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Could Sensor Networks Be The Secret To Less Hellish Offices?

Open offices aren't going anywhere soon. But an experimental sensor network and app from NBBJ might make them more tolerable.

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The offenses of open offices are numerous and well-documented: noise, frigid air (and its cousin, blazing heat), and productivity- and creativity-killing distractions, to name a few. The reality of rising rents and limited space means that open-plan workspaces won't go away completely. But the architecture firm NBBJ has a solution to make them more tolerable: an experimental sensor network and smartphone app named Goldilocks that lets workers find space in their office that's not too hot, not too loud, and otherwise just right.

The core proposition of Goldilocks, which began as an NBBJ hackathon project a year and a half ago, is: If you're going to work in an open office, why not pick a spot in the office that works for you?

About six months ago, NBBJ outfitted its New York City office with more than 50 sensors that detect light, noise, and temperature. The compact units clip to overhead lighting and send real-time data to a smartphone app, which launched two months ago. From the app, users can find places that meet their preferences—like bright, quiet, and warm—and the app will highlight areas in the office that match your desires.

"Buildings are the last black boxes of the information age," says Marc Syp, a creative technologist and design computation leader at NBBJ. He points out that while we have apps that tell us the weather, the best places to eat and drink, and give us the the ability to order a taxi from anywhere, once we go into buildings, our environment becomes opaque and we have little control over it and knowledge about it. "[Goldilocks's] value is really about giving the user control over their environment and understanding of their environment."

Sensor networks that offer diagnostics about a building do exist; however they're targeted to facilities managers, not to end users. Other architects have been experimenting with connected buildings, too. The Edge, an office building for Deloitte in Amsterdam, is outfitted with a complex network of 28,000 sensors that help maximize use of the space. For example, 2,500 employees share 1,000 desks, and the tracking system directs workers to free space and attempts to adjust the environment to their preferred temperature settings. A hospital in Minnesota uses sensors and location-tracking badges to streamline operations.

NBBJ doesn't track individuals with its app, as the company thinks the grander use patterns within a building will lead to more insights. "I don’t believe that within our current ecosystem that we have much need for tracking individuals," Syp says noting that one of the most important elements of information he's interested in is noise levels, which have been shown to cause stress and decrease productivity. "The real value in terms of the data for this scale and these questions is the aggregate understanding of the use of the building, so understanding the use patterns at a macro scale . . . It's easy to say 'big data' [is the answer to solving problems], but interpretation is the most difficult part."

That said, Syp does see a future where data tracked at an individual level could make buildings function even better for their users if it feeds into a machine-learning model.

"Imagine having a 'Netflix recommendation' engine for workspaces if your phone knows your circumstances," Syp says. "It has your sensor reading; it understands that on four separate Wednesday afternoons you've searched for a particular space. Perhaps the system learns about that—it might send you a notification that the space you normally like on Wednesdays is available. That’s the kind of direct avenue we see this kind of technology moving, or an interesting opportunity to explore."

Since the project is in its early stages, NBBJ is still gleaning insights from the data sets pouring in. One of the early findings revealed that a common preference for the app's users is warm, quiet spaces. "It's not an earth-shattering finding, but it's an interesting one," Syp says. The firm is still figuring out how to best incorporate the data into spatial planning for future projects, and some of its clients have expressed interest in incorporating the technology into their projects. While the "Netflix of workspaces" is still highly conceptual, Goldilocks may more immediately lead to fine-tuning the HVAC settings in the office—a move that will likely go a long way to make people happier about their environment, or at least let them shed their desk blankets and heaters for good.

Correction: An earlier version stated that NBBJ outfitted its office with more than 100 sensors; the number is over 50, but less than 100.

[All Photos: via NBBJ]

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