COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on US businesses and real estate

Zoltan Karpathy
Operations Manager, BSRIA Worldwide Market Intelligence

Nobody can predict with a high degree of certainty how long the current COVID-19 pandemic will last and what will be the full impact on the economy. We are witnessing US states, including Florida, opening up and having to tighten measures again as the virus flares up.

To contain the pandemic regulations started to push businesses towards investments to increase health safety and prevent spreading the COVID-19 virus. While necessary to fight the pandemic and speed up the recovery, businesses sometimes suffer temporary loss of productivity when the measures are implemented.

Another hike of investment as the direct consequence of the economic shock triggered by the pandemic is often related to the need of diversifying suppliers; and purchases from a variety of suppliers are often done with less favourable prices. Increasing inventory levels of critical raw materials/components/products are also becoming an issue.

Verticals served by the HVAC&R sector have been hit at various levels of degree by the COVID-19 pandemic. Venues, such as live entertainment, sports, restaurants and travel-related establishments are likely to struggle due to concerns over contracting the virus, even when they become fully open. It is expected that consumer will shift away from these types of spending to alternatives such as durable goods, which in turn can have a positive effect on housing in the future.

Nevertheless, on the residential side, housing starts plummeted by 43% in the three months from February to April, even though several US states allowed construction sites to operate. Sales of existing homes also declined, with April’s transaction level at three-quarters of the February level. Residential construction is expected to slow down in the medium term, as consumers are unable or unwilling to purchase new houses, even though mortgage rates are very low.

Economists are drawing up various scenarios and assess likelihoods of these potential outcomes. According to Deloitte the most probable scenario is that the US economic recovery will not take place at least until the middle of 2021; growth can return to the pre-COVID level by the end of 2023, but the economy will not be able to achieve full employment again until 2025.

In the context of such uncertainty, manufacturers active in the HVAC&R and Building Controls sector are facing a wide range of unknown factors:

  • customers building up stock for an eventual second COVID-19 wave;
  • concerns over debt payments;
  • increasing payment periods;
  • increasing raw material prices;
  • pressure to maintain the price of their final products/solutions.

In terms of the product mix, HVAC companies started to receive more enquires for certain types of filters, more emphasis on increasing volume of fresh air and generally an increasing focus on Indoor Air Quality.

This goes hand in hand with the fact that the current situation is also encouraging building owners and businesses to offer a safe working environment, in which employees trust and feel comfortable. Therefore, increasing investment levels can be expected to make commercial buildings ‘smarter’ and more efficient to use, with the uptake of solutions such as contactless access control, occupancy analytics, employee tracking services, proximity sensing and analytics (using indoor location mapping solutions) and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) sensing and monitoring, alongside air purification and disinfection solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has a significant impact on the real estate market, challenging the building owners and operators at unprecedented levels. According to JLL, the effects in the short term, will be the accelerated large-scale uptake of home working, leading to problems for traditional offices, but also co-working centres and flexible offices, putting a strain on the sustainability of certain flexible space business models. Social distancing considerably increase the space allocated for individuals which means that many flexible offices will record very low space utilisation rates and could even remain nearly empty.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the role of the traditional office and it reinforced the need for the office to act as a communal space which encourages innovation and collaboration, while nurturing company culture. A future solution seems to be an increased focus on technology enabled workplaces which can be used for collaborative meetings and hosting clients.

To assess the full impact of COVID-19 on the US HVAC&R sector, BSRIA will publish an update of its market studies at the end of September 2020.

To find out more about BSRIA HVACR & Controls market studies contact us at:

• America sales enquiries: BSRIA USA: sales@bsria.com ¦ +1 312 753 6803, http://www.bsria.com/us/
• China sales enquiries: BSRIA China: bsria@bsria.com.cn ¦ +86 10 6465 7707, http://www.bsria.com.cn
• All other sales enquiries: BSRIA UK: wmi@bsria.co.uk ¦ +44 (0) 1344 465 540, http://www.bsria.com/uk/

District Heating and Cooling and Heat Interface Units are still closely tied markets

Socrates Christidis
BSRIA Research Manager – Heating and Renewables

District Heating and Cooling networks have witnessed significant growth in many European countries in the last five years and this is set to continue in the coming decade. Significant European policy initiatives, such as the Green Deal, country government promotions, alongside increased public and private investment are supporting new business models such as utilities selling heat as a service and not as a commodity, which will drive the market forward.

BSRIA research indicates that the share of heat pumps and Energy-from-Waste in district heating and cooling systems is increasing. This trend is in line with the development of the concept of 5th generation heat networks. These are demand driven and low-temperature networks, using locally available low-grade waste heat (A/C, datacentres, underground stations, etc.), low temperature renewable energy in bodies of water and solar energy instead of a central energy centre. In principle, such systems favour the use of substations at building level, but no heat interface units at the dwelling level, as these are likely to be replaced by heat pumps.

Currently industrial boilers and CHPs remain the main source of heating in District Heating networks. For instance, 85% of planned heat networks in the UK, will have a CHP as the primary source of heating and 50% will have a gas boiler as a backup. The remaining 15% will use geothermal, ground source or water source heat pumps.

