As real-time sensing and actuating systems – thermal clouds, acoustic enclaves, light responsive canopies – are integrated into the built environment, buildings will become aware of occupants
The earliest habitation technology was the grotto - a natural alcove that humankind sought out for warmth, protection and sociability. There, we built the primordial hearth and until the 20th century, the fireplace would remain an architectural focal point, not only functional, but, as Frank Lloyd Wright argued, ‘the psychological center of the home’. Yet over time, the evolution of the hearth became a story of liberating heat: from grotto to fire pit, from Victorian pipes to central heating and suburban thermostats, we have exerted ever more control over our local climates, until the commonalities of location and schedule have begun to fray.
A parallel trajectory towards spatial liberation occurred, in fits and starts, across many dimensions of habitation, as new technologies and networks were developed. The circle of candlelight fractured into a modern proliferation of lighting fixtures in every room; gathering and gossip around a village well flowed out through networks of pipes into and out of each room. Entertainment broke the threshold of the theatre’s fourth wall, scattered across cathode-ray tubes and screens in every living room. Elements of habitation are individually and instantaneously delivered. Public and private life are unconstrained by singular spaces and facilities.
Atomisation, however, comes at the cost of efficiency. In the case of climate control, both heating and cooling. The hearth is no longer a shared resource that attracts people, but a distributed system in which each user demands the right to comfort at all times. With central heating and air conditioning which are binary on/off systems, there has come to be a dramatic asymmetry between human occupancy and energy use. Entire homes are conditioned during the day when residents are at work or school, and even when they are home, empty corners of the house are indiscriminately kept just as warm or cold as those in active use. To ensure constant comfort, we thermally manage every space we might possibly inhabit. The situation has been exacerbated to the point that buildings today account for almost one third of global final energy consumption.
‘A ubiquitous blanket of sensors is telling us in increasing detail about the environment, and systems can respond in real time’
Emerging digital technologies, however, can have a positive impact. A superposition of digital systems over physical space - the conceptual convergence of bits and atoms (AR April 2012) - allows an unprecedented degree of sensing and actuating. We are at a crossroads, when a ubiquitous blanket of sensors is telling us in increasing detail about the environment, and systems can respond in real time. Every dimension of habitation is impacted: from the simplest example of occupancy-sensing lights within a single room, up to the scale of a city.
Take, for example, Zipcar - a subscription-based car sharing system that gives members access to cars on-demand. Rather than each driver owning a car (and leaving it idle in a parking lot for 23 hours a day), vehicles are accessed only when, where, and for how long they are needed. If such a system could be deployed ubiquitously, excess capacity could be reduced, as fleets are custom-fit to the community. On an absolute scale, the mobility demand could be satisfied with far fewer cars, thanks to real-time data and control.
In the case of heating and cooling, digital systems could come into play with a similar effect. The thermostat was invented during the 1880s to keep a constant ambient temperature at the user’s discretion, however it is only with the recent integration of phones and digitisation that climate can be modulated dynamically in response to actual users: the Nest online thermostat system that learns its users’ daily habits. If the thermostat knows precisely when you are home, it can optimise accordingly.
Nest allows dynamic control of temperature over time, but in the future it may be possible to exert the same degree of control over space, synchronising heat with people themselves. Dynamic systems for local warming and cooling could enable fine-grained control over personal climates while simultaneously improving energy efficiency by orders of magnitude. An individual thermal cloud would follow each human throughout a building, ensuring ubiquitous comfort while minimising overall energy requirements - the vision that inspired projects Local Warming and Cloud Cast.
Local Warming, developed at the MIT Senseable City Lab, utilises an array of dynamic heating elements to target a single person and create a precise personal climate around them. As a visitor enters a room, their location and trajectory are monitored in real time using a motion detection system. This information is then transmitted to an array of dynamic heating elements positioned in a grid near the ceiling. Each element is composed of a small servomotor to change direction, a bulb to generate infrared radiation, a heat-filtering ‘cold mirror’ and a series of optics that together create focused beams of heat. A collimated infrared beam, whose rays are parallel, and therefore will spread minimally as it propagates, is emitted instantaneously to generate what are essentially spotlights of warmth centred on people a few metres away. Cloud Cast, developed by Carlo Ratti Associati, works in a similar way, combining tracking technology with an array of digitally controlled nebulisers, individual sprays which, when triggered, emit a mist. These nozzles create a cloud of fine vapour that follows visitors as they move through a space, cooling them through an efficient evaporative process.
Both projects extrapolate the current trend toward digital sensing-and-actuating systems, proposing a possible future for climate control technology. If futurecasting veers towards the dystopian, of course, ubiquitous tracking of an individual’s movements raises the controversial question of data-misuse and architectural surveillance - built space becoming complicit in a Bentham-esque panopticon. True, but almost every modern technology could be cast in such a dystopian light, and, in the case of Local Warming and Cloud Cast, sensors are not much different from the motion detectors that control elevator doors and bathroom lights. There is almost no risk, but the payoffs could be staggering: the constant comfort of a thermal cloud while improving overall building efficiency dramatically.
Localised climate systems will be most effective in large or sparsely occupied spaces - environments where maintaining a controlled temperature is heavily demanding of resources. Early applications could include semi-outdoor spaces, lobbies, or warehouses. The same notion is not only restricted to thermal comfort: dynamic control systems could provide acoustic enclaves or light responsive canopies. As real-time sensing and actuating systems are integrated into the built environment, buildings will become aware of occupants. Architecture will operate (and self-optimise) based on our lifestyles and patterns. Climate spotlights could be centred on people themselves, as if a wandering hearth. At that time, the transformation of the fireplace would be complete: we no longer seek comfort - comfort seeks us.