Dynamic Buildings: Customizing Structures for Human Comfort and Sustainability

Jan 13, 2016 1:00 PM ET

By Gabe Dunsmith

Architecture students at Purdue University are kick-starting a bold new initiative to integrate people into the design and operation of buildings they inhabit. As part of a broader effort to reestablish a relationship with one’s local environment, the students, led by Professor Thanos Tzempelikos, are redefining what it means to inhabit a space: buildings, they say, are not just static structures but dynamic entities that impact our daily lives, whether we realize it or not. And we can change them for the better.

In order to measure human interaction with the built environment, the Purdue students are utilizing “Living Laboratories”: highly-customizable experimental offices with reconfigurable façades and numerable environmental controls that allow people to customize the space they use. The very notion of Living Labs suggests that spaces can be optimized for their inhabitants rather than prefabricated around an industrial standard. The goal of the laboratories, says Professor Tzempelikos, “[is] to examine the relationships between variable indoor environmental conditions, human comfort and energy performance.” At the intersection of these factors lies the ideal working environment: at the end of the day, what is most beneficial for people is also most beneficial for the earth.

The students’ experiments begin by inviting subjects to visit the Living Laboratories and provide personalized feedback about their own comfort in the space. Via switches and remote controls, occupants may modify the shades, lights, and room temperature until they find the settings which work best for them. Mobile measurement stations take note of the temperature, light levels, and the occupants’ “visual and thermal comfort.” Surveys then ask why people modify certain settings: was there not enough light to stay awake or to read a PDF online? Or was there so much light that there was a glare on every computer screen? By cataloguing such factors, the Purdue students establish streamlined systems that incorporate human comfort and energy efficiency into building operation.

So far, the students have conducted experiments with over 150 people. Each test allows them to refine their understanding of the reasons people modify light levels and temperature.

In additions, Professor Tzempelikos maintains that education and outreach are fundamental components of the program at Purdue. Every semester, the architecture class visits an elementary school in Purdue’s hometown of Lafayette, Indiana, and university students engage their younger cohorts in discussions about sustainable building design. They also arrange tours of their Living Labs for high school students and participate in various conferences that allow them to spread the word about comfort-centric architecture.

The students maintain that their work is part of an ongoing cultural shift in the way that people regard the built environment. Making buildings more intuitive allows for tighter environmental controls, paving the way for low-footprint structures that adjust for human desire.

The work presented in this article is part of the Pillars of Sustainable Education program that funds universities to support the realization of community-based projects to explore innovative uses of sustainable materials and design. More information about the program – made possible by Alcoa Foundation – can be found at pillarssustainableeducation.org.

Gabe Dunsmith was born and raised in Southern Appalachia. A graduate of Vassar College, he lives in Seattle and interns with the International Living Future Institute.