Buildings contain a wealth of information—if you can extract and understand it. In the mid-2010s, New York–based technology consultancy Case coined the phrase “Buildings = Data” in recognition of the potential. Acquired by WeWork in 2015, the company would spearhead many early investigations in data collection via sensor technology in the commercial workplace.
Fast forward to today, adding intelligence into buildings of varying scales and typologies has become more feasible with advancements in technology and computing. Increased attention to climate change and occupant health and well-being have helped spur interest.
Smart buildings involve people, processes, and solutions across the professional ecosystem, from development and planning to design, construction, operations, and maintenance. This article kicks off a series in which Smart Buildings Technology interviews thought leaders in different disciplines about the state of the art in smart buildings.
Architect Yehia Madkour is an associate principal and director of innovation at the global architecture and design firm Perkins&Will. Based in Vancouver, Canada, Madkour helps shape the strategic direction of Perkins&Will’s research initiatives and investments and contributes to the company’s Human Experience and Building Technology labs.
SBT: What do you consider a smart building today, and what could it be in the future?
Madkour: A smart building is one that is responsive and interactive. It knows the people inside it and can respond to them and their personas specifically. It can measure its own performance and adapt by understanding its data and actuating things [in response]. A smart building is highly educational; it’s able to influence behavior within the space because it can tell you what’s happening inside. It’s a live building that shows people the data that’s needed in an easy way.
I don’t have a differentiation between today and the near future—I tend to think in the future.
What research has Perkins&Will conducted in smart building technologies?
About three years ago, we started to think about IoT, the way that devices now exist in consumer products [and increasingly so] in the building industry, and how we as a civilization are relying more on data to influence our decisions—like our sleep habits or exercise—which are then driving decisions of how we want to change. How can we learn more about the performance and experience of our buildings, and what can we use this data for?
In our sensors research, we’re developing ideas on how to connect with our clients on an ongoing basis. Instead of design being a transaction in which our jobs as architects stop when our clients’ buildings start, we reflected on post-occupancy surveys. The industry, in general, understands their importance, but the surveys don’t happen a lot and when they do, they only give us a snapshot in time.
We started wondering: What if we had a Fitbit for buildings where you have ongoing understanding, derive information, and provide ongoing design insights? This is where we’re playing.
What information are you seeking?
We began by asking “What is important to measure?” and “What can we learn?” We started to think about the measures for productivity, indoor air quality, how the environment that you’re in contributes to public health, and the metrics of a healthy building.
At the heart of everything is occupancy. You want to understand how people are moving through and using a space and where are people concentrated. From there, you build on things that relate to the total building performance—indoor air quality, thermal comfort, visual comfort, acoustic comfort—and how everything affects well-being in the workplace.
Then we started to dive deeper. For example, what are the metrics for IAQ? Particles in the air, CO2, and VOCs. What are the metrics for thermal comfort? Temperature, humidity, radiation, and airspeed. Now we have about 20 things to measure, which then [led us to research] how we can do this in a cost-effective and flexible way, where we’re not bombarding a building with sensors, but being strategic about what we want to measure in which space.
We looked for open-source systems and plug-and-play sensor packs where you can create modules and put a few things at every desk, pod, or floor. My critique of the market at this point is that it’s centered around individual devices and building management systems, but it lacks a holistic understanding of the human experience within the space.
Mechanical and electrical engineers have done great work in understanding performance, but relating this to the human experience and how people are using space is not there. This is where we as architects need to ask, “What can we learn from this data?” How can we change these dashboards so that they’re relevant for the building owner, the facility manager, the users, and even the architects? What does each group want to connect with and change?
Stepping back and thinking holistically, I can see this data informing future design or renovation.
Exactly. We created a diagram in which we’re trying to connect a feedback loop of ideas, buildings, and data. We design ideas, we guide them to become buildings—and then we lack that part of the feedback loop during post-occupancy, where you want that real-time understanding.
