Apps and Infrastructure: Thoughts on the Future of Human Experience in Buildings

3 min read
May 15 2017

by Chris Pyke, Chief Strategy Officer

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to return to the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment (CBE). I had the privilege of working with CBE in my previous role with the U.S. Green Building Council and, farther back, CTG Energetics. Now, Aclima has joined CBE as an industry partner. I have come to appreciate CBE’s position as the preeminent forum to discuss the future of the indoor environment.

At CBE’s recent Industry Advisory Board (IAB) Conference, I spoke on a panel moderated by CBE’s David Lehrer about technology and the human experience. I was joined by Lindsay Baker, President at Comfy, and Ethan Salter, Principal Consultant at Charles M. Salter Associates. After sharing our presentations, one of the audience members held up their phone and asked the panel whether we thought that the future of human experience was in apps and, more broadly, in a bring-your-own-device approach to understanding and controlling indoor spaces.

In the moment, I answered “maybe”. However, this only scratches the surface of what is an important debate about the future of human experience in buildings. Here are three additional thoughts on the subject:

1. Apps and phones are a great start

Clearly, apps and phones have radically changed our ability to share indoor experiences and, potentially, control indoor environments. These devices have given us the ability to express our instantaneous experience, associate these experiences with specific locations, and send messages to systems to improve our experience. This forces a dramatic reconsideration of traditional methods that assess occupant experience with occasional, retrospective surveys and similar instruments. Apps and phones will provide dramatically more and better information about indoor experiences. In turn, this data can be used to provide better health outcomes in the built environment.

2. Apps and phones alone are not enough

The emerging app and phone paradigm will not work everywhere for everyone. There are lots of common spaces and vulnerable groups that aren’t willing or able to share location-specific experiences via phones and apps. For example, passengers moving through airports, patients in medical offices, customers in retail stores, or students in primary school classrooms are all unlikely to be in a good position to share experiences and control their indoor environment. In fact, the app and phone paradigm is really best for traditional office environments. At most, these environments represent roughly 15% of U.S. floorspace. The other 85% of floorspace includes classrooms, public assembly, retail, food service, healthcare, airports, and more. In these dynamic indoor environments, it is not clear why occupants would share experiences via the app and phone model and how this information might be used to control the indoor environment.

3. Experience requires infrastructure

This observation implies that we need a combination of solutions. App and phone-type systems may offer great solutions to increase feedback and enhance control for office environments. Other spaces will need infrastructure that does not require routine human interaction. Specifically, this will mean sensors that continuously measure indoor conditions and compare them to established ranges for comfort, cognitive performance, and health. Using sensors, we can periodically test whether these ranges represent the needs for various groups, but, on average, we have a good sense of what conditions provide good experiences under different circumstances. This “experiential infrastructure” can then alert management to sub-par conditions and, in turn, enhance experience.

The bottomline

Reflecting on the audience question at CBE, I don’t see the future of human experience as a binary proposition. We’re going to have great apps on our phones, and, in some cases, these tools are going provide unprecedented opportunities for feedback and control. Yet, these tools will only help with a fraction of real world conditions. We need to combine personal tools with infrastructure for continuous, distributed measurement of the conditions that drive human experience. Together, apps, phones, and distributed infrastructure will help us improve health, performance, and comfort for everyone.