Designing Humans into Buildings

In 2013 and 2014 I attended the Living Future Unconference in Seattle and Portland. I was inspired and engaged by the idea that commercial buildings are being designed with the human experience in mind.  From my amateur historians perspective it seems that our design philosophy has begun to arch back from the ‘Global Building’ era of hermetic skyscrapers to buildings that combine cultural knowledge and technology to reduce impact and increase wellness.  This is of course nothing new. Up until the last century, we had no choice but to design buildings that would support life without the aid of sophisticated mechanical systems.  Now, after much change, environmental constraints and social expectations are pushing us back into this mode of thinking, but in a much different societal context.

Building automation is intrinsically linked to the progression of building design and has seen similar, if not more pronounced, increases in sophistication as buildings have become more complicated.  One only has to do a shallow dive into the archives of to learn just how much this industry has changed our buildings, and the interactions with them.  It would appear that our combined efforts have given rise to buildings that are easier to operate, more comfortable, and have a lower energy impact than those of the pre-automation era.

Why then, in every building automation system that SES sees as Energy Efficiency Consultants do we encounter so many instances of the ‘little red hand’?  The hand indicates that a piece of equipment has been taken out of the control of the automation system, but what it symbolizes is that there is some friction between the occupants and the technology that is meant to serve them.  What is particularly telling is that the more sophisticated the control system, the more frequent is the appearance of the hand.  SES is currently commissioning several deployments of fault detection and analytics tools, which has a specific report design to show all of the equipment in ‘hand’.  This is an interesting workaround, but fails to really address the problem’s source.

It is likely an oversimplification, but it’s my feeling that our building automation technologies are beginning to surpass the ability of humans to manage unaided.  We seem to design our systems for the super-operator who is able to keep up with the newest technologies, manage the existing ones, and deal with changing occupant needs at the same time.  In my experience to date, this is an unreasonable expectation. Until we address this as a design challenge, I get the feeling that we’ll always be waiting for superwoman or superman.

In his 2012 TED Talk, Shyam Sankar talks of the rise of human computer cooperation through the example of chess.  1997 was the first time that a chess-playing computer was able to defeat a grandmaster, and it led to the advent of freestyle chess.  In freestyle chess humans and computers can team up, and in 2005 two amateurs with low powered laptops were able to defeat the best the world’s super computers and grandmasters had to offer.

Sankar goes on to illustrate other stunning examples of computer-human cooperation, but the moral of the story seems to be that when we start to design away the friction between the human and computer interaction, then we really start to see revolutionary design.

SES has seen some interesting examples of human centered technology entering the built environment, from custom personalized control, to packages like Comfy which use occupant comfort complaints to influence control programming.  We expect to see more of this type of technology that uses ‘Augmented Intelligence’ to draw upon the demands of the occupants and operators to train the building on how to behave.

In recognition of the missing human element in building automation, SES hired a behavioral specialist, Darla Simpson, five years ago.  Darla’s insights have allowed us to look deeper into the way occupants feel about, and interact with their spaces.  Consistently, we have seen better retro-commissioning results when we take the time to engage the occupants on what they really need out of the building.  In doing so we are able to create relationships and foster ownership over the conditions of the work environment.

I can imagine a future where human needs are integrated at every level of the built environment, essential collaborators in the evolution of the space.  After all, could we ever hope to create an analytic engine as powerful and adaptable as the human mind?  (Maybe, but that’s a topic for another discussion)

In the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a brain take the place of the hand as the symbol of human-computer friction, telling us that ‘yeah, we’ve got problems, but we’re thinking our way through it.’

I’d like to hear from you on your examples of human-centered building automation as I’m sure there are many examples that I’ve never heard of.

