Italian architect Carlo Ratti has developed an innovative building management system that follows individuals around the office. The pilot project, at Turin’s Agnelli Foundation, aims to increase comfort while dramatically reducing energy use.
Last year, a scientific study proved what we’ve all long suspected: women are freezing at work. It turns out most office temperatures are set according to men’s metabolic rates, and women have to layer up even during summer heat waves. For designers, this fact is all the more reason to tinker with the open-concept layout. One wonders, just as office interiors have evolved to include acoustic enclosures and breakout areas, providing private zones and intimate meeting hubs in wall-free work environments, could the future office allow employees to create customized climate bubbles?
At the Agnelli Foundation in Turin, the future is now. is revamping the independent research and cultural institute and kitting it out with a dynamic building management system (BMS) that can tailor temperature and lighting for each occupant. “Our aim is to shift the focus from heating (or cooling) spaces, to heating (or cooling) people and the space they are occupying,” says founder Carlo Ratti. The architect is also the director of MIT’s pioneering Senseable City Lab and is known for Future Food District (at Expo Milano 2015), Trash Track and Local Warming, among other radical data-driven design projects.
Employees at the Agnelli Foundation can now enter their temperature preferences via a smartphone app that activates the BMS’s network of ceiling-integrated sensors. Employees can program their workstations or meeting rooms (each a “sensor island”) so that lighting, heating and air conditioning switch on as employees approach, or go on standby mode to save energy when they’re away. The series of book-size panels in the ceiling pivot and move so that the staffers’ thermal bubbles follow them throughout most of the building. The system adapts to simultaneous inputs, mitigating the different needs, for example, of men and women. “If several people are inside the same island, the temperature will be an average,” explains Ratti, noting that it’s not different from cars with multi-zone climate control.
The physical interior of the foundation’s office, also redesigned by Carlo Ratti Associati, features movable glass walls, sound-absorbing curtains, and foldable wooden partitions – all further enabling the creation of microclimates. More than simply the Internet of Things calibrated for individual comfort, the new design – slated for completion in spring 2017 – could also potentially curb energy consumption by as much as 40 per cent. What’s more, Ratti believes it could change how we think of spaces altogether.
“Architecture has often been described as a kind of ‘third skin’ – in addition to our own biological one and our clothing. However, for too long it has functioned rather like a corset: a rigid and uncompromising addition to our body.” His work at the Agnelli Foundation exemplifies architecture that adapts to us, “a living, tailored space that is moulded to its inhabitants’ needs, characters and desires.”