No drivers wanted

April 01, 2001 |

Does your latest building project need a driver? I mean, do the plans and specs call for a live human being to inhabit your creation for no reason other than to crank levers and push buttons?

One would hope not. At the dawn of our digital millennium, does it make sense that a building need be operated?

Maintained, OK. Cleaned, certainly. But a full-time operator?

To me, it's like asking if a two-bedroom ranch in Topeka needs a live-in engineer, or whether your four-door sedan deserves a full-time mechanic. (I apologize if it does. Been there myself.) It sounds silly, so why is the human being an irreplaceable part of your straight-ahead, midrise office building in the suburbs? Or that 60-room hotel on the strip, or this 1,000-student grade school?

The quaint notion of the white-gloved elevator pilot went the way of the horse and buggy. Can't facilities be designed for self-service? Shouldn't they be?

Le Corbusier called buildings "machines for living," and today's best machines are part structure and part microelectronics. Were he alive, Corbu might have been more impressed by our microwave ovens and auto dashboards than by our occupied structures.

To achieve the ultimate in millennial design, today's building teams must look beyond energy-management and controls systems to focus first on the function and intent of the architecture. When understood, good design and wise investment up front-followed by proper tuning, commissioning and end-user training-will render the on-site operator obsolete, save for the largest, most complex airports and factories.

Automation is certainly central to the equation. Still, the key to success is the right mix of owner, designer and constructor, good technical knowledge and strong design and preconstruction phases. It's about collaboration, and what architect Helmut Jahn likes to call "engineering support."

What shouldn't be central to the equation: high-tech flash, or extravagantly automated and motorized everything on occupancy sensors. And it's not a rerun of the "smart building" craze, the misdirected techno-fest of the 1980s that did nothing but ignore the most basic concerns of building owners.

The simple fact is that most building systems and devices have built-in microelectronics, much of which can be networked. Even structural members can be fitted with commercially available sensors and alarms to assess moisture infiltration or post-earthquake damage. Other products can remotely sense occupant loads, buy energy in real time, schedule preventive maintenance and hold intruders at bay. Better yet, they can tie in with "front-end" business systems for inventory tracking, human resources support, financial reporting-even regulatory compliance or air-traffic control.

On the downside, however, one must confess that many of these products suffer from weak track records. They can be expensive, unreliable and a largely invisible-and thus not very charming-investment.

If the focus remains on what is truly needed and beneficial, however, an appropriately "intelligent" building can be the key to staying competitive and cost-effective. It is a critical part of energy efficiency, cost control, effective maintenance-and even sustainable design (see pages 26 to 52).

Bricks and mortar now have a digital complement. And they have a human element, as well: the technician, the janitor and the rent collector are here to stay. But by balancing cost and need, a control strategy can emerge that-as in your home or car-make occupant and operator one.

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