Technology and the Built Environment

It surrounds us and yet we don’t even think about it.  Until something goes wrong, that is.  I’m talking about the ubiquitous presence of technology in our hyper-connected wired world.  This is way more complicated than remembering to program space for the ever-expanding IT room, or having the electrical engineer on your project sprinkle data outlets throughout the plans.  Serious technology, the kind that sophisticated buildings require to operate every day, involves everything from the energy management systems (EMS) so critical to sustainable efforts to security systems and even inventory/supply management.  It requires the stuff we don’t see, buried into walls or hardware devices and the stuff we do, like touch screen room controls.  If you, like most architects, are leaving these critical issues up to equipment vendors to install prior to building occupancy,  it’s time to start realizing the role that technology can play as a design driver.  I invited my colleague ans sustainable technology expert Raymond Kent, Principal of Sustainable Technology Design Group, to weigh in on how to better integrate technology design into building design.  Raymond is an award winning technology design expert, and rock-star of the information technology world, who also has architecture experience.  He has published numerous articles, written books, and guest lectured on sustainability and technology design and co-chairs the Technical Advisory Committee for the STEP Foundation.

What exactly is sustainable technology? 
Designing technology in a way that reduces the plug load side of energy consumption.  The Department of Energy recently published its first report showing that anywhere between 10% and 50% of building energy usage comes from power loads.  The wasted energy from standard approaches to technology design can often offset any energy usage being reduced through LEED measures.  Right now, the LEED system does not deal with this issue, but it’s an important enough factor to achieving net-zero and regenerative buildings that InfoComm, BICSI, and CompTIA, three major forces in the technology and AV world, have formed an organization called the STEP Foundation.  The STEP guidelines will include items such as IT, security, life safety, basically all low-voltage industries.  As co-chair of the STEP technical advisory group, I’m working with industries to take the STEP process from generic to specific so that there will be recommendations for security AV, etc. that we are planning on taking through the ANSI/ISO standard process.  This will create a total facility management system for owners that allows them to significantly increase their building performance while also reducing their carbon footprint above and beyond LEED.

How does your expertise inform or even drive the design process?

A lot of architecture firms struggle with the fact that they are not just designing brick and mortar.  When AV systems and controls are applied later, they often look tacked on and clash with the building aesthetics.  You’ll see plates on the walls, cables, speakers.  It’s important to think about the needed connectivities and networks early on in the design process.  Things like computers, lighting design. sound systems and AV can be as much as 30% of the construction cost and failing to consider this during the planning stages of a project can either mean the Owner has to compromise their technology, or that the design team will have to value engineer elsewhere to cover these costs.  What architects lump into soft costs, clients are more and more expecting to be part of base services.  Because architects are not trained to consider these things as part of building infrastructure, having a technology consultant on board as part of the design team is critical to the success of almost any kind of project.

So, how does an architect know when it's appropriate to have a technology consultant on the job?

Not every job will require a dedicated technology consultant.  However, their input can make a big difference to the success of your design.  I suggest that designers form relationships with technology consultants so that they can bounce ideas off of them and get advice on the level of involvement appropriate to the project type and Owner expectations.  Many times, the Owner is not voicing these ideas early enough and asking the right questions can save a lot of redesign later.  Even buying a couple of hours of time to review a set of schematic drawings can make a huge difference on the quality of the project.  A change in lighting alone can totally change the feel of a space.  An electrical engineer is not a lighting designer and is not trained to provide this level of expertise.  Architects need to realize that a Technology consultant can also help them program and layout a facility.  They can assess the situation and point you in the right direction.

Will we ever be truly wireless?
No. Security is a big obstacle.  Bandwidth is also an issue.  There is not a viable means for transmitting a wireless signal, so many factors can degrade it.  Content will always exceed capabilities.  Although power is not the issue because there are wireless power sources available, there will always need to be wires or fibers to provide some type of physical transport.

That being said, there are some great technologies that have emerged such as Audio Video Bridging (AVB) a new open protocol that is being adopted by prosumers.  AVB allows switching of an audiovisual and control stream to multiple devices so something you are watching on your phone can be transferred to your home TV when you arrive via your network for example. It works by sharing and accessing data quickly and efficiently in the cloud or other connected server system.  AVB will allow someone to arrive at a destination and download a presentation from the cloud right to the room’s projector and use their tablet device or phone as the remote.

What effect will handheld devices have on infrastructure?

Huge, huge, huge.  I see a day soon when my tablet computer or phone will become a room control device.  What you can do is so powerful.  The ability to operate remotely is unparalleled and will just continue to grow, but the power needs to be managed sustainably.  Right now, these devices use lithium batteries.  Lithium is a very scarce resource that is not always ethically mined.  It has to be extracted from other materials and it takes thousands of tons of earth to produce ounces of lithium.

Will the nature of how we use and perceive space change because of technology?
The boundaries of space are going to continue to blur.  How we work and commute will make us more efficient and collaborative.  However, everybody needs to have a home base and spot to center themselves.  The need for solitude and focus won’t go away and if we lose that, we are missing the point of innovation.

What is your biggest piece of advice for owners and architects about technology?

Owners really need to think about what they are doing in a space and do their homework about the kinds of things that will happen.  They need to involve the end users  to find the synergies and efficiencies in what people are already doing and bring this to the design team so that the logistics and costs of these ideas can be considered along with the rest of the project.  Most people are familiar  with AV from their local retail store.  Commercial grade equipment costs a lot more but will perform and last for you in a way that the retail stuff can’t.  Architects need to trust the technology consultant and not second guess them - your technology will perform only to the quality of the information you provide.  When project needs are clearly understood upfront and everyone is transparent about costs and budget, your technology consultant will give you a project that will perform at a great price.