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Can a Building Have Empathy?

Are empathic buildings the next phase of smart building technology?

The original function of a building was to shelter us from the elements, but now many modern buildings are beginning to integrate technology that goes beyond merely keeping us warm and dry. Granted, we’ve spoken at length about smart building technology already, so this premise is nothing new. However, there’s a new buzzword on the block that surrounds the latest advances in smart building tech: the ‘empathic building.’ Synonymous with ‘empathetic,’ the name evokes the notion that the building is a compassionate entity. But how can a building become sensitive to a person’s feelings, emotions, or needs? What, exactly, differentiates the empathic building from a regular smart building?

Buildings, which were once inflexible passive assets, are now evolving into active contributors to the success of the business which inhabits them. A smart building is a building rigged with advanced technologies that allow the building owner to manage energy use and reduce operational costs effectively. This is done with a complex network of sensors that can record and report almost every change that happens in a building throughout the day. Lately, smart buildings have also begun integrating digital twin rendering of the structure itself onto its cloud so that the digital representation of the building is available in real-time. Implementing this kind of tech transforms the building from a mere physical object to an essential service for building owners and facilities managers. The technology allows them to see precisely how their assets are used, assess energy use, and even regulate light usage.

The initial objective with smart building technology was to provide data of various building characteristics to building owners and facilities managers. However, the latest smart building design innovations focus on how the structure actually impacts the occupants. Instead of creating reports for optimizing facility management costs, the empathic building focuses on the end-user—the tenant. “Like the word empathic suggests,” says Tomi Teikko, digital futurist and the mind behind the idea, “an empathetic building is a service that aims to measure and execute the best possible end-user experience.” 

One could argue that empathic buildings are a marketing veneer to sell yet another smart building interface. After all, smart office technology does improve the experience of its end-users with air quality detection, temperature control to the personal preferences of users, and even smart spaces where shades adjust when the sun is shining directly in the windows. Comfortable employees tend to be far more productive than those who are not, which definitely keeps employers and building owners happy. Both smart buildings and empathetic buildings utilize technology to identify and remove inefficiencies, no dispute there. Nonetheless, the distinguishing factor between the two lies in the technology’s target audience. Smart buildings bolster decision-making for the building owners on how to best operate their building by providing insight into how the building is used. In contrast, empathetic buildings visualize that data to help the end-user make an informed decision regarding their own wellbeing.

Admittedly, the definitions get a little muddy when it comes to what constitutes empathetic architecture. While it refers to specific technologies like IoT, AI (Artificial Intelligence), voice recognition, and machine learning (ML), some additional factors go into creating an empathic building. Like ‘highly integrated’ technologies within the structure, which make an abundance of interactive experiences for their occupants, empathic buildings visualize the data derived from the building itself onto a 3D model (i.e., the digital twin) that the user can access. Via an app, users can find their way through the building with an AI-based navigation (think Google Maps with more vivid detail), alert maintenance for issues (such as whenever a lightbulb needs to be changed or when a piece of equipment appears to be malfunctioning), or book a conference room with ease. 

Empathic buildings have become especially appealing for offices wishing to phase out of remote work and beckon their employees back. Real-time data analytics can determine how many people are occupying a given space, which is crucial information when operating with limited occupancy mandates, but empathic buildings take pandemic safety concerns a step further. “In the beginning of the pandemic, it became very important to track the real-time usage of a building so that the cleaning crew can disinfect these shared workspaces right after they’re used,” said Timo Korpela, Director of Haltian U.S. “Our empathic building would show which desks are cleaned and which desks are not.”

As we continue to move into a fully tech-enabled digital era, we’re becoming more and more of a data-driven culture. Empathic buildings are just the natural result of smart building technology. As a result, they are inevitable. “At the end of the day, a smart building is a living and breathing element,” says John Love, Founder and CEO of Kingsett Capital. “While it’s defined by concrete and glass, it’s what is inside on a technological basis that will define its performance and customer satisfaction.” The idea is that empathic buildings guide the changes from the existing smart building towards full empathic maturity, with all of the accomplishments and benefits of a smart building in its later stages. As a smart building evolves into an empathic building, it is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary movement. In essence, it’s a reminder that smart buildings have been around for some time now and have been bending our expectations for what buildings can be.

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