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Urban Tech

By Lois Mentrup

In the past, high-tech meant grids and squares, exposed cables and cold metal furniture. Several years past the dot-com heyday, designers now use technology to make a space more inviting, comfortable and productive.

"Certainly 10 years ago, if you would describe something as high-tech, most people would interpret that as a funky aesthetic," says Norman Nance, IIDA Industry Member and Vice President of Marketing at the Green Bay, Wis.-based furniture provider KI. "When people think high-tech today, they think functionality and sophistication."

Modern commercial designers incorporate technology into everything, from lighting systems to airport chairs and desks to make life easier and more customized for workers, travelers and consumers. "Today, technology isn't driving the design," says David Labuskes, Vice President and Director of Telecommunications and Technology Design at the Baltimore, Md.-based design firm RTKL. "Now, technology is ubiquitous and a part of everything we do."

The Need for Wheels

Designers focus on flexibility in commercial spaces, particularly the workplace. Companies gain more functionality in arranging their workspaces with technological elements such as wireless local area networks (often referred to as Wi-Fi) that connect computers via airwaves instead of wires and raised flooring, where components such as electrical, telephone/data cables and even air ducts are placed underneath the carpet. Using technology, businesses can adapt more easily when the workforce grows (or shrinks) and can encourage teamwork between employees.

"Wireless supports collaboration and more fluid workstyles, which is a plus," says Rod Vickroy, the Design Director for Interiors at Perkins & Will in Chicago. "Wireless untethers the furniture to change it into whatever adaptive use we need, without rewiring."

Today, corporations list flexibility/mobility as one of the top five criteria when choosing furniture, according to Nance. "Within the last three to five years, people have finally accepted products on wheels," Nance says.

When Technology Does Compute

Innovative design industry executives are extending office flexibility well beyond mobile furniture. For example, researchers at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based office furniture manufacturer Steelcase and Minneapolis-based research firm Orfield Labs use computing technology to create personalized office spaces that can control elements such as lighting, color and temperature accordingly.

Using such technology, "I can individualize the space to my needs," says Joe Branc, Manager of Workspace Futures Technologies at Steelcase. This concept extends beyond the office and into environments like retail, where wireless and other technologies such as biometrics allow digital advertisements to be customized to the individual—a cutting-edge idea portrayed in the movie "Minority Report," starring Tom Cruise.

"As you approach a store, they can know your preferences and send you information because they know where and who you are," Branc says.

Computers themselves are gaining flexibility as well. The emergence of affordable flat-screen monitors has made it much easier to incorporate computer displays in a variety of places—from an office divider to the wall of a bar. In fact, the San Francisco-based design firm Gensler recently designed an office for Bloomberg where each employee has four monitors in a 5-foot x 5-foot office space.

Steelcase, working with IBM, has developed an "everywhere display"—affectionately called "ED"—that can project a computer display on anything from floors to ceilings to walls, enabling groups to work together more efficiently. "Now you can share information on a display while still having face-to-face contact with the individual," Branc says.

Building in Power

Of course, this greater reliance on computers and other technology has led to increased power requirements. Power loads in the Bloomberg office building grew two to three times that of an average office space per square foot, according to Melissa Watts, Gensler's Regional Director of the Broadcast and Media Practice Area.

RTKL now is designing for an average of 7 to 8 watts per square foot, or approximately 50 percent higher than the 5 watts per square foot that was the standard about 15 years ago, Labuskes says.

"Designers are looking for unique ways to accommodate power and data," Nance says. "We're seeing those kinds of trends start to be translated into other environments such as restaurants."

"A number of manufacturers of hold-room seating [in airports] are trying to incorporate power and data lines into their seating," says Bill Hooper, Vice President of Aviation at Gensler. And providing a place to power-up and access e-mail and the Internet is "becoming a differentiator to some of the concessionaires."

In general, "power jacks will be incorporated into more types of furniture," Branc says. "There are more pluggable devices today."

Rose-Colored Glasses

An increased reliance on computers and display screens also affects lighting. "Ambient lighting is very important so you don't get any kind of glare on these monitors," Watts says.

Commercial lighting in the last 20 years actually has gotten dramatically worse, according to Steve Orfield, President of Orfield Labs, a research firm that strives to link science with design. The movement toward energy-efficient lighting, which has a high coefficient of utilization (CU), produced lighting systems that are "higher in glare and lower in visibility," Orfield says.

