11 min read

🦠 Deep Dive: COVID-19's Impact 🦠

Why robustness and resiliency are no longer enough; how smart building technology might help

👋 Welcome to a special Deep Dive edition of Nexus, a newsletter for smart people applying smart building technology—written by James Dice.

If you’ve been forwarded this email, you can sign up for your subscription here:

Sign up now

If you have thoughts, questions, ideas, or tips: hit reply, I’d love your feedback!

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the following text, on the Nexus website, and on the Nexus podcast belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author's employer, organization, or other group or individual.


It feels like a good time to press pause on our regularly scheduled programming.  Here’s an outline of today’s deep dive:

  • Robustness is not enough, we need antifragility
  • Resiliency is a starting point
  • How can technology help?
  • What immediate steps can we take?

Robust is not enough

As the impact of COVID-19 continues to unfold, I’ve been reflecting on one pertinent part of Episode 1 of the Nexus podcast. My guest Nicolas Waern shared the three Vitruvian virtues that all buildings need:

  1. robustness (firmitas)
  2. usefulness (utilitas)
  3. beauty (venustas)

Hopefully, it’s obvious which virtue I’ve been pondering in the midst of this pandemic: robustness. How robust have our buildings been in the face of COVID-19? Since they haven’t fallen down, it might seem like they’ve done a great job.

But not falling down doesn’t feel like nearly enough in the face of this pandemic, does it?

No. We need more. It’s time to consider the work of investor, mathematician, and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His books Black Swan and Antifragile are two of my favorites—I’ve been thumbing through them quite a bit this week.

While I would argue (and others would agree) this is not a black swan event, I know it certainly feels like one for many who have had their lives upended. Still, the more applicable concept for this pandemic and our industry moving forward is that of Antifragility.

Taleb places Antifragility at the end of a spectrum he calls the Triad:

I believe the pandemic has shown us why robustness, or indifference to disorder, isn’t enough from now on. We need more from our buildings. Many are saying these types of outbreaks will be more and more common. Humans are ever encroaching on wild habitat throughout the world, making it easier for humans to contract these new strains of viruses from animals.

There’s a clear link between the spread of viruses and the relationship between humans and the natural world—and if that relationship doesn’t change, we can expect to see more pandemics in the near future, some of which may be far deadlier than COVID-19.

And not to sound alarmist, but that’s just this one type of “disorder”. Here’s Taleb:

Consider that Mother Nature is not just “safe”. It is aggressive in destroying and replacing, in selecting and reshuffling. When it comes to random events, “robust” is certainly not good enough. In the long run everything with the most minute vulnerability breaks, given the ruthlessness of time—yet our planet has been around for perhaps four billion years and, convincingly, robustness can’t just be it: you need perfect robustness for a crack not to end up crashing the system.

Given the unattainability of perfect robustness, we need a mechanism by which the system regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.

So how can we use—rather than suffer from or simply withstand—this shock to our systems? And how can smart building technology help? How should we change our approach to smart buildings moving forward?

The remainder of this deep dive is dedicated to beginning this conversation. I won’t pretend to have the answers—I’ve only begun to unpack this myself. Eventually, our answers will be a catalyst for new investment and innovation to better cope with this problem the next time around.

However, our answers will not be a panacea. No changes in our industry—in smart building technology or design, for example—will replace the need for other changes in public health, such as a commitment to respond and test much more quickly in the case of an outbreak. My heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone on the actual frontlines fighting this (while us lucky ones are home writing newsletters).


Resiliency is a starting point

Before Taleb came along with the Triad (Fragile, Robust, Antifragile), our industry had another term that fits somewhere along that spectrum: Resilience. As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded, I’ve realized I’d been taking this term for granted.

What the hell does resilience actually mean? Where did it come from? It turns out that the industry definition is somewhere between robustness and antifragility:

Resilience: the ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event.

Greentech Media’s article on the History of Resiliency traces the evolution of the concept and how it will continue to evolve. Until recently, most conversations on resiliency have been focused on electricity infrastructure supply. And as we have collectively learned, there are many other ways to be vulnerable.

Before smart building technology even enters the conversation, we need to acknowledge that resilience and antifragility begin as a human, non-technological pursuit. I’m talking about strategy. Processes. Teamwork. And NREL’s resilience assessment methodology offers a great place for organizations to start. It’s a step by step approach to assessing, mitigating, and learning from risks.

Then, as we identify mitigation strategies, we can begin putting smart building technology to work. That’s the focus of the next section.

But first, how are antifragility and resilience different? Here’s my take: Notice how the definition and process of resilience focus on returning to the baseline. Resilience is about recovery from disorder. Antifragility is about growth/gain/improvement from disorder.