Enabling Self-Learning at Work

I recently had a chance to present briefly at the Haystack Connect conference with my mentor Ken Sinclair on the topic of ‘Attracting Self-Learning Assets’ or ‘How do we attract staff that will teach themselves what they need to know?’ Ken asked for my input as the learning manager of a building automation technology consulting firm, SES Consulting.  A team of twenty six, we are mostly millenials, with half having been hired over the past three years.   We also operate in a field in which the technological landscape shifts constantly. These circumstances present a set of challenges which need to be addressed for the long-term success of the company:

  1. Training accounts for a large part of overhead, presenting significant financial burden
  2. There is a lack of established mentors to teach newer staff one to one
  3. Classroom type ‘institutional’ training is unfeasible for the volume of new info entering our knowledge base.
  4. There is very little specific academic training for our industry

In addressing these challenges, I’d like to counter Ken’s idea that we need to attract self-learning individuals. This pre-supposes that there is any other type of person, and my experiences as an engineer, and as a father, is that no-one is without the innate curiosity and passion necessary to learn new things on their own.  One only has to look at Youtube, Wikipedia, Instructables, or Tindie to see that not only are we teaching ourselves new skills, but we are actively collaborating to create content that will allow others to do the same. I would like to re-phrase Ken’s question as ‘How do we switch on self-learning at work?’.  It is with this question in mind that I have approached the newly formed role of learning manager at SES.

What is a learning manager?

It is the self-designated mandate of the SES Learning team to ‘Create a culture of continuous and collaborative learning for all employees.’  Intentionally loose, this mandate has allowed for experimentation in techniques and tools and has led to the idea that it is the role of the learning manager to align learning opportunities with the specific interests and learning styles of team members. Learning Opportunities (1) While this may seem straightforward, it is something of a departure from the  one-size-fits-all institutional approach to learning.  Traditionally, if a company wanted its team members to know something, we would get a trainer, set up a session, and administer the training. Sometimes we would point them towards a written resource in a library, digitial or otherwise. With the breadth of information that we need to know as consultants, this approach becomes cumbersome both from a time and finance perspective.  These constraints have led to the idea that learning at SES had begun to move from institutional to collaborative in nature. If you’ve got some time, I’d suggest watching to Clay Shirky’s talk on this type of shift.

To poorly paraphrase Shirky, web-based technology has allowed for fundamental shift in the way content is aggregated and consumed.  Low-cost, participatory, platforms make it possible to create collaborative resources of much larger scope than was previously possible. The nature of these resources has also fundamentally changed the way that we interact with them.  Our collective prowess at Googling is converging with sophisticated algorithms to enable us to access and action information in real-time. What’s often missing from these resources is the knowledge that the information has been vetted by a trusted professional and is appropriate for the conditions at hand.  This is the challenge on which the SES Learning Team has focused the majority of its time to date, the creation of a resource base that emulates and interacts with the internet at large, that is curated for the highly specialized applications of the company.

Curate learning opportunities

The low barrier to entry for content creation has led to a glut of information on any topic imaginable.  The challenge of drawing useful information out of the cloud and into an internal resource base is far from solved, but at SES we are experimenting with a variety of tools to work through it.

Internal Wiki

The advent of wikipedia marked a fundamental shift in the creation and management of factual content.  An example of Shirky’s collaborative organization, users can generate content which is vetted by other users for accuracy.  At the time of writing there are 35 million wikipedia pages in 277 languages.  All of this content is hosted for free, and managed by an organization with only 250 paid staff and over 4000 volunteer administrators. In a great piece of foresight, one of SES’ early team members, Autumn Umanetz, set up an internal wiki for SES staff using a platform called dokuwiki. Accessible to everyone at SES, all team members can create and edit wiki pages on any topic they choose.  This allows us to create content specific to technical and internal challenges at the company, and the wiki acts as a centralized location for staff to look for answers.  A common phrase at SES is ‘have you checked the wiki?’ Managing a wiki also presents some challenges.  Wikis are messy.  Without content control and validation the trustworthiness and thus the usefulness of the resource is diminished.  While wikipedia manages this through its teams of volunteer administrators, SES must rely on the the accountability of staff to one another to make the resource work.  And it works.  The platform is far from perfect, but its useful, and when developing collaborative resources rough edges are inevitable. As the core resources are used, they are refined through the experience of the users, allowing for continuous and collaborative improvements.  The wiki occasionally benefits from pruning, where under-used resources are either removed, or slated for improvement. Ultimately, it is the intention of the Learning team to use the wiki as the central platform to converge the combined knowledge and experience of staff members.

