Perkins&Will: Research and Innovation at the Forefront of a New Business Opportunity
As the second-largest architecture firm in the world, Perkins&Will, has a responsibility to put people at the center of their design practice as they impact millions of hours of human experience. The focus on sustainability, health and justice are a shared goal for design professionals.
Perkins&Will regards research as a necessity. Their world is ever-changing, and the demand on architecture to address the increasing environmental, societal, and economical challenges is unprecedented. Research provides evidence to inform their design process, connects their design teams to an expanding body of knowledge to advance innovation and to make spaces that are environmentally and culturally responsible.
Many initiatives make the diverse ecosystem of Research at Perkins&Will. Empowering designers with a passion to perform independent research, the Innovation Incubator program – launched in 2010 – presents an opportunity for everyone in the firm to apply for a micro-grant to further investigate their ideas and passion. Their nonprofit arm, AREA Research, is dedicated to advancing design research through partnerships with industry and academia and seeks research funding from grant-giving foundations. They have seven Research Labs that employ experts who work with leading universities and project teams to advance knowledge related to building technology, energy, human experience, materials, mobility, design process, and resilience. Since 2009, the biennial Perkins&Will Research Journal has been showcasing peer-reviewed articles that document and present practice-related research. These research initiatives work closely with all other areas in the firm to connect the dots between their projects and research.
The impact of buildings and urban design on human health and performance has been documented through more than forty years of scientific research. Perkins&Will Human Experience Lab integrates this human experience research into the design process to improve environmental quality, respond to human health emergencies, and ensure occupants are functioning optimally. They explore design strategies for diverse spaces including clinical, academic, and workplace using bespoke surveys and tailored sensor applications. With collaborations and cutting-edge tools, they are demonstrating the value of human-centered design.
Curious about recent advances in technology, Perkins&Will started an Innovation Incubator project in 2019 to explore the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is a system of interrelated devices, enabling real-time extraction of information generated by sensor data, monitoring, and interaction with physical objects through digital platforms. Their survey of the IoT industry at the time revealed that the discourse around IoT has been dominated by the product and technology industries. The innovations were often siloed, focusing on devices, and lacking a larger vision of how IoT based systems might work in synergy to address larger challenges.
This Incubator project was the seed of a larger research project at their Human Experience Lab in the following two years, which investigated IoT and sensors technology, and how they influence well-being in the workplace and education environments.
A smart building is one that is responsive and interactive; It measures its own performance and adapts by synthesizing the data and actuating its parts. It understands and can react to the activities of people inside it to enhance their wellbeing and productivity. A smart building is educational; it can influence behavior because it can tell its occupants what is happening inside the space in simple ways.
Architecture is a cross-disciplinary fusion of design, arts, engineering, science, and humanities. They felt that architects can bring positive change to the world of smart buildings by creating a vision to address larger societal problems, rather than target convenience. Can we drive solutions through smart buildings and cities to address those challenges?
Perkins&Will smart buildings research investigated a hypothesis for what they call the INTUNE workplace: Organizations are constantly evolving, office culture and the circumstances around how we work are always changing, but the workplace has been lagging in response. Both the organizations and their workplace needed to get in tune.
The shift of mindset here is that, through sensor technology and continuous feedback on people’s use of space, architects can gain insight and design spaces to continuously adapt and change to meet the evolving needs of their clients; we can make our projects perform as well long-term as they do on opening day.
Perkins&Will begin by asking “What is important to measure?” and “What can we learn?” They started investigating the ideas of happiness, productivity, human comfort, and the metrics of healthy buildings.
Their scientific foundation for this research stems from the work at the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building report highlights environmental factors that can influence an individual’s health, cognitive function, and performance. This research has also informed their work on primary and secondary educational spaces, in their open access websites, Healthy Schools by Design and Healthy Affordable Housing.
Buildings impact human health, performance, and productivity as documented by their research-based podcast, Inhabit. Indoor air quality, visual comfort, thermal comfort, and acoustic comfort are building performance criteria that have a direct effect on our experiences of workplace, educational and living environments. Perkins&Will intentionally picked these four criteria for sensor measurement to demonstrate the impact of environmental data on human experience and performance change.
Understanding how people interact with the spaces that they design is foundational to this research. Layering performance-related metrics of indoor air quality (particles, CO2, VOCs), thermal comfort (temperature, humidity, radiation, airspeed), visual comfort (luminance), and acoustic comfort (noise) with occupancy data starts to reveal the effects of all these factors on well-being in indoor environments—the spaces they design.
The premise of INTUNE is their ability as architects to measure, learn, and adjust. What is missing in the architecture industry as it stands today is the instantaneous feedback loop that offers the opportunity for tuning and optimization: the feedback loop to connect ideas, buildings, and data.
Collecting real-time data of their built spaces through sensors technology starts to inform the future in three different ways:
The first is at a macro scale—understanding what they designed in one building so that they are more informed for the next building. That’s a cycle of working better for the future.
Second, for a specific space that they are monitoring, knowledge or insights can be displayed on dashboards so that they can influence positive behavior or automate certain systems to support people’s interaction with a space.
Third, they periodically evaluate how to fine tune specific spaces and systems inside the buildings to calibrate the occupants to their work environment—or the other way around. Taking initiative in these measures will lead to a better human experience within the buildings they design.
As individuals, we are increasingly relying on consumer products and data to influence our decisions—like our exercise or sleep habits—which are in turn continuously influencing decisions of how we want to change. Can a similar approach help us to learn more about the experience and performance of our buildings?
Post-occupancy surveys are means to learn about the performance and experience of our built environments, but the surveys do not happen often and when they do, they only give us a snapshot in time. Advances with smart building technology now offer architects the ability to shape real-time understanding of buildings and their users, where they can derive information and propose change.
With this research we are moving workplace strategy and design into a life-cycle role more aligned with a future focused on ever-changing organizations. Designers now have an excellent opportunity to continuously improve the space, so the space is in-tune with evolving needs of both the occupants and the organizations. If we can quantify occupant-specific environmental exposure, we can inform our design for well-being and healthy indoor environments, and our spaces will continue to boost productivity and increase satisfaction.
This provides us (architects) with a framework to be proactive and connect with our clients on an ongoing basis. Instead of our work as architects being complete when our clients start their journey in the new space, architects should advocate being there for the life cycle of the building.
This is a new revenue stream that architects can tap into—subscription services and ongoing design insights.
This topic will be covered by Yehia Madkour Perkins&Will Innovation Director at the forthcoming Disrupt Symposium, planned for the 1-5th May 2022. We are only a few days away from the event so get the ticket for yourself and your whole team now. What makes this event special is that we invite to stage C-level executives, directors, business developers, and leaders responsible for running business at the largest architecture practices, such as Gensler, OMA, Zaha Hadid Architects, Safdie Architects, Snøhetta, UnStudio, Perkins & Will, and BIG amongst others. The event is organized under the tagline: “Success leaves clues”. Why? Because success is not some kind of mysterious code you have to crack in order to be happy. It’s a set of principles, rules, a system, a plan of action that has been implemented before and worked. Therefore, if you want it to work for you, it can. All you have to do is learn what actions and thought processes belong to the most successful. Disrupt is where you go to learn more about the blueprint of success in architecture.