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Blaine Brownell explores emergent teleoperation and telerobotics technologies that could revolutionize the built environment.

Design practitioners have become familiar with an array of evolving technologies such as virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR), artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), building information modeling (BIM), and robotics. What we contemplate less often, however, is what happens when these technologies are combined.

Enter the world of teleoperation, which is the control of a machine or system from a physical distance. The concept of a remote-controlled machine is nothing new, but advances in AR and communication technologies are making teleoperability more sophisticated and commonplace. One ultimate goal of teleoperability is telepresence, which is commonly used to describe to videoconferencing, a passive audiovisual experience. But increasingly, it also pertains to remote manipulation. Telerobotics refers specifically to the remote operation of semi-autonomous robots. These approaches all involve a human–machine interface (HMI), which consists of “hardware and software that allow user inputs to be translated as signals for machines that, in turn, provide the required result to the user,” according to Techopedia. As one might guess, advances in HMI technology represent significant potential transformations in building design and construction.

Tokyo-based company SE4 has created a similar telerobotics system that overcomes network lag by using AI to accelerate robotic control. Combining VR and computer vision with AI and robotics, SE4's Semantic Control system can anticipate user choices relative to the robot’s environment. “We’ve created a framework for creating physical understanding of the world around the machines,” said SE4 CEO Lochlainn Wilson in a July interview with The Robot Report. “With semantic-style understanding, a robot in the environment can use its own sensors and interpret human instructions through VR.”

Developed for construction applications, the system can anticipate potential collisions between physical objects, or between objects and the site, as well as how to move objects precisely into place (like the “snap” function in drawing software). Semantic Control can also accommodate collaborative robots, or “cobots,” to build in a coordinated fashion. “With Semantic Control, we’re making an ecosystem where robots can coordinate together,” SE4 chief technology officer Pavel Savkin said in the same article. “The human says what to do, and the robot decides how.”

Eventually, machines may be let loose to construct buildings alongside humans. Despite the significant challenges robotics manufacturers have faced in creating machines that the mobility and agility of the human body, Waltham, Mass.–based BostonDynamics has made tremendous advances. Its Atlas humanoid robot, made of 3D-printed components for lightness, employs a compact hydraulic system with 28 independently powered joints. It can move up to a speed of 4.9 feet per second. Referring to BostonDynamics’ impressive feat, Phil Rader, University of Minnesota VR research fellow, tells ARCHITECT that “the day will come when robots can move freely around and using AI will be able to discern the real world conditions and make real-time decisions.” Rader, an architectural designer who researches VR and telerobotics technologies, imagines that future job sites will likely be populated by humans as well as humanoids, one working alongside the other. The construction robots might be fully autonomous, says Rader, or “it's possible that the robot worker is just being operated by a human from a remote location.”

ZGF Architects LLP
ZGF is analyzing how employees use its Seattle office with computer-vision software

ZGF Architects LLP is testing a computer-vision system in house to see if the technology can help it design office space better. If the pilot goes well, the firm plans to offer the service to clients.

The Portland, Ore.-based architectural firm, which has done work for Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Stanford University, assesses how clients use office space through surveys and staff observations. It is turning to computer vision to collect more-granular details on how people move around and use amenities. The hope is that more accurate data will allow the firm to make informed decisions on how wide stairways should be or the size and number of conference rooms a client needs, for instance.

“Being able to quantify what needs to go into building—rather than roughing it or building something bigger than it needs to be—means we can be more precise about how we design things,” said Dane Stokes, who leads the five-person ZGF computational design team that’s managing the pilot at the company’s Seattle office.

The computer-vision system under testing currently consists of four cameras that feed footage into object-recognition software.

The company has been moving those cameras around hallways and 12 conference rooms in a 39,000-square-foot office spread across two floors and connected by two stairways. It is testing the optimal placement for counting people and assessing the system’s effectiveness in recognizing objects such as office chairs and cellphones.

ZGF’s computer-vision trial illustrates how businesses are discovering new uses for artificial intelligence.

Very few architectural firms tap computer vision to analyze how office space is used, said Stanislas Chaillou, an architect and data scientist at Oslo-based property-technology company Spacemaker. The move could give ZGF a competitive edge, particularly when bidding on remodeling projects, he added.

“And as the space is being analyzed and the client sees that there is value to remodel the space, then that firm will be the company they call,” Mr. Chaillou said.

Computer-vision systems use machine learning to identify images. ZGF is using open-source software programs OpenCV and YOLO, which recognize thousands of objects such as humans and electronic devices up to roughly 50 feet away from the camera. The data is then fed into a visualization program that creates a 3-D representation of the space, its objects and occupants and their movement.

