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 automatedbuildings.com 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.

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