ETech: Programming future habitats

Summary:This morning at ETech, Jennifer Magnolfi, the senior integration architect for programmable environments at Herman Miller presented an approach that allows for physical buildings to dynamically evolve and support change. (Herman Miller is known for creating the widely popular Aeron Chair).

This morning at ETech, Jennifer Magnolfi, the senior integration architect for programmable environments at Herman Miller presented an approach that allows for physical buildings to dynamically evolve and support change. (Herman Miller is known for creating the widely popular Aeron Chair). The initiative, Programmable Environment, is a spatial system designed to evolve over time, interact with the users who inhabit it, and enable a more sustainable building infrastructure. The company created a subsidiary, Convia, to specifically focus on this vision.

The Programmable Environment is a layer that sits on top of two infrastructure stacks in a building, the support structure and the electrical.  It includes actuators that activate ceiling elements such as lighting fixtures to create transitional environments suitable to the needs of differing user groups.

Through the use of a wireless wand, users can simply control lights on-demand and virtually rewire a building’s entire lighting system. "The wand is designed to be simple and intuitive to give the user the most direct possible control of the environment," she said.

The system also includes fabric walls that can be easily moved along the Convia ceiling rail infrastructure. Georgia Tech Library is an example of spaces using the technology to change colors and transform through the movement of curved fabric space dividers.

Magnofil laid out four principles specific to the programmable environment:

  • Maximizing the capacity for adaptation
  • The time to effect change is ideally zero
  • Design is collaborative and includes people who inhabit a space as co-designers
  • Everything is recognized as both physical and digital

In her talk, Magnofil acknowledged that the construction industry is a dinosaur so it would take a lot of work to create built environments with flexible building systems delivery that would incorporate infrastructure such as plumbing and ventilation.  She said that a distributed control paradigm plays a central role in the development, and the adaption and collaboration essential to the design challenge traditional building techniques because it's simply too costly and time consuming to make changes after a project.

She said that while the infrastructure was commercialized, a lot of the spacial concepts were research based and experimental. And a significant amount of control given to the user. They had to solve the technical engineering question first so the social component is still an open field.

The software code that runs the system is not open yet since the business decision to do so has not been made.

Topics: Emerging Tech

About

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer. Previously, he held research analyst positions in the IT industry and was the manager of marketing editorial at CBS Interactive. He's been contributing to ZDNet since 2003. Christopher received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Illinois at U... Full Bio

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