Steve Sanderson had grand plans for the kitchen in Case Inc.’s upcoming office in New York. Because his colleagues at the building information and technology consultancy always seemed to congregate in their existing space’s eating area, he and the fit-out team carved out a spacious, light-filled spot in the new floor plan and equipped it with a communal table and a stocked refrigerator.

But his assumptions about the kitchen’s popularity turned out to be wrong—a fact that Sanderson, now the vice president of building intelligence at WeWork, which recently acquired Case, would continue to dispute were it not for Case’s in-house experiment with indoor positioning and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Catapulting off the Internet of Things (IoT), in which products—such as the Nest thermostat and the Fitbit—equipped with sensors relay information within a local, closed system, the IIoT aggregates data collected from networks of sensored objects to optimize large-scale systems, such as business operations, traffic controls, and, yes, building occupancy. (This article will use the IoT to reference both concepts.)

Myriad open-source and proprietary IoT technologies are now available, with light fixtures well positioned to host sensors due to their ubiquity. After Case moved into their new space, its research team, in conjunction with RMIT University doctoral candidate Mani Williams, stuck Apple’s Bluetooth-enabled iBeacons on office walls to track each employee’s movements throughout the workday using trilateration and a cellphone app to which they would voluntarily log on. Six weeks and 7 million data points later, the 33 staff members became exemplars of the next chapter of post-occupancy evaluation: validating architectural program through big data.

Case's research team tacked Apple iBeacons throughout their office that pinpointed the locations of employees' mobile phones (and presumably the employees) through trilateration.
Julie Quon/Case Inc. Case's research team tacked Apple iBeacons throughout their office that pinpointed the locations of employees' mobile phones (and presumably the employees) through trilateration.

In architecture, areas designated for informal collaboration and serendipitous encounters have a nice ring to them, similar to the building descriptors “high-performance” and “sustainable design.” But is the allotted real estate justified? Compared to the commissioning protocols and tools available for measuring and monitoring a building’s post-occupancy energy performance, the practice of validating a space’s actual use through technology is in its infancy.

It’s not for a lack of products. An increasing number of companies offer sensors capable of detecting a range of inputs—motion, temperature, light levels, audio, video, and air quality, for starters—as well as the algorithms to conduct analytics, which “will lower the barrier to gain access to this data,” Sanderson says.

This diagram documents the interactions among staff members, with different business units keyed by color.
Andrew Payne/Case Inc. This diagram documents the interactions among staff members, with different business units keyed by color.
Mapping the popularity of the different office spaces at Case.
Andrew Payne/Case Inc. Mapping the popularity of the different office spaces at Case.

The applications of the IoT in post-occupancy design evaluation are many. Architects working with clients on iterative projects, such as an office campus, will be able to see which design decisions were successful and which were not, and apply these insights to the next building on deck.

Case’s new space also included so-called phone booths for employees to conduct private calls. At one point, the fit-out team debated relocating a server room to add two more phone booths to the four that were ultimately built. However, from its post-occupancy study, Case discovered that the phone booths were rarely used. (Granted, Sanderson notes, the rooms were found to be hot and stuffy.) “That's the power of this research,” says Daniel Davis, now the lead researcher at WeWork (as well as a regular contributor to ARCHITECT). “As an architect, you have an assumption of how space is used. Very rarely do you get to go back and see whether your assumptions of how many phone booths you needed for 30 people played out.”

Data collected via the IoT can also translate into savings in building energy usage. Tanuj Mohan, founder and chief technology officer of Enlighted, a technology company in Sunnyvale, Calif., recalls a Fortune 500 client that was experimenting with a hoteling concept on an office floor. The facility manager had programmed the HVAC system to condition select areas of the floor under the assumption that workers would occupy the offices closest to the ingress first. However, Enlighted’s data showed that occupants actually preferred to spread out upon arrival, filling the floor’s periphery first. “The human brain works differently than what he expected,” Mohan says.

