynamic and strategic business discipline central to keeping the built environment resilient, optimised, comfortable, and running smoothly. In recent years, the responsibilities of FM and operations teams have increased with the advent of new technologies, data accessibility, sustainability demands, cost pressures, and more.

In our recent webinar on ‘The role of data in driving sustainable and operational excellence,’ we spoke to a panel of industry experts about data and its role in driving the pursuit of excellence in these areas.

Our panellists delved into:

  • The role of data in driving sustainability
  • How data support day-to-day building operations, and what can be improved
  • Changing building operational roles and the impact data has made
  • Is the built environment doing enough to hit global emissions targets?

The webinar was moderated by SustMeme Founder and Editor Jim McClelland and included the following panellists:

  • Rowena Crowley, Director of Property Asset Management at Knight Frank
  • Brent Cross, Energy Manager at CBRE
  • Cillian Casey, VP of EMEA at CIM

Read on for the panel’s key takeaways or watch the full discussion here.

How data drives sustainability efforts

With ambitious net-zero targets looming large on the near-term horizon, sustainability is at the forefront of conversation across the built environment—especially as buildings are estimated to account for roughly 40% of global emissions.

Rowena pointed out that because the bulk of those emissions are operational, understanding data is key to reducing emissions and improving on benchmarks. Her native Ireland does not yet have the same minimum standards that exist in countries like Australia or elsewhere in Europe, but ‘it’s coming fast down the track for commercial buildings,’ she said. ‘Implementing and upkeeping these standards can maintain or increase the value of an asset, so continuously improving the sustainability performance of buildings will avoid stranding assets.’

Rowena also stressed the importance of visible action (as demonstrated by data) to impress financiers who have become increasingly interested in sustainable reporting. This type of report simply cannot exist without data—and in an age of increasing regulation, reporting matters more than ever.

Brent sees data as central to three key areas in his role at CBRE:

  1. Identifying opportunities for performance improvement in real time—particularly when optimising peak and off-peak energy profiles.
  2. Continuous monitoring—Buildings will gradually ‘creep’ unless someone is keeping tabs on all the moving parts that contribute to total emissions. Again, this means the ability to adjust in real time rather than responding reactively to rising energy costs.
  3. Measurement and verification—Measuring and verifying adherence to set standards requires data. Credible, accurate measurements lend confidence to clients and investors.

Cillian reminded the group that despite improvements in data accessibility and quality over recent years, one significant challenge remains unchanged: many people aren’t leveraging the data that already exists within the buildings they have. He emphasised Rowena’s point about establishing baseline metrics and understanding what contributes to them before reaching for performance improvements.

‘You really do need a starting point to benchmark improvements,’ Cillian said. ‘Data analytics tools provide visibility on how your building and the equipment in it are performing and where you can improve … Ideally you want to turn this very technical data into easy-to-understand messages and directions that can result in quick and often quite substantial wins to head toward your sustainability targets.’

The difference data makes in day-to-day operations

Data has initiated a fundamental shift in how building managers approach their day-to-day operations. Traditional time-based operational strategies have taken a back seat to the more efficient and cost-effective demand-based strategy. Brent pointed toward COVID as one accelerant of this data-driven shift; work-from-home and hybrid arrangements mean that building occupancy is low on some days, so air circulation and HVAC can be adjusted based on occupancy rather than a strict time-bound schedule. 

Evidence- and data-driven decision-making is the new model of choice, with flexibility and agility mattering more to building operators than traditional scheduling approaches. Rowena also stressed the importance of getting to the root cause of building faults to reduce reactive maintenance and increase overall productivity. Data makes this understanding possible, pointing toward more efficient ways to use resources and reduce costs.

Cillian explained that CIM ‘have worked with clients to completely rewrite their maintenance contracts to incorporate data-driven maintenance and fault detection diagnostics into the base offering, which can result in large savings in the maintenance contract.’ Building owners can then reinvest those savings back into the building to drive stronger performance. For example, they might allocate ad hoc hours to a contractor to rectify opportunities identified by a data analytics platform rather than reviewing in-depth quotes as issues arise. The end result is fewer unplanned costs, more control, and greater visibility.