Antifragility is when you stress and break down your muscles at the gym and they don’t just recover—they get stronger. Antifragility is when the whole economy crashes and yet companies like Zoom, Microsoft, and Google are more essential to our lives, not less. The pursuit of Antifragility is the acknowledgment that returning to baseline is not good enough in a world full of disorder and constant change.

Get it? Okay, let’s proceed.

How can technology help?

Let’s start by acknowledging a simple truth:

To date, the smart building’s health applications have focused on maintaining the best indoor temperature for occupants, developing lighting in tune with the human circadian rhythm, or improving air quality with sensor-enabled ventilation. While all these systems do support general health and, therefore, an improved ability to fight disease, they do not help control the spread of Coronavirus. (Memoori)

We haven’t really begun to put smart building technology to work. And yet, that’s exactly the point of antifragility. We now have new information that suggests we might want to begin.

This gives us yet another reason to make buildings less dumb. As we design controls and analytics solutions, it’s not just about energy, occupant engagement, and tenant happiness anymore—antifragility is a factor we must leverage and design for.

How can technology make buildings more antifragile? First, we need to add more definition to what it means to gain from disorder. To me, it means at least one of these two outcomes:

The antifragile withstand disorder better than anyone else, such as their competitors.

Example: If Company ABC was set up to fully support remote working before the COVID-19 pandemic and the competition was not, Company ABC most likely came out ahead.

The antifragile literally become better and stronger than they were before.

Example: If, during this forced remote working experiment, Company ABC realizes remote working makes them more productive and makes their employees happier, they change their policies to become more profitable permanently.

With that lens in mind, I’m going throw some ideas out there on how smart building technologies enhance antifragility. Then perhaps you all can add your ideas in the comments.

Remote monitoring

Enabling off-site O&M teams to approximate the same job they would provide on-site.

  • Tosibox’s secure 2-factor authenticated (2FA) remote connections for operational technology (covered in Nexus #15)
  • Augury’s vibration monitoring of critical equipment (covered in Nexus #11)
  • MIT’s system for sensing ambient structural vibrations and monitoring the building for internal signs of damage or mechanical stress
  • Monitoring of networks to detect cybersecurity concerns and intrusions (See Optigo, covered in Nexus #15)
  • InfiSense’s catalog of long-range, low-power (LoRaWAN) sensors that serve the data via an open API (covered in Nexus #4) and allow teams to monitor critical measurements, like relative humidity during a pandemic, in a pinch.

Prescriptive Data, covered in Nexus #1, offers this recent use case:

Building Operations teams are using Nantum OS’ real-time occupancy to shift coverage from under-occupied buildings to those buildings in which they can have the most impact. For example, Nantum OS is helping customers with both office and residential portfolios optimize their personnel coverage plans by shifting personnel from their commercial assets to support enhanced service, support, safety, and security initiatives at their multi-family residential assets. Similarly, when our government and healthcare leaders deem it safe, owners will be able to track occupants as they return back to their offices, allocating the right resources to the right buildings, all in real-time.
  • Digital, cloud-based documentation, such as the static information in a digital twin, can minimize the information dependence on any one server, piece of paper, individual, or vendor


Going beyond simply monitoring to gaining actionable insights for better managing and responding to disorder. Then learning from what happened.

  • Allow teams to get alerts on water leaks from sensor data, security risks through video analytics, or faults detected through FDD.
  • We could install handwashing sensors and analytics could track and summarize compliance with CDC recommendations (i.e. Big Brother for handwashing. Kidding/not kidding)
  • We could use infrared cameras and analytics to check for fevers and use smart screening systems as occupants enter facilities

Indian analytics firm Zenatix offers this recent use case:

Some of our supermarket customers’ stores are under temporary shutdown due to a lack of support from malls. They are concerned about their food items in chillers, freezers and cold rooms as no one is monitoring temperatures. Our ZenCONNECT solution not only is managing temperature compliances for them but also raising critical alerts when there are extended power outages at these unmanned stores.

Prescriptive Data also offers these recent use cases (i.e. Big Brother for social distancing):

In addition to their daily operations, many of our customers are actively using Nantum OS' real-time building occupancy insights to track office tenant compliance with government initiatives, to promote Work From Home Programs, and to suppress community transmission of COVID-19.

Out of necessity, Nantum OS has learned what a pandemic looks like from the perspective of rapidly shifting occupancy patterns. Proactively, Nantum OS is ready to provide decision support insights and command and control in reaction to future outbreaks.

UV-C lighting

Deploying a technology that is now commonly integrated into hospital air handling units more widely throughout the built environment.

UV-C light as a complement to AHU filtration can eliminate viruses in air treatment systems with less static pressure loss. ASHRAE validated this claim several years ago.

