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Smart buildings and mechatronic living spaces adapt to our needs in real time

Vancouver — Imagine a room that expands depending on how many people are within sensor range, with walls that project vivid scenes from nature complete with light breeze and babbling brook sounds.

I think I saw that on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

While science fiction is busily inventing the future, people like University of B.C. School of Architecture professor AnnaLisa Meyboom are making it real, now.

Technologies such as retinal and facial scanners, motion detectors and light sensors are already effective and relatively inexpensive, she said. And they could easily be used to create rooms that adapt and customize themselves to the needs of all the individuals in a household or office.

Building skins that admit or reflect heat and light depending on the temperature and time of day could reduce the energy needs of a building, or even help generate heat and power beyond a building’s needs. Such net positive technologies are already in development.

“Sensors and control systems can monitor what is going on inside the space and outside the space and adjust to that,” said Meyboom, who collaborates with fellow architect Jerzy Wojtowicz and students from the Engineering Physics and Mechanical Engineering labs to bring the technology closer to reality.

“There is a lot of potential in terms of what you can change; you can change lighting, change materials, and physically move walls and open up spaces under some conditions, or even adapt spaces based on who enters the room.

“If there are 100 people in a space and the CO2 levels are rising, you can raise the ceiling,” she said.

Or better yet, have the building detect the problem and respond accordingly.

The benefits run well beyond making interactive bedrooms for billionaires.

You can do the James Bond thing or recreate Tony Stark’s bedroom — both laudable goals — but the real benefits are more likely to come in terms of maximizing living space with a tighter physical footprint, making living spaces energy and carbon neutral and adapting rooms to meet the needs of people who are aging or who have disabilities.

“When you are thinking about ways that rooms can change themselves, you have to ask, who would benefit from that?” Meyboom said. “It’s really people who can’t change things themselves.

What if you could raise and lower a cupboard or a countertop with a hand signal? Or darken your windows with a nod? Adaptive space has the potential to help people with disabilities live far more independently and to give people who are aging the opportunity to remain independent longer.

“Caregivers are often overworked and so it’s really useful to have a building adjusting itself rather than them always having to do the work,” Meyboom said.

Wayfinding technology can guide people with Alzheimer’s or dementia around their environment and track their position within the environment.

“Every room can identify itself to the person so they don’t get lost,” she said. By tracking the location of such patients, the building can easily be made to prevent them from leaving the facility unescorted.

A ceiling that displays a video image of the sky, a computer screen or video phone could be a terrific tool for someone confined to a bed.

“It could be set up to work on voice or hand signals or customized to whatever the patient can do,” Meyboom said.

The same technology could be applied to walls to transform the interior environment of any room. Care to visit the Holodeck for a day at the beach or a pastoral meadow? It’s got to be better than looking at the building next door.

“When you think of the technology that is built into a Wii game, that tracks your body, and think about applying it to a building, it’s amazing that we aren’t doing more of this,” she said.

Meyboom foresees studio apartments that are tiny while unoccupied but expand with movable walls to absorb unused hallway space when you get home from work. Same square footage, bigger living space. Hear that, developers?

The energy efficiency of a building can be greatly enhanced with a responsive building skin, such as windows that admit heat and light based on the demands of the building’s interior spaces and even the preferences of the people in the building at that moment. The properties of the building materials themselves can be programmed to adjust in real time to the position of the sun and minimize energy use in unoccupied areas.

“The ideal environment inside a building changes when someone is actually in the space and energy requirements may be far lower when they are not,” she said. “The building’s skin can be made responsive.”

The kinds of control systems required to make such adaptive buildings and living spaces work are already all around us, Meyboom says. Everything from driverless SkyTrain cars, 911 emergency systems and modern aircraft are full of control systems that we aren’t even aware of, she said. “We do trust these systems.”

Public space is also ripe territory for adaptive space solutions. Mechatronics that respond to the presence of people or crowds can preserve views and sightlines while creating a safer or more functional environment.

“Think about walking up to an edge or drop-off and as you approach it a railing appears, because that’s when you need it,” Meyboom explained.

Imagine a park or courtyard that has benches and tables on a sultry summer shopping day, but reverts to an open plaza for an Olympic-sized celebration or concert.

“Whether it makes (fiscal) sense to do something like that depends on the value of the space,” she said.

Vancouver Sun

Organizations: The Next Generation, University of B.C. School of Architecture, Engineering Physics

Geographic location: Vancouver

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