Living Model – The Next Evolution in Office Design

November 17, 2015
Enlighted Inc.

Clifton Lemon is a well-known lighting and building guru with a keen eye for the future. He will be contributing a series of articles to our blog on the future of work and his thoughts about some of the implications of IoT. This is the first of 10 articles.

A sensor and data driven IoT world presents unlimited possibilities for creative innovation. I think it’s healthy to have a sense that we’re always just scratching the surface, that the most impactful things ahead are those which we have not yet even begun to imagine.

Today Building Information Modeling (BIM) software tools do a reasonable job of integrating building performance metrics- energy and water use,- into digital design documents. They are also becoming the basis for a much richer and more powerful design and management ecosystem that also incorporates experiential data – visual, aural and thermal comfort, for instance.

Evolving from these tools is something we’re calling a Living Model. I came up with this term while working on a presentation with Autodesk, which is now beginning to integrate many previously disconnected functions and capabilities into design software. It refers to a predictive model used in design phases of a project that gradually transforms into a permanent dynamic tool for planning, designing, constructing, and operating the building (or a city), a collection point for data and intelligence – BIM on steroids and a lot more. While Autodesk is currently exploring this on a large complex urban scale, it’s also beginning to evolve for use in interior commercial office space. With a tip of the hat to Stewart Brand’s excellent book How Buildings Learn, Living Model will give us a much deeper understanding of this process.

One of the reasons that this kind of tool is now relevant is that the modern commercial office, with its rows of dedicated desks of worker bees overseen by a manager in a corner office, is a relic of the Industrial Revolution. Traditional space allocation and use standards such as those developed by BOMA must be revisited in light of what “Creative Office” companies like Google, Airbnb, Square, Uber, and others are doing. While these companies are still at the cutting edge of change, their strategies will soon impact the much larger part of the commercial market that isn’t willing or able to change quickly but is being forced to by many factors, including code requirements (at least in California) and the need for employee happiness, loyalty and productivity. Big, cutting edge tech companies and others who follow them all need to manage spaces more effectively, but today they mostly proceed without a clear idea of priorities or ROI. Underlying everything is the pressing need to justify the very large expense involved in building and operating commercial office space in an increasingly dynamic environment, as the nature of work and workplaces themselves undergo a massive transformation.

“Heat map” solutions that use sensor data to map circulation and space use, are a new innovation and an excellent solution for measuring existing spaces, but there is a great need to apply this technology to both retrofits and new construction in the early stages of design.

Let’s look at some of the challenges building owners and operators and other stakeholders face today and how a Living Model approach delivers solutions with many mutual triple bottom line benefits.

ROI and Human Capital

Companies today have a pressing need to optimize ROI on existing and new facilities, but as the global economy evolves into a service economy, the important capital that companies own is no longer in the form of physical assets, it’s labor in the form of employees. Employee health, wellness, creativity, and loyalty are now primary concerns for companies more than ever.

The price of commercial real estate per square foot is going up year on year, while the amount of real estate allocated per employee has been steadily decreasing. Yet the purpose and value of commercial real estate lies in its ability to produce value from human capital – from people. So the challenge for many companies is this: how to leverage more productivity per square foot of increasingly expensive real estate when opportunities for reducing square footage per person are limited.

Scaling and Forecasting in Space Utilization

According to Jeremy Steinmeier of Gensler, “Most fast growing companies today are muddling along, densifying as they go, with little in the way of strategic planning for space utilization. They’re often driven only by meeting minimum code requirements rather than by optimizing space for employees. Now the economy is strong and with commercial real estate markets so tight in cities, companies are concerned about either packing more warm bodies into spaces or doing without them entirely. But what to do when the need becomes shrinking space rather than growing it? And there’s a persistent perception that ‘future proofing’ rather than building for obsolescence, which is business-as-usual, carries a 10-15% additional investment, which no one is willing to make. The bar is so high in California with Title 24 that people won’t spend another dime after achieving compliance. Labor is the biggest part of this perceived additional cost.”

Also, even though the flexible approach is driven by the need to reduce the standard one-to-one ratio of dedicated desk space per employee, more flexible options for uses may sometimes mean more rather than less total space. This may even out as fewer people need to work in a physical office anyway, especially when affordable housing near the office is becoming quite rare in places like San Francisco.

Measuring Performance

How does a physical office space become a tool for boosting human performance? What constitutes productivity in the new workplace and how do we measure it? Answering large existential questions about ROI on human capital and defining productivity is a very different job than managing buildings, but companies must do both, while routinely making well informed strategic decisions about things that have been typically difficult to measure and visualize.

