Good Architecture Makes The Invisible Visible

The unseen performance of buildings is essential to improved user experience and successful business outcomes.

“Invisible architecture” can be a difference maker in projects such as New York’s 10 and 30 Hudson Yards, a Related-Oxford Venture, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, New York. (Image courtesy Related)

By Victoria J. Cerami, CEO, Cerami & Associates, Inc.

Is great architecture invisible? Depending on the project type, end-user studies by firms such as HOK and researchers at Univ. of California, Berkeley, show that at least 50% of a building’s perceived and actual performance is entirely unseen. Whether it’s acoustics, workplace/learning technology, or security and life-safety systems, key elements that shape end-user experience can often be difficult to discern at first glance.

When the Wi-Fi signal drops, for example, or a college lecturer’s microphone fails, building occupants notice. They also shift their attention when a security breach causes financial loss or a meeting room’s uncontrolled reverb makes a board-meeting discussion unintelligible and unpleasant. When events such as those happen, the owner and design team realize that the “invisible architecture” is the linchpin for better business outcomes, more effective learning, and enjoyable, graceful occupant experiences.

Yet, even with trial and error, building-project teams often neglect these enabling traits in early project discussions. It’s just assumed that those invisible things will work out fine.

This faith seems unwise. Consider architectural renderings and animations. The often-beautiful project images let people see or walk/fly through their schematic designs. Owners learn what the new spaces will look like, and they can respond to visual imagery such as form, texture, and lighting. A few other key senses are missing, however. What does it sound like inside? Is the air fresh and natural?

Learn more about invisible architecture and the impact it can have on project success in our interview with Victoria Cerami above.

Basic performance aspects are omitted from the pretty pictures: Is the building infrastructure suitable and ready for the intended use? Is all functionality supported by the right systems and assemblies? Most of all, owners should ask, does the rendering show an adaptable and resilient building, ready for the inevitable (but usually unknown) organizational and environmental flux?

As consultants creating integrated building experiences to meet the client mission, our goal is to add those invisible functions to project planning. For decades, I’ve preached about how important it is to make the invisible visible during project planning and design—or when correcting an existing building’s defects. We’ve created tools such as Cerami Immersive to deliver acoustical visualizations to the project decision-makers (Learn more about acoustical design at wbdg.org/resources/acoustic-comfort). Along the way, we’ve learned those invisible things are vital, from the front-end conceptual design work to the final punch list—and for the building’s lifetime of operations.

A big part of the job for our firm is to raise awareness of the invisible aspects of a facility. For example, people today expect access to data everywhere and all the time. The future is wireless everything. Architecture must support that, even through low-e glass, which is a boon to energy savings but a killer for wireless signals. Similarly, communications have to be supported—not just phones, networked computers, and servers, but the touchpoints of audio and visual components. Also, today we assume that sophisticated security tools will help solve matters from asset management to criminal activity.

All of this is expected and assumed to be inherent in that gorgeous lifestyle architecture rendering. But seasoned end-users know to never assume.

That’s why visionary technologists are essential to the team. Instead of starting with a checklist of devices, we have to evaluate the users. Who are these people? What are their needs, and how do they communicate? What opportunities motivate them and what challenges do they seek to overcome?

We contend that’s the starting point. The project perspective should be people first:

• What their goals are and what makes them happy and productive.
• What contributes to recruiting, retaining, and rewarding the best of them.
• What makes for a world-class experience—for all of the senses.

The needs that they articulate expose the unmet and maybe even unknown needs. That’s how the invisible starts to shape and support the architecture.

“The details are really where it all comes together,” stated my colleague Peter Babigian, a noted expert in technology and sustainability. “We’ve shifted our focus from space- and system-based design to experience-based. This emphasis on diverse user experience helps a project team seamlessly meet all expectations for the client group’s interaction with those ‘invisible yet critical’ elements.”

The straightest path to designing for the invisible is to understand and reflect the language of the end-users, occupants, and owners. Help them shape the solution around the business outcome and the organizational mission. This helps people understand why building-system technologists are so fixated on things you can’t see, but that often matter the most.

Victoria J. Cerami is CEO of Cerami & Associates, Inc., an innovative, 100-person global provider of outcome-focused building solutions for high-profile projects, operating three offices in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, recognized for business leadership and technical excellence.

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