Vivian Loftness: Interior Design

If someone asked you to describe the contemporary American workplace, intelligent is probably not a word you would use. Sure, the typical office hums with an impressive array of technology, but the physical environment—the fluorescent-lit landscape of cubicles and computer monitors where many of us spend our weekdays—is, if not inhospitable to humans, certainly not ideal. And intelligent? The notion seems quaint, like a 1950s vision of the “Office of the Future.”

Vivian Loftness, professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, has spent the better part of three decades trying to change all that. As a senior researcher at the Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics, she helped develop the Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace for advanced high-performance building systems—a “living laboratory” both in the sense that the materials and systems are constantly updated and that it’s occupied by real workers. “We’re the guinea pigs,” says Loftness, whose office is located there.

What is being tested is the optimal work environment—one that maximizes worker health and productivity, flexibility, technological adaptability, and environmental sustainability through an integrated system encompassing everything from the building’s infrastructure to individual task lighting. Open since 1997, the workplace has identified the best in high-performance building systems, but the project’s funders—a consortium of industries and federal agencies—pushed for economic justification. In response to their requests—and to the widespread problem of “first-cost” decision making limiting the implementation of advanced systems—Loftness helped spearhead the Building Investment Decision Support (BIDS) tool. “The BIDS project,” Loftness says, “was the result of continuous requests from industry and federal sponsors to show that better buildings are worth it.”

BIDS uses case-study data to link advanced building systems to improved worker health, increased productivity, and even energy savings—an effort to prove that the long-term economic benefits of high-performance buildings justify the initial investment. David Thurm, chief information officer of the New York Times Company, who is overseeing the construction and development of the paper’s new headquarters in Manhattan, agrees that access to this data is critical: “We’ve spent a lot of time on the question, How do you find this hard data? Where is the data that shows that there is a productivity jump?” Without it, he adds, “we’re proceeding on an act of faith.”

The BIDS tool, currently available to the public in a trial version, provides online access to the data sets that, as Loftness says, “piece by piece argue for better buildings.” But for builders, investors, and employers just looking for the bottom line, the researchers have also identified several areas where they feel they have a “critical mass” of data to support implementation. Daylighting, high-performance electric lighting, underfloor air, cool roofs, and mixed-mode heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning are all areas where, Loftness says, “it’s a no-brainer—the data is irrefutable—the paybacks are so fantastic.”

Asked if one area stands out for immediate reform, Loftness is quick to reply: “Windows for workers! That’s my slogan,” before launching into discussion on the value of outside air, the innovative ways to offset the added energy costs related to that, and the challenges of designing a good mechanical system with fully operable windows. This dedication to finding the best components of the intelligent workplace—and proving them cost effective—gives us hope that the “Office of the Future” is not a thing of the past.

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