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The Art and Science of Interactive Buildings

A growing two-way conversation between person and place

“One day our buildings won’t just remember us, they will dream about us.” 

This prediction, as ridiculous as it may at first sound, was shared with me by an artist named Refik Anadol. By the end of our conversation, I found myself agreeing with him. Refik is the designer behind a number of famous “data sculptures.” His installations and exhibits can be found all over the world. One of the commonalities for all of his art is that it is programmed to take in its surrounding environment, the shapes of the people passing by, the colors of the social media posts being created nearby, the sounds of traffic, and use them to create unique, beautiful images.

His latest, Virtual Appliqués is in the Grand Court of the Beverly Center, a luxurious three-story mall in the heart of Beverly Hills. It showcases how the ever-changing information intake of his art can create a flowing piece of texture that resembles fabric blowing in the wind. Interactive art like this has the ability to captivate audiences time and time again. No matter how long you look at it, you are always confronted with a new image. And this is only the beginning. 

Working with a team at UCLA and as an artist in residence at Google, Refik is building software that will give buildings the ability to record all of its occupants and place them in animations later. In his mind, this would be like a building dreaming about the people it once housed. It would bring people into the art in an incredibly personal way, and it would give buildings the ability to dream.

This all sounds very nice, creating interactive art based on what is happening in real-time. But for it to be used in a substantial way by the property industry in more than just a select few showy art installations, it needs to actually improve our buildings. According to Refik, it helps make a connection between a person and a place unlike any other. “Art like this creates dialogue, the first step in creating a culture. Architecture can just be an empty space. If there is no culture, there is no human connection to a space. We give the space a way to narrate and create a connection.”

Turning a building into a culture or a place into a destination is something that any good architect, designer, builder, owner or operator loves to talk about. But, if we really want to be able to create a space that people relate to, one that people have feelings for, there has to be interaction. It’s one thing to have a beautiful surrounding—ure, it can brighten your spirit and impart emotions—but to really connect with you there has to be a back and forth. Even the most beautiful paintings start to go unnoticed over time, and even the most beautiful spaces start to lose their emotional appeal. The only way to keep the same sense of connection with a space is to change it regularly.

The Ebay headquarters in San Jose, California wanted to use interactivity to create a connection not only with the building, but the brand itself. As a massive network of online buyers and sellers, Ebay wanted to be able to tell the stories of the products being sold on its platform in a powerful way. They used ESI Design, a design firm that specializes in experience design, to help them achieve this. As you walk in, pillars in the lobby display important metrics for what is happening on the platform at the moment, how many pieces of clothing are listed, or what are the main types of products being searched for, for example. This culminates with a giant touch screen that can be used to query information about the current state of the retail brand such as top sellers and actual auction prices. 

“Main Street” as the headquarter’s lobby is called, was one of the ways that Ebay has pushed to create a connection with their employees and with the outside world. “We are reinventing our brand, we are reinventing our culture, and it’s so important to have a physical manifestation of that,” said Lars Kongshim, Director of Corporate Digital Experience at the firm. “It’s a gathering place for our employees that is inspirational, engaging, fun and interactive. As you see the amazing digital experiences and the content and the data visualizations you can’t quantify the value of that inspirational moment,” he added.

Art is beautiful but we like it to be dynamic. It makes people pay attention to when it changes. We are competing with people looking down at their phones so we need to create an experience they can’t get on a phone screen.

Emily Webster, Head of Media Architecture at ESI Design explained the importance of creating a building that changes based on who is using it. “A mural can get old,” she said. “Art is beautiful but we like it to be dynamic. It makes people pay attention to when it changes. We are competing with people looking down at their phones so we need to create an experience they can’t get on a phone screen.” She also sees this kind of interactive art as a way for buildings to connect with the neighborhood. Many of her installations are on the outside of buildings or are seen as ways to entice people to come into the lobbies of buildings where they would normally not feel welcome.

Bringing people towards a building was the thinking behind an innovative piece of work that sits outside Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. “The Discovery Wall” was commissioned to thank donors for helping fund research in the building and to educate neighbors on what possibly life-changing discoveries are happening right on their block. From a distance, the wall displays information by changing the color of its lemon-sized pixels. But when you get closer you can see that each of these pixels is actually a round lens magnifying a small, high-definition screen displaying information or imagery from the lab’s research.

Alice Britton, Co-founder and Director at Squint/Opera, the creative digital studio behind the Discovery Wall said, “Media architecture offers brands the chance to add value by telling meaningful stories through the building’s form. Organizations can connect in authentic, two-way dialogues with their local community and make the invisible—namely, what is often confined within the walls of a building—visible.” The way that the wall is designed isn’t only interactive but is meant to draw people into an interaction with it.

There has been interaction between buildings and its occupants for quite some time. You could argue that the automatic door is an example of a building reacting to your needs. But, these fell short of creating relationships with buildings since they were always a bit of a novelty and not personalized enough to change the way that we connect with our surroundings. These art installs take that interaction to a much more powerful level. They are all things that shape an occupant’s relationship with the building. While this is important, personalization also has important benefits for another large stakeholder in the landscape: the management.

