User Interface With a Building – Interview with Esa Halmetoja of Senate Properties

Architect Mies van der Rohe once said that, “An office is a machine for working in.” From a maintenance person’s point of view that might be true. For a user, an office should offer a productive working environment. A pilot project, led by Esa Halmetoja of Senate Properties, is trying to find out how a digital twin of a building would serve both the needs of the maintenance worker and the office worker.

Senate is a forerunner in workplace development

Around 50,000 government employees work in premises managed by Senate Properties, a Finnish, state-owned enterprise. Senate has been in the forefront of digitalizing construction and property management. They require the use of BIM in their construction projects. They’ve invested in smart building technology and provide digital facility management services for tenants.

Esa Halmetoja is an MSc in electrical engineering, but today he’s a specialist in Maintenance Digitalization at the Workplace and Maintenance Services unit. I had an opportunity to interview him on a recently started pilot project, Digital Building Interface.

What is the interface with a building?

“Already in 2010, we at Senaatti tried to figure out how to utilize a virtual building in our business. We did not find any off-the-shelf solutions, however,” Esa remembers. “It was simply too expensive to do it back then. Today, the technology has evolved to a point where using a digital twin of a building has become feasible.”

“There’s no exact definition for the user interface with a building. For us, it’s a visual representation of a building that includes the building’s spaces and information about the use of the spaces, the indoor conditions, and so on,” Esa explains.

The pilot project

“The user interface project started from a research point of view,” says Esa. “That’s why we have VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd and Aalto University on the team.” Other suppliers are Tieto Finland Oy, Granlund Oy, and SVS Innovations. “We’ve developed what we think is a usable interface; now we want to test it with office workers and maintenance people to see if the solution is fit for use. We want to know if something is missing, if something is unnecessary, and if any functions could be improved.”

The pilot is taking place in six buildings with 1,000 users and 30 maintenance professionals. The functions and the type of information offered through the interface vary. “In some facilities, sensors transmit the temperature and CO2 levels in conference rooms. Those are interesting pieces of information since they correlate with the vitality of those attending a meeting,” Esa explains.

Using the interface, office workers can report on technical issues, e.g., a broken light. “Typically, an employee would call maintenance. Now the request is passed through the virtual model. I’m sure that not everybody wants to use the interface from day one, but I’m convinced many will.”

The user interface in the pilot project works in a web browser. You can use it on a mobile device as well, but Esa assumes that the user experience is smoother on a laptop. Interestingly, Esa mentions their studies that reveal that only one in five office workers sits in front of a PC throughout the day.

The maintenance service people have already received training on the pilot system. The office workers will be instructed as well, even though their user interface is supposedly quite intuitive. The results of the pilot project will be available in January 2018.

The future is open

The well-being of the users in their office buildings is Senate’s mission. “We want to openly share with the users all the data we have about the facilities. For example, we’ll show the quality of the indoor air, and that it is at an acceptable level,” Esa remarks.

Esa thinks that visual user interfaces will become popular quite quickly as the technology becomes smarter and the cost of providing facility data goes down.

An interesting question is, from an owner’s point of view, who should provide the user interfaces to buildings. “We have four maintenance partners with long-term contracts. I think that the partners we use should eventually provide the interfaces. It will be part of the service deal,” Esa concludes.

You can contact Esa at esa.halmetoja(at)senaatti.fi.