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Eight Principles for Creating Smarter, Better Buildings

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In 1988 an influential book came out called The Design of Everyday Things. Written by cognitive scientist Donald Norman, the book struck a chord with designers at the time because it showed how much thought and iteration went into even the most commonplace objects like doors. It made a particularly large impact on the nascent vocation of computer programmers who were struggling to find ways to make their revolutionary digital products more approachable. The book is credited with popularizing the term “user-centered design,” a design principle that is often overlooked but is actually one of the most critical to a product’s success.

It might seem obvious to design something for the end-user but there are often many other criteria that can supersede it in the design process. Attributes such as aesthetics, marketability, and cost often become the main focus of the engineering and design process. But, Norman argues that aesthetics, marketability, and cost are irrelevant if no one likes to use the product in the first place. 

Technologists have been thinking about user-centered design for a while, but the concept hasn’t been top of mind for those in the built world. This is due to a disconnect that exists between the creators and financiers of buildings and those that will eventually be living or working in them. Unlike with consumer products or software, when it comes to buildings there are no such things as prototypes and beta versions. Designers have tried their best to create representative drawings for buildings, first with blueprints, then with 3D models, and now with immersive virtual reality, but these are not able to fully capture the experience of walking around in the finished building. Things like sounds and smells can’t be translated into our models. Plus, much of the tech that will accompany the buildings, things like access control, wayfinding, and space booking are a seminal part of a modern building’s user experience but are not represented in its original plans.

For decades now we have been referring to buildings that use technology synonymously with being “smart.” As such, when you look at what is being considered a smart building, it almost always means more technologically advanced. The problem is that adding tech to something is not the same as making it more user friendly. Oftentimes, it is actually the opposite. 

So, what does it mean for a building to be smart? And is being smart enough to become more functional? That was the question at the heart of a podcast series Beyond Smart Buildings.

We reached out to Vincent Dermody who has been speaking to what he has coined, “In8 Space,” or a list of principles that don’t just make a building smarter, but make it more user-centered. Vincent is a Managing Direction with the advisory, assurance, and tax firm, CohnReznick. In his career working with building operators and owners to understand the needs and uses of real estate technology, he has identified eight different principles that building owners and operators need to embrace for their buildings to be more friendly.

There are lots of familiar words here, but let me break down Vincen’t “In8 Principles” in the context of buildings.

  • Intelligent is the way a building can collect and act on lots of data. It is certainly an important principle, but not the only consideration by a long shot.
  • Innovate is the ability to continuously improve upon its operations.
  • Integrity is how much trust the building management is able to put into the data that is being collected.
  • Insight is the ability to learn something new from the data.
  • Integrate is the building’s ability to integrate not only with all of its technology, but with its end users as well.
  • Inclusive pertains to how a building is able to adapt to the wide variety of humans that use it.
  • Intuitive has to do with how well users are able to use and understand any changes a building undergoes.
  • Involved pertains to how a building is able to improve the lives of the people both in the building and around it. 

To exemplify these principles, we talked to leaders in the smart building space about how they incorporated them into their decision making, whether they originally knew about the principle or not.

Our podcast guests include: Sheridan Ware, Chief Information and Technology Officer at Charter Hall; Maureen Ehrenberg of Blue Skyre IBE; Lisa Stanley of OSCRE International; Susan Gerock of WashREIT; Miao Song, CIO of GLP; Lisa Harvey of the Spiritual Quotient; Alana Collins, Head of Real Estate and Workplace at Zoom; and Joanna Frank of the Center for Active Design.

These conversations taught us an immeasurable amount about buildings, not just what makes them smart but what makes them better. Better buildings are more usable, they are able to improve our lives and make people want to come back to the office. Better buildings are more valuable, they create efficiency and increase demand which in turn allows them to sell and lease for a premium. Better buildings are also more sustainable, helping us, directly and indirectly, improve outcomes in health, safety, and prosperity. Vincent Dermody’s eight principles of intelligent space provide excellent guideposts for owners and operators who would like both a smart and better building. User-centered design has been behind many of the most popular products in the world, and it’s about time that we apply these concepts to the buildings where we spend the majority of our lives.

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