Even indirect lighting has its problems, according to Orfield, because it tends to put too much light on the ceiling. To truly gauge the quality of lighting, Orfield Labs works with its clients to measure luminescence, which Orfield says assesses what one actually sees because it computes the light that is reflected from a surface, rather than simply calculating the overall lighting level, such as foot-candle measurements do.

Color schemes also can affect lighting and visibility. For instance, charcoal cubicles, which have gained popularity in today's workplaces, can turn day lighting from a pleasant benefit into a problem glare, according to Orfield. In addition, certain dark color schemes can render day lighting useless. Fortunately, technological advances in lighting may likely solve such problems in the future. For instance, Steelcase has begun to work with LED lighting, which allows designers to change the color-rendering index (CRI) to make commercial spaces more pleasant by adding more reds, blues and greens.

"Is [LED lighting] cost-effective today? No. Will it be in four or five years? Absolutely," Branc says. "In my opinion, it will replace florescent lighting. If you look at florescent lighting, the only thing it satisfies is the light meter, not the eye."

The only constant in both design and technology is change. That's why designers should try to plan ahead and make their designs flexible. "One of the things we do know that requires no crystal ball is this: Whatever technology I put in today is going to be obsolete before the lease is up," Labuskes says. "So I make sure the pathways are there to upgrade."

Dynamic Spaces

"Technology should support the environment without being the key feature of the environment," says Sam O'Donahue, Director of Branded Environments at the New York-based design firm Desgrippes Gobé Group. "The high-tech aspect weaves its way into practically everything that we do nowadays."

By incorporating technology into a variety of different restaurant and retail spaces, O'Donahue has created environments that not only provoke a mood, but also change people's behavior. For instance, O'Donahue incorporated creative lighting in New York's XL Lounge to help change the space from a restaurant into a bar as the evening progresses.

"The client was looking for a space that would be able to transform completely between 6:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m. in the morning, so that it could be everything to all people at all times," O'Donahue says. "The premise was: How could you turn the space from a café into a nightclub?"

O'Donahue used LED lighting to control the mood, taking the concept of "dimming the lights" to a whole new level. By migrating the light from a pale blue into a darker light that incorporated purples and reds, "we were able to change the atmosphere very gradually," O'Donahue says. "The best part is that you didn't know that the light was changing."

O'Donahue has used technology in other creative ways as well. The XL Lounge, for instance, captures images of its patrons on about 30 to 40 cameras hidden throughout the establishment and broadcasts them onto an intricate network of television screens-what O'Donahue called an experiment in voyeurism and exhibitionism. He envisions a day when individuals will hop on the Internet and look at Web cams to see which bars have the hippest-looking crowd before they head out on a Saturday night.

He also has used technology that allows individuals to control their own environment. For instance, in one restaurant, diners at the VIP table can raise the lights, which makes them visible behind a one-way mirror, or dim them for privacy. In other projects, O'Donahue has proposed using LED technology to flash life-size images on an entire wall or even to let people write messages on it.

Other designers use technology to "engage" people within commercial spaces. "When you look at public spaces and buildings now, before it was about moving people through," says Rod Vickroy, the Design Director for Interiors at Perkins & Will, Chicago. "Now you see retail activity where people can stop and gather, grab a coffee and be entertained."

Despite the ability to creatively use technology to enhance design, O'Donahue believes technology should serve as a backdrop that enhances the atmosphere instead of controlling it, in much the same way that a vase of flowers adds atmosphere.

"I'm not a huge fan of technology," O'Donahue says. "I think technology is worth integrating if it lets you do something that wasn't previously possible or if it improves your life. Technology should make life easy, almost in a very intuitive way."

Imagine That

"Thinking fabric" is expected to change the face of design over the next 10 to 20 years, making
textiles more functional and sophisticated than ever before.

Nanotechnology, which enables designers to engineer matter at the level of atoms, molecules and supramolecular structures, will allow fabric to respond to changes in body temperatures, self-repair minor rips and tears, even change colors according to mood.

Some of the earliest versions of this fabric use nanotechnology to resist stains. Designers enmesh 10-nanometer-long whiskers into the fabric, binding fibers tightly enough to shrug off liquids as potent as coffee or wine.

Other lines integrate microcapsules into fabrics that capture and release body heat as body temperatures change.