Smarter Buildings at the Intersection of the Physical and Digital

Mahdiar Ghaffarian, Elton Gjata, Yehia Madkour

Spring 2019

IoT explains the network of physical objects embedded with technology—including computing devices, machines, and everyday objects with Unique Identifiers (UIDs)—in service of providing real-time data.

For three colleagues in our Vancouver studio, an Innovation Incubator project exploring the Internet of Things (IoT) was a natural progression from casual conversations around a whiteboard.

They identified a need to assess the landscape of IoT, which Wired UK defines as “[encompassing] everything connected to the internet, increasingly being used to define objects that ‘talk’ to each other.”


Once just the domain of technology companies, IoT is rapidly shifting into new industries and applications. Elton, a digital practice manager, likens our current moment to where the Internet was in the late 90s. “This is promising to reshape the physical manifestation of the building and how it adapts over time,” he says.

“I have a really difficult time accepting ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ for an answer.”


To further understand why they coalesced on this topic, you need only look at their shared interests and expertise. Yehia, our Vancouver studio’s director of innovation, has a hand in shaping how we deploy technology to improve our design processes. Designer and researcher Mahdiar brings an academic background; his time spent studying, teaching and working toward a Ph.D. drives a passion for closing the feedback loop between what we design and what we learn from what we design. Finally, Elton professes a passion for using technology to solve design problems. “I have a really difficult time accepting ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ for an answer,” he says.


From left: Yehia, Hakim Hasan (colleague and in-house robotics researcher), Elton, and Mahdiar

“The whole idea was to look at this as a framework that can apply to a design question–and in our case that was an agile or open-plan office.”


IoT for the workplace—inspired by our own studios

The team had been kicking the idea around for a few years, eventually submitting an Incubator proposal that was initially rejected, only to re-shape it for a second attempt. Once accepted, they began with an extensive literature review and industry survey of IoT applications, identifying more than 200 for everything from healthcare to cities. They then narrowed their focus and scope. “The whole idea was to look at this as a framework that we can apply to a design question—and in our case that was an agile or open-plan office,” says Mahdiar.


The timing was strategic. As they were embarking on their project, several of our studios were transitioning to unassigned seating, meaning employees didn’t have dedicated workstations. Looking at our own environments was an opportunity to address how an IoT approach might improve the agile office experience—and by extension, employee well-being—by altering behavior.

The team devised a smart solution to personalized storage: an autonomous mobile pedestal that follows the employee to each work setting.

The team interviewed colleagues in our Toronto and Minneapolis studios who had transitioned to unassigned seating to understand some of their pain points—from acoustics and distraction to finding (and setting up) their workstations each day.


These insights helped shape several of the 10 IoT solutions proposed in the final report. The team mocked up an Automated Seat-Generating Plan, an app that would allow Perkins&Will employees to find available space that suits their workstyle preferences and tasks for the day. Another proposed scheme was a mobile pedestal for personal storage that undocks from its bay and follows employees to their chosen workspace for the day.

The team prototyped a seating plan app.

Good research begets more research and investment

This research is now informing a firm-funded research project on sensors, which will also draw on data from our own studios. “We’re connecting that feedback loop between what we build and what insights we might be able to gain,” says Yehia. What this research might bring about are sensor and data analysis services for clients, something even more integral to designing workplaces as we gradually re-populate the office in COVID times.

“We’re connecting that feedback loop between what we build and what insights we might be able to gain.”


In addition to the capacity for these novel interventions to improve the employee experience, there is a sustainability angle behind taking an IoT approach. “If we can better track and understand how users are occupying and using these spaces, perhaps we can create buildings that grow and adapt over time—or ones that we can retrofit rather than abandon,” says Elton.


Given their backgrounds, it’s not surprising that all three men value the Innovation Incubator program. “It’s very rare in our industry to have dedicated research time away from client work, says Elton. “Our clients want us to be thinking about the future—that’s why they come to Perkins&Will.”


Adds Mahdiar: “Having support from these different programs make it possible for us to not only think outside the box, but actually raise the question that may end up being something bigger.”

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