“Property has, for a long time, been a one-way conversation,” said Marcus Moufarrige, Co-founder of workspace management software Ility. “This is a contradiction in terms of interactivity, not only in the mentality of the property owners but in the way all of the systems were designed that ran the building. They were always designed to look at interactions through the lens of operability not interactivity. This is because the more interactivity there is, the more complexity there is.” It is this complexity that is precisely the thing that has kept more buildings from having interactive capabilities. If a building owner or manager wants to make their building more interactive they are often confronted with more problems than they have reasons to solve them. But technology is slowly solving this.

Turning a building into an experience certainly has value but not value that can easily be measured. While you could argue that a better experience can attract tenants that are willing to pay for, it can be hard to make that case on paper, where appraisals live. Real estate companies live and die by their net operating income. To improve that there must be a measurable improvement in the way that the building operates. Marcus’s company is creating technology that can increase the value of a building much more than an interactive mural or art installation, by helping them sell their product faster. 

Most leases are large, complicated documents that take days of back and forth with tenants to sign. This is at odds with the growing trend in the office industry of flexible space. Flexibility, after all, should allow a company to get in and out of a space with ease. WeWork, for all its flaws, has shown the value of having an easy, non-committal way of bringing tenants on. If offices, or any other building for that matter, wants to make its product more flexible they need to find better ways to start and stop leases. Ility has done that by creating an interactive platform for rights management. This lets tenants find and rent space in an automated way. “Self-service is the best service as far as we are concerned,” Marcus said. For owners, the interactivity between tenants and the building allows them to play a much smaller role in what has always been a very labor-intensive process. 

Allowing a building to interact directly with a tenant changes more than just its ability to sign them up for a lease. If buildings are able to anticipate our needs, they will be able to adjust what we see, hear and feel. In order for them to do that they will need to take a page from the online world, following us around with our personal information and historical data. This means that we will need to see more buildings adopt the tenant experience apps that have become popular in many large, marquee office spaces. But this will come with headwinds. Buying a tenant experience app is one thing, but for them to be adopted by occupants of buildings, management has to find ways to incentivize their use. This again creates the complexity that most building owners would often rather do without.

While creating an interactive building, one that can personalize the experience based on the preference of each guest, is no easy task, it might become one that is too important to ignore. Tenant experience apps have already helped buildings know much more about their occupants and increased the functionality of things like booking conference room space or adjusting a room’s temperature. Now they are able to personalize the building’s experience for each tenant. 

The hotel industry has long understood the value of personalization. Hotels like The Sinclaire in Fort Worth, Texas use technology to create an environment where every member of the staff automatically knows the name of every person in that environment. It also allows them to automatically adjust rooms so that lighting, music, and even shower temp respond to each person’s preference, without them having to do as much as push a button. Smart mirrors display relevant information, travel time to their destination, and news and entertainment tailored for each guest. 

Right now this is a luxury, something meant to create a memorable experience worth the extra price tag. But eventually, we might see it become the norm. As more and more of our world anticipates our needs—our computers know what we are typing before we finish each word, our phones know where our commute is likely taking us before we search for the address, our cars adjust their seats and music volume to our favorite positions—why wouldn’t we expect something similar for our buildings where we spend ninety-percent of our time?

Beyond just creating connections with building occupants, there might be a lot of money to be made. One of the things that tenant experience apps have been able to do is to make a building a portal for e-commerce. By connecting tenants to products and services that they can have delivered directly to their workplace, tenant experience apps have been able to sit in the middle of a lot of transactions that they had never been privy to before. The first place most of us go when shopping online is Google or Amazon because they have established themselves as the place to find the best deals from anywhere in the world. But when we are shopping from a specific location, looking for services that can come directly to us in our buildings, we could look to the buildings themselves to help us make those purchases. Google knows a lot about you, but it doesn’t know which vendors have credentials to get into the buildings you work in.

Being a place for personalized commerce can also help better utilize its space. Sure, a building might have a gym, but helping people find fitness classes would be a much better way to ensure that it gets used. Sure, a building might have a coffee shop, but being able to deliver coffee and bagels to a busy team of workers thirty-stories above would help get the most out of the retail space. By creating a way for people to find and purchase things from inside and outside of the building, tenant apps are both creating better experiences for those using it and new revenue streams for the building owners.

One of the headwinds for interactive buildings is the concern over privacy. The idea of losing our privacy creates a visceral reaction as it confronts one of the foundational human needs. But, our idealism against the loss of privacy is subconsciously weighed against its benefits. We don’t like how much our computers know about us, but we love how much better an experience we get when information is auto-filled and content is tailored to our predilections. We don’t like how Facebook is able to influence what we see in our feed, but we gladly give them a running tally of who and what we like so we can be more connected with our friends and family. Our physical privacy might become just as negotiable as our digital privacy has been for years, if not decades. 

It may not be long before we look back on our buildings, the rigidness in which they operated without any consideration of the differences between users, and see them as primitive. We might have a hard time remembering what it was like before buildings anticipated our needs and bent themselves to our preferences. As we look at the walls and see ourselves, our needs, our passions displayed upon them we might wonder what it was like before buildings dreamt of us.

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.