ZGF is working on integrating data from the computer-vision system with information collected from workers, including their feedback on environmental factors such as lighting and acoustics and their satisfaction about the availability of amenities such as conference rooms. The feedback will give ZGF architects a more complete picture of how people utilize and feel about a space.

One challenge the company is working through is getting its employees to trust the system, Mr. Stokes said, given the public concerns about intelligent cameras and privacy. Mr. Stokes said the system doesn’t utilize facial recognition; it only identifies people as “humans.” It also doesn’t record video: the system analyzes footage in real time but doesn’t save the images it captures, only the related data. To help allay any concerns during the internal trial, Mr. Stokes said he gave employees a demonstration of the system’s capabilities.

Even with all those steps, he said, clients may be hesitant to opt in to the system. “Working with clients is going to be interesting,” he said. “We’re trying to answer questions with our own staff so that we can speak more confidently about deploying it in our client spaces.”

He added: “As we go through this quest to learn more about how our spaces work, we’ve learned the ethics of how we should track that data [and] how we can get a better data set without compromising people’s comfort about the technology. We don’t want to get all ‘Big Brother’ on people.”

This summer, ZGF plans to launch an external trial on an undisclosed university-affiliated research center it designed, which has about 80,000 square feet of labs, classrooms and collaboration spaces.
Garrett Rowland
Perkins+Will has overhauled the North American headquarters of consumer goods company Unilever, with new communal areas designed to help employees forget they're in a suburban office park.

British-Dutch manufacturer Unilever has long had its North American headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City.

But increasingly, the company has needed a more dynamic work environment to help recruit employees.

rchitecture firm Perkins+Will was charged with rethinking the corporate campus, which accommodates about 1,450 employees and several hundred independent contractors.

The goal was to create a showpiece headquarters that would be "smart, sustainable and Instagram-ready – with a feeling like you were in Manhattan".

Rather that razing the site and starting fresh, the architects chose to renovate four existing rectilinear buildings. They also added a lofty central atrium that rises 40 feet (12 metres) on the site of a former courtyard.

"The 325,000-square-foot renovation included interiors, as well as the construction of an entry pavilion and common area that stitched together the open space between individual buildings to create an entirely new, enclosed structure," said the firm.

The existing buildings, which date back to the 1960s and 70s, are completely revamped.

Traditional, cellular layouts are replaced with open workspaces, huddle rooms and lounges. Because there are no assigned desks, lockers have also been added, providing employees with a secure place for their belongings.

The central volume houses The Marketplace, where employees can shop, work and socialise. The vast, light-filled space features cafe tables and a giant staircase that doubles as seating.

Additional amenities at the campus include coffee stations, a fitness centre, a hair salon and a cafeteria.

Throughout the facility, concrete floors and exposed ceilings give interior spaces an industrial look. Wooden decor and eclectic furnishings help soften the atmosphere. In one area, the team created a living room, complete with a fireplace set within a brick wall.

The building features a range of smart technologies, including thousands of sensors that measure light, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and human presence.

"The final building design incorporates smart technologies by EDGE that record data and automate the building's features and functions, including internet-of-things systems that enable the building to learn from occupants' behaviours and remember their preferences," the team said.

In addition to the smart systems, the building's sustainable elements include solar panels and ample natural light.

During construction, 75 per cent of the construction material was diverted away from landfills. To help reduce car usage by employees, the company offers a shuttle service from New York City, Hoboken and Jersey City.
Building Design + Construction
Generation Z learns and connects in unique ways. As they move from higher ed to the workplace, companies that depend on the productivity of a youthful workforce should take note.

I came to Hanbury in 2017, after designing and managing workplace interiors projects for more than a decade. So naturally, I've observed the higher ed students we design for through a slightly different lens—not just as students but as the next generation of knowledge workers. I can't help but think of how their unique behaviors and preferences will shape the workplaces to come.

Generation Z is heavily influenced by technology. Technology, although cultivating broad social and cultural connections through social networks, also sometimes creates isolation. In the learning environment, face to face interaction is key in developing a sense of commonality, purpose and learning. Collective learning, where students are taught to learn through group engagement helps to create a sense of community and adds to diversity of thought and experience. In keeping with this trend in the education sector, collaboration has also become the preferred method of working. Physical engagement and the "making of things" has become the foundation of educational process. Students gather with their peers in groups ranging from clusters of three to five and sometimes larger. When in large group learning, the group sizes ebb and flow as members break off into clusters to focus and engage, creating spontaneous interactions and opportunities for engagement, periodically rejoining the larger group for discussion.