Healthcare projects also stand to benefit from big data. Davis says line-of-sight and travel distances between points A and B are thoroughly analyzed during pre-design, but rarely validated for their effectiveness after the facilities are in operation. “That is a lot of low-hanging fruit,” he says.

Perhaps the most immediately available and obviously profitable use of the IoT is in the retail sector. Businesses can pepper customers with discounts based on their position within their stores, but architects can capitalize on the data as well. For example, sensors can reveal how customers navigate store layouts, says Joel Vincent, senior director of product marketing at Sensity Systems, based in Sunnyvale, Calif. “By making the design itself more critical to the core business, it becomes more valuable than a generic design,” he says.

Plotting the number of people in an office area throughout the workday.
Andrew Payne/Case Inc. Plotting the number of people in an office area throughout the workday.

Pre- and post-occupancy studies are nothing new, of course. For example, Gensler has been conducting its Workplace Performance Index (WPI) to gauge the effectiveness of design for several projects since 2005. The firm sends the approximately 15-minute pre- and post-occupancy online surveys to the entire user population to determine “what role the physical environment has on their individual job performance,” says Janet Pogue McLaurin, AIA, the company’s workplace sector leader and a principal, based in Washington, D.C. “WPI’s biggest value is that it informs designs,” she says. “We use it from the beginning to uncover insights and understand unique perspectives from end user, and we use again three to six months after [project completion] as a report card on the design.” The firm couples the WPI with other discovery tools, such as firsthand observation and focus groups.

While the WPI surveys reveal the respondents’ perceived notions of how they’re working and where they’re most productive, McLaurin says that sensor technology (which WPI does not currently utilize) will capture “the reality of what’s happening” and be comparable to what architects can gather from observation—if they were able to watch their projects 24/7.

Gensler used its Workplace Performance Index to determine the effectiveness of the 22squared office in Atlanta.
Michael Moran / OTTO Gensler used its Workplace Performance Index to determine the effectiveness of the 22squared office in Atlanta.

Inevitably, the pervasiveness of the IoT harkens to Big Brother. In exploring IoT applications, Sanderson says, “discussions of design and space quickly veer into the same concerns that you experience online with privacy, and what companies can do with the data they're collecting about you.” For the most part, the data gathered by third-party companies will be anonymous and used to inform localized operations, such as switching on a building’s lighting or turning up the heating. Enlighted, for one, doesn’t run occupancy analytics on a client’s data unless it is requested, as would be the case to evaluate space usage. The exceptions to this are cases in which individuals voluntarily log on to be tracked in exchange for a prized parking spot, store discount, or, in the situation at Case’s new office, to geek out on tech. (Sanderson says that the company made clear that no employee would be penalized for their workday activity by participating in the study.)

This suspicion parallels that of a couple decades ago, when people may have actually picked through the fine print of a download agreement or thought twice about entering their credit card numbers online. For many, the reluctance to reveal their positions will likely give way to the benefits of IoT. “There is a delicate line,” Sanderson says. “But what people are getting in exchange would outweigh the potential concerns of where this infringes on their liberties and privacy.”

22squared's office in Atlanta, by Gensler, features workstations and meeting and collaboration spaces.
Michael Moran / OTTO 22squared's office in Atlanta, by Gensler, features workstations and meeting and collaboration spaces.

While the technology gathers mainstream acceptance and use, architects would do well to prepare for working with IoT “consultants who don’t exist yet,” Sanderson says. He expects systems that provide feedback on occupant behavior will soon become “part of the essential core system in the space,” alongside HVAC and plumbing.

The IoT’s nascence in commercial applications also doesn’t preclude designers from experiencing it now. “The consumer side is much more advanced than the commercial side,” Davis says. “It’s possible for people to start experimenting with this technology in their home environment, with the anticipation that it will trickle down into larger commercial deployment.”

In the long run, having digital armloads of post-occupancy data will pay off for architects as well. The information will help architects understand the “role of the physical space in being a catalyst for how organizations change,” McLaurin says. “We may be capturing how people are working today through sensor technology or a survey, but more importantly [because] we're designing for the future, we’ll have a vision of how people will want to work differently.”