Intelligent design: creating sentient buildings

This article originally appeared in the LEAF Architectural Review

Architecture is embracing the incredible potential of buildings that analyse data to anticipate their occupants’ needs for essentials such as light and heat. Oliver Hotham speaks to Kas Oosterhuis, David Green and Robert Kronenburg about using technology to create sentient structures that will change the way we live.

In 1996, Dutch architects Kas Oosterhuis and Lars Spuybroek collaborated on a remarkable project: the Water Pavilion on the artificial island of Neeltje Jans. Having discussed and planned the project for years, a commission from the Dutch Government finally allowed them to build what was essentially a themed structure inspired by the movements of the sea.

“That was the first time we had a building with this real-time behaviour,” says Oosterhuis. “The design of the environment was changing all the time; it was a space informed by the movements of the users inside the building and a weather station outside.”

The central concept was a structure that could transform basic data into an interactive and dynamic built environment. Outside was a weather station, collecting information on what was happening at sea: wind speeds, temperature, wavelengths. This was relayed back into the building, where the patterns were turned into midi signals, which then affected the interior lighting and soundscapes, creating an experience reflecting the rhythms of the sea.

It was radical for its time, and still is in many ways, making use of features that are only now becoming hallmarks of smart building technology. So it’s not surprising that, almost 20 years on, Oosterhuis complains that the architectural world has been slow to pick up on its possibilities.

“The industry was not ready for it,” he says. “And it still isn’t.”

Oosterhuis is fairly avant-garde, blending the theoretical and academic with the practical. In his role as director of Hyperbody and the Protospace Laboratory for Collaborative Design and Engineering at the Delft University of Technology and as a partner at his firm ONL, he works on what has been described as ‘concrete science fiction’ and is determined to show that in the future, all structures will be programmable and empowered to perform in real time.

While most of the work is not as individualistic as Oosterhuis’s, the architecture industry is beginning to embrace smart building technology in new and exciting ways. In the near future, the places where we live and work could be entirely self-governing: collecting data on our daily routines and adjusting processes accordingly.

“It connects very much with the way human beings already have this relationship with inanimate objects,” says Robert Kronenburg of the University of Liverpool’s school of architecture, a specialist in how design is increasingly being influenced by this new technology.

“There is something about it in all of this. In the past, we’d say you care for your house, you clean it, you look after it – if the house responds that’s kind of intriguing.”

Driving the move towards data and intelligent building technology is a shift in attitudes, particularly among a younger generation, concerning how data is stored and collected, according to David Green of multidisciplinary firm Perkins + Will. Increasingly, he argues, young people in the business believe that the transparent transfer of information is a good thing – in contrast with an older generation less exposed to the openness and “information should be free” ethos of the digital age.

“For older people like me, it was hard to get away from the idea of secrecy, intellectual property and copyright issues,” he says. “But now everything is transparent, we share it with our competitors, it’s all online. There’s a real move to taking data information and putting it out in the public realm, so that everybody can capture its value.

“So as soon as people over 40 start to retire, and everybody under 40 starts to take over, everything will work out just fine – right now we’re in a transition point.”

Life informing art
The new boom in smart building technology is driven by something more pragmatic than a mere generational paradigm shift: the issue of sustainability and the need for buildings to conserve energy in a much more meaningful way, from helping offices cut down on unnecessary lighting to managing entire districts’ water consumption.

“We’re also seeing a shift to manage things on a district level like water resources,” David Green says. “Each of the individual building owners taking some responsibility for, say, water or district power, and they can internally manage it so that the whole district is working towards one targeted goal.”

The new technology is already impacting the way that people live in communities and understand how their activity affects the people around them, Green argues, with the ability to see data in real time allowing for a more proactive approach to resource management and energy conservation.

“One of the big things we’ve found is that leaving computers on, even if they’re in sleep mode, takes up a huge amount of energy. The only reason we’re able to realise that is because we’re monitoring it on a workstation-by-workstation level with smart technology.”

Perkins + Will like to see themselves at the forefront of this movement, particularly when it comes to thinking about its environmental potential. The firm’s recent project at the University of British Columbia, the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, is a good example.

Described as “the most sustainable building in North America” and a “living laboratory”, the building is equipped with a high-tech self-managing energy conservation system powered by renewable waste energy. It’s part of a trend in architecture at the moment: that much of the really cutting-edge data use in smart buildings is coming out of universities.

“The leaders in this stuff are academic campuses, and it’s because they were all managed from facilities plants, so they could capture a lot of information centrally,” says Green. “The University of Pennsylvania right now is a good example: they have a resource management system which manages their entire campus, and they can manipulate the thermostats in individual buildings from a central area.”

Now the technology is picking up steam, architects are wide-eyed about what they can begin doing with smart building, from applying the technology to entire cities, to its potential use in the care of the elderly.

Sentient cities
Some see intelligent buildings and districts expanding, with the principles of good resource management applied to much bigger communities. Perkins + Will is working on a project to test this in the New Mexico desert: a model city, known as the Center for Innovation Testing and Evaluation, to research intelligence building possibilities on a much larger scale.

“The next big thing is going to be transportation,” argues Green. “If you think about data driving behaviour, this is exactly the kind of thing that’s going to fundamentally change the way buildings and cities work.

“I spend a lot of time in Istanbul, and they have an amazingly robust app for tracking traffic, it’s really changed the way people move through the city, because you can find out when and where traffic is bad so you can stay off the roads. Without technology that was impossible.”

Kronenburg believes that smart buildings could revolutionise social welfare, particularly the care of the elderly, arguing that intelligent structures are well suited for those who need care in a less costly and less demanding way. As he sees it, the flexible characteristics of these buildings mean that houses could adapt to the people who live in them as they age and as their healthcare needs change.

“Imagine if that could happen in a more automatic way, where the IT senses your health conditions,” he says. “It’s becoming easier to make buildings more responsive to people’s minute-by-minute, as well as daily needs.

“These buildings would not be something you move into when you’re already decrepit, but early on, and that housing would change with you, so you didn’t have to move and have the trouble of moving. So you could move in and adapt to it.”

Architects are having to fundamentally change their work process, too, and are beginning to think about programmable elements from the very first sketch of a project. Gone are the days of strict separation of powers in the design process: the technical expertise needed to work on smart buildings means that architects must collaborate with engineers and manufacturers right from the start of a project, or be educated in their trade in a completely new way. Either way, things are going to change.

“If you do it later, it will be an addition and it’s very difficult to integrate in the climate concept, for example,” argues Oosterhuis. “So it really has to become part of an integrated part of the design concept.”
Oosterhuis sees the consociational new approach in his typical iconoclastic way, arguing that it challenges vested interests in the architecture business, and believes that its democratic implications are one of the reasons the industry has been so slow to take smart building seriously.

“Often it is not profitable to be transparent and open in your design process, because the industry profits from grey zones and throwing responsibilities over the fence,” he says. “Many buildings are artificially more expensive because of extra costs. Collaboration, if you really want it to work, needs a transparent process.

“It’s collaborative and co-creative, with a horizontal instead of a vertical authoritarian structure, and it’s potentially revolutionary. It’s also about respecting the expertise of difference parties, so it’s meritocratic as well, because each person in that process knows something the other person doesn’t know.”

Le Corbusier would have been proud: buildings are truly becoming machines that we live in. The potential for what intelligent buildings could accomplish is astonishing and, although they might not all be quite as conceptual as Oosterhuis’s work on the Water Pavilion, the basic idea behind today’s smart buildings is the same: that our homes and offices do not have to be static and lifeless, and that technology can be used to make them more proactive, environmentally sound and productive.

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