Intelligent vs Clever

Essay published in 'Architect & Interiors' magazine

I have always been a strong advocate of passive design in architecture. It is the low hanging fruit that is often overlooked and under-valued for more seductive and sexier technological interventions, be it mechanically or otherwise driven dynamic elements in a building or energy generation technologies (until we analyze and understand the financial feasibility and ROIs on such technologies). It is not my intent to under-value ‘intelligent buildings’ either, but rather highlight the relevance of ‘clever design’ as a crucial step before intelligent systems are put in place. So, when Maria Louis (editor of this wonderful journal) mentioned the topic of ‘intelligent buildings’, my immediate response was, ‘Let’s start with clever buildings’.

So, what is a ‘clever building’, or rather ‘clever design’? The principle of clever design in many ways should align itself with the philosophy of ‘jugaad’, where innovative solutions are devised within existing constraints and limited resources. A clever design must explore and exhaust all passive modes to maximize the efficiency of a building for its occupants, its internal and external environment and consequently the energy consumption of a building. More often than not, the by-product of this process is innovative design, both functionally and aesthetically. A clever design approach is a wholesome design strategy (you may recognize the term ‘whole building design’) which utilizes the knowledge of occupant use and behavior, programmatic efficiencies, indoor environmental comfort, building physics, external environmental and micro-climatic analytics and yes, finally, technological intervention. Most successful projects are ones that begin with ‘clever design’, minimize the use of active systems and then merge intelligent systems to further support and enhance the passive strategies applied in the design. The ROI on expensive ‘intelligent building systems’, mainly the building information system which is the backbone of any intelligent building, can be maximized when building design allows itself to reverting to ‘clever’ passive operations.

Of course, something must be said about intelligent systems in a building, which can be a powerful tool when the building is operational and can maximize the potential of a cleverly designed building. Building information systems (BIS) today with extensive sub-metering and a network of varied sensors can help facility managers monitor a building’s function and performance in real-time. The information provided by BIS can include everything from HVAC, lighting, energy usage, indoor temperatures, occupancy, security, fire, irrigation and more. This integrated information may automate controls for various mechanical and dynamic systems within the building or be used by facility managers to adjust systems to optimize performance and fine-tune indoor environment to best meet occupant usage. It is also important to understand that educating the facility owners, operators and occupants about the functioning of an intelligent building is critical in harmonizing the efficiency of the building.

One example is Karle Town Centre office building project (in Bangalore) designed by our team, where the façade is ‘clever’ in mitigating solar radiation whilst allowing for natural daylight penetration into the building. Furthermore, working with the mechanical design and review teams, we were able to validate the feasibility of adding light and air openings within the building core. These openings or voids in the building not only provide additional daylighting in occupiable spaces, but are also sized to bring fresh air into adjacent AHU rooms whereby removing the need for any ductwork or fan-power for fresh-air intake. The openings also passively provided fresh air as well as pressurize the egress stairs and elevator lobbies in all floors. Couple this with intelligent systems, ie. daylight sensors and CO2 sensors and the resultant is a calibrated design system with enhanced daylighitng, reduced lighting loads, reduced heat-gains and reduced fan-power. The building now sings like a synchronized choir!

Another wonderful example is the ‘Kroon Hall’ building at Yale University in New Haven (US), designed by Hopkins Architects. Amongst many smart, clever and intelligent systems and strategies in the building, is the use of operable windows for natural ventilation. These windows are not automated and rely on occupants to open and close. The BIS monitors external environment (wet and dry bulb temperatures) and during viable summer months, when external temperatures are within the comfort zone, shuts down the mechanical system. The system then prompts the building’s occupants via email and colored lights (red or green) placed adjacent to the windows to open the windows. Although simple in its nature, this is a wonderful example of complementing clever design with intelligent building systems. In addition, the system minimizes dependency on actuated mechanical systems for window operation and engages the building’s occupants.

A wholesome design approach is the key to not only a successful project, but also contributing to a sustainable future of built and natural environments. Let’s always grab the low-hanging fruit first.


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@2018 Varun Kohli