People, Technology, and Design

November 10, 2009 in Connected World
Dutch MacDonald
Digital Director

Originally published in Breaking Ground,July/August 2009

The design of buildings and places today can by informed by a variety of factors, including the impact of emerging technologies. These technologies include building control systems, energy conservation and recovery, building envelope strategies, and integrated communications. In addition, the technologies inherent in the design process – notably Building Information Modeling (BIM) and mathematical 3-D modeling – have a profound impact on how architects and engineers approach design.

The promise of BIM is that it has at its foundation a database of powerful information about the building’s components, systems, and projected performance. In theory, all disciplines contribute to the model, efficiencies are gained, and coordination issues are detected early. Similarly, with mathematical 3-D modeling, novel forms and complex surfaces can be modeled and fabricated. These models can also be used to create compelling images and animations that give a sense of how the building might look when constructed.

But in the end, does all this technology make for a better built environment? Do we really want the future described in those persuasive images? Does it create space that meets the needs of the people that inhabit it? Is it comfortable, does it inspire, does it delight?

Henry Dreyfuss, the 20th century industrial designer who penned the classic Designing for People, wrote:

“We bear in mind that the object being worked on is going to be ridden in, sat upon, looked at, talked into, activated, operated, or in some other way used by people individually or en masse. When the point of contact between the product and the people becomes a point of friction, then the industrial designer has failed. On the other hand if people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient – or just plain happier -by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded.”

Although Dreyfuss was talking about the products of industrial design, these words of advice are equally significant for the design of our environment. This salient message, that our designs must thoughtfully consider the end user, is more important then ever. An understanding of human needs – physical, emotional and intellectual – is critical to this endeavor.

The problem is that people are messy. Our requirements are fuzzy, our needs are variable, our desires change. And all of the fuzziness of an imperfect biological creature is difficult to program into a software package. The BIM models may tell us that ultimate thermal comfort will be achieved; but if the occupants can’t figure out how to adjust the temperature and can’t open a window, they might be anything but happy. A dynamic form might be achievable using the technologies at our disposal; but if it the space doesn’t inspire or improve the human condition, was it worth the effort?

I am by no means a Luddite. New technologies are leading to greater efficiencies in the design process, a better understanding of building performance, and truly captivating spaces. But it can be too easy to be seduced by the promises of software and systems without question. As we inevitably incorporate these new technologies in design and construction, we cannot forget that we are designing for people.

Armed with that as our goal, we can bend technology to enhance the utility, comfort, and experience for the occupants of the places we design. The power of the information embedded in these new processes can be used to map to the messiness of humans, and create better environments.

In the end, it is in the thoughtful consideration of the intersection of people, technology, and design that we will succeed in building the future.

SIDEBAR: Jeff Senn, MAYA’s chief technologist, highlights the dangers of thinking only as a technologist or engineer by using the lowly parking lot as an example:

We math-centric engineers would love to factor out (and ignore) all of those vague, hard-to-characterize human issues that affect the perception of a problem. But in practice these often turn out to be where the amazing success or dismal failures in design are found. A parking lot is more than a pad of asphalt or concrete. Parking lots have painted lines. Those lines obviously have no real power or constraining force, and our well-intentioned engineer might reasonably doubt their efficacy. Clearly some sort of cement barriers would be far safer and more reliable! Yet by mere suggestion, those treacherously vague paint lines work wonders at creating order from potential chaos. Those lines make the physical space “human literate.” And all things considered, they are not only less expensive but probably work better than a more “well engineered” solution.

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