5 Questions

Architecture as Interface

April 30, 2014          

Episode Summary

In the next wave of emerging technology, the built environments which define our work, play, and habitation, will be transformed by a connected set of data-­rich elements. More than just a natural outcome of the sensor-laden Internet of Things, this change of the places we inhabit into interconnected, intelligent, and even responsive spaces will impact us in innumerable ways. What kinds of new relationships will we build along with our architecture? In this episode of The Digital Life, we explore that question and others with Erin Rae Hoffer, an industry strategist, business evangelist, and thought leader on new technologies at Autodesk.

Welcome to Five Questions. I’m Jon Follett and with me today is Erin Rae Hoffer who is an industry strategist, business evangelist, and thought leader on new technologies at Autodesk. Erin, welcome to the show.

Thank you.

Today, we’ll be discussing the topic architecture as interface. Erin and I are working on an Emerging Technologies Design book for O’Reilly Media and Erin is the expert who is working on a chapter on this topic and we’re excited today to dive into it and see what the implications for designers moving forward. Let’s dive in to our questions today. Erin, what emerging technologies do you see that are driving the need for architecture as an interface?

As an architect, I feel like I have been observing some really amazing changes in the field over the past 10 years specifically and you can go way back and look at all kinds of transitions that architecture has gone through since it’s such a dominant profession for many centuries. But in the last 10 years, there’s been an increasing focus on a technology that we called BIM or Building Information Modeling.

I was just at a meeting this week in fact, it was pretty interesting. One of the speakers was from a construction company and he was showing a device that we’re all really pretty familiar with now which is a sensor that you can put in to your home to help control the temperature and make sure that your home is either cold enough or hot enough when you are away and when you get back.

He said, “If building are getting smarter, then we need to get smarter about how we design them.” I think he was observing this type of technology among many others that is connecting to the fact that with BIM, we are designing our buildings in a new way that can really take advantage of technology. The list might include things like low power sensor networks which can transmit and capture states or events in an actual space and connect that information into a data stream.

At the same time, I’m pretty interested in big data or analytic tools and algorithms that take a look at that data and convert it into quantitative or qualitative insight. It might even be something you could visualize to help you understand what’s going on in a particular place.

Maybe the third thing that needs to be mentioned is this idea of the cloud which perhaps is kind of an overused buzzword now, but the fact is it’s out there and we know that it’s enabling us to share our insights or to access them from anywhere which is really huge. When you talk about architectural space, that is kind of grounded which we occupy only one at a time, but once we have access to the entire world outside of that space, it opens up tremendous capabilities.

That’s where this idea of architecture interface comes from is that your in an interconnected space, you’re in a space that is not just architecture the way we’ve always understood it and lived inside of it, but it’s actually interconnected to all the other spaces and people around the world, or at least it’s capable.

I love that data is design material, right? Data as architectural design material. I think you give an example in your chapter about a hotel room that might have crowd sourced data about the best places to eat or the best way to configure the room to avoid the noon day sun. Just all these data layers that would be revealed sort of once you’re present in a space. That’s terrific stuff.

So what are some good examples? I probably already queued this up a little bit, but these interconnected environments, what are some good examples of these sort of besides that hotel example from your chapter and why should designers care about these spaces?

When you think about architecture as interface, I guess to answer your question by examples, I’m trying to visualize what that means and how we can communicate that and get people excited about it. In some ways, we’re already doing it but I’m also trying to project a trajectory that we can get to pretty fast because these technologies are out there as we just discussed.

I’m thinking about the two way flow of insight. If I’m habitating a space and there’s this larger universe of places of information out there, that now I can be in my space and having that directly connected. Like you mentioned the hotel example, I can tap into all of the people, places, and information outside by bringing it in. I can also take what’s inside of a space and send it out.

I might be able to gather data about in an office environment, level of comfort by sensor data, any particular spot in that office. By gathering that and kind of projecting it out, I might have better knowledge about how that building can perform because energy is a huge issue in design today. Managing our limited resources is kind of a hot topic for all of us.

I can even think at a larger scale about a community, a neighborhood or a city. The examples of why we should care about them is kind of hard even to limit that to one or two. I think about from the home to the office to social spaces where we gather either to celebrate or in an emergency sake for example.

What knowledge would you want any moment at any time? It’s kind of the question that I might ask and what knowledge is valuable because in my work, I’m also focused on thinking about some … Maybe it’s a kind of limited point of view, but the idea of value or return on investment.

Because if we have all these options open to us, we should really focus on the ones that had the most value to society or to us as individuals or to our companies or in communities. Why should designers care about them and maybe I’m a bit of an outlier, but I believe this is just we were all headed and so we need to be thinking about it.

If I’m designing a building today, it’s likely that I’m designing a space that would live for 20 years and that’s maybe a little bit of a different psychology from a person in a UX role. When you think about what you’re designing and how long it’s got to live, what you have to imagine way into the future and how people are going to be able to take advantage is kind of a big push or kind of in the hot seat I guess. That’s having a vision for the future.