Changing operational roles in modern building management

Data has always informed the way that buildings operate, but the nature of that impact is starting to change amidst what Jim dubbed ‘a data revolution.’ For one thing, investors are seeing the change in value and responding in kind. ‘Investors are very aware of minimum standards,’ said Rowena. ‘Everybody’s looking at the rating they have on their building … The operational element and the data is critical for that.’

There is also increasing engagement in tenanted areas of buildings to understand the impact of operations on emissions targets. Building occupiers are getting on board with higher-level initiatives, as they often have their own ESG policies to consider. The importance of open conversations between building owners, facilities managers, and tenants makes data accessibility non-negotiable. Optimised building management can be the rising tide that lifts all boats, but only if the data is easy for all stakeholders to understand and act upon.

Cillian stressed the importance of a high-level portfolio view over building performance when looking at energy consumption and carbon emissions, going right from the sensor to high-level building metrics. ‘Historically, the property operations landscape has been quite fragmented, which has limited the use case to single stakeholder use. Building technologies available now can provide a holistic view of all properties under management … driving engagement and collaboration,’ he said. ‘And for fear of sounding like a broken record, collaboration really drives accountability and results. It’s about ensuring you’re not just identifying issues; you’re actually closing them out.’

When asked how modern building management might improve, Brent suggested more flexibility from client IT in sending data out to cloud-based solutions for fault analytics, power monitoring, etc. ‘We need better collaboration between corporate ITs and building services data so that it can be easily, readily transported out to cloud-based solutions. Because we’re all in it together, really.’ He also spoke about fault resolution, adding that building owners must fund appropriate resources to deal with system outputs. ‘Proper data management,’ he said, ‘requires the correct amount of resources to handle the outputs.’ In other words: without a plan of action, operational data is more noise than substance.

Are we doing enough to hit global emissions targets?

Our panellists had a range of answers to the question of whether the built environment is doing enough to achieve global sustainability objectives. In the glass-half-full camp was Rowena, who said, ‘We’re on the right track, but we’re quite short of it.’ Everybody wants to get there, she said, but it isn’t moving fast enough to achieve our aims despite legislation-driven standards and ESG policies. ‘To understand the shared data requires effort and considered action,’ Rowena noted. ‘We need to keep embracing ESG disclosure and data management in order to measure our relevant KPIs.’

Cillian took an opposing view, saying, ‘I don’t think we’re doing enough at all. Buildings here in Ireland, the UK and even the U.S. are typically not performing optimally.’ He pointed to Australia’s NABERS rating system as an exemplar for motivating peak building performance. Once all commercial buildings were required to advertise their star rating when being leased or sold, owners were forced to take notice and invest in sustainable solutions to drive down emissions. Annual audits hold those buildings to that standard and prevent energy creep. The Australian government has further enforced attention to NABERS by refusing to lease any buildings below a certain star rating. Cillian argued for a top-down, bottom-up approach driven by government to help force the built environment toward net-zero standards.

Brent cast his tie-breaking vote toward neutral ground, saying, ‘We need to work on the cultural behaviours of building occupants and how they adapt and operate in the workspace.’ He cited Spain’s temperature mandate as an example of how governments can draw public attention toward energy consumption for building occupiers. ‘When they’re occupants at work, their whole energy focus changes because they don’t pay the bills, so they don’t have a real energy focus. Carbon emissions aren’t tangible,’ Brent said. ‘Maybe we need to adopt a Spanish approach.’

Despite differing positions on the progress the built environment is making toward Net Zero, all panellists came together around the idea of collaboration from stakeholders at every level, from landlords and tenants to Facilities Managers, contractors, and Asset Managers. Jim closed by emphasising the concept of collaborative effort, saying, ‘The old adage runs: to manage something, first you’ve got to measure it. But I’d like to add that you then have to message it and communicate it, within teams, across companies, sectors, clients, stakeholders, suppliers, press, media, even the general public. This is show-and-tell time for sustainability in a competitive marketplace. Data is how you operationalise sustainability.’


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Cillian Casey
February 12, 2023