UK: Buildings and Brains - intelligent building concept explored.

UK: Buildings and Brains - intelligent building concept explored. - Office Environment 2 - It was the Americans who invented the phrase "Intelligent building" in the '80s. Now it is something more but a mystery to many property men and related profession

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Office Environment 2 - It was the Americans who invented the phrase "Intelligent building" in the '80s. Now it is something more but a mystery to many property men and related professionals. It is being dragged out of the closet. Malcolm Brown elucidates.

Last year an American building expert put a lot of noses out of joint when he declared at a conference in London that Europe's buildings were "developmentally retarded" with an IQ of less than 50.

We should soon be able to judge for ourselves whether he was right or wrong. Next month the London-based design consultancy DEGW will publish a major report "The Intelligent Building in Europe" which will spotlight the best the Continent has to offer.

Most people, of course (including most people in the property business and related professions like architecture and design) haven't got a clue what an intelligent building is. If pressed they might say, wrongly as it happens, that it's a building full of gadgets and gizmos. The sort of place they have in mind is the futuristic smoked-glass palace where the lifts are equipped with passenger flow-monitors so that they always appear, magically, at the floors where they are most needed; where lights switch on and off automatically as people enter and leave the room; and in which microchips control everything from security to heating and ventilating with never a human in sight. All these technological feats can be part and parcel of what building intelligence is, but they are only a small part. Building intelligence is much more than gee-whizzery.

It is precisely because of the overwhelming ignorance of what the intelligent building movement is about that DEGW and its associates, backed by major sponsors like British Telecom, Siemens and Olympia and York (the Canary Wharf developers), are compiling their report.

It is not a flag-waving exercise intended to show people like the abusive American that he has got it wrong - though most European experts would say that he had - but, rather, an attempt to drag building intelligence out of the closet and make the property and business communities more aware of a resource that most of them do not even know exists.

So what exactly is an intelligent building? The Intelligent Building Group (IBG), a consortium of architects, designers and information technology specialists set up to promote the idea, defines it, rather inelegantly, as "one that creates an environment that maximises the efficiency of its occupants while at the same time allowing effective management of resources with minimum life-time costs."

John Worthington who is leading the DEGW study tries to illustrate its present meaning by showing how the concept has evolved. There are three basic models of building intelligence, he suggests: traditional, enlightened and advanced.

The "traditional" model sees the intelligent building as a collection of technologies which aid or control things like building management, office automation and communications. The building can be quite "clever" like the "gee-whizz" one described above, but the cleverness is undirected.

"The traditional view is just putting a lot of technologies in and not asking the question: why do I want it all there?" says Worthington. "You shovel the stuff in without asking the fundamental question: to do what?"

One step up from that is the "enlightened" view. The intelligent building is still a collection of technologies, but now with an added ingredient - responsiveness to change. The building is able to adapt and grow, to respond to organisational change over time. It is beginning to be seen in functional, almost organic, terms.

The third level, the "advanced" model of building intelligence, conceives of intelligence in terms not just of the building environment but of the business environment. A crucial line has been crossed: "At this level," says Worthington, "it's providing a responsive, effective and supportive environment within which the organisation can achieve its business objectives. The intelligent building technologies are now the tools that help this happen rather than ends in themselves."

It is a nice idea but do such buildings exist anywhere other than in designers' heads? The Intelligent Building Group believes that they do and has published a list of 45 buildings around the world which fit the bill. The list is highly subjective, based on the nominations of experts in the field rather than any objective, measurable criteria, but it is a start. It includes, as one might expect, star names like the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building in Hongkong and Richard Rogers' Lloyds building in London, but the IBG has also picked out buildings scarcely known to the public like Telehouse in London's dockland, the Northgate building in Glasgow and the Chase Manhattan building in Bournemouth.

A building not on the "top 45" list but still highly thought of by the IBG, is BP Oil's new headquarters building in Hemel Hempstead. The BP building allows one to see, just by looking at one small facet of it, why, the idea of building intelligence is perhaps so seductive, even if only in boring old pounds-shillings and pence terms.

One of the most crucial aspects of a building's intelligence is that the building and its technology are flexible and responsive to the particular occupier's working patterns and staff relationships - patterns which may well alter quite rapidly with changes in business. Building, technology and people become, as it were, different aspects of a single organism. A simple measure of how responsive the organism is, is to ask a very basic question: what does it cost to move people around when the changing needs of the organisation require it?

The answer at Hemel is less than £10 for a move that takes under 10 minutes. At the company's old London HQ the overload of information technology equipment was such that it was taking £400-£600 and several days to move one person. The project demanded a very sophisticated wiring infrastructure (one of the key elements in any intelligent building since it allows people to move around easily and "plug in" to the wiring at almost any point) but it was so successful that it paid for itself in less than two years. Several of the names on the IBG list are likely to figure in DEGW's as well and one of the aims of the DEGW study is to compare buildings like these and see whether it is possible to develop some kind of truly objective benchmarking system for building intelligence.