Spaces that support this transitional collaboration require flexibility to turn large spaces into small spaces, and to connect small spaces into larger spaces. These amorphous spaces work best as casual environments that empower people to move and use furniture in ways that suit their particular needs at that moment.

Companies should consider furnishing office workspace with groupings of comfortable and easily movable pieces that can accommodate both smaller clusters and large groups. These spaces should also have plenty of opportunities to plug in as these gatherings often gravitate to where power is available. Depending on the nature of the work, places where clusters of people can mock up, prototype, and test their ideas might also be useful.

The education environment today is both physical and virtual. In universities today, I would wager that most students would consider YouTube as their secondary learning environment. Online classes and supplemented learning is increasingly common. Recent graduates are accustomed to taking their digital preferences and work progress with them from device to device, from office to car to home. Due to easy access to digital information, continual learning and augmented learning of class material outside the classroom is the norm. Just as students are learning everywhere, the young knowledge worker will have a fluid relationship with where work is done and information is acquired.

The cloud and the Internet of Things (IOT) are increasingly important to young workers. Hoteling desks feel instantly personalized when lighting, chairs and other connected devices automatically adjust to their pre-set preferences. As technology continues to improve, interconnected devices that read one's preferences, condition, location and interest will become ubiquitous in the work and home environment. Access to information from different devices and sources, untethered to a physical space, creates new opportunities for learning.

Turning inward for reflection, alone time and even recreation is part of the Gen Z culture. In large open spaces, students use headphones and goggle monitors (for Augmented Reality) to provide private focus in public environments, either for work or play. While accommodating the gaming preferences of young staffers may not be appropriate in a work setting, privacy is important. Small spaces separated by glass provide privacy and noise reduction while allowing a visual connection to what is happening in the collaborative spaces.

Work life balance is a driving force for Generation Z. The office is looked at as a place to gain autonomy, learning, social engagement and purpose. The trend to create spaces of play is being substituted with places of creativity, where making things and collaboration are promoted. Corporate recreation lounges of today may become less and less attractive as younger employees look to their offices a
Garrett Rowland
The next generation of intelligent buildings offers promise for unseen levels of energy efficiency, optimization, and occupant health and productivity.

Buoyed by a surge of high-tech innovations and several years of robust U.S. construction markets, AEC teams are working on ideas for “smart buildings.” Since the mid-1980s, a new generation of products, technologies, and analytical tools has transformed the building landscape. The benefits of “smart” technologies and operations for design, construction, and ownership/operations are now inescapable.

Prior to the 1990s, the notion of intelligent buildings focused on controls and automated processes for building operations, mainly in HVAC, lighting, and security systems, says Joachim Schuessler, Principal with Goettsch Partners. “Then, about 15 to 20 years ago, we started working on buildings that optimized controllability and comfort for the users,” he says. By the late 1990s, tools like building information modeling were making built projects a digital extension of the architectural/engineering and fabrication processes, with valuable impacts on downstream operations such as facility management.

The latest definitions of smart buildings embrace a much broader, more futuristic outlook. Schuessler and other experts describe the new paradigm as buildings and building portfolios created and operated using technology systems that aggregate data, make decisions, and continuously optimize operations with ongoing predictive feedback, including from building systems and occupants.

David Herd, Managing Partner with BuroHappold Engineering, asks: “Do the building’s design and systems anticipate programmatic change over time? Is it a ‘well’ building that helps keep people healthy? If it’s smart, today’s thinking goes, it can accomplish these goals, and more.”

Tech-enabled properties transcend time and place, too. “Smart buildings can also be defined as connected buildings,” says Marco Macagnano, PhD, Senior Manager, Lead: Smart Real Estate with Deloitte Consulting. They are “the product of an omni-channel approach focused on generating meaningful information to support decision making through data analysis.”

Connected systems should add practical value while protecting against hackers and other breaches. They can benefit O&M by tracking energy-use intensity (EUI) across multiple campuses or by alerting a facilities department that an escalator is in jeopardy of failing. Owners can use the cloud and the Internet to access existing systems to do more. Bring in the ability of Big Data to tap into worldwide reporting on facility operations, and building owners can suddenly identify patterns and trends that could lead to better design choices.

“The biggest difference with current smart buildings is that tech is the enabler of three primary pillars: sustainability and carbon neutrality, the well-being of users, and user-centered design,” says Jan-Hein Lakeman, Executive Managing Director of Edge Technologies and OVG Real Estate USA.
With these smart systems and connected devices installed, your smart home can help take care of you in your golden years.

As we age, our homes can become dangerous places, especially if we live alone or have health problems. Fear of falling or being unable to carry out daily routines safely are often driving factors behind a decision to move out of a much-loved home and into an assisted living facility. Here’s where the smart home can help.