The hotel example is one that I like. In fact, I’m about to head into New York City in a couple of weeks and there is a hotel that just opened. It has some of these kind of futuristic ideas. It sort of starting to embed them. They’ve done a pre-fabricated module for the rooms which is very limited in size, but which has a lot of high tech capabilities because they’re designing for the mobile urban citizen.

Then shifting the focus into high quality lobby amenities which would probably be capable of presenting some of this type of information that we just discussed to people. So I guess that’s a bit of a rambling list of examples, but I kind of feel like every space you think of, if you wanted to design a new home today, you’d probably want to be imagining this future of an interconnected space in every room.

As a digital designer or as an architect or as an industrial designer, these elements seem to be converging and you’ve talked about a hybrid design approach for interconnected environments. What makes up that hybrid design approach?

That’s a term that I thought would be a good way to call this convergence of the knowledge and creative thinking of architects and UX communities. As a person with a background in architecture, I really feel like it shapes my thinking about a lot of things even if I’m not actively in practice. There’s some critical thinking and some kind of assumptions that we make about how we live and how we habitate our spaces.

But I’m also really, really fascinated by and interested in learning more about the UX design principles. What are the creative mental models that people carry because they occupy that profession, they’re experts in those kinds of ways of thinking.

I feel like what we need to do is kind of get both groups together and kind of almost have a really great workshop that would say, “What is design? What does design mean to you? Is it a decision making process? Where does the rule of identity come to design and what are the inputs that I need and that you need or we need together now to create spaces and interfaces that work jointly?”

For example, in architecture, visual programming is a new concept and I think it sits right at the hinge of these two sets of expertises. Design is really evolving to take advantage of our increased access to information. The ability to generate a design rather than sit and sketch it with pen and paper or even model it, I can then generate a design based on algorithms and data.

I saw an example just this week of a very large project, that’s a multi-huge project being built near Shanghai and it’s going to take advantage of whether and climate data to drive energy performance in the building. It will have algorithms that allow the building to respond and comply with building codes that insist that every space have access to daylight or sunlight I think it is, a certain time of day.

You have to make sure that your building doesn’t block the sunlight, so an algorithm can help you define the envelope on that space that would meet all those criteria and then in a way, that’s going to help you make those really good decisions so that you don’t have to keep redesigning because you made a mistake.

To me, hybrid design is kind of mental … Leveraging these two sets of mental models. It’s probably more than two frankly, but the architects thinking about concrete elements like walls, floors, ceilings, lighting, the effect of light on form. If UX designers can bring their sets of principles and practices, then the hybrid designer will be able to work across that spectrum and will be able to understand both. I think that’s where we need to go.

I think we’re right on the cusp of there being quite a number of interconnected designers. We’ve talking today about the digital and architecture, but there are examples across other industries as well of this happening concurrently especially in biotech being sort of another example of that.

I think that that line of thinking, this designer who sort of crossing, going across industry silos right now. In the future, I think we’re going to find people who do that easily and it doesn’t seem quite so unusual perhaps to do that, but I’m in full agreement with you there.

If you’re a designer and you have this opportunity to incentivize a preferred behavior using architecture, how much you go about that? This is sort of in response to some of the topics you covered in your chapter. I was just fascinated by the idea that you could use architecture to influence behavior because on the UX side of things, there are all sorts of things you can do incentivize behavior. So what’s your perspective on that?

There are a couple of traditional approaches. One thing that comes to mind, a couple things come to mind at the same time. I’m based up here in Boston and if you go to the campus at Harvard University, there’s a very notable set of pathways that connect the buildings and people will always refer to them as being interesting because in a way they’re like cow path.

They’re not what maybe a designer would have done, but in that case, design which is the way that those … Courtyards have evolved over time as really just supported behavior. That’s one approaches design has an obligation to create spaces where people feel comfortable.

There’s a difficult thing when you’re beginning your architecture career as a student, you’re given a program with lots of things and you kind of like smash it in and then try to create an emblematic form that makes people excited about coming at your building. Your instructors usually look down and say, “Well, look what you did here. The circulation path which is the behavior people, they all expect something really important at the end of that and you haven’t done it.”

There’s one thing we have to do which is to understand expectations first and then if you wanted to incent behavior, you kind of think about how you might do that. I work in an office space where the space was designed, where private workspaces were designed to be very open, so it’s very porous and permeable.

That was pretty common tactic nowadays to incent people to communicate more, to interact more, to be more productive probably because that’s the way we want our teams to work. That’s a common example we probably can all see that around us, but here’s an example of something that could perhaps exist in the future of hybrid design.

