Linking buildings with communities

Copyright: David Lawson 2001

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Technology has had a bad press over the last year or two, not all of it unjustified after the early hype about how much it would  affect everyday life. But not every piece of  whizzery deserves burial in the communal dot.bomb grave. In fact, thousands of people are beginning to see the real benefit of an ongoing revolution in the way occupiers use buildings and managers look after them.

    Portals are computerised management and information centres quite unlike the previous incarnation of building management systems. They are still based on experts monitoring vast amounts of space via flickering computer screens but these link people rather heating or fire systems. They also aim to bridge the gap between tenants and landlords which is threatening to seriously damage the industry.

  At the basic level, a portal is what it sounds – a doorway to information. But it can open up to a single building  or a whole neighbourhood. A worker buried in  London’s Centre Point tower, the Broadgate office complex or on one of Arlington’s business parks, for instance, can access anything from the canteen menu to what’s on in the local theatre or the train times home.  Then there are higher services like ordering flowers or drycleaning.  At the top of the pyramid, those with the correct authority can report a broken light bulb, order next month’s stationery or even download the lease and rental accounts.

  The concept has been gestating since the Internet and all its associated potential took off in the mid-Nineties but has survived the technology backlash to become a real hope for bringing building and tenant management into the 21st century. Jones Lang LaSalle has finished testing its aptly-named Pyramid Office and begun a roll-out which will eventually cover Europe. Early users like Paul Stanford, asset manager at Portfolio Holdings, are impressed. ‘At Centre Point it has helped to cement the relationship between the landlord and tenant [and] should give tenants more of a feel for the building they occupy and share,’ he says.

  Steven Lewis of Burford Holdings, which is due to launch Pyramid at its Berkeley Street office development in London’s West End this month [OCT]  sees this kind of service as more than just another letting gimmick. ‘It will protect our investment,’ he says.  Strengthening the bond between landlord and tenant would encourage them to stay, reducing potential rent-leaching voids.

   Bridging this gap has taken on extra importance as the two sides are being driven further apart by disputes over lease lengths and service charges. But the concept goes wider, fostering a sense of community between the tenants of large buildings by sharing information over a computer network, says Deborah Matthews, associate director at JLL.  Arlington saw the potential early to improve links with tenants on, and around,  its 11 business parks. Central service desks are now completely internet-based and more than 40 firms can access information or place work orders via a web page, says Howard Bibby, managing director of Arlington Business Services. This is still only 20-30% of the potential number, however, so Bibby will continue his campaign to bring in landlords.

   British Land has chosen a path between the two extremes of single buildings and clustered parks by dividing its huge London estate into six neighbourhoods, which  include the huge Broadgate complex as well as office blocks stretching out through Mid-Town to the West End.  Within a central web-based service called vicinitee, tenants go to their particular neighbourhood then pick on almost 40 individual buildings to access services such as travel, local events, deals, sales, services and contacts with neighbouring tenants. The service is now widening its scope by linking with Liberate365, a concierge/lifestyle specialist which offers office workers anything from holiday booking to house cleaning – in other words virtually anything that might be dumped on a hard-pressed PA to sort out.  

   Again, this is seen as an extra that will help improve the landlord/tenant relationship and fed through to investment values. But the portal has potential for a more altruistic use, strengthening a sense of community within tenants themselves. Regents Place, a 4.2 hectare estate north of Euston Road, will have a working population of 8,500 once development is complete and British Land is applying its green principles to working out an environmentally-friendly transport plan with the London Borough of Camden to cope with the impact of such large numbers of people. . Information will be collected and distributed through the special vicinitee web page already devoted to creating a sense of shared interests at Regents Place

  Portals are flexible enough not seen as just inward-looking, however. Pyramid, vicinitee and Arlington are all accessible to outsiders, offering a central information point for drawing in potential tenants. Pyramid, for instance, is using the portal at Helical Bar’s Shepherds Building in west London principally to market the space until it gains enough tenants to bolt on internal service functions. This function never ceases, as tenants continue to be kept informed about space within buildings or parks. This could become even more important in future as landlords face tenants constantly cutting and expanding space requirements in a world where the shorter lease becomes common.

  Information on plans for Regents Place will interest outsiders as much as its tenants. Matthews says Centre Point has a public face because of work being carried out on access to the Tube line below the tower, plus the fact that it is a landmark building.  Portals could proliferate as they expand this double role. play a multiple role. From one direction they become doorways for outsiders seeking information on development plans or potential tenants seeking space. A wide range of tools including animated walk-throughs can be bolted onto dedicated web pages. On the other side they are a doorway outwards for tenants, with a range of services limited only by the ambition of landlords. Pyramid and Arlington, for instance, offer possibilities such as discount purchasing of power, phones and business supplies via bulk-buying or approved partners.

   The sheer cost and sweat involved in creating these systems might put off any but the largest landlords but pioneers like Pyramid are now looking to sell on the idea as a package. Matthews points out that portals are tailored to individual schemes and branded with their names rather than the JLL logo.  Portals are not yet a finished product. A bottleneck still exists in selling services to tenants as they use a variety of accounting and audit systems which don’t always match those of landlords.  Bibby sees a step change now that Arlington has a central library of documentation set up. ‘But only when every company is totally internet dependent will we truly succeed, and that is some way off’ he says.

  The human factor is important to Matthews, who has seen Pyramid change gradually since the early days to make it easier and more intuitive for people who use it. This will continue to evolve as it is rolled out across more and more buildings and feedback helps refine the look and feel.