Putting the Fun in Fundamental

I recently read Heatherwick’s book, Humanise: A Maker’s Guide to Building Our World. It’s a great read and something that everyone involved in the built environment should have a flick through. In it, he calls to end the blandemic of boring that we have in the monotony of our contemporary buildings and create a more human, or fun, architecture. Other than his remarks on Le Corbusier, I agree with him.

He reminds us of Vitruvius’s three principles of architecture. A building (1) must perform structurally, (2) enable its function and (3) be beautiful. I think the same could be said for smart building systems. And just like the bastardisations of modernism in the majority of new schemes, most smart building applications have succumbed to the same boring, cookie-cutter set of use cases and front-ends.

One of the best projects I ever worked on, took a genuine human-centred approach. We designed the personality of the digital services and created use cases that were, in all honesty, a bit silly. We made a place where you could only unlock a workshop room if you’d performed your signature dance move. Having seen your boss’s boss do the funky chicken levels the playing field when it comes to speaking up. 

When the building knows that two people with different interests are near each other the screens can nudge a chance moment:

“Hey… Matthew loves space. Fatima loves drones. You two should go design space drones…”

In the onboarding of the mobile app, we asked 10 silly questions. Pretend you’re six years old and still cool… what do you wanna be when you grow up? A jungle bridge repairer, a whale whispers, a soybean farmer, a librarian? Displaying the results of this survey on the screen around the building created conversations between people that otherwise wouldn’t have spoken. Who on earth wanted to be a librarian? (no shade).

It made for a novel and fun experience. It used all the same technologies as a standard smart building: dynamic dashboards, location beacons, mobile apps… we just added some fun to make it different. Below is a drawing from the design team where we looked at using an Xbox Kinect to allow a user to gesture control with a bunch of smart building use cases. People loved it. For those few moments they were inside Minority Report:

A person standing next to a screen

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So bland is the world of technology that almost all our apps work the same. It feels like all menu buttons look the same and are in the same place, there’s only 1 font, the messaging services are all the same – the list continues. In buildings we have carbon-copy dashboards and features from a wide range of different vendors. Is it the permeation of best practice or a lack of creativity and inspiration?

Imagine the difference we could have on a building if the technology experience were novel. What meaning and genuine enhancement would that bring to our lives? Would it attract a premium to our buildings in the same that the quality of design/materials does? Would I feel loved if the lift sang Happy Birthday to me or played my entrance music when I arrived?

As Heatherwick says: be less boring.

In Dr Marson’s monthly column, he’ll be chronicling his thoughts and opinions on the latest developments, trends, and challenges in the Smart Buildings industry and the wider world of construction. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, you’re sure to find something of interest here.

Something to share? Contact the author: column@matthewmarson.com

About the author:

Matthew Marson is an experienced leader, working at the intersection of technology, sustainability, and the built environment. He was recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering as Young Engineer of the Year for his contributions to the global Smart Buildings industry. Having worked on some of the world’s leading smart buildings and cities projects, Matthew is a keynote speaker at international industry events related to emerging technology, net zero design and lessons from projects. He was an author in the Encyclopaedia of Sustainable Technologies and a published writer in a variety of journals, earning a doctorate in Smart Buildings.