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Microsoft is betting on the future of buildings

Microsoft just brought an architecture firm to its IoT lab for the first time–here’s what it could mean for the future of buildings.

Microsoft is betting on the future of buildings
[Photo: WZMH]

Buildings are terribly inefficient. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, they’re responsible for an estimated 39% of CO2 emissions in the U.S.–this, despite countless new smart devices that promise to curb energy usage. Part of the problem is that products like Nest thermostats and Lutron lighting systems offer one-off solutions; they aren’t working in tandem to reduce energy consumption overall.

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Toronto firm WZMH Architects, the designers that built the city’s iconic CN Tower, believes that a concept for new, green “plug-and-play” infrastructure will usher the architecture and construction industry into the 21st century. It began as an abstract talking point in a client meeting last year. Now, the firm is working to make the idea a reality, forming a team to produce the Intelligent Solution Panel, or ISP–what principal and project lead Zenon Radewych calls the “next building block of our future.”

[Photo: WZMH]
The nascent ISP project caught the attention of at least one tech giant: Last month, Microsoft announced it would partner with WZMH to bring the firm to its global Internet of Things (IoT) Insider Labs–the brand’s in-house accelerator for smart-tech projects. WZMH marks the company’s first major investment in an architecture firm, and represents a deeper ambition to embed IoT into the built environment.

Working with the Insider Labs as advisory consultants, Radewych and the 12-person ISP project team (which consists of additional members from the engineering firms Quasar Consulting Group, Stephenson Engineering, and startup C3PoE), are refining a prototype that could see test applications in the next six to 12 months.

[Photo: WZMH]
“Imagine that the floor beneath you is modular, a super-smart floor made of iPads–or rather tablets, because iPads are not made by Microsoft,” Radewych describes, half-jokingly correcting himself. Each unit of the scalable, modular network would contain up to 20 different sensors to live-track various elements of our interior environments, such as humidity, temperature, smell, light, sound, and more. It would then feed that information into an office or home’s ecosystem of smart appliances. “This means that a building can become proactive to the needs of its inhabitants, instead of simply reactive,” says Radewych.

The ISP, in short, is a smart building block for 21st-century buildings. According to Radewych, it could be scaled for use in any sort of building type, from residential to high-rise commercial. Physically, the ISP is modeled after an SPS unit–short for Sandwich Plate System, an engineered, structural composite material that’s commonly used in the building and construction market. It would similarly come as a prefabricated, modular component, making it cheap and space-efficient.

[Photo: WZMH]
Likening it to a motherboard for buildings, ISP would operate as a “data highway,” shaping the way structures are built from the inside out, at the beginning of the design-build process–much in the way of plumbing, piping, or wiring–rather than installed integrally, “as an afterthought,” Radewych says. Along with a range of plug-and-play ports for smart devices, the ISP panels would use a Direct Current (DC) and Power over Ethernet (PoE) to provide a universal electricity source that WZMH hopes becomes an international standard, no outlet adapters needed. “The future of smart buildings, and therefore smart cities, will be driven by connected devices and integrated solutions in buildings across the world,” he says. “The lack of an international electrical standard has previously been a big hurdle to the IoT landscape.”

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From a construction standpoint, ISP’s prefabricated modules, if successfully implemented, would translate to fewer materials, less labor, and less waste; from a climate change standpoint, the low-voltage solution Radewych describes would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Innovation, of course, is always a double-edged sword. Data and cybersecurity concerns are a major source of public anxiety these days, and IoT devices are particularly vulnerable to hacking. When I ask Radewych if the ISP system has any built-in solution to this, he only offers that it will be “up to the manufacturer” of each IoT product, and argues that the potential benefits outweigh the fears–a sentiment that has been echoed before in surveys on the topic.

There are clearly roadblocks to figure out before ISP is implemented widely–but in an era where climate genocide is now being discussed as an increasingly unavoidable outcome, a major infrastructural shift is needed.

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City. She is the author of Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations On a Lifetime in Architecture and Design (Princeton Architectural Press), and was previously a senior editor at Dwell and Surface.

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