Thus, in the short-term Heat Interface Units (HIUs) will remain the link between the apartment and the network.

Going forward, reducing demand for heating and increasing need for hot water and cooling imply that the market will see the uptake of:

  • All-in-one units (heating or cooling and hot water)
  • Cooling units
  • Hybrid units, with integrated electric water heating
Graph showing European HIUs market growth

The main threats for HIUs market progress are the currently lack of consistent quality of installation and COVID-19.

Heat interface units have a major impact on the overall performance of a heat network and successful operation and performance both depend on correct system design and specification, followed by competent installation and maintenance. This has been problematic, with systems inadequately designed and quite often oversized. We see some signs of improvements as the industry becomes more sensitised towards good quality district heating. Documentation is improving as well as codes of practice, testing of HIUs, and further testing on site; however, under tight budgets the emphasis is often for the lowest cost, specification compliant technology. Testing the unit in a lab and then onsite is optional but critical to ensure performance.

Closing of construction sites was the main impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, including lack of cash flow, as the invoicing is done when products are delivered onsite. The industry has also witnessed a lack of new orders from April to June, with some signs of recovery observed just after. Overall, the European sales in the first 6 months of 2020 were between 15% and 30% down, depending on country, when compared to the 6 first months of 2019.

Going forwards, new construction presents a slightly positive picture. During COVID-19 there has been delays but not cancellations in planning permissions; delays as sites operate under social distancing guidelines and some delays for new investment to come through. However, governments and authorities are still eager to go ahead with programs and incentives, with renewed emphasis on the environmental agenda.

Looking at estimations for completions of flats before and after the outbreak, the recovery is likely to accelerate in 2022, and the market is unlikely to recover before. The end of financial support schemes by governments (VAT deferral, loan schemes or furlough) is likely to have a negative impact on many businesses, including contractors. Indications are, that new build and residential sales will be hit harder than commercial ones. Southern Europe is also likely to struggle more, although recession is expected across most of European countries.

Taking all this into account, BSRIA sees the numbers of heat interface units growing steadily but at a single digit compound annual growth rate of just over 4% on a Pan-European basis. The market will become more diverse and will look for more flexible options to cater for high-end, electricity-only heating, mixed-used and communal areas.

To find out more about BSRIA’s District Energy and Heat Interface unit market studies contact us at:

Smartening up the City

This blog was written by BSRIA's Henry Lawson

This blog was written by BSRIA’s Henry Lawson

There are some leaps in technology that seize the mind and imprint themselves indelibly on the memory. There can hardly be anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t recall their grainy view of the first man on the Moon, and people who are quite a bit younger will remember when, say, paying a bill or booking a holiday online was still a novel experience.

There are other changes which, while they are already having far more impact on our lives than the Moon landings, seem to have crept up on us, almost by stealth. The advent of the Smart City looks very much like being one of the latter.

The Seminar Smart Cities and the Internet of Things, which BSRIA attended on 16th July, helped to flesh out some of these. One key factor is of course the sheer all-encompassing variety and complexity and scale of a modern city, as reflected in the technology required to support it. This was underlined by the presentations on the range of “smart” cities, from major building consultants, to companies working closely with utilities, to data analytics companies.

This points to a pluralistic approach where different companies collaborate, each contributing their own particular skills, rather than one where a mega-corporation tries to orchestrate everything.  As one speaker pointed out, the smart car alone is likely to involve motor manufacturers, battery and power specialists, grid utilities, digital IT specialists, and the advertising and public relations industry (interestingly, two of the three first people I spoke to represented public relations companies). And that is before one gets on to the subject of the role of city and national authorities.

While the seminar focussed, understandably, on the elements that comprise the “Internet of Things”, making up ‘the nuts and bolts’ of the smart city, it also convinced me that we need to pay more attention to the wider social, political and economic context.

What makes a city smart? Given the combination of complexity and subjectivity, that is always going to be a hard question to answer. Nonetheless a group of academic institutions did rank 75 smart cities across Europe based on the “smartness” of their approach to the economy, mobility, the environment, people, living and governance.

When I measured the ranking of smart cities in each country against that country’s average income, I was struck, but not that surprised, that there was an almost linear correlation between a country’s wealth, and the ranking of its ‘smartest’ city. Thus at one extreme Luxembourg, easily the richest country in Europe, and second richest in the world, was also judged to have the smartest city. Lowest ranked was Bulgaria, which also had the lowest per capita income of all the countries on the list. Most other countries were in a ‘logical’ position in between.

Smartening up the city

One can of course argue whether smart cities are mainly a cause or a consequence of a country’s wealth. Up until now I suspect it is mainly a matter of richer countries being able to afford more advanced technology, not least because the relative economic pecking order has not changed that much in the past 25 years, i.e.. since before the smart city era really got underway, indeed if anything the countries on the bottom right of our chart have been catching up economically, which could be why countries like Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are doing better in the smart city stakes than their income might suggest.

