New York, the Big Apple. An iconic exemplar like no other. Immortalized in song and legend, the quintessential cosmopolitan urban center of our world. You would be hard pressed to find a remote outpost on the globe in which at least one tee-shirt didn’t proclaim ‘I heart NY’, at any given time. Just as it once redefined the word ‘metropolis’, with its brash, unapologetic and unprecedented skyline, it now seeks to set the gold standard in sustainability, for a thriving modern city. 

Governor Cuomo's 2019 Justice Agenda, included The Climate Mobilization Act - New York’s own version of the Green New Deal - which the city council passed with an unambiguous 45 to 2 majority, in April. Calling for a "globally unprecedented" all –chips-in approach backing renewable energy, the Act envisages a city that meets a 100% of its electricity needs carbon-free, by 2040, and eventually becoming entirely carbon neutral. While an expansion of renewable energy capacity can be achieved through sheer force of political will and appropriate investment, making existing assets more efficient will take considerably more ingenuity to achieve. 


Real time, data driven sustainability: bringing industrial efficiency to urban environments

A carbon neutral modern city implies elevating existing buildings to ‘smart’ status and impeccable energy efficiencies. Entirely replacing existing structures and systems is a non-starter, so how does one achieve such a transformation? An effective new strategy to draw highly energy efficient performance from existing infrastructure is a Digital Retrofit. This approach uses an enterprise wide platform to interpret data and tweak performance in real time, using Artificial Intelligence. Continuous optimal efficiency can only be achieved through automated control, using data driven models similar to those disrupting heavy industry. The real estate sector has been slow to realize the potential in adding retrofitted digital control to existing assets, but enthusiasm for the approach is now rapidly approaching critical mass.

According to a 2017 study, New York’s buildings were responsible for almost 70% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions and The Climate Mobilization Act requires these to be slashed by 40%, by 2030. This is, perhaps, the most ambitious ask of New York’s march to climate utopia, so it’s only fair to ask, is it even possible? The answer, perhaps surprisingly to those of us accustomed to equating lowered emissions with ‘going without’, is a resounding yes. Considerably less unexpected is the facilitating agent for such a change – Technology. To be more specific, Digital Retrofit technology. 


Unlocking untapped existing capacity, with a digital retrofit solution

Modernization, in the form of efficiency enhancing retrofitting, has been identified globally as the only viable solution to help transition massive old building stock to a future of service-led, sustainable and smart buildings. Nevertheless, despite it being the panacea to meet aggressively ambitious regulatory targets, sustainability goals and significantly lowered operating costs, there still apprehensions surrounding the strategy. For one thing a typical full-fledged physical retrofit involves large capital investments, for another the transition for such a transformation is just as unsparing of time and effort involved.

Fortunately, the ubiquitous boffins of Digital Transformation have added a trick or three to our arsenal. There is now a way for legacy structures to quickly meet future ready standards in sustainability at reasonably lower costs than those a full physical outlay would involve. A 2018 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimated a reduction in energy consumption of 18% in offices, 14% in shops and 8% in hospitals, using retrofitted smart technologies. For instance, according to the report, smart control and variable speed drives could cut HVAC costs by 20% to 40%. The Hilton chain has discovered that a relatively low outlay, towards installing sensors and software in some test sites, has successfully demonstrated the potential to save $1.2m per year, using wireless cloud storage to record 4,000 data points and responding on their basis.


Real time integration, the master key for efficiency and sustainability

So why is digital retrofit the ‘next big thing’ for the building & facilities management industry? Simply put, it allows the industry to concurrently achieve multiple efficiencies that address its entire range of optimal requirements. To be relevant tomorrow, buildings can no longer focus only on the maintenance of facilities & machines, on occupant comfort or on sustainability. All three factors need to be addressed simultaneously, with the help of an integrated solution. 

Centrally unified automation systems, that leverage an IoT and Machine Learning edge for portfolio-wide predictive operations, can revitalize existing infrastructure at much lower costs than pure hardware retrofits. From an automation perspective, a digital retrofit quickens the modernization process, by enhancing rather than replacing existing infrastructure, eliminating or minimizing waste, and enabling continuous real time efficiency across operations. Digital retrofits and software-driven facility management can ensure maximum enhancement in performance, with minimal additional investment. 

Digital Retrofitting is to the building industry what Industry 4.0 is to the manufacturing sector. It leverages technology to connect the 3 integral parts of a building - people, energy and assets - in real-time. Instead of requiring large investments in capital costs, time and manpower to replace existing machinery, one can deploy modern digital enhancements, in tandem with existing in situ equipment. 


Enabling a 'smarter', more efficient building 

So why should real estate owners take the plunge and opt for a digital retrofit? Retrofits often conjure up images of a time and resource intensive process involving hardware replacement and overhaul. A digital retrofit, on the other hand, enhances existing hardware and plugs inefficiencies, using an Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Cloud Computing based solution. 

Much like the technology and data-led revolution of other industries, commercial real estate owners and facilities managers can achieve unprecedented efficiencies using an enterprise-wide data platform for operations and maintenance. Such a unified platform can allow the industry to break away from the siloed and reactive operations of legacy systems, enabling complete visibility into operations and insight-led continuous efficiency across all assets. Buildings modernized using digital retrofits integrate efficiencies across workforces, assets and completely optimal sustainability. 


A carbon neutral cake, to have and eat too

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the digital retrofit approach is that it enhances commercial value dramatically, making the minimal initial capital cost even more viable. The potential to save energy, resources, the planet and dollars - in one fell swoop - sets up easy and rapid implementation at scale. In fact, the compelling case made by the absence of large upfront costs is further reinforced by the ability to easily create pay-as-you-go models. Digitally enhancing an old building revitalizes every aspect of the asset, from commercial value to occupant experience and, of course, energy profile.

Digital retrofits can lead New York’s iconic landmarks and sprawling boroughs into a future in which the Big Apple is still the leader of the pack and lady liberty holds the torch aloft as a beacon for an entirely new and empowering hope. In a world left holding the bill from decades of indulgent overconsumption, digital retrofits are poised to act as the impact multiplier that leapfrogs legacy built assets into a Smart Buildings and Smart City future.


About the author

Prabhu Ramachandran is the founder and CEO of Facilio Inc, an enterprise-wide platform for facilities O & M (Operations & Maintenance) across real-estate portfolios, headquartered in Atlanta (US) and with operations in USA, Middle East and India. 

Prabhu’s career spans over 18 years of product, business and customer experience focused on enterprise-scale software for IoT-based connected services, sustainable building solutions, and telecom network management. 

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