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Building Is A Science. This App Lets Architects Study It

Want to observe how a building–or its occupants–really behave? The architecture firm Kieran Timberlake has an app for that.

Building Is A Science. This App Lets Architects Study It
[Image: courtesy Kieran Timberlake]

In the summer of 2015, when the architecture studio Kieran Timberlake moved into its new office space in Philadelphia, the firm became its own science experiment.

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[Photo: Michael Moran/OTTO/courtesy Kieran Timberlake/AIA]

Kieran Timberlake had renovated a former beer bottling plant, Ortlieb’s Bottling House, relying on a mix of passive strategies to cool the historic building. During the first months in the space, the architects wanted to understand how their plans were working in real time–so they installed their own network of 300 sensors inside the two-story building to record quantitative data about the temperature and other metrics. Kieran Timberlake also developed its own app to survey the occupants themselves about how they were feeling on a daily basis. Was it too hot? Too cool? Too bright? Too loud? The app recorded tens of thousands of responses from the firm’s employees, which the app analyzed to create a visual model of their feelings across the building.

They called the app Roast–a wink at Philly’s notoriously sticky summers.

[Image: courtesy Kieran Timberlake]

“Everyone knew we were running this experiment, so they suddenly had a place to register how they felt in the space,” remembers Kieran Timberlake partner Billie Faircloth. “And then, because of Roast’s ability to map where people are in a space, we began to get this spatially explicit map of how people feel across the office.”

[Image: courtesy Kieran Timberlake]

Roast greets users with empathy: Need to vent? Roast is listening. It’s the voice of the cubicle mate who is here for your complaints about your coworker’s annoying phone voice or lunch smells. “We had a lot of fun with the writing,” says Faircloth. “We imagine having some empathy with those who might really want to vent.”

But beyond providing catharsis for users, Roast’s data proved incredibly useful to the architects, too. A look at all that feedback revealed that the firm needed to install a much smaller mechanical system than they would have expected based on prescribed industry standards. “Obviously there are cost benefits, but it’s also just cheaper to run–and it allows people to be more comfortable because we’re not overcooling the space,” says Kieran Timberlake principal Roderick Bates.

The building was awarded the AIA’s new Top Ten Plus Award this month, an annual honor that celebrates a building with “exceptional” performance data. By studying not just the temperature or humidity of the space, but the feelings of every single person inside of it, they had produced a better piece of design.

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The fight over the office thermostat is the stuff of cliche, but the energy footprint of buildings not just a plot trope from The Office. The building industry eats up almost 40% of the United States’ carbon footprint, and according to the Department of Energy, office buildings account for 19% of all commercial energy consumption. The majority of that goes to heating, cooling, and lighting. At the same time, the way a building performs after it’s completed is rarely studied for a number of reasons; architects rarely have the time, funding, or impetus from clients to study how their designs perform. These Post-Occupancy Evaluations are becoming more common, but most methods still involve a huge amount of work to administer and analyze. Unlike the digital design industry, where user testing is common, architecture is still lacking the technological infrastructure.

Meanwhile, occupants themselves play a huge role in how efficient architecture actually ends up being. A recent study in Energy Research & Social Science looked at several “high-performance” buildings and how their occupants actually used them. Many were confused by–or unhappy with–features that were designed to make them more environmentally friendly, and found ways of disabling or “hacking” them to their liking. “It doesn’t matter how well our buildings are ‘performing’ if the people in the buildings are miserable,” author Julia K. Day told Co.Design at the time.

[Image: courtesy Kieran Timberlake]

By asking people about their personal comfort and feelings, Roast tries to capture this kind of crucial qualitative data.

Roast’s back-end feels like an analytics dashboard for architecture. Administrators can set up surveys by uploading a floor plan and designing a questionnaire, then scheduling when and how often it should be emailed to recipients. The app analyzes and compiles data into a map of the building, where you can see how each zone feels at a given time about particular comforts: Is the third floor too bright in the mornings? Are the ventilation fans in the kitchen working well enough to vent the smell of someone’s microwave mishap? Are people leaving their puffer coats on because their corner isn’t being heated enough?

[Image: courtesy Kieran Timberlake]

Over the past month, the firm has rolled out an external beta test of Roast for other architecture firms, which are using the software on projects of all sorts. Some of the ways people are using the app have surprised the team at Kieran Timberlake–one beta tester is studying how well a white noise machine is working in an office–and they posit that eventually, the software could be used to study other aspects of buildings, from furniture to maintenance issues.

Roast is part of the firm’s tech-focused affiliate company, KT Innovations. The company hasn’t decided on a business model for the app, but it’s easy to imagine Roast operating on a Spotify-style freemium model, where certain features would remain locked behind a paywall, or as a tailored subscription based on the number of surveys a client sends, akin to Mailchimp. “We want to make sure this tool get used and that the practice of POE can be accessible to the larger design community,” says Bates. “We’re trying to make sure whatever we end up implementing as far as cost structure is reflective of that goal.”

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The stakes are high. Over the coming decades, reducing the carbon footprint of buildings will be a critical part of tackling climate change. And on a more immediate level, the ability to easily and ubiquitously study how buildings–and their occupants–behave could move architecture itself into a new era. “The question is how do you bring this kind of work into a design workflow, for a client, so that it’s part of the design process: planning for a building to perform a certain way, measuring how that building is actually performing, and then being able to adjust that building to meet all of the goals that the client and the contractor and the architect started out with,” says Faircloth.

“That moves the aspiration for architecture forward in a really significant way,” she adds. “We have to find a way of normalizing this.”

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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