Among the many things we didn’t worry about a year and a half ago was the quality of the air in the malls where we shopped and offices where we worked. But we’re finally beginning to see COVID-19 ebb across Ontario and businesses are reopening, indoor air quality through proper ventilation is suddenly top of mind, and building managers are increasingly looking at solutions from Canadian technology companies.
“The global spread of COVID-19 certainly has heightened awareness of the pressing importance of building-occupant health and safety, specifically within closed retail shopping centres,” says Gregory Pheiffer, an operations manager at Cushman & Wakefield.
The property management company had engaged Burlington-based startup Feedback Solutions in late 2019 to deploy its people-tracking software system at Devonshire Mall in Windsor as well as Peterborough’s Lansdowne Place. The effort was part of an initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). The pandemic shifted priorities, but not the Feedback Solutions pilot project. And that points to how addressing health and safety concerns can also help tackle the climate crisis.
Feedback Solutions’ software manages data from an array of people-counting sensors and works in tandem with technology that monitors indoor air quality by tracking humidity, particulate matter and the presence of volatile organic compounds. That information feeds into an automated system that constantly adjusts the HVAC fans according to the number of people in the space and the quality of air. This system helps ensure healthy air quality while controlling energy costs — a welcome benefit for retailers given the challenging year they’ve had.
Research suggests that COVID-19 primarily spreads from the aerosol particles that people infected with the virus breathe out and these particles can linger in poorly ventilated spaces for several hours — good ventilation will be a key part of keeping the lockdown lifted. It’s still an open question, however, as to how people will comfortably return to indoor spaces in mass, so as building managers look to reopen retail spaces, offices, schools and other public buildings, they’ll increasingly need flexible, smart solutions. The technology several Canadian startups use to collect and analyze data is now sophisticated enough that it can help ensure air quality while also reducing carbon emissions.
“Buildings won’t be used like they were pre-COVID,” says David Whalley, the CEO of Feedback Solutions. “We want to give customers confidence that they can maintain a healthy space while they manage their energy costs.”
Buildings currently account for 13 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. If the country is going to hit its climate change targets, reducing that figure will be vital. And Ottawa has set some ambitious benchmarks: it’s pledged to cut emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
“We’re going to have to do deep retrofits for thousands of buildings between now and 2030 if we’re going to meet our commitments,” says Thomas Mueller, president of the Canada Green Building Council.
The federal government will finance some of that effort. Over the next three years, the Canada Infrastructure Bank will allocate $2 billion to support energy efficient retrofits in large buildings by working with private- and public-sector owners. Federal and provincial governments provide other incentives, such as rebates and low-interest loans on capital investments that reduce energy use.
Companies like Feedback Solutions stand to benefit from that retrofit business by offering software and data analysis that supports smart buildings. The company’s heat-sensor technology feeds data about occupancy at specific building locations into HVAC systems. If a boardroom is sitting empty, for example, the fan speed will automatically slow down. Installed on existing HVAC units, the Feedback technology can reduce energy costs by an average of 20 percent, the company says. Used in a deep retrofit, it can reduce HVAC energy usage by as much as 40 percent.
Feedback Solutions’ people-counting technology has been installed in numerous buildings at the University of Toronto, including the Robarts Library. The company is now targeting the booming New York City market, which is being driven by a state mandate requiring building owners to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or face a penalty. It completed its second building at New York University in February and has an agreement with the New York Public Library for a demonstration project to be installed later this year.
Other Canadian companies working in this space include BehrTech and InnerSpace. BehrTech’s wireless system is able to monitor and analyze humidity, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and occupancy levels. Toronto’s InnerSpace provides indoor location mapping services by using Wi-Fi signals on smartphones to analyze and predict how people are using the space. Both companies adhere to strict privacy guidelines, each emphasizing that the data they collect is completely anonymous.
BehrTech co-founder and chief technology officer Wolfgang Thieme says the pandemic has sparked greater interest among building owners in sensor technology that can help them manage the space. “We were there before the pandemic, but COVID is a technology accelerator, especially in the building space,” he says.
BehrTech is currently working with QuadReal Property Group, a Vancouver-based building manager, and has installed its system in 43 buildings in eight cities across the country. Deploying as many as 2,500 sensors in a building, the system helps managers ensure health and comfort while optimizing energy consumption.
Building owners and managers are only beginning to understand how the COVID-19 outbreak will change occupancy patterns in the long term, including the trend for employees to work from home, says Cerys Goodall, president of InnerSpace.
“The problem is: How can we bring people back safely when we don’t know what people will do?” Goodall says. Innovative solutions will be more needed than ever.