Smart security systems, connected sensors, and a multitude of other smart home devices can address many common challenges of aging, helping seniors stay safer and healthier in their homes for longer. By equipping our homes with this type of smart tech today, it's possible to create a space we can live in for (almost) all our tomorrows.

Here, we look at some of the technology you can install in your home, or the home of an elderly parent, to make it not only a safer home, but also a caring home.

"The number one technology you need in a home to help you stay in it for longer is a home security system," says Laurie Orlov, founder of Aging in Place Technology Watch. "Second, there should be some form of social engagement technology in the home, such as a smart speaker, so people are not isolated. And these both depend on number three, which is having some form of high-speed Internet access into the home."

Mesh WiFi Systems

The advent of Mesh WiFi—a system that uses multiple routers working together to channel high-speed Internet to every corner of your house—has made aging in place technology much more viable. It’s now possible to have connected devices that will work reliably anywhere in your home. Mesh systems from Samsung, Google, and Eero (now owned by Amazon) can all deliver this type of high-powered connectivity.

A benefit of the Samsung SmartThings WiFi system is that it doubles as a smart home hub, which supports a wide range of connected devices, including sensors that can help monitor movement in your home (or lack of it) to alert a family member or caregiver if there is a problem (see Smart Sensors).

Smart Security Systems

Safety, both from intruders and disasters such as fire and flooding, is a major concern for elderly people living alone. A smart security system like Abode's home security solution can be installed to monitor doors, windows, and motion—triggering an alarm that can notify authorities and/or caregivers if there’s a problem.

This type of system also works with smoke alarms, flood sensors, and freeze/temperature sensors. If a senior shares access to the Abode system with a caregiver, that person can check in via a smartphone app and know that the temperature is comfortable, all the doors and windows are secure, and they'll be alerted if a smoke or CO alarm is triggered.
Tracie Ching
In a roundtable with ARCHITECT, architect Paul Doherty, policy and sustainability expert Debra Lam, and author Anthony Townsend trade opinions and insights on what the buzzword really means, why the world’s largest companies want a stake, and how architects can step up to the plate.

Paul Doherty is a registered architect, the chairman and CEO of the international company The Digit Group (TDG), an honorary senior fellow of the Design Futures Council, and a fellow of the International Facility Management Association. His past ventures include Revit Technology and Buzzsaw (both purchased by Autodesk), and TRIRIGA (purchased by IBM). TDG is currently involved in numerous smart city plans and real estate developments around the world.

Debra Lam is the managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation for Georgia Tech, and founder of the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge. Previously, she served as Pittsburgh’s first chief of innovation and performance, where she crafted the city’s landmark strategic plan, the “Pittsburgh Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation,” and she was a policy and urban sustainability associate and senior consultant at Arup. She sits on the MetroLab Network and Neighborhood Nexus boards.

Anthony Townsend is the founder of Bits and Atoms, a smart cities strategy consultancy and planning studio, based in New York, that works with industry, government, and philanthropy on economic development, digital placemaking, and technology forecasting. He is also the author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013). In 2001, he co-founded NYCwireless, a pioneer in the community and municipal wireless movement.

ARCHITECT: How do you currently define a smart city? I say “currently” because the definition has evolved as technologies have come and gone, and as experiments have failed or succeeded.

Lam: I think of smart cities as a process because it’s a change in local context and improvements in technology. It’s not an end state. You don’t suddenly declare yourself a smart city and then forget about it.

You’re starting out with a challenge, problem, or mission and thinking about what hardware, research, and processes are available in the toolkit. But it’s not led by technology and it’s not some sort of shiny object to just purchase and think you’re smart.

Townsend: There’s been effort over the years to formally define smart cities by the British Standards Institution, a variety of U.S.–based organizations, and some consulting companies like Arup. To me, it’s a movement that’s about using digital technology to solve the timeless problems of cities—
Sidewalk Labs
Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs has prompted a backlash over data privacy with its Quayside smart-city project. Alex Bozikovic reports on what's been overlooked amid the controversy.

This smart city of the future first appeared in cutesy sketches. Drawn in a cheerful palette were a kayaker paddling in a harbor, a dad pulling a little one in a bike trailer, children running hand-in-hand through a carless streetscape. There were gondolas and pergolas, and underground robots carrying waste. And, vaguely, in the background, there were also buildings.

This was the vision for Quayside, a new waterfront neighborhood in Toronto conceived by “Sidewalk Toronto,” a partnership between a local public agency and Sidewalk Labs, a New York–based unit of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. “By leveraging technology and combining it with really smart, people-centric urban planning,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said at the time, “we could have really dramatic impacts on quality of life.”