File repository

As is common for most companies, SES also has a repository of digital files containing resource information.  This familiar interface allows users to easily compile pdfs, photos, excel models, word documents, and other useful resources. In the past, this information has often become messy and presents a challenge to users to find the information that they need.  In order to manage this, the Learning Team and SES IT department are working on a method to mirror all of the resource repository content on the wiki so that it is indexed and searchable alongside all of the user generated wiki content.

Project Information Database

SES deals in energy efficiency projects, many of them repeated frequently.   One of our resident IT gurus, Rob Baxter, has created a searchable database of information from previous projects.  The Learning Team intends to explore ways to also link this information to the wiki.

Google Groups

Google apps allows the creation of internal email groups for discussing specific topics.  One example of this is tech-chat, where members can ask one another technical questions related to the projects they are working on.


SES’ youtube channel is a convenient place to compile useful video resources for future reference, as well as upload content recorded at the company.  All team members are able to upload and curate content on the site.

RSS Feeds

A recent experiment for SES, the Learning Team has set up a number of Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to automatically bring information to the wiki.  Content includes news and journal articles, new training courses, internal research and development opportunities, and Youtube channel updates.  Team members are also able to sign up to receive this information directly to their inbox, via MailChimp.


Another experiment in progress, team members at SES have been playing around with #Slack as a means to discuss internal happenings at SES.  The free service allows us to create specific channels to post useful information and host discussions.  If successful, the learning team will also work on automatically compiling important discussions as content on the wiki.

A common search box

A common theme across all of these resources is searchability.  When information becomes separated from the main body of knowledge, it quickly becomes stale and may not be accessible on-demand.  The SES learning team is working to automatically consolidate all incoming resources on the wiki, such that any piece of background information is only a search box away.

Adapt to the learner’s style

In our industry, we tend to present most information in text format, without much regard for the preferred style of the learner.  One effort of the Learning Team has been to incorporate video resources into our knowledge base to accompany text information.  Youtube is a fantastic resource for learning material, and can often provide more concise information than text.  We also try to encourage 1:1 learning as often as possible for those who learn best through interaction.

One way to determine what learning staff may prefer is to use a VARK questionnaire.

Align opportunity with interest

In order to get the most out of training budgets, it’s also important that SES align the many learning opportunities with the interest of the learner.  In the case of seminars or conferences, employees are encouraged to peruse the incoming feed of events and put in an application with the learning team to have their time and expenses covered in exchange for clearly defined deliverables.  This is built to ensure that learners are motivated to seek out events that they are most interested in.

For company directed training, it may also be useful to build a skills and interest database in order to target training to the area of greatest effect.  Skills Base is an example of low cost software for determining where employees skills and interests lie.

Have a fantastic team

None of this would be possible without the fantastic, enthusiastic, and engaged group at SES. I’d like to thank them all for their contributions and support.

For more, check out this video made at the event

Unlocking Energy Efficiency at Haystack Connect 2015

In preparation for Haystack Connect 2015 Ken Sinclair of Automated Buildings asked that I write a bit about why I am so excited to be heading to the conference this May.  The following is what came out, and if you make it all the way through, please participate in the poll at the end.  Your answer will be used to build our presentation on ‘Attracting Self Learning Assets’. Thanks for reading.

When I first came to SES Consulting in October of 2012, it felt like coming home.  The company that Ken and Scott Sinclair have built over the past thirty years is a place where a passion for sustainability can thrive uncompromised by the bottom line.  The energy efficiency and building automation business is good.  It consistently presents interesting and complex challenges.  If done right, it can result is deep reductions of greenhouse gasses, and can even occasionally be lucrative.

