Image: Interior
Alan Steel  /  CMU
The interior of the Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace takes advantage of daylight and reconfigurability.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 11/10/2005 4:12:25 PM ET 2005-11-10T21:12:25

PITTSBURGH - If Volker Hartkopf has his way, the office building of tomorrow would look much like the office building of today, but with more windows.

Most of the innovations that he and fellow researchers have added to a model office space here at Carnegie Mellon University are under the hood. They’re things you might not even notice unless you were working in such an office — or had to pay the heating bills.

For example, there's the heating system, which sends lukewarm water up through pipes built into the structure's vertical window frames, or mullions. That heat, along with the daylight coming through the windows, is enough to keep the office comfortable on a cloudy autumn day.

"If I air-condition on a day like today, I'm a stupid ass, because I can open windows," says Hartkopf, director of CMU's Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics. "We get very nice air in here, and we get all the thermal quality we want by heating the mullions just a little bit."

Open the windows? In an office building?

Heretical common-sense ideas like that one are being put to the test every day in CMU's 7,000-square-foot Robert L. Preger Intelligent Workplace, which has been set up on the top floor of a campus building. The experimental workspace began operation eight years ago, but the bolted-steel structure is designed to be easily reconfigurable to suit the ideas of the 26 students, faculty and staff members who work here.

"We call it a living laboratory, in that it's always changing, and a lived-in laboratory, because we live in it," Hartkopf says during a tour. "It changes continuously. ... We're talking about a building as a stage, like a theater, on top of which you can play out any organizational requirement."

In control of the environment
Many of the workplace's features, such as being able to open the windows, are aimed at putting you in control of your own work environment:

  • Each side of the long, narrow space is lined with windows, rising up to meet a ceiling of skylights. Outside louvers can be adjusted to dim the lights and reduce solar heating. Fluorescent lamps with "occupancy sensors" provide more light when someone's in the office, but turn themselves off when nobody's there.
  • The workplace's layout gives everyone a window, because studies have shown that access to daylight is a key factor for worker satisfaction. In fact, Hartkopf notes, some European governments insist upon it.
  • There's a variety of cubicle designs to provide more of an open or closed look to your personal space.
  • You can subtly fine-tune the temperature, airflow and lighting using a slider-bar control at your desk.
  • You can even turn up a "white noise" generator to mask out conversations or other sounds from other areas in the room, although the workplace's acoustic-absorbing materials are already designed to soften the din.

Hartkopf says capitalizing on natural heating, cooling and lighting reduces the workplace's energy expenditure to one-twentieth of the U.S. average — only a tenth of a watt of electricity per square foot.

Image: Exterior
Karl Backus  /  CMU
The exterior of the Intelligent Workplace is lined with windows and catwalks.
"If I can make things happen with natural means, why would I pay money?" he asks.

Even the employee-friendly features quickly deliver a payoff, he said, in the form of greater productivity and reduced turnover in the office workforce. After Owens Corning incorporated many of the Intelligent Workplace's features in their own newly built offices in Toledo, Ohio, the lower "churn" rate saved $750,000 in relocation expenses over the course of a year, he says.

Hartkopf cites studies showing that daylit work spaces can improve productivity by 5 to 30 percent. Then he does the math: Creating a certified "green" building with brighter offices would add an estimated 5 percent to the typical $10 million cost of construction, or $500,000. But if you assume a building-wide payroll of $50 million, even a 5 percent productivity increase would amount to $2.5 million more a year.

"The payback period for this would be three or four months, as long as you allow human performance to be part of the equation," Hartkopf says.

Rebuilding the office building
Over time, the easy reconfigurability of the building provides further benefit, he said. As you scan the Intelligent Workplace, the floors look like a blank array of thin paving stones. All the guts of the office infrastructure — electrical wiring, telephone lines, data cables — are hidden beneath the floor. You just flip open a lid to get to the power plugs or cable jacks.

Even the walls can be easily moved around.

"When we reconfigure, we don't have to call in facility management. We don't have to call in painters, spacklers, wall dismantlers, garbage people, electricians, plumbers," Hartkopf says. "We the faculty can reorient this space, and we can re-create this space, and we can do it in hours. And we don't throw anything away."

Two words Hartkopf seems to hate are "waste" and "recycle." Office accoutrements such as chairs and tables should be refurbished, or redistributed, or reused, or remanufactured. Only then should they be "up-cycled," he says. He hates the idea that highly processed packaging plastics are being converted into plain old park benches.

"Every time we take something through a cycling process, it becomes smarter, so it's not becoming stupid," he says.

The building as power plant
Even "waste heat" is a no-no: Excess energy should be recaptured if possible to heat the building, and perhaps even give some energy back to the power grid.

In fact, the next project Hartkopf has on the drawing boards is called the Building as Power Plant. The six-story, 64,000-square-foot experimental building, due for construction on the CMU campus, has been designated a technology test bed by the federal government.

One part of the equation is a highly efficient electrical generator, powered by natural gas with a fuel-cell converter. But the power system would also make use of photovoltaic, solar thermal and geothermal energy.

Hartkopf figures that if the system is set up right, it could achieve 110 percent efficiency — meaning that renewable energy sources could produce a surplus of electrical power for the campus' electrical grid. "That's going to be a first anywhere in the world," Hartkopf says.

Building upon the future — and the past
In his search for more technology tricks, Hartkopf is finding plenty of 21st-century ideas, such as "sunflower" light fixtures that track the sun through the day and channel the light into offices via fiber optics. But he's also finding inspiration in Pittsburgh's older buildings as well. For example, he notes that the Allegheny County Courthouse, built in the 1880s, took advantage of natural ventilation, daylight exposure, thermal conditioning, and even an earth-channeled geothermal heat exchanger.

Many of those same green strategies are being used in Pittsburgh's newest buildings, such as the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

"The first building was built before we forgot what we could do," Hartkopf muses, "and the convention center was built after we remembered what we could do."

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