Design, build, use: that’s the life cycle of commercial real estate (CRE) buildings. Technological advances are changing the way things are done in every industry. For commercial real estate, the changes are apparent in every step, from surveying a site to leasing the building. Even the way tenants utilize the space once they’re in those buildings has changed.
Technological advances in CRE affect the way sites are surveyed, slabs are poured, walls are stood, projects are sold, and buildings are occupied.
“It’s interesting,” said Ed Vance, founder and CEO, Ed Vance and Associates. “From our perspective, the technology that we’re seeing internally and externally are different. Internally, how we present our work to our clients has changed drastically over the last several years. We’re generating 3-dimensional digital representations of our work, allowing our clients to better see what they’re going to get before we design and build it.”
That doesn’t mean the little physical models, dioramas of buildings in their settings are out completely. Today’s mock ups aren’t just renderings and they’re not just tiny models, but videos of the client’s proposed project via animation that can be examined from different angles.
“We’re also using the 3-D goggles that allow them with the use of virtual reality to see their product as if they were in it,” said Vance. “Those technologies have changed our work at almost a geometric rate, as we’re generating renderings at lightning speeds because of the software and computers have come along so rapidly.”
Changes to the internal process for the architecture and design side allow clients to not only take virtual walk-throughs and see what their project is going to look like, but to determine how they’d like to see it changed.
“We have to make decisions as we design our buildings from not just the size, the shape, the feeling, the volume, but the finishes, the colors, the materials,” said Vance. “So we are able to scan and digitize those things into our models so they really are seeing virtually – and I use that word almost literally – what they’re going to get.” For a firm whose mission is to deliver the best client experience possible, those changes are dramatic.
Technology has altered the client’s role, too. Where once the broker researched all commercial buildings that might fit the client’s needs, connectivity has allowed the client to arrive knowing what they want.
“The broker now becomes more of a consultant, advising them on the community, the economic growth in that area, if this is the right property,” said Derrick Hill, vice president, Cox Business/Hospitality Network Las Vegas.
Moving past the client experience and putting plans into production, software that falls into the BIM category – Building Information Management – allows the component trades involved on a project to work together. Design professionals, architects, builders and contractors can work together through the program in an attempt to make the construction process run more smoothly. Revit is emerging as the industry’s software of choice and the one students graduating into the workforce are most familiar with.
“So once we go from design into production, the Revit modeling or 3-D modeling we do is from a production standpoint, because it allows us to do collision testing between all our consultants,” said Vance. “So, by the time we get to the field, we’ve already done our vetting, allowing the contractor to build much more efficiently and in a more streamlined fashion without the conflicts that normally were associated with documents put together the old fashioned way.”
From an external viewpoint, technology involved in construction from a design point of view is used to build more environmentally sustainable buildings, both in construction and in actual use. One technique employs underfloor systems, running data, power and air distribution under raised floors rather than through the space above the ceiling. Advantages include less disruption of work spaces when repairs are needed – no ladders in the way, for example.
But increased employee productivity is a, perhaps, unexpected twist. When both the HVAC systems and the control of those systems are at floor level where employees are rather than at ceiling level where no one is utilizing space, arguments over turning up the heat versus turning up the AC can be mitigated. Employees have more control over their environment, adjusting temperature in their own space.
Underfloor systems make it easier to retrofit a building when new owners come in because construction trades aren’t fighting over the space in the ceiling but dealing with what’s on the floor just under the panels – easy access, easy changes.
Green measures for buildings include initiatives from groups like American Institute of Architects and its 2030 challenge – trying to reach a carbon neutral footprint for buildings. In the U.S., 25 percent of energy consumed is by buildings, said Vance. Passive techniques like solar shading are future-thinking methods that help keep buildings cooler in summer and specialized glass systems to help insulate building in winter.
“If our buildings are more efficient and consume less energy, that just goes right to the bottom line for our clients who are running and operating the building,” said Vance.
From a construction standpoint, the impact of technology on commercial buildings is mostly in the form of efficiency, said Aaron West, CEO, Nevada Builders Alliance. That efficiency starts before there’s any construction underway at all and runs through the process, starting with the ground itself.
Where once a three man survey crew went out and spent days surveying a piece of property before any development could occur, now the developer sends out one man with a drone to aerial map the property in a matter of hours.
“From a construction standpoint, probably the use of technology has more to do with efficiency on what’s going into the building,” said West. “If you look at a big tilt-up, they’re doing it fairly similarly to the way we’ve done it for the last five years.”
Which would be to pour the concrete walls, then lift to a vertical position with a crane, bracing them until other structure elements are in place. Today, though, in the setting of the slab and the foundation of the building, instead of a concrete finisher with a screed cutting off excess from the surfaces, there’s a laser-guided screed making precision cuts to create flat and even surfaces.
