Office of the Future – A Design Brief

December 15, 2015
Enlighted Inc.

Commercial offices today are responding to the needs of a dynamically changing work force (and to the changing nature of work itself) by transitioning from one-size-fits-all spaces to environments that are more responsive to how people actually work. The traditional model of even rows of desks and cubicles under 2×4 fluorescent troffers partly evolved out of a model suited for industrial companies that increasingly needed information workers onsite who could be easily supervised by a corner-office boss. Since this organizational model no longer predominates, new forms are emerging that respond to the main trends driving office spaces today: mobility, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), collaboration, sustainability, health and wellness, flexibility, collaboration, high connectivity, and private enclaves.

Decentralization, miniaturization, and the integration of energy with information are macro trends that converge in office spaces where most of us make many (mostly unconscious) interrelated energy use decisions every day. These macro trends provide a wealth of new opportunities for better products, services, and systems. The expanding benefits of improved environmental quality and energy efficiency in the office environment are widely understood and include increased employee health, safety, productivity, and retention; higher value in commercial real estate; and improved morale. How can we take advantage of these opportunities and push radically efficient new products past limiting cost barriers? Could we build an integrated platform for these products, and what would it look like?

The traditional approach to delivering building services like HVAC, lighting, and IT starts from a central point and distributes services across a wide area like an office space. This approach is efficient to build but not necessarily to operate. What if we reversed this and started at the point of use of the services, the individual user, who is now increasingly mobile in office spaces? The categories of products and devices here include: lighting (task and ambient light sources); ventilation and cooling (personal fans and filters); heating (personal heating devices); and to control these and optimize energy use, sensors, software and control systems. The general idea would be to provide more personalized “services” and fewer generalized ones. Ideally, general ambient lighting should be increasingly provided by daylight, and general thermal comfort by passive and very low energy systems and improved building insulation.

What would the general requirements be for individual components and for integrated systems? To begin with, devices can be dramatically downsized and more mobile. Since what dictates where people work is largely computing devices, which are now much smaller, portable, and powerful than ever, why not handle the job of personal task lighting with mobile low energy highly controllable task lighting? Desktops are no longer a requirement for a large percentage of the workforce, so dedicated systems delivering task light aren’t required. Most task lighting in offices today isn’t very good anyway.

All solutions should be significantly more energy efficient than the standard configuration in today’s office. There’s plenty of room for improvement here, since the norm is overbuilt, oversized, inefficient, highly wasteful systems and components. Achieving energy efficiency on the level of 80% better than standard practice is a good target- this is easy today with LED lighting, for instance. Next, embedded energy and product life cycles need to be optimized, using biomimetic and cradle-to-cradle approaches. The industrial processes for manufacturing most building products are very energy intensive, and materials like plastics and metals predominate. New materials with lower embedded energy are emerging that can be effective replacements.

Product maintenance, cleaning, and replacement cycles must be optimized. Components that require frequent replacement, updating, or adjusting carry costs that are often invisible to buyers when these components are originally specified. Components and systems should also be easy to install and access: plug-and-play, interoperability, and maximum flexibility in configuration should be key design parameters. Related to this, components and systems should be as small as possible, as the scale effects of smaller components leads to fewer, smaller desktops and a more efficient use of the floorplate in offices, as well as energy efficiency. Solutions must also be responsive to easy retrofits as well as new construction.

Optimal user interface is a key requirement: devices and systems should be easy to use and offer a rich variety of options without confusing users with too many choices. It’s tempting to extend the iPhone UI model across all product categories that require any user interface, and indeed many building control systems are operable from your phone today. Studies by institutions like the Center for the Built Environment and LBNL show that improved individual control of building system components, like operable windows and zone control for HVAC, usually results in higher occupant satisfaction and comfort as well as improved energy efficiency.

Last but not least are aesthetic criteria. The companies that are capable of making the leap into the highly evolved and innovative systems and products I’m talking about will probably be ones that already produce high value, well designed products and have strong sales channels in the markets that influence product trends- design and engineering firms. Form shapes function, and the visual design of any individual component will evolve organically out of a deep study of its optimal function, with real people in real office situations. Establishing a design language and syntax will be integral to users’ ability to comprehend and implement new innovative products, that may require (and drive) behavioral change. The visual attributes of products should reinforce their interoperability and system effects, and reinforce desired behavior of both groups and individuals. Now that we have excellent data collection solutions that address real human behavior in office spaces, we can use these embedded systems to constantly test the effects of refinements to building systems and use of space.

What would all of this look and feel like? Let’s start with lighting, which in one way is one of the most overlooked and least understood of the various building systems. Deep green designers practicing fully integrated design have known for years that optimal lighting is a crucial component to high performing buildings. Decentralizing and downsizing lighting has many different strategies, including improved daylighting and daylight harvesting, reducing excessive overhead ambient lighting, and improving low energy, high output task lighting. Single source LEDs can now be used for task lighting that are dramatically smaller and more energy efficient and produce much higher quality light than previous generations of task light products. I’m a big fan of task lights- what if the office task light drew only 1 watt, plugged into your USB port, was made largely of a nanotech material consisting of crystals grown at room temperature, had a miniature smart occupancy sensor that turned the lamp on and drew power only when needed, had tunable color temperature, was exquisitely controllable and dimmable, needed replacement bulbs only once every 5 years, and cost under $75? (You’d probably also want it to make breakfast and coffee for you every day, along with a five o’clock martini and plane reservations for your next trip to Davos.) The task light should be designed to be part of the building lighting system, including ambient and daylighting, and would connect to the control system through a wireless sensor.

Centralized HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems in commercial office buildings are routinely overbuilt and waste massive amounts of energy. Supplementing these services with more flexible, mobile devices will reduce energy use and the cost of installing and maintaining HVAC systems, as well as enabling downsizing or elimination of many kinds of systems. Smaller more efficient personal devices for heating, cooling, filtration, and ventilation will have a positive impact on energy use and comfort when designed as part of a system, following the parameters described for the task light above: downsized, hyper efficient, beautiful and elegant, made with low embedded energy materials (in USA!), smart and interconnected. Even mobile thermal comfort can be much more efficient, for instance with products like the Hyperchair, which provides heating to the parts of the body that are most sensitive to thermal comfort and runs on a laptop battery.

In a typical green project (either retrofit or new construction) engineers and architects ideally optimize building systems like HVAC, lighting, facades, even structural. But until relatively recently they haven’t looked at plug loads in building energy. When plug-load studies are undertaken by the design team as part of a whole system design approach, (especially in equipment intensive building types like labs and other critical facilities) significant energy savings are frequently discovered. Working with OEMs to right-size power supplies, reduce heat output, and eliminate phantom loads can yield important energy savings that can reduce the need for building systems. Smart data collection solutions now provide plug load management as a key efficiency capability.

One final requirement of the design brief: components and systems should be affordable and practical. I were designing it, I’d get to the lowest cost solution first, as this would allow it to scale faster. If the integrated suite of small personal building system devices was taken seriously enough by a large office furniture company or other OEM, it could potentially revolutionize the way the company did business, as Interface Carpeting did under Ray Anderson. While the best path to an optimal solution lies in excellent design, the exploration of new materials alone represents enough uncharted territory to engage an entire industry.

An important effect of a super efficient suite of personal products will be that by embodying energy efficiency and improved services in the same set of products, awareness of daily personal energy use will be brought to the workforce literally in their faces, on their devices, and this can help to drive behavioral change around energy use at home and elsewhere. Smart OEMS will recognize these product opportunities, engage designers and engineers in building and marketing a new generation of distributed devices that will revolutionize the workplace.