At a recent visit to the expo at a commercial real estate conference, I noticed what seems to be a growing trend: an amazing number of firms, big and small, promoting an ever-growing number of energy management-related software programs. And while there are certainly many variations, the pitch always seems to be about the same: let us connect to your energy data and we will show you lots of pretty graphs and analytics that will save you enormous amounts of money while complying with [insert your favorite regulation, green building rating system, or corporate reporting requirement here]. I do truly wish it were that easy, but as an active energy management professional I can tell you the reality on the ground paints a different picture.
Most of these systems, once deployed, are under-utilized at best or eventually forgotten altogether, relegated to the background noise of daily operations. These “solutions” end up causing several problems: beyond simply not adding value, they can lull operators and property managers into a false sense of security. People can go from thinking they “have it covered” to realizing there are gaping holes in the data, critical information is not being captured, and operators aren’t properly connected to their buildings’ systems. The net result is a chronic underinvestment in both our people and the elements of our buildings that need them most.
It’s no surprise we find ourselves in this position. There are two cultural undercurrents that contribute significantly to the current state of play:
(1) We are in a nearly constant search for the quick fix. This one is understandable – with ever-shrinking budgets and demands to produce more with less, businesses are constantly in search of solutions which will squeeze as much productivity as possible out of every employee and dollar invested.
(2) We constantly overvalue technology and undervalue people. This is perhaps one of the most destructive forces at play. We need to shift our thinking around our investments in software platforms and face the reality that even the most sophisticated technology cannot substitute for effective human capital. Think about it this way: what would sound better: a Stradivarius played by an untrained musician, or a cheap violin in the hands of Itzhak Perlman? This analogy holds true for many technological applications. Fancy equipment and software can be useful tools, but the efforts of a skilled person will always be the most critical element. In any scenario, mastery of a complex craft requires training, knowledge, experience, and critical thinking.
So what are building owners and operators to do?
The commercial real estate industry must come to a collective understanding that, at its core, real estate is a people-focused business at all levels. People, after all, are the reason we build the buildings in the first place. Owners and operators – be honest with yourself about your staff’s real capabilities, biases, and toolsets – then you can ask the right questions about how best to use new energy management software tools. Understand there are no “quick fixes.” Any meaningful and lasting solution will leverage, rather than rely, on technology. Be sure to put the emphasis on training and empowering building staff.
Altura’s approach follows this philosophy. We often recommend and deploy energy management-related software, but only in situations where it makes sense for our clients’ goals and long-term strategies. The constant in all our projects, though, is a people-first approach which places an emphasis on building capacity within the building operations staff. More than any other factor, a well-trained, empowered staff is the best way to ensure long-term building and project performance.
Jim Meacham is a founding Principal at Altura. He leads the firm’s commissioning and energy management practice, and provides energy efficiency consulting for some of the world’s most iconic and efficient buildings. He is a California-registered mechanical engineer.