A Very Green Building With A Lot Of Touchscreens

This month “The Edge” in Amsterdam was awarded the BREEAM Award for Offices New Construction for green design and construction. This award reflects the many design features that include solar power, rainwater collection, and efficient heating and lighting. It is truly an exemplary green building.


It is also a “smart” building, filled with sensors and digitally controlled functions. The workspaces are open and interchangeable, and allocated by reservation. Meeting rooms, desks, and even lockers are reserved on demand, and workers and their activity are tracked. This makes the space usage extremely flexible and “efficient”.

These features haven’t been totally successful. People don’t actually behave that way. For example, people want to work in the same place most days, with the same people. And workers simply do not want the building to track their every move, and do not voluntarily register with the system.

I’ll also note that many of the automated features are solutions to non-problems. The conference room reservation system works no better than one based on sending email to a person who manages a sign up sheet. In fact, the human based system would probably work better and might be cheaper.

Lockers have worked great for more than a century. Was there any need to add a smart phone app that does no better than a key or combination? Actually, the digital system is much worse in one way: the lockers are certainly not private. The building management knows who is using which locker, and can access anything, and deny access to anyone.

From my own experience of “smart buildings”, I’m not a big fan of remote environmental controls. What I want does not necessarily correspond to what the building management thinks is “optimal”, and they have the controls. I have had the experience of having the “smart room” decide that the room is empty, and automatically turn off not only the lights but the heat and ventilation. Message: more is more important than light and air for workers.

The big question for me is whether this building should be added to the Inappropriate Touch Screen Files?

All these cool digital features are controlled by—wait for it—a mobile app. There are a ton of features, so the interaction is complicated and, well, pretty awful. At least, judging from the BBC video.

On the one hand, I could say that the designers “slapped a touch screen on the building”, using the general purpose mobile device to make a really awful and mostly inappropriate touchscreen interface. What was wrong with light switches, thermostats, manual locks, and sign up sheets? Each well designed for a particular interaction and function.

On the other hand, what would be a better alternative interface? Sure, I can imagine better ways to do many of the features, but to do the whole suite of functions, there is a decent argument for using the mobile device that the workers already carry. It’s bad enough hacking around these messy apps, it would probably be worse to have to master a bunch of custom interfaces.

There are many things to criticize about the “smart” aspects of this building, especially the user interactions. But I will not condemn it to the ITSF, at least not yet.

In a few years, there should be much better interaction technology to supplant the direct interactions with a mobile device.  Then I will revisit my ruling.


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