This data can start to inform the future in three different ways. The first is at a macro scale—understanding what we designed in one building so that we design better for the next building. That’s a cycle of working better for the future.
Second, for a specific building that we’re measuring, we can display the knowledge or insights from the dashboard so that they can influence positive behavior or automate certain systems to [support] how people are interacting with a space.
Third, perhaps once a year or every couple years, we [evaluate] how to renovate or slightly shuffle a specific building’s systems and start to calibrate better the occupants to their work environment—or the other way around. Being proactive in these measures can lead to a better human experience within the buildings that we’re designing.
You have installed sensor technology in Perkins&Will’s Vancouver studio. What are some of your initial findings?
In our office, we have small meeting rooms that are supposed to be huddle spaces for three people or so. We quickly found out that having even one person in these particular rooms for more than a half hour increases the CO2 levels to thresholds that are not acceptable or recommended. And these are rooms designed for private, closed-door conversations. Luckily some have windows, but people need to know when they need to start opening the window or door; within 5 minutes, the CO2 levels drop back down. We have not been using this space in the way that it should be—and we’re architects. We designed that.
We also looked at lighting levels. Our Vancouver studio has three stories with a central atrium and big skylights. We analyzed light levels at certain desks within a floor plate and at the same desk location on the first, second, and third floors. We understood that being closer to windows and skylights will have better lighting levels. However, we found that certain desks do not get adequate daylight. They have tasks lights that people can turn on, but even with those task lights on, they’re not hitting the required 300 lux. These areas are not providing the most productive environment for the employee working there.
With these findings, we can ask what can we do—install artificial lighting or use a different paint color that can bounce light in different ways? We can fine-tune these things as part of that feedback cycle. We can also do small iterations to our space that create a more productive and better human experience—if we know the data.
How can architects integrate smart buildings into their scope of services?
Architects should advocate being there for our clients and for the life cycle of the building. You’re standing behind your product. Organizations are continuously changing. The way we work now is different than five, 10 years ago. However, buildings don’t change as fast. There’s a disconnect.
At the start, your design is a great fit. Over time, the organization starts to change the way it works, but because the building is the same, you create a gap between what should be there and what’s actually there—until someone decides it’s time for a full renovation. But if we’re able to fine-tune the building on an ongoing basis, maybe we don’t need those huge renovations.
This is a new revenue stream that architects can tap into—subscription services and design insights. If you think about [displaying] design insights on a dashboard, it can also be a way to reach a wider range of clients that normally wouldn’t work with us as architects.
Essentially, we can provide simple design insights around what could be changed or how can you adapt your own building so you get the service of an architect, but in a way that’s more accessible.
Have you heard feedback from clients interested in a continued service from architects? What are their primary concerns—cost, privacy, security?
Quite a few clients are interested in helping us with the research and having their buildings involved in the prototype. The good news is that this is not expensive. When you think about everything that goes into a building, the [sensor technology] are relatively affordable; if you’re able to show the value proposition, cost may not be a huge issue. As people see the value of [smart devices] in their own personal lives in terms of the consumer products out there—wearables and so forth—this may become more of what is expected.
Why should we build these buildings and make these huge investments, but then not know how they are performing? Would you buy a car that doesn’t have a control panel?
When do you think smart building technologies will become more accessible and commonplace?
The devices already exist. The software companies that create dashboards already exist; many are [aiming to be] product-agnostic and can bring data in from any device onto their platform. Whether the service is for [collecting] information or includes a design-insight layer, this is something that architects can play around with and start to propose. Within the next few years, this is going to be more of an expectation rather than a nice-to-have.
There’s huge room to grow. Not many architects are diving into this idea of subscription-based design services after commissioning, but our firm is not alone. At least a couple are starting to look at this and are in early stages as well.
For Perkins&Will, I think we will have a service offering in the next year or year-and-a-half. In general, it will become an expectation within five years.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.