Some advances are more about a lack of available labor than employing technology for the sake of doing so.
At Reno’s Rancharrah project, labor demands and material costs caused the developer to go with a metal product in the retail center, where a project of the same size would normally have been traditionally wood framed. The result wasn’t a huge savings in money, but the project went together faster than it would have and employed a different labor force.
Another developer, building an assisted living center at Rancharrah, chose to work with a company that pre-manufactured wall panels and floor sections in a warehouse in Phoenix and delivered them to the site. Further speeding up the building process, electrical and plumbing were put in place in the controlled environment of the Phoenix warehouse and the pieces assembled on site.
“You used to send a framing crew and a stack of lumber out to a jobsite and three weeks later and probably 15 percent waste material you’d have a house standing there. Now you deliver to the site, you’ve got three guys and three days and you’ve got all your walls up and your trusses rolled,” said West.
“Workforce is the number one issue in the industry right now,” said West. “That’s the tough part. At this point, short of the pre-manufactured stuff we haven’t seen anything that’s really impacting our need for labor. There is stuff out there from a quality control standpoint, like augmented reality. It’s not really in use but very close, and we’ve seen some pretty cool examples of being able to use augmented reality to walk through a building and make sure that they put the plumbing or the mechanical ducts where they’re supposed to go, because you’re able to see the plans in a virtual sense over what’s been built.”
The nationwide labor shortage is one reason tech-minded companies that essentially pre-manufacture an entire house and deliver it to a site are starting to look at Nevada’s market. It’s not just single family residences, though –companies are looking at manufacturing multifamily housing the same way.
“You’re going to see more of manufacturing an entire apartment unit. You would do that in a factory and deliver it [to the site] and just stack them like Legos,” said West. “We’re starting to see that already. Unfortunately there’s just not a lot of capacity in terms of the companies that are able to do that. They’re pretty much maxed out, so it’s still presenting itself as a challenge.”
The top use for technology in building an innovative building for a brand new tech park is technology itself. In southern Nevada, Gardner Company has constructed the first building in the Harry Reid Research and Technology Park, where UNLV’s Black Fire Innovation Center is located.
“Black Fire Innovation is the anchor tenant on half of the third floor and all of the fourth floor,” said Dan Stewart, partner, vice president development, Gardner Company. “Black Fire Innovation is a partnership between UNLV and Caesar’s Entertainment. It’s a built work space for next generation innovative hospitality gaming entertainment venues.”
The venue within a venue has coworker – or maker, or incubator – space for developing and testing new ideas in the gaming, hospitality and entertainment industry. It even houses a mock casino with slot machines, blackjack tables, esports and bars, restaurants and bars for real world feel in testing out ideas.
Built out at 111,000-square-feet, the building offers tenants partnerships with UNLV, including its School of Medicine, and access to the Supercomputer Cherry Creek and Switch Communications dark fiber network. The building itself, designed by Ed Vance and Associates, features a solar array on the roof and on the associated carport capable of producing enough power for the building’s use for two months.
In order to occupy today’s technologically advanced commercial buildings, there needs to be infrastructure in place to serve them, from water and lighting to available parking and best use of streets.
Technology forwards those efforts, too. Cox Business (part of Cox Communications) is partnered with the City of Henderson on the Smart Infrastructure Pilot Program. The one-year program is centered on Henderson’s Water Street District.
“How do you manage water and lighting, particularly in an area experiencing economic growth, particularly in an area in the desert?” said Hill. The program uses smart meters to measure water usage, allowing the city to make policy on water use, and tests lighting systems to better utilize the electric grid.
In Las Vegas, Cox is working with Smart City initiative curbside management. “It allows us to control traffic patterns through a smart grid,” said Hill. The program tracks how many cars come through an area, how long they stay, what the parking needs are.
He added, “We’re analyzing that information with the city to help them understand how to construct the streets and fairways around our city to allow more traffic to flow more smoothly.”
The Future’s Future
Just because something is theoretically possible doesn’t mean it’s happening yet, or even should be. In China and Mexico, 3-D printing technology is being used to manufacture emergency-style shelters, but in the U.S., such measures haven’t passed stringent building safety codes.
Eventually robots may find their way into construction. A robot could nail off a roof three times faster than a human, but we’re not quite there yet with the tech, and currently still require a human operator to control the robot.
“We’re not yet at the point where an automated truck comes in with the automated order and gives it to the robot who puts it together,” said West. “Even with dirt moving equipment. There’s some really great things going on with [it] using GPS and laser, where they can grade a site by itself, virtually. But at this point they still have an operator in there because nobody’s going to trust it not to run over somebody who’s delivering pipe to the project or something like that. We’re making some incremental increases in quality and efficiency, but we still need that human component.”