Let’s say we have a requirement to design a gathering space. Let’s say it’s a work place. We want the gathering space to be used for daily events. We might want to have a space that could accommodate an all hands meeting of the company, but we also are worried about resilience which is a big topic in architectural design these days because of climate change having a big impact and we’re having severe weather events.

Whether it’s a flooding, a hurricane, or perhaps an earthquake, perhaps an attack. Maybe the company is designing a new building, it’s a headquarters, they want an all hands base, but they also want the space to be secured in case of crisis where they all have to perhaps live there for a few days if the building needs to be locked down.

As a designer you think, “Oh, how can I configure that space to be both incenting positive behavior during meetings and also like a long term living space?” That would be a pretty interesting challenge. I might incent engagement in a group gathering by having monitors that would exist on the ceiling, the wall, the floor that could present content or gather feedback.

Perhaps during a meeting, I might want to have people’s attention be somewhat divided but have them be able to kind of break in to little work groups to respond to some topics and kind of the way we like to converge around Easel charts. I might want to do something that’s a little more interactive digitally. I might also want to think about emergency situations where the space could sense the location of people because of their smart phones or maybe they are wearing devices, wearables.

Then that interaction would allow the space to change with lighting changes or perhaps the interior, air conditioning, or the heating would modify. Perhaps there would be some kind of display of an image that would incent calmness or support participation or perhaps we want people to see the information about what’s going on in the outside world or we don’t want them to see it or we want them to understand the guidelines of how we’re supposed to react now to keep the community together.

The space could have both typical architectural elements that incent you to behave like in a fastfood restaurant it’s really calming that the chairs are designed to be a little uncomfortable and the lighting to be a little too harsh so you don’t stick around. That’s kind of a typical approach, but we could layer our digital capabilities on top of it and have the space be much more flexible. That’s kind of maybe an extreme example but I hope that gets to what you were asking.

Yes, for sure. Final question for today, how do you see the role of the designer evolving to take on this kind of work, both thinking about interaction and physical and information spaces?

We talked about this idea of hybrid design and when you say designer, I’m wondering what you have in mind because I think that you’re coming from almost two different directions. I’m picturing architect as designers evolving to become much more knowledgeable about the way information needs to be presented and the way people interact with it.

On the one hand, that’s probably the direction that I understand best because that’s the direction that I’m headed on. I’m trying to be more knowledgeable about UX design and about digital opportunities. At the same time, maybe I kind of turned around to you to speculate a little bit on how a UX designer might be able to think in terms of UX in a lot of different context.

As UX has gone mobile, has gone off the desktop, imagine it it’s a wall, it’s a window, it’s a floor and it just sort of an architectural element. One idea that I’d like to explore is … I know we’ve chatted about the pattern language which was developed by Chris Alexander and a team of researchers in the 70s and I feel like people and computing really understand the pattern language because it became so influential and programming.

I was really surprised by that when I ended up working for a company that was doing client server consulting and they were talking about patterns. That kind of blew me away. I thought, “Wait a minute, this is something that we were talked about in the 70s.” But it’s completely morphed now into an idea that’s proliferating.

If I went on to Yahoo and they have a whole page of pattern libraries with lots of examples for computer-mediated interaction or UI or even Minecraft has pattern language now. We could form an open source team to work on hybrid design patterns and that might be one way to support the convergence. We can get architects talking to UX designers.

We can maybe pair people up to do a kind of a body system and help understand what each groups knows and how the whole is greater than some of the parts. As an individual, I’m trying to experiment at home with little pilots like putting sensors into a room at home and learning some of the technology.

I can be more aware of some of the UX constraints and also had an idea for a virtual environment that would represent a vision instead of video. Something interactive where people can kind of go in to a virtual space and imagine what it would be like to interconnect the whole series of really important spaces.

I’m really locking on to what you said about the sort of cross-pollinated design team talking about this pattern library. I think it’s … I want to respond to you were saying that this should be open. I think an open source sort of approach might be very important in this case.

That and looking for some standards that could exist, I don’t know what those be, but I do know in the creation of the internet as we know it is supported by all kinds of open source standards that really enabled people to build on top of them. As we identify these areas of multiple industry expertise coming together, I think looking to open source standards might be a great place to start.

You also mentioned the individual level the personal sort of hacking you’re doing and learning constantly about the technology. I think that the lifelong learner is probably going to be a successful lifelong designer as these new areas come together over the next 10, 20, and 30 years.

There is an interesting thing which started to happen which is a hackathon. There’s an IoT hackathon that somebody started. I think that we could leverage that idea and do some hackathons to bring together the two groups which is yet another way of building that capability with some real projects and real demos that we do in a short period of time.

Yeah, that’s right. Yeah the hackathons are perfect for that. So Erin, I want to thank you for coming on The Digital Life Five Questions today. It was a pleasure to have you and I hope you’ll come back and be on the show again some time.

Thank you very much for the opportunity Jonathan, it’s been really wonderful to talking with you and I’m looking forward to the book.

Yes, me too.

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