The UV-C wavelength inactivates microorganisms living on HVAC air ducts and evaporator coils with a kill ratio of 90 percent or higher, depending on light intensity, length of exposure, lamp placement, and lamp life cycle. The technology removes both bacterial and viral aerosols from the air;

Several studies have examined the health benefits of using UV-C lamps to decontaminate the airstreams in health care facilities. Some have concluded that, by eliminating harmful germs from the air, UV-C can protect a hospital’s most vulnerable patients from getting sick;

UV-C lamps in actual fixtures can eliminate viruses in our occupied space, says a research team at Columbia University.

The big picture idea is that these lamps could be incorporated into conventional light fittings so that they would be very easy to install in public spaces such as airports, trains stations, airplanes, etc. To us it looks like one of the very few approaches that has the potential to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as opposed to curing it.

Crowdfund them here.

Traditional UV Lighting

Integrating conventional germicidal ultraviolet (UV) light into our smart building equipment and processes.

UV light fixtures integrated into smart elevators

A market supervision bureau in southern Guangdong province proposes a "smart UV elevator disinfection system", which it says eliminates the risk of missing corners or irritating passengers with remnants of cleaning fluids.

UV tubes are installed in lifts and activated when the system detects no one is inside, sweeping the area with penetrating UV rays and automatically turning off when it's done.

UV sanitization using robots

"Please leave the room, close the door and start a disinfection," says a voice from the robot.

Smarter Cleaning with Digital Twins

Leveraging static and streaming data to clean buildings more effectively and efficiently.

Use a digital twin to manage the cleaning schedules of different surfaces based on the virus’s lifespan on those surfaces:

the virus could be detected in aerosols up to 3 hours post aerosolization, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel

Digital twin vendor Spacewell offers a recent use case leveraging occupancy data to clean heavily occupied areas more:

As part of a wider digital transformation effort, AZMM implemented Spacewell’s Cobundu smart building platform and several of its touchpoints.

Cleaners are equipped with digital tablets (attached to cleaning carts for convenience) running the Work Assistant app. This app eliminates paper and provides clear work instructions (including priorities) with icons on colour-coded floor maps.

The Space Monitor application is used to provide insight into space usage. It currently gets its data from wired occupancy sensors (Schneider BMS). In a next phase, wireless sensors/door counters will be added to align cleaning frequencies with real-time usage data.

What other ideas do you have? If you’re a vendor, what opportunities do you see with your technology? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Clearly smart buildings can help with antifragility—we just need the will to do it (and perhaps a little funding). Next, let’s look at what we can do today.

What immediate steps can we take?

+ Understanding HVAC’s role in transmission (White Paper)—This is a great summary of what we know and what we don’t know about how the virus spreads and HVAC’s role.

It’s too early yet for evidence-based research to prove that the SARS-COV-2 virus can be circulated throughout a building, or distributed in the air delivered by its HVAC system, although this mode is likely. While it is probably not the predominant mode of transmission, this does not eliminate reason for concern.

David lays out the impact of humidity control on the spread of the virus:

Humidification and keeping the relative humidity in the building’s breathing zone between the ranges of 40%-60% RH, can have a profound effect on limiting the spread of airborne viruses. If the air is too dry, infectious droplets expelled by sick individuals can quickly evaporate and shrink. These tiny desiccated particles can be suspended in the air, where they may travel by air currents into an HVAC system and re-infect people in distant locations, having had no immediate contact with a sick individual.

While we’re on that topic, this is another good resource focused on humidity, filtration, ventilation, and recirculation’s role in transmission. Also, ASHRAE has made all relevant resources free to read and published an ASHRAE Journal article to guide O&M staff.

+ Preparing buildings for prolonged shutdown—For buildings that are unoccupied, this is a SIGNIFICANT opportunity for energy savings using unoccupied setback sequences.

Phil Zito’s recent Building Automation Monthly webinar outlined “The Shutdown Process” for buildings that will be unoccupied for an extended period. If you or your clients are looking for guidance on this key step, I recommend Phil’s webinar as a starting point.

+ HVAC and Building Automation System Enhancements—We can make low or no cost modifications to our operational technology with antifragility in mind. Examples:

  • Control sequences enabling the rapid automatic deployment of a high-ventilation anti-infection mode. Certain zones could be designated as emergency isolation rooms and switched to negative pressure immediately upon detection of a threat.
  • Pre-programmed and customized control sequences that send the building into prolonged unoccupied setback mode.
  • Install sensors/hardware needed for both of the above sequences. For example, during prolonged unoccupied setback, many buildings will need supplemental relative humidity sensors to remotely monitor conditions and prevent mold growth.
  • Network upgrades to reduce single points of failure in communication and control systems.

Okay, now it’s your turn. As I said at the beginning, I see this deep dive as simply beginning a conversation on how we move forward together as a community. Please share your thoughts, pull your colleagues in, and let’s keep the conversation going.

OK, that’s all for this week—thanks for reading Nexus!