Sometimes to be flexible, you have to develop a little backbone.
That’s the takeaway from multifamily pros assessing the technology and connectivity requirements at their apartment communities today, while trying to future-proof them for tomorrow.
“The technology is constantly changing, so it's really hard to keep up with everything that’s out there,” says Jim Sullivan, managing partner at Washington, D.C.-based Fore Property, which has developed, built, and managed more than 25,000 apartment units in 40 markets nationwide. “We try to make sure anything we put in the unit can be easily swapped out in the future.”
Sullivan learned that lesson the hard way early in his career, when he chose to install now-defunct 30-pin Apple docking stations for iPods and iPhones in his apartments. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Sullivan recalls. “Then, literally two weeks later, Apple introduced the new Lightning charging cable. So we learned from that.”
Now, instead of focusing on all the latest and greatest tech gadgets to put into his units, Sullivan keys in on just a few items, such as electronic locks and smart thermostats in the units, while concentrating on the infrastructure behind the walls of his buildings—the electronic “backbone”—to make sure residents can run the bevy of devices they bring into their apartments. That means putting in fiber-optic internet, with plenty of extra conduit and trays in walls and ceilings, to be able to expand a community’s technology needs, whatever they may be, down the road.
“In the U.S., the average person has eight network devices today, and that's supposed to increase to close to 14 by 2022,” Sullivan says. “So knowing how much bandwidth is enough is pretty hard. On our recent projects, we’ve been planning for 300 megabits per second, up and down, per unit.”
In his parking garages, he’s running extra conduit to prepare for more electric car-charging stations in the future. “We’re not tech people, but we know technology will change, so we run that conduit to be able to pull whatever we need in the future,” Sullivan says. “We’re trying to be proactive in advance.”
Sullivan and Fore’s approach of ensuring plenty of bandwidth and an ability to ramp it up in the future, while focusing on fewer technology elements in the units themselves, is a hallmark of apartment pros’ approach to keeping up with the technology arms race and bandwidth needs of apartments today, while cutting through the noise and clutter of all the new tech that emerges daily.
“As an operator-developer, there’s an endless amount of sales pitches, unsolicited emails, and phone calls for tech solutions today,” says Thano Lambrinos, vice president, smart building technology, at Vancouver, CN-based QuadReal Property Group. “Everybody says they have the platform that will solve all of your problems with respect to connectivity, IoT, and resident experiences. But many times, they only solve problems we don’t really have. In this environment, it’s really easy to chase technology for technology's sake.”
Instead, QuadReal takes a foundational approach to its technology, keying in on two main areas: operational efficiency and resident experience. “Under operational efficiency, we look at technology that gives us energy optimization and sustainability to lower our carbon footprint,” Lambrinos says.
“For resident experience, we look at friction points and how we can make them frictionless with various technology to manage things like parking, visitor management, and access control for the building, common area amenities, and the units themselves.”
Because all those technologies ultimately need a robust network behind them, Lambrinos is focused on building up the strongest backbone in his buildings as possible by laying fiber-optic cables into his properties. “Connectivity is the foundational layer for all of this,” Lambrinos says. “The space is still so nascent, we’re currently focusing on that foundational layer.”
Letting Residents Choose for You
Given that nascent and ever-changing nature, Marcie Williams, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based RKW Residential, a third-party manager of more than 18,000 units, focuses on letting residents bring as much of their own technology into their homes themselves, while ensuring her properties and common areas have all the supporting tech they need. “The hardest part of my job is recommending technologies that are going to have an ROI, and still be relevant in two years,” Williams says. “We really look for ways to let residents utilize their own technology in their unit, rather than trying to solve that problem for them.”
For example, while allowing residents to paint their walls a different color may have been the type of flexibility apartment operators displayed in the past, today, it might mean allowing them to add their own tech components in a unit.
“From a technology standpoint, working with our owners, I really try to encourage flexibility,” Williams says. “Whether that means allowing them to put in their own smart locks, or additional wiring, or whatever it takes to make residents comfortable in their own homes. I think that’s the strategy you need to take.”
Reducing Tech Risk
Adopting that type of flexibility at the unit level, while focusing on common area amenities and the digital backbone of a property, also helps operators limit their own financial risk.
“We have a three-pronged approach to technology and amenities: common areas, our own internal leasing offices, and the units themselves,” says Scott Moore, chief information officer at Atlanta-based Cortland, which operates 52,000 units. “Each of those areas has a different level of risk,” Moore says. “Obviously, if you’re putting something in the common area, you only need one device. But if something’s going into our apartment homes, we may need to invest in 400 of them at a given property. So anything that goes into our units has to be something we believe has the ability to adapt or stay with the community for a long period of time.”
As an example, he points to smart locks, as well as Nest smart thermostats, which can be updated via software, rather than having to change out the individual hardware itself. “It’s the Tesla model of upgrading the car through a software update. That’s the same thing we do with those types of devices.”
Taking that kind of updatable approach at the unit, while focusing on strengthening a building’s technology core, is a mainstay for operators looking to future-proof properties today.
“Put in extra conduit,” advises Dillon Mitchell, CEO of Twain Harte, Calif.-based Kowabunga Studios, which produces electrical design documents for the building industry. “End devices are easy to switch out. But the backbone and infrastructure size is what will let you continue to increase bandwidth in the coming years to run those devices, without significant, additional expense.”
That’s a flexible approach for building a solid technology backbone.