Intelligent buildings match occupiers’ needs

Copyright: David Lawson/Financial Times 1996

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Intelligence and technology are  often treated as synonymous in construction research, but this is a false image. An 'intelligent building' will often use  high technology but its IQ does not automatically rise by adding more  electronics. Intelligence is gauged according to how well a structure satisfies the needs of its occupiers, according to DEGW, the designers and space planners. The firm has even created an IQ rating system  based on the handling of three management areas - the tenants' business, the building and the interior spaces. 

 This stems from a  Europe-wide study with Teknibank, published in 1992. Now the research initiative is being carried further afield. With Ove Arup and Northcroft, DEGW has been studying almost 20 buildings in south-east Asia and sponsors are  being sought for similar research in Latin America. This testing leans heavily on measures such as whether an occupier's activities match the technology. In other words, changing the tenant might be as much an option as raising the building's specifications.

 Research therefore straddles the two areas of building services and the way occupiers carry out their businesses. 'The truly intelligent building is mostly a myth, but a lot of people are working hard towards achieving premises which increase productivity for the occupants while minimising impact on the environment,' says Mike Warner, a senior partner with property consultants Richard Ellis. He, for instance, is managing the creation of a new headquarters for Lloyd's Register of Shipping in the City, using  research into leading-edge technology. One of the most radical changes in modern building is not in the high-powered heart of London, however, but on the Stockley Business Park  near Heathrow. Here Arup Associates have drawn on extensive research in Germany to create an entirely new idea about how to satisfy complex and conflicting  demands in modern buildings.

 Funders demand air-conditioning to ensure comfort in  all weathers but occupiers want low running costs, according to James Burland of Arup. Staff like the idea of  controlling  personal conditions, such as  by opening windows and maintaining  contact with the outside world. Deep, square blocks with internal atriums - giant light wells -  have solved some of these problems for the last 30 years, but Arup have reversed this principle.  Instead of piercing the  92,000 sq ft block, it is laid out in a cross and wrapped in a  giant conservatory. This 'reinterprets the traditional wall', say the designers. The external glass facades keep out the weather, leaving internal ones to act as sunshades. Staff are close to light and can open windows into  the conservatories without disturbing internal climate control.

  The biggest problem faced by designers lies not in new buildings, however, but old ones. Occupiers are no longer interested in a vast stock of offices which are rapidly becoming obsolete. In central London alone, around a tenth of the stock is empty and  three-quarters of this will struggle to find tenants because of low specifications.  Even buildings put up  10 years ago are often unsuitable to modern office  technology. Many will be demolished but researchers point out that this will be a huge waste of resources.

 A multi-disciplinary team drawn from property consultants Knight Frank, architects Sheppard Robson, cost consultants Gardiner & Theobald and environmental specialists Rybka Battle, has been researching   refurbishment as a solution.  A detailed study was made  of a 30-year-old City office block  called Walker House to show the potential.  Expansion outwards or upwards of the 111,000 sq ft building were ruled out by lease and planning restrictions. The  floor-to-floor heights are also less than 10ft, making the task of threading in services such as cabling difficult. But a variety of innovations in wiring, ventilation and other services would restore demand and triple  rent values to œ35 a sq ft.

  Listed buildings are the biggest problem. England alone has more than 500,000, and they can face almost impossible restrictions. Technical solutions investigated by DEGW and Lucent Technologies in a recent research project include structured cabling, enabling offices to handle 'churn' rates under which up to 60 per cent of desks are moved around each year. The research also provided 'adaptation' guidelines, including measures such as impact of particular solutions on a building's appearance.  Again, any structural changes should be linked to how occupiers use offices. DEGW has been involved in an 18-month study with the Building Research Establishment called New Environments for Working which has looked at the potential impact of new technology and changes such as home-working. These will have an important impact on offices geared to 9-5 working.

  As part of the study, DEGW developed a cost model with Procord, the facilities management consultant, for different kinds of work, matching types of business with types of building. These basically boil down to four classes of activity, labelled the den, the club, the hive and the cell, depending on how staff interact and how much autonomy each has. This sort of categorisation helps  determine whether users are matched to the premises - in other words, how intelligent the property is. In historic buildings, for instance, DEGW and Lucent found that terraced houses were most suitable for professionals such as solicitors, which worked in club and cell structures. Warehouses, on the other hand, have the space to take on a much wider range of work styles, including open plan and hot-desking.

 Technology can also be matched to premises. The 'cordless' office, based on mobile phones and wireless computers, is suited to buildings where the interiors cannot be hacked around. Old industrial and commercial premises, on the other hand, often have planning restrictions imposed only on the  outside, and are more suited to fitting of structured cabling, says the report.

  This matching of structure, business activities and technology is now seen as a far more important focus of research than simply inventing and installing new widgets.  As one designer says: 'The computer on someone's desk is, in fact, less intelligent in building terms than a  catch next to the user's elbow enabling them to open the window.'