The intelligent buildings could use smart “skin-like” materials.

The debate surrounding the future of the office normally revolves around whether or not it will actually exist in the future and whether the role of Cloud technology will discard the need for physical office space.

However, one set of designers, professors and architects who gathered at the Intellibuild conference see a new frontier for our traditional work station – an intelligent office that interacts with each individual and tunes into each of our needs – even hunger.

So, are we being too hasty in condemning the physical office to the graveyard?

A smart future

Neil Pennell, Head of Sustainability & Engineering at Land Securities and Chairman of the British Council for Offices (BCO) Technical Affairs Committee, believes that the future of the office is geared around a next generation of intelligent buildings – that focus on the people in them, not purely technology for technology’s sake.

Intelligent buildings should be healthy, sustainable and meet the needs of people

He says, “Intelligent buildings are definitely something the BCO need to know about and definitely something we need to explain to our constituents. Whatever we do in terms of evolving the design of the office space or the technologies we put in it – all these need to be focused on people, how the buildings interact with the people to create a productive and engaging environment and one that can adapt and change to those needs of people that change over time.”

The future may actually see our office canteen serving us meals that have been grown on the outside walls of the office. Not only would this be self sustainable, but growing “living facades” across our buildings could also help in the fight against global warming, with organisms such as algae suggested as an option that is extremely efficient at absorbing CO2.

CO2 munching

In fact, at the Red Hawk Power Plant in Airzona, USA, CO2 that is created through production at the power plant is passed through algae tubes which take away 80% of the gas and then release oxygen, with the algae being recycled to produce biodiesel.

Only last year on Humans Invent we investigated in detail the subject of carbon eating cement, something already in production, while self-cleaning materials have also been developed, most famously the Air France headquarters at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport.

Prof Derek Clements-Croome, emeritus professor at the University of Reading is firmly behind the innovations. He says, “Intelligent buildings should be healthy, sustainable and meet the needs of people using lo and hi technology solutions. We talk about being carbon neutral now but if we look at buildings being power generators themselves in the future, suddenly we are thinking about being carbon positive.

“You can have a low-carbon building but it might not be intelligent because it doesn’t meet the needs of people. Buildings are becoming more like an organism. They are going to be more expressive and people are going to be able to almost have a conversation with their surroundings in the future.”

It’s not just the environment that is central to defining an intelligent building. It is having it respond to each individual, from the small-scale upwards, whether it be the lighting around your desk or the temperature on your walk into reception. Essentially your workspace would start preparing for your arrival.

“These buildings will respond to the needs of people,” Prof Clements-Croome continues.  “There will be an increased amount of personalisation – you will be in control of the environment and be able to tune it to your needs.”

Bio-skins and data analysis

In terms of materials, the focus will be on developing bio-materials from the ground up that integrate developing technologies.

Architecture traditionally uses inert materials that are belligerent to a changing environment

Hanif Kara, Director at AKT II believes this will be centred around producing “skin-like” materials for buildings.

He says, “Materials as they develop and how we can probably replicate biology is most likely to happen at the scale of a skin, where we can develop materials that will be water repellent naturally, easily replaced or even enhance their own life by feeding off sunlight or so on. I think the future is in the skin of a building and probably the finishes.”

TED fellow and “Living Architect” Rachel Armstrong is also a keen advocate of bringing our architecture back to nature, having developed her own living material called a protocell.

“Architecture traditionally uses inert materials that are belligerent to a changing environment in order to create a barrier between the unpredictable natural world and our domestic lives,” she says.  “This desire for control over our surroundings is a very ancient one, and has actually set the standard for materials used in building practice today. Currently, architecture accounts for 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, which is an even bigger carbon footprint than transport. But architecture causes more damage to our living space than the carbon footprint that it stamps on the building site.”

“Living materials may ultimately have the ability to change the fundamental relationship between human development and the environment. This would be a major shift in our building practices that could contribute to our continued survival, rather than promoting the destruction of our biosphere. We may start thinking of our buildings as domestic guardians that offer some robust protection against certain unpredictable consequences of climate change, or the advent of natural disasters.”

However, the future of the office will not just be focused on energy, carbon footprint and employee interactivity. Tapping into the growth of Cloud-based technology could see an important evolution in using buildings to monitor, collect and store data.

We may start thinking of our buildings as domestic guardians that offer some robust protection

Volker Buscher, Director at Arup says: “Intelligent buildings are currently just linked to energy consumption. But the value of the information we will get out of buildings both now and in the future is much more than just about energy.

“Technical innovation happening already around the internet of things and Cloud computing, with the ability to store and analyse vast amounts of data at a low cost will have a massive impact on commercial property.”

So, it seems our future office will be more akin to a living organism – powering itself, producing food, interacting with employees and storing and analysing data. What we do hope is that these “living materials” will not just be used on office buildings but across all types of architecture leading to a more sustainable industry overall.

But all this makes me think – the death of the office debate aside, if my office can do all that, is there any point in me coming to work at all? I’ll let my boss answer that question.


Watch the Intellibuild conference highlights:


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