At first glance, you’d be forgiven for mistaking JBG SMITH’s Tenant Service Center (TSC) for a NASA control room. More than a dozen screens line the walls, allowing engineers to monitor real-time data and oversee building systems remotely.
Situated in the Crystal City neighborhood just outside Arlington, Virginia, JBG SMITH’s TSC is a round-the-clock command and control center at the heart of the company’s commercial property operations. The center controls the automation systems of more than 80 buildings in JBG SMITH’s portfolio. It is staffed 24/7/365 by engineers who have extensive knowledge of building systems and operations. From their desks, they solve a wide range of issues, from restarting failed heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment to coordinating emergency responses.
Eddie Dunlap, senior vice president of Engineering Services for JBG SMITH, says the TSC provides him critical resources to manage such a large portfolio: "I can go into that center, stand in the middle of the room and basically have my finger on the pulse of our entire portfolio’s operations."
THE EVOLUTION OF A CONTROL CENTER
By centralizing certain scalable and mission-critical activities and by providing after-hours services by JBG SMITH staff, the TSC is able to provide tenants a higher degree of customer service and consistent, high-quality management. The center was first created in 1979 to centrally manage Crystal City, a mixed-use neighborhood that was then in the early days of its development by JBG SMITH’s predecessor, the Charles E. Smith company. Centralization simultaneously improved customer service, reduced costs and increased consistency in operations. These services soon expanded to buildings across the Washington, D.C., metro region.
The TSC has evolved significantly over time to become a technologically advanced operations hub. The portfolio it monitors now includes a range of asset types, from cutting-edge new developments to decades-old buildings with perimeter induction units. There are nine types of building automation systems controlled by the TSC, though more than 90 percent of buildings use one of two main types. Staff has received advanced training to write the code that controls the HVAC systems, so sequences of operations can be written and adjusted in-house, providing a higher level of service at no cost to buildings or tenants.
The engineers at the TSC work in tandem with and provide essential support to on-site property management teams, especially during emergencies. With a backup emergency generator, the TSC can operate without interruption, even during severe weather events or power outages. A private radio network that operates on a licensed spectrum also ensures the TSC is never without its own lines of communication to site teams, even if cellular networks go down, as they can during emergencies.
THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE BUILDING ENGINEER
In the past, stationary building engineers sat inside their central plants and behind their computer systems to continually monitor their property’s equipment. In the modern real estate market, however, this model is no longer viable. Today, building engineers spend most of their time on the move: walking their building, visiting tenants, responding to service requests or participating in tenant construction meetings. All of this means they may be out of their plant for hours at a time. If a mechanical failure occurs during that time, it may not be caught until a tenant flags the issue.
In contrast, the TSC staff is able to identify mechanical issues as they occur in real time, and their continual focus on system alarms and operational conditions frees up on-site engineers to conduct their vital in-person duties because they have a backup set of eyes to support them. The TSC can provide the same support as stationary engineers once did, at a fraction of the cost—monitoring building equipment across dozens of buildings and responding rapidly to alarms and other incidents. This allows JBG SMITH to operate assets using fewer full-time engineers per square foot.
RESPONDING QUICKLY—AND SMARTLY
With so much data being monitored, issues need to be communicated to relevant employees quickly. The TSC has standardized alarming across all properties to monitor critical functions and equipment, including everything from chillers to air handlers to pumps. These alarm responses also can be programmed to email alarms to affected engineers or managers. For the most critical of alarms—asset protection alerts, for example—fail-safe alerts will continue to trigger every seven minutes until the issue has been fully resolved and the system is no longer in danger. Incident reports are sent out after severe incidents to all affected parties. This consistency of operation and broad communication ensures high-quality management and focuses staff attention on areas where it’s most needed.
Bringing a portfolio of assets together as a single operating unit creates new and often unexplored opportunities to improve building operations. The TSC’s operating platform groups together buildings with similar systems to compare the performance across a portfolio of similar properties. Through this benchmarking, it is possible to identify anomalies that are very difficult to see just by looking at a single building. That unlocks a whole host of problem-solving capabilities that simply aren’t available when buildings are managed in the traditional way, on a stand-alone basis.
When an anomaly or other building issue is identified, the TSC serves as a direct line of communication between managers, engineers and tenants. Because the TSC takes on the tasks of dozens of chief engineers across a large portfolio, the organization and coordination of employees is an ongoing focus.
Reducing building energy use is a continual task, not a one-time event, and it is programmed deeply into the TSC culture. "We shave start-up operating hours at every opportunity," says Brian Boyle, who manages building technology systems at JBG SMITH and is a 30-year veteran at the TSC. "We initiated a comprehensive Saturday on-demand program so that the buildings only run on Saturday when required," which can save more than $10,000 a year in energy costs per building. The TSC also tracks vacancies to shut down the HVAC on unoccupied floors.
These types of best practices are a core element of the TSC’s continuous improvement process. "Part and parcel of being able to reduce energy expenses at buildings is our ability to innovate rapidly," explains Jonathan Gritz, JBG SMITH’s director of energy at the TSC. "The operators in the TSC might find a new strategy for reducing energy costs during demand-response events that we can test out at a building or two to see if it’s effective. We can then scale that program across all of our buildings very, very quickly because we can complete the programming in-house without managing administrative complications."
THE POTENTIAL FOR MORE
Looking toward the future, the TSC staff at JBG SMITH is focused on using data and analytics to unlock new opportunities for reducing operating costs, improving tenant comfort and extending equipment life. This "big data" is being used to build dashboards and algorithms to improve building operations in ways that were not possible in the past. "We can find deficiencies in equipment operations that are impossible to see with the human eye," says Boyle. "Looking at a building automation system is like watching a dashboard in your car—it’s really critical to do that when you’re driving. But, if you can tap into the computer systems of that car and build analytics around its performance, you can unlock a whole new level of value."
Some benefits of the TSC are easy to quantify, such as strategies that produce energy savings. Other benefits stretch across the organization in intangible ways that are impossible to measure, notes Dunlap. "The TSC is a tool that creates value through customer service and technological innovation," he says. "Actually, it’s hard to imagine doing business without it."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick J. Tyrrell is the chief administrative officer of JBG SMITH and is responsible for all commercial property management, engineering and construction management. Prior to the formation of JBG SMITH, he had served as the chief operating officer of VORNADO/Charles E. Smith since April 2003.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of BOMA Magazine.