Flat Hierarchies

As IT becomes more ubiquitous, organizational hierarchies are flattening- this has a big impact on space allocation for companies and means that access to healthy building “services” (daylight, good air quality) must be distributed equitably. Engineers traditionally use rule-of-thumb one-size-fits all average design conditions like 72° air temperature and 500lux to the desktop for HVAC and lighting that don’t account for individual zone control. Negotiating group and individual preferences for both dedicated and flexible spaces to give better user control and save energy is a significant design challenge.

Public vs Private

Companies today are seeking an optimal balance between privacy and collaboration. In the increasingly common open plan office, both privacy and public interaction are at a premium: people spend so much time with hyper-efficient online communication that they lose the richness and effectiveness of collaborating in person, in physical meeting spaces. This makes private meeting spaces or offices highly desired and no longer the provenance of senior management only.

Batting .600 on Triple Bottom Line

In the last decade, architects and engineers have done a good job of delivering highly efficient design solutions for green buildings, but they mostly focus efforts on energy and cost while ignoring the behavior and emotions of the actual humans users of spaces. With energy costs dropping because of many factors, including demand response, LEDs, and improved smart controls, energy cannot remain the source of funding for building system improvements. Solving the green building equation for Planet and Profit is well understood, but solving the People part is infinitely more difficult for many reasons, chief among them the fact that actionable data on the behavior of building users has been difficult or impossible to collect, analyze, and apply.

Living Model Solutions

Green buildings do have a tendency to be more pleasant to work and live in, and there is ample evidence that LEED buildings for instance, have higher rental and sale value. But there are no guarantees here, and there are few tools that quantify the total and interactive effects of behavior on design. What would it be like if we could actually model human behavior & emotions in buildings? It would probably work like this: data from existing spaces (large bases of behavioral data are already being complied) could plug into, BIM models so that new space configurations could be modeled for circulation (using advanced motion and tracking sensors); response to daylight (using data from embedded emotion analytics, which can sense unconscious physiological responses to conditions); and thermal comfort (this software is mature and readily available). We could use known parameters from existing spaces, adjacencies, and uses to forecast how people would behave in planned spaces- we wouldn’t have to build or retrofit the building and wire it up in order to get a better handle on optimal design conditions.

Parametric building modeling that includes dynamic inputs from energy, daylight, water, and other systems is already used to test the impacts of design decisions in early stages. These are powerful tools that help improve design decisions, share the design process with a wider range of team members, and evaluate tradeoffs. Adding behavioral data can improve the understanding of interactive effects of design decisions even more. Knowing that people will or won’t open operable windows, where and how they congregate, what temperature setpoints they will or won’t change voluntarily, if lighting is appropriate, and what their specific comfort levels really are – these are all data crucial to the success of any new building or retrofit project.

Living Model completely redefines measurement and analytics. Today, post-occupancy surveys are the predominant tool used to understand occupant behavior and emotions – around lighting, air quality and thermal comfort. They present several key shortcomings: they are expensive, time consuming, are not continuous, and provide a limited level of accuracy because they rely on conscious, rather than unconscious response. Not surprisingly, they’re fairly rare – owners and project teams lack the time, money, or inclination to do them. Embedded analytics that are a key component of Living Model, on the other hand, provide continuous data based on unconscious behavior, are automated, affordable, can be shared and used over many projects, and close the gap between design assumptions and real world conditions.

Because the Living Model uses the same document to design a space as to operate it, the process of commissioning systems can be revolutionized. Commissioning building systems always presents a value problem to owners – it can seem to them as if when you go to buy a car, you have to pay extra for mechanics to fiddle with it and tune it up before it works. The physical facts are that each building is unique, unlike cars, and its systems must be “tuned up” and balanced before operating at their “design” condition. Unfortunately, most systems, once tuned up, fall out of tune regularly, and building operators often don’t have the time or budget to constantly monitor and tune them up. With Living Model, “continuous commissioning” becomes the norm, and hidden energy savings can be recognized as spaces become better “tuned” to occupants behaviors, comfort, and productivity.

One of the great things about advanced integrated modeling is the ability to Improve decision support in early design and planning stages by cycling through many scenarios and observing interactive effects. Want to know what the effects of putting high performing glazing on the south side of the building are in terms of energy, construction cost, comfort and productivity? Run several simulations – for the first time you can measure your ROI on certain decisions that used to be made by aesthetic or status driven considerations alone. Evidence is now available to back up decisions and seek new alternatives.

“A solution like this would give us tools for space planning and office design that are the architectural equivalent of just-in-time manufacturing,“ said Mr. Steinmeier. “Finally I can look forward to validating some of my assumptions about how people feel and behave in a space before I go to the trouble to design it. These considerations drive all the cost, design, and resource use for buildings, so I’m really excited about the possibilities of factoring them into the equation.”