The New Zombie Attack! Connected Buildings Come to Life

by Erin Rae Hoffer
- Jan 19 2016 - 7 min read
Brandon Au

There’s a, well, undying fascination with the undead, crossing generations, geographies, and cultures. From 19th century West African and Haitian stories to classic films, music videos, and even the recent TV series Fear the Walking Dead and The Returned, zombies strike emotions at the core.

Why is there such an obsession? The “zombie dynamic” is one that forces new survival strategies and a look at trying to conquer an unknown relationship. How do you actually prove victorious in a zombie attack? What are the cunning skills you need?

And it’s not just zombies as part of folklore and binge-watching TV shows now. Buildings are taking a page from zombies’ playbook. Yes, zombies. Designers, get ready: You have been warned.

connected_buildings_zombieBuildings are animating, changing from lifeless rooms to living systems. The floors and walls are no longer inert. Residences, offices, and social spaces contain connected sensor networks. Architectural elements are now Internet-enabled more and more. They can listen, respond, accumulate experience, and get to know behaviors and preferences. They are awakening from “dead space”—quite literally by turning into connected buildings. Luckily, they aren’t going to attack, and the relationship will be one we could only hope to have with the “real” undead.

David Benjamin, principal of The Living, an Autodesk Studio, connects people to responsive environments. “We’ve done some work embedding sensors in building elements,” he says. “We built Living Light in Seoul, South Korea, a public pavilion that makes visible information about the environment that is normally invisible. A city map displays real-time air-quality data, and the pavilion reflects the degree to which people are texting questions or messages about air quality.”

The Living, in collaboration with Natalie Jeremijenko, is developing EcoPark, a permanent element of the redeveloped Pier 35 in New York. EcoPark offers new water-quality interfaces and visualizations. One hundred buoys floating in the East River will change color in response to water quality and messages from citizens.

“As buildings and cities come to life and become dynamic and active, this will alter the way we think of our role as architects and designers,” Benjamin says. “One could argue that buildings have always been repurposed after construction, with new owners and different uses. But new technologies expand the possibilities.

EcoPark at night. Courtesy The Living.

“If our built environment is more dynamic and alive, we might think of buildings as more like living organisms,” he continues. “That they need to be nurtured, cared for, treated more like a garden than a stone. Then we would have a different relationship with a building. Like a tree, we can’t completely control it, but we can influence it and set up the right conditions for it. And the relationship might become reciprocal, not just one-way.”

A vision of connection between building systems and people is also held by Mark Pacelle, senior director of open innovation for Philips Lighting North America. “We are now deploying connected lighting systems across the home, indoor commercial, and outdoor spaces,” Pacelle says. “Our HUE lighting products form a personal, connected home lighting system. And on the commercial-lighting side, systems sense ambient light intensity and occupancy to provide advanced control to enable increased energy-saving. We also have a connected exterior lighting system at the urban scale, CityTouch.”

Today, connected home lighting provides personal control of color, hue, intensity, timing, and more. Networked commercial lighting enables advanced energy saving, which is being increasingly mandated by state regulation. And networked public lighting provides efficient operations and asset management. However, this is only the beginning of how connected spaces will benefit its occupants.

Living Light in Seoul, South Korea. Courtesy The Living.

“Looking ahead, connected lighting systems will become pervasive, automatically adapting to the environment, providing contextual lighting based on ambient intelligence,” Pacelle says. “This lighting infrastructure will become a ubiquitous sensor network—an Internet of Things of our built environment—providing opportunities to collect data about the static and dynamic characteristics of the spaces in which we live, work, and play. Analytics and correlation of disparate data sets will drive actionable insights about our surrounding space and how we use it, yielding increased operational efficiency, safety, and well-being.

“In time, sensors will be able to see, hear, measure, remember, think, and calculate almost anything within view,” he continues. “We will eventually have perfect information about the physical environment and how we use and interact with it. Apps are being developed for specific uses—home, retail, office, hospitality, industrial, and outdoors. The type of data that can be collected from these environments continues to grow as innovation in sensor technology provides a continuous stream of compact, inexpensive, high-resolution sensing devices.”

The power of space is a top priority for WeWork, a global company that provides shared work environments and connected communities in office space around the world. The R&D team at WeWork is focused on creating office spaces that are five years ahead of anything else offered in the industry.

The lounges in WeWork (example above is in Los Angeles) are carefully designed to foster a collaborative community. WeWork is considering how new building technology can help members customize their spaces and help designers create more responsive environments. Courtesy WeWork.

“We consider connected spaces and devices to be an important component of the future workplace,” says Daniel Davis, a lead researcher for WeWork. “At the moment, we are trying to establish which of the new technologies are gimmicks and which of them truly enhance the architectural experience. In that capacity, we are focused on ways to give people control of their space, which includes everything from lighting to wayfinding and space management.”

Davis foresees two major changes as connected building elements proliferate. “The first is that space will become far more personal—rooms will understand and react to the inhabitants,” Davis says. “The second is that designers will have far more information about how people use space, which will in turn help them design spaces better suited to the people who use them.”

Courtesy The Living

The research teams at Autodesk are also considering how design will change as buildings and spaces are animated. The team led by Azam Khan, director of Complex Systems Research and head of Environment and Ergonomics Research at Autodesk, is developing research to help designers understand how buildings work as they come to life, with an emphasis on systems thinking.

“We are no longer designing ‘dead’ things,” says Cory Mogk, Autodesk research evangelist. “Buildings are organisms that change over time. . . . Materials age; assemblies settle.”

And as those buildings are enabled with sensors more and more, there is a need for designers to understand emerging feedback loops of human/building interaction. “We are less than five years away from a world with trillions of connected devices,” says Mickey McManus, Autodesk visiting research fellow. His research project, Primordial, considers the nature of things and what will happen “when things wake up.”

But the crux of this impending future is still in preparation. New skills will be needed for design in this connected era. “Sensing, data aggregation, analytics, and resulting action will become fundamental,” Pacelle says. “A design of a space will far exceed the static form. Our space will come alive. We will need to consider what we want a space to see, hear, smell, think about, calculate, and remember.

WeWork converted a former Wonder Bread factory in Washington, D.C. Courtesy WeWork.

“Then, how do we want to use this knowledge and insight; how do we want our space to use this knowledge and insight?” he continues. “Our design sensibilities will move from the physical form into a space of data and content. It will move from a static form to a dynamics of light change, human interaction, occupancy utilization, location tracking, personal engagement, and many more perhaps yet-to-come attributes about our living space.”

Davis agrees. “In much the same way designers understand steel or timber, designers need to understand the digital materials of the future,” he says. “This doesn’t mean that they need to know how to solder a circuit, but it does mean that they need to understand the potential of these materials in order to coordinate specialists to produce amazing spaces from them.”

As any zombie fan would tell you, preparation is key to adapt and survive. Is design ready for the new future of connected buildings and spaces? Only time will tell.

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