Luxembourg is of course unusual in one other significant respect. In terms of size, and population, it is about the size of a city, and is politically and economically very much focussed on its eponymous capital city. This raises a question sometimes posed in other contexts: Is the “city state” making a comeback, and could this have a bearing on the development of the smart city? In this respect it surely speaks volumes that Singapore, probably the closest entity to a city state in the modern world is not only highly productive economically but frequently cited in the history of the smart city, going back to the days when it pioneered road pricing more than a generation ago, and one of the cities mentioned in this seminar.

If you are laying down the guidelines for a smart city then there are clearly advantages in having an authority with the resources and powers of a government, combined with the local knowledge and accessibility of a city.  But given that splitting up the world into hundreds if not thousands of new ‘city states’ does not look like a viable option, what can be done to create a framework in which smart cities can flourish in a way that is responsive to their citizens’ needs?

Even in larger countries, the Mayors of major cities are often heavyweight national figures, enjoying wide ranging  powers. This applies to cities like New York, Berlin, Paris and, more recently London. One of the most interesting developments in Britain is the growing recognition that while London is already in effect a global economic power, other cities have been struggling to keep up. While this problem long pre-dates the smart city, it speaks volumes that, with a general election due next year, all of the major parties are now committing to giving more powers to major cities outside of the capital, possibly with more directly elected mayors.

Given the nature of democratic politics there is still no guarantee that this will happen, especially given governments’ traditional reluctance to hand over power, but with Scotland likely to enjoy greater autonomy even if it votes to remain in the UK, the pressure to devolve more power to cities and regions in the rest of the UK will be that much greater.

Even this would not of itself promote smart cities, but it would mean that city mayors or leaders seeking to promote and coordinate smart city developments, and companies and interest groups looking for partners, would have much more powerful instruments within their grasp.

BSRIA’s Worldwide Market Intelligence team produces an annual report into Smart Technologies. To find out more go to our website

Threats to the Building Automation and Control Systems Market – or Opportunities?

My smart technologies team within BSRIA’s Worldwide Market Intelligence division have been looking at the threats to the traditional building automation and control systems market. But of course, what is a threat to one is an opportunity to another and we are looking at both angles of the changes currently taking place. We will shortly be publishing our findings and conclusions in a new report to be launched later this month.

The global BACS market is currently worth more than $20 billion and is continuing to grow year on year, having pulled through a global recession quite robustly. Not surprisingly, this market has in recent years been attracting new entrants. Now, new technologies, innovations and novel business models are threatening to disrupt the traditional business.

New technologies that utilise the “Cloud”, developed by relative newcomers such as BuildingIQ and Mios, as well as established multinationals like Johnson Controls and Schneider Electric are providing energy management, self-diagnosis and adjustment functionality not previously available in a Building Automation and Control System (BACS). Suppliers are now faced with the reality “If I am not in the cloud, my competitors probably will be.” There is a growing assumption that all key services and solutions should be accessible via “the cloud” but there are concerns and these are explored in our report.

As building automation becomes more IT-based, software is growing in importance, within both targeted applications and in detailed analytics to identify areas where performance may be improved. BACS suppliers need to be proactive in this area or risk becoming more commoditised and marginalised.

Suppliers of variable refrigerant flow (VRF) and DX systems are also entering the BACS market with integrated controls and rudimentary energy management functions. The market for VRF based systems has overtaken chillers globally and VRF systems are gaining market share fastest where the markets are expanding most rapidly. We have looked at how the BACS equipped VRF systems in the $9bn VRF market are affecting the HVAC and BACS markets. We analyse whether they pose a great enough threat to change the BACS market altogether or whether they are a factor that could help the BACS market. Since VRF-based systems are becoming ever more ‘intelligent’ this changes the scope for building automation. Incumbents must be asking themselves, “how long until they start offering the same sort of capabilities as high level BACS?”

Residential smart home systems from the low-voltage electrical equipment suppliers such as Jung, Busch-Jaeger and Berker are being used in light commercial buildings; interestingly 60% of such systems sold in Germany are used in the light commercial market and demand is increasing. So here too, it is smart residential controls that are posing a threat to traditional commercial building solutions.

However, is the residential value add market at risk of be snatched away from the current players by the telecoms operators and utilities, bundling remote monitoring and energy management as just further services in their offerings? And could this be the way things will go in the non-residential market too?

Threats to BACS – or Opportunities?

Threats to BACS – or Opportunities?

However, opportunities exist in numerous areas, including in integration and convergence of diverse systems. BACS and in particular, building energy managements systems and services (BEMS) penetration in to the existing building stock is still very low and the opportunities for refurbishment are simply staggering. Perhaps the good news is that for the most part, these new markets remain highly fragmented. We are witnessing heightened activity in the areas of partnerships, mergers and acquisitions. This is enabling companies to broaden their scope of offering and to leverage their core skills and follow the rapid evolution of the market.

Our new report analyses these changes and provides information on how the BACS market is coping with the changes and the wider opportunity to expand “beyond BACS”. Supported by facts, figures and enlivened by charts and illustrations, it will be presented in an accessible PowerPoint format of some 60-70 slides. It draws on BSRIA’s long standing expertise in built environment.

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