This would be a measure which looked at both the basic building as a shell and services infrastructure (how robust was it, in the sense of being designed to allow for lots of different users?) and at the building in use (to see how appropriate it might be to different categories of user.) It would not be a single, simple IQ rating however nice that might be for list makers ("The world's 10 most intelligent buildings") - but it should, if DEGW can get it right, provide potential building users with a way of determining just how responsive the building they are looking at might be to their needs.

There has been something of a theological debate over whether one should aim for a blanket, generic, rating system, but most professionals would now come down against that. Frank Simmons, for example, senior partner of Tilney Simmons, the consultancy which designed the Chase Manhattan building's engineering services, is sceptical of blanket ratings.

"One of the problems if you are looking for a generic rating is that you've got to assume some sort of generic use and of course that doesn't really happen. When the tenant's not in there, when the developer is marketing a building, they can all look very similar, but after the tenant has had it fitted out and he's got his operations in there priorities vary enormously from one person to another. So it's questionable whether it's very meaningful to apply an intelligence rating unless it is measured against a specific user's expectations." The fact that overall building IQ has no real meaning at the moment has not, of course, stopped people making sweeping statements about it, like the American who suggested our buildings were all duffers. John Worthington thinks he was quite wrong. Using his own, three-stage model of intelligence, Worthington argues that by and large Europe's intelligent buildings are more intelligent than those in America or Japan and that an awful lot of America's buildings would actually belong to the bottom, "traditional" category - four-walled boxes into which technologies have been rather indiscriminately squeezed.

Americans invented the phrase "intelligent building" in the early 1980s largely as a marketing ploy. Information technology providers, particularly the telecommunications companies which had just been deregulated, put together packages with real estate men - building plus telecoms - and christened the result "intelligent buildings".

"The manufacturers wanted to get to a captive market, the people inside the building, so they did joint ventures with the developers. It was any old building which you could then sell technologies in. It was well marketed, pushed like hell, but ask the question 'Are these appropriate buildings for different users and are they going to be ones which satisfy staff and so on?' ... less so. That wasn't really an issue, it was about bunging technology into buildings."

The Japanese approach (which was user, rather than developer, led) is much more sophisticated than the American, Worthington suggests, and the European is probably best of all. But even enthusiasts such as Worthington would not want to push Europe's claims too far. We are still all very much at the beginning of the learning curve.

One of the great problems is reconciling the needs of the main interest groups concerned with intelligent buildings - the developers, the information technology suppliers and the potential tenants. If the "intelligent building" movement is to attain critical mass, so that intelligent buildings become the norm rather than the exception, then all three groups need to understand what is in it for them. Businessmen need to know why they should be doing their business from such a building. Information technology suppliers need to know that there is a market out there for their products. Developers need to know that if they take the risk of building intelligent buildings then people will actually want to use them.

Unfortunately, the opportunities for a mismatch are legion. If the developer does not provide the right sort of building it will be very difficult to instal sophisticated computer systems. If potential tenants do not understand the benefits of occupying an intelligent building they will baulk at paying the developer a premium for "intelligent space". If the tenants won't pay a premium the developers are not likely to go out on a limb to provide intelligent buildings and that in turn will mean that the information technology providers will not develop the sort of products which help make the building intelligent.

John Worthington thinks attitudes are changing, slowly. He argues that of the three groups is is probably the building providers who have got it most wrong in the past. They have valued their buildings purely in terms of the land it sat on and the kind of leases they could negotiate. Now they are having to think of buildings in more holistic terms. Because information technology gives people much more flexibility about where they do their business, because location is no longer such a make or break matter, developers are having to give far more consideration to the business needs of the potential tenant.

"Traditionally suppliers of buildings viewed buildings from an ownership, landlord point of view, just as a piece of real estate which bore no relation to how it added value to the business. I think things are changing."

In one respect, of course, the American who so annoyed British experts with his deprecatory remarks about the low IQ of Europe's buildings was perfectly correct, at least in a British context. If one takes the office building stock as a whole rather than looking at buildings of acknowledged "intelligence" they are indeed "developmentally retarded".

The reason is horrifyingly simple. Many of the office buildings of the 1960s and 1970s were put up by developers who when allocated a maximum building height by the planning authorities would do whatever they could to squeeze in as many floors as possible. A popular way of doing so was to cut floor-to-ceiling heights to the bone by keeping underfloor voids to a minimum. They could accommodate the necessary cabling, but only just, and when IT hit the scene in the 1980s the buildings became choked with cable. Many simply could not cope. They are the dumb ones, many irretrievably so.

The IT overload, incidentally, is one reason why so many office blocks seem to have sprouted new skins, the old glass blocks frequently now reappearing in the same shape but this time clad with brick or concrete. This isn't just a design fad. Look between the new skin and the original one: the cables, the electronic veins and arteries which keep the building pulsing away, are no longer beneath the floors or under the risers but running up, down, and along the voids between the building's old and new exterior walls.

If the DEGW report does nothing more it should warn us against the complacency of thinking that what we build now is the final word in design.

Malcolm Brown is a freelance writer.

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