How One of NYC’s Oldest Real Estate Firms Went High-Tech

A large real estate firm in New York City created a private operating system to better crunch and report its data, and machine learning and mobile technology to maximize cost savings and keep tenants comfortable during all seasons.

By Anne Miller, Contributor

On the 34th floor of an iconic Park Avenue skyscraper in Manhattan, assistant chief engineer Ryan Fletcher gestures to a red metal wheel that he turns to move the building’s sprawling fan system from heating to cooling, pending the season. It’s an old-school wheel that complements the cage-like metal around the freight elevator, which serves as the main access to the floor.

But across from that same elevator lies the key to modernization for the Rudin Management real estate firm, founded in 1925 and now run by third and fourth generation New Yorker Rudins: It’s a flat screen—a sleek black bit of modernity among the white and blue pipes and machinery—that displays colorful graphs showing real-time reports of floor temperatures, building occupancy, water flow, electricity usage, and a host of other markers for the 44-story monolith.

“We now know literally down to the minute when in the morning to start up a building….”—Michael Rudin, senior vice president, Rudin Management Company

“We now know literally down to the minute when in the morning to start up a building based on weather conditions, both overnight and forecasted for the next day, as well as forecast of occupancy,” says Michael Rudin, a senior vice president with the company and a great-grandson of the founder, Samuel Rudin.

An Idea Born and Adopted

The software program, called Nantum, employs data to help staff better manage the buildings, and in turn save time and money. The system tracks information supplied by sensors throughout the building, from temperatures in different rooms to occupancy rates at different times. Machine learning built into the system then makes suggestions on operational takeaways, such as the exact minute to start ramping up a building’s cooling system to maximize cost savings versus tenant comfort. It works on desktops and tablets, with data shared across the cloud.

The idea to create what Rudin calls a private operating system for their business was sparked by the Northeast outage of 2003, that plunged the East Coast into darkness. In the aftermath, Rudin explains, the firm was approached by a utility company about partnering on an early alert system for the type of overload that preceded the outage. That partnership didn’t pan out, but in exploring that concept, the real estate firm liked the idea of creating a system that better crunched and reported its data. Rudin Management just couldn’t find what it wanted on the market, so it created its own solution.

Nantum is now managed by a separate company, Prescriptive Data, that Rudin Management owns but which has its own CEO who can monetize the technology by selling it to other firms.

In 2013, Rudin rolled out Nantum at two buildings within its portfolio of 17 major office buildings in New York City. The pilot served to work out any kinks and solicit feedback from staff before releasing the system company-wide.

Within six months of operation at the Park Avenue building, the system paid for its installation there, Rudin notes.

No More Guessing

As the C-suite leaders sang the software praises, so, too, did Fletcher, one floor up in his machine rooms. He walks a floor where fans the size of the executive conference room below keep all the floors temperate, the office spaces habitable. Nantum’s temperature data means Fletcher and his co-workers can see at a glance when an office space is too hot or cold.

“Before this, you had to make guesses,” Fletcher says. Or run around the building checking thermostats, or field complaint calls from tenants. Now, he doesn’t have to guess, or handle those upset calls. He can simply look at the screen.

The buildings now turn “on” and “off” at precise minutes predicted by the software — 7:58 a.m. for one building, 6:09 a.m. for another—further streamlining his job. That’s also where the monetary savings come in: Knowing when to power up the fans as workers trickle into their offices—as opposed to a standard time across the board—cuts costs.

Knowing when to power up the fans as workers trickle into their offices—as opposed to a standard time across the board—cuts costs.

Though their roles differ, Fletcher—the assistant in the engineering room—and Rudin—the scion of the billion-dollar company—cite one overflowing toilet as an example of how the new system works.

Water pressure alarms are set to trigger if certain levels are reached on weekends, which can signal over-usage or a leak. If an alarm is triggered, it’s set to automatically contact an employee, who can then assess the situation. On that Saturday, a running toilet overflowed, and water crept toward an elevator—a potential crisis if the water seeped into the shaft and damaged the lift electronics. The alarm was triggered, and the system paged a weekend staffer, who was able to stop the water and protect the elevator shaft.

A Not-So-Tough Sell

In an almost century-old firm, where building engineers like Fletcher still hand-crank the seasonal switches, shifting to data readouts might have seemed like a tough sell.

Two essential moves eased building staff into accepting the tech switch, Rudin says.

Two essential moves eased building employees into accepting the tech switch: asking staff to adopt an easy-to-use app for their smartphones or tablets; and soliciting feedback first.

First, asking employees to adopt an app for their smartphones or tablets was key. The app features an easy-to-read user interface and doesn’t require extensive training.

Secondly, Nantum was a customized solution from Rudin Management, and to design it, the developers spoke with people throughout the company, at all levels of seniority.

“I think when you take the approach of soliciting input first and then creating something based off of that,” he says, the implementation process is likely easier “than if you were just to come and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this new great technology, you’re going to use it and you’re going to like it.'”

“We [asked], ‘What would you, as a building engineer and operator, want to see on a daily basis to make you better at your job, and to make it easier and more efficient to run a building of this size?'” Rudin continues.

Those staffers had more than 300 years of collective experience operating and running buildings; some had worked for the company for four or five decades.