Sidewalk Toronto was launched in October 2017. A year and a few months later, the vision for Quayside remains only slightly less vague than those initial drawings. The 3 million-square-foot project promises to include many of the hallmarks of smart-city ventures: “dynamic streets” designed for autonomous vehicles, “radical-mixed-use” buildings featuring “power-over-Ethernet,” and a novel approach to retail and service space that prioritizes pop-ups over long-term leases. The project also promises to inspire meaningful innovations in construction and real estate practice. “We’re putting forward new technologies that have not been integrated before,” says Karim Khalifa, a mechanical engineer who is the director of buildings innovation for Sidewalk Labs. “The project includes prefabricated mass timber at a scale that has never been attempted.”

Perhaps most importantly, Quayside promises to generate endless streams of data—from buildings, road sensors, traffic signals, and other sources—with the promise that they will make the development more efficient, safe, and pleasant. Local resistance to the plan has mounted, however, as residents of various political stripes have raised a provocative series of questions. Who will control that data? What does a tech-inspired, Google-affiliated city mean, technologically, socially, economically, and politically? What, exactly, is Sidewalk trying to build?

An Instigator, Not a Developer
Quayside is the first major project by Sidewalk Labs— a showpiece that the company hopes will define its reputation in the field of “urban innovation.” It
NikolaVukojevic /iStock
Design leaders at Microsoft, Google, Ideo, Pentagram, Gensler, and more weigh in.

Everyone is overworked and unhappy. Digital platforms have sucked the last of our attention and sanity. If you read the headlines in 2018, you’d have every reason to feel pessimistic about the future.

But the design experts we talked to–from companies such as Microsoft, Google, Ideo, and Forrester–offer a glimmer of hope. As they look forward to 2019, they agree on one thing: The cold, corporate thinking that has defined the business world over the past several years doesn’t jive with how people want to live. In 2019, people will be more than mere data points; it’s a designer’s job to make sure of it. Here are nine key design predictions for 2019.


“Design has journeyed into uncharted territory. The impact of technology is more strongly felt than ever and at scales never seen before—some of it positive, but much of it negative. We’re distracted, depressed, and overwhelmed. The digital experiences that were once fun, delightful, and helpful now feel like a burden; an always-on state that we hope to escape.

“In 2019, I believe design needs to be the answer to that escape. We need to take a hard look in the mirror and hold ourselves accountable to the unintended consequences of rapid innovation. Do we need 1 million new apps a year? Do we need to design for constant engagement? Do we need to live in the corners of Dark UX? We do not. We need to be more intentional and design experiences that support cognitive sustainability for individuals, groups, and society. It’s time now for designers to take on this ethical responsibility. The biggest design trend will be a return to mindfulness and focus.” —Albert Shum, corporate VP of design, Microsoft
Building “envelopes” seal off our living and working space. It’s time for a more living architecture.

Traditional buildings are designed to provide protection against a savage world, with us safe on one side and our waste on the other. Architects have long relied on “hard” materials such as masonry, aluminum and glass, specifically chosen to prevent the outside environment from getting in. Impermeability was, and is, a driving goal.

It is time to rethink that approach. Our current built environment squanders too much fresh water and other vital resources, and tips too many poisonous substances into our surroundings. To develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world, we need to allow chemical exchanges that take place within our living spaces, and between the inside and the outside. We need to embrace permeability.

Until the rise of modernity, a certain amount of the outside world always leaked into our living spaces, entering through crumbling brickwork, broken seals and open windows and doors. However, with the rapid growth of industrial cities in the mid-19th century, pollution, overcrowding and disease posed new external threats. The remedy was to exert tighter control over our habitats, with the result that buildings became true barriers.

Today’s building “envelopes” seal off our living and working spaces to a degree previously unencountered. In many offices, it is no longer possible to open windows manually to let in a breeze. Automated air-conditioning systems (often answering only to sensors and software) blast summer heat out into scorching walkways, amplifying the urban heat-island effect and contributing to heat-related health risks. Such buildings ignore the metabolism that is the dynamic scaffolding of living systems.

During the 1970s, the ecologists John and Nancy Jack Todd and William McLarney founded the New Alchemy Institute–now the Green Center on Cape Cod in Massachusetts–to reconceive building spaces as part of a self-sustaining human ecosystem. Such spaces would not be hermetically sealed, but rather open to the flow of natural elements. The research institute experimented with integrating a range of sustainable systems, such as solar power, organic agriculture, aquaculture and bio-shelter design, which went hand in hand with the permeability of these living spaces. Their results pointed a promising way forward.