Lately, however, it’s been hard to shake the feeling of the wolf at the door. While the pressing need to reduce greenhouse gasses increases with every year, we struggle to scale our impact in response. There are several key challenges that we face on a daily basis:

  • The high upfront cost of identifying energy efficiency measures can be a barrier to adoption
  • The risk involved in maintaining energy savings has created distrust in the market
  • The complex nature of the work makes training difficult

The day-to-day challenges with keeping business moving forward often begs the question: What happens when the stream of early adopters becomes a trickle, when incentive money is used up and the niche jobs are finished?  As an industry, we require simple, robust, and market-driven solutions to drive large-scale reductions in greenhouse gasses.  This is why I am excited to be heading to Haystack Connect this May.

“To get an early market started requires an entrepreneurial company with a breakthrough technology product that enables a new and compelling application, a technology enthusiast who can evaluate and appreciate the superiority of the product over current alternatives, and a well-heeled visionary who can foresee an order-of-magnitude improvement from implementing the new application.” ― Geoffrey A. Moore, Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers

On my inaugural trip to Haystack, I expect to find companies such as these in the dozens.  My mission will be to find the appropriate set of collaborators to turn energy efficiency into a mass-market product.

In order to drive mass-market adoption, we need to speak to CFOs, and in order to do this we need to be able to treat energy efficiency like a financial product. Any good investment has several simple criteria. It must be:

  1. Low Risk
  2. High Return on Investment (ROI)
  3. Have a Large Market Size

With the appropriate set of tools, energy efficiency projects can be made to fit these criteria.

  1. Using reliable monitoring dashboards, investment risks can be minimized by providing real-time, high resolution feedback on measure performance.  By having well-equipped professionals monitoring these dashboards, any deviation in performance can be immediately recognized and addressed.
  2. Returns can be high.  Our auditors consistently turn up projects with 2 year paybacks or below.  If these measures remain in place for 5 years, the annualized rate of return is approximately 20%.
  3. The market size is huge, and growing.  Researchers at MIT placed the commercial and institutional market size at an estimated $100 billion in 2012.

The key to unlocking this potential lies in accessible building monitoring technology, such as those that will be presented at Haystack Connect 2015.  We have seen a drastic reduction in cost of building automation technologies while open source platforms have allowed outside collaborators access to what was previously the tightly held intellectual property. As we have seen repeatedly in parallel industries, at the crossroads of low cost technology and open collaboration lies disruptive innovation.  We are ready  to open the door to:

  • Automated energy auditing
  • No cost building analytics
  • Supercharged preventative maintenance programs
  • Building automation system ‘App Stores’ compounding collaborative growth

For Moore’s ‘Well Heeled Visionaries’, these advances will allow for a drastic pivot.   A much simplified version of business-as-usual looks something like the following:

normal_audit_process (1)

This workflow suffers from the following pitfalls:

  • Relies on early adopters to initiate the process
  • High upfront financial burden on the client or incentive provider
  • High risk that something will derail intended savings
  • Many projects do not get financed

As described above, the first three pains can be relieved by appropriate technologies.  The last can be solved by off-balance-sheet financing, like traditional ESCO  models, or leasing arrangements like start-up SparkFund offers.  By relieving all of these pain points, we can effectively create a ‘freemium’ service model that can be marketed to a much wider market.  The new model may look something like this:


From start to finish, the client remains cash-flow positive.  The product is scale-able across diverse markets, and non-specialists can be involved in many steps of the process.  As part of this ‘freemium’ service, the auditor can be contracted to provide ongoing expertise and monitoring for the life of the measure, further reducing the risk.

Only by creating simple, scale-able, and low risk products will be drive the large greenhouse gas reductions we need to live a happy and healthy future.  The companies attending Haystack Connect are at the cutting edge of this movement to revolutionize energy efficiency.  This is why I count SES Consulting lucky to be included among them.

As the learning manager at SES I will be assisting my mentor, Ken Sinclair, to present ‘Attracting Self-Learning Assets’.  We will be giving a collaborative talk on trying to support a new generation of Engineers in their path through this ever-changing career landscape.  Help contribute to this talk by answering the poll below.

Hope to see you there,