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AIA exhibition will showcase the world’s smartest buildings

Architect Derik Eckhardt tells us about smart cities, technology-driven sustainability, and design innovations

The Al Bahar Towers in Abu Dhabi have the world’s largest a computer-controlled dynamic façade, with 1000 panels that open and close according to the sun’s location.
Derik Eckhardt

Advancing technology has slowly intertwined itself into daily life—and our homes, workplaces, and spaces we enter every day are no exception. From office towers that know your favorite meeting rooms to consumer smarthome products like Alexa or Nest, our buildings and environment are starting to interact with us in new and exciting ways.

An exhibition presented by American Institute of Architects (AIA)’s Seattle chapter will explore this meeting of buildings and technology that can sometimes feel like science fiction.

Smarter Buildings: At the Intersection of Architecture, Design, and Technology, running March 2 through April 15 at Pioneer Square’s Center for Architecture & Design, is the product of AIA Seattle’s Emerging Professionals Scholarship program. The scholarship winner, Derik Eckhardt of The Miller Hull Partnership, traveled to eight cities around the world to research the buildings featured in the exhibition.

Curbed Seattle spoke with Derik about smart buildings, what he found during the scholarship, and how Seattle can benefit from smart building technology.

How do you define "smart buildings"—is it just technologically advanced, or something deeper?

Smart Buildings are those that provide advanced functionality through a computerized, intelligent network of digital devices. This is still a very broad definition.

In order to focus the research the exhibition looks are four themes which emerged across all of the buildings. Often these themes are overlapping, intertwined, and complementary: Increased sustainability, unique user interfaces, advances in construction methods, and innovations in the design process.

The exhibition really tried to look at smart-er buildings. Buildings that implement technology in a more meaningful way, were the first of their kind, or are incredibly innovative.

Out of the cities you traveled to, which have embraced smart buildings the most?

Amsterdam has really started to push an agenda of smart buildings and at a larger scale smart cities. They have a program called Amsterdam Smart City. It’s a platform for Amsterdam Metropolitan Area which acts as a network for citizens, business and government. It connects the right people to accelerate startup of projects in the city to tackle the challenges our city is facing.

They are a great resource to learn more about what’s going on with smart buildings in Amsterdam and how various other technologies can combine to make Amsterdam a smarter city.

A large office building with a sloped roof
Workers at The Edge in Amsterdam keep in touch with the building through a smartphone app
Derik Eckhardt
The inside of a glass building’s cathedral ceiling
Through the Edge’s smartphone app, the building keeps track of users’ schedules, workspace and temperature preferences, and light levels.
Derek Eckhardt

Which technologies do you think would be especially useful in a growing Seattle?

Technologies that continue Seattle's tradition of being a national leader in sustainability—specifically, tools that allow for better tracking of a building’s efficiency.

King County is currently taking part in a pilot program that uses the same energy-tracking system that Microsoft uses to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions at many of its buildings. Growth of these kinds of programs would be tremendous.

Two buildings, one a rectangular taper and the other a circular taper, with outer glass.
London’s Leadenhall Building has three layers of glass. Glazing from the inner glass work with vents to keep the offices at a comfortable temperature.
Derik Eckhardt

The next steps would be a complete county or city data strategy. London has a great example of this type of program. London’s tech market is the largest in Europe and the city has a clear initiative to make the city’s data open source while providing that data through a number of differing services.

London is focusing on supplying clean usable data sets that can be used not just by public services but also the private sector. They are tapping into the diversity of their existing tech market to use how different groups approach data. The city of London understands a robust, clean, and accessible data set will help foster decision making, infrastructure planning, and private innovations.

What would you consider the smartest building in Seattle?

There are a few contenders. The Bullitt Center is very successful in combining a large number of existing technologies to create a new benchmark for green design. The Amazon Spheres really pushed the use of data in their design and construction.

Any local smart developments to watch for?

I’ve seen a number of architects, engineers and contractors in Seattle really embrace virtual reality and augmented reality in their everyday practice. I think we will see a lot more development of these tools until they become more robust and intuitive.

We have been using some fairly basic VR to study everything from massing and scale to light and shadow. More complex models can be developed for material studies and even as marketing tools.

Smart buildings are clearly exciting to you— but is there anything you saw in your research that even freaked you out a little bit?

I didn’t see anything that was too worrisome or too extreme. I think the one thing that at times catches myself and others off guard is the pace in which we are all experience new digital technologies. The breadth of currently technology is immense and it can be hard to predict what the future will look like. I think this allows the Smarter Buildings Exhibition the opportunity to act as a forum for people to start having more conversations about what technologies they want to see shape our buildings and cities.

What technologies do you want to shape your buildings—anything you're lacking in your day to day life that you want to integrate?

I think it is important to remember we are embracing these tools to build better environments, better buildings, and better cites. I believe the exhibition’s role, in part, is to highlight what types of tools are out there and at the same time questions our approach to their implementation. For me the most useful technology is one that lets me work towards my goal and not the technology’s. I’d like to see the integration of digital tools which allow for better informed decisions while at the same time let the means remain separate from the end.