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Improving the IQ of Offices

A “smart” office tries to prove its worth
September 1, 1998

The “intelligent workplace” at carnegie mellon university has, without question, the best view on campus. Built atop an existing building, it commands an almost 360-degree panorama and, equipped with state-of-the-art office technology, is an unusually pleasant place to work. But it’s also a place with a tough job: to prove that an initial investment in a “smart” facility not only benefits workers but also saves money in the long run.

The showcase office is a collaborative effort of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics (CBPD) and the Advanced Building Systems Integration Consortium, made up of government agencies and manufacturers of building and office products and systems. The project tests new technologies and hopes to demonstrate that these systems together as an integrated whole can result in significant savings over a building’s lifetime.

But they’ve got a tough sell. “People are willing to pay money for a better car environment, where they spend maybe one or two hours a day, but collectively they are less willing to spend money to improve the work environment, where we spend 10 hours a day,” says CBPD’s director, Volker Hartkopf. “We question that.”
The Carnegie Mellon project maximizes use of natural light and ventilation in the workplace. When the outside temperature and humidity fall within a certain range, a computer tells building occupants to open their windows. “Today it’s humid in Pittsburgh, but not hot, just warm, and opened windows are all we need (for ventilation),” Hartkopf said one day this summer.

The computer also controls light redirection louvers outside the windows. When the windows are closed, water flowing through the mullions separating the window panes provides heating and cooling. Ventilation comes from personal modules at each desk; the units tap into an air supply under the floor and allow each worker to control temperature and flow rate-even to generate masking noise.

To accommodate the personnel and organizational changes that are increasingly common in today’s workplaces, layouts, walls, electrical wiring and phone lines are all easily reconfigured. The wiring system, for instance, is a network of consolidation boxes under removable floor panels; it provides access to every point in the space within 30 centimeters, and does so for less money than a conventional wiring system. “If you’re a company relocating your headquarters, you could even take the wiring along with you,” points out research assistant Sila Berkol.

Berkol points to studies that show that this kind of up-front investment in a work environment pays for itself over the long haul. Lower energy costs and infrastructural versatility are only part of the picture: the subsequent reductions in medical insurance costs and absenteeism and increases in productivity and employee retention alone can be enough. Not to mention the many other less easily measured benefits that result from a workforce that likes being at work.

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