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A ‘Social’ Language for Buildings and Communities

This paper is the first in a series of papers that provide an introduction to research being undertaken to develop an approach for assessing buildings and communities in terms of their value to people. The approach places individuals at the centre of a methodology that allows the social and functional performance of buildings and communities to be codified both as physical entities of today and as part of smart systems in the future. By doing so, the hope is that clarity can be gained as to what role the building plays as part of a more dynamic and connected community system and its impact on social programmes and lifestyles as they become increasingly governed by smart systems and virtual delivery mechanisms.

The research programme is in response to the smart agenda. Whether the horizons are twenty years, fifty years or even a hundred years, smart cities and smart buildings will, at some level, become a reality. The question is, how will building and community performance be measured and assessed, in its entirety, when it is more akin to an electro-electronic/mechanical system rather than architecture and construction?

The primary driver for the work is the belief that smart buildings and smart cities, in all that they stand for, should be considered in terms of how they change an individual’s life for the better and improve social equity. The built environment influences people’s lives and buildings in the future will inevitably become more active themselves and/or activities will be performed in them for which they were not designed for. The application of ‘smart’ to buildings must improve and extend their performance in relation to individual needs and resource efficiency and must not just be seen as new markets for technology/retail companies and system integrators. Looking to the future, the potential to control a building in terms of electronic hardware and software is likely to develop much faster than the building itself or the knowledge to integrate it in a way that optimises building performance and occupant need. Buildings must be better understood in terms of future smart system scenarios.

The work focuses on the functional performance of buildings, their components and the surrounding community and then inter-connects these to produce a mesh network, an individual’s mesh network. Once constructed, the mesh can be stimulated with certain processes and analysed in terms of how well it supports an individual’s lifestyle whether in the existing physical community or the increasingly virtual (electronic) one in the future. It also allows community service providers of social programmes to analyse an individual’s mesh to see how robust it is and how well it can deliver physical or virtual civic services. Finally, the methodology will allow the benefits and dis-benefits of ICT delivery mechanisms to be assessed over conventional physical community models.

The series of papers over the next year will summarise the following:

  • Paper 1: Developing Metadata and Methodologies to Support the Assessment of the Social Value of Buildings and Communities in Future Smart Cities: A Social Language,
  • Paper 2: Systemising Things,
  • Paper 3: The Foundation of an Audit Process,
  • Paper 4: System Analysis and Process Optimisation Using Supply Chain Techniques,
  • Paper 5: Measuring the Positive and Negative Impacts of Virtual Delivery Mechanisms – a Geo-social Community Assessment Tool.


What are Smart and Connected Buildings and Communities?

This introductory paper starts by questioning whether we truly understand buildings, not for what they are but rather what they offer society in the future? In raises the question of all buildings not in terms of their aesthetics or monetary value but the functions they perform and the value they bring in an increasingly connected world. A world where new digital capabilities can transform spaces from beyond just being comfortable and secure to ones where their performance becomes part of a broader social solution. Spaces, defined not by the engineering and sustainability challenges to keep them standing, but by the social benefits they provide their occupants in a more connected, closed loop and data rich society. A society where traditional vertically orientated centres of national and local civic governance and amenity will shortly be delivered via distributed ICT processes, promulgated on non-specific platforms and ‘consumed’ in in-numerable physical locations.

Perhaps it’s now time to bring new analysis to how buildings function in just such a future. Analysis that allows their physical presence and performance to be codified alongside that of future virtual environments; codified in terms of a more dynamic and responsive value to the individual; codified in terms of their social benefit and outcomes – the real value of buildings in the future.

Albeit in a different context, Le-Corbusier’s [1] statement of ‘the house is a machine for living in’ may finally come true through the smart agenda. However, for it to be considered as a machine, more needs to be known about its purpose and of those who occupy it. Without this, we are just building spaces in the hope that they will be more or less adapted to meet requirements or, which is more likely, the space will adapt the occupant. Continuously forcing the occupant to accommodate its short-comings; short-comings which have in the past been orientated towards the basic physical needs of safety, security and comfort. However, in the future these short-comings could become even more pronounced as basic physical needs are augmented by new demands of health and care provision, education, governance and social equality. Design, a facade, a template of spaces interconnected by access passages that are founded in the past; founded to some extent on human scale and access but not truly reflecting the functional requirements of its occupants, or how that might be influenced by the digital revolution, must change. To truly understand the value of buildings in a future society, the building must not just be a vehicle, a structure for supporting cables and devices, its spaces must be part of the overall service provision for its occupants. A service provision demanded of buildings by a changing society, disrupted by, and yet offered so many opportunities by, the digital revolution.

Background and Context

The research work outlined here is in its early stages although the approach is thought to be fundamentally sound. The indications so far is that it provides powerful insights and solutions to the complex issue that is people’s lives and their interaction with buildings and their community. It inevitably represents a particular ‘slice’ through this very complex issue with its own benefits and drawbacks. While much research has been undertaken, and analysis tools are being developed to capture real data and validate the theory through practical leaning, the work must still be considered as developmental.

The work links closely with Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE), Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) and Building Information Modelling (BIM) particularly as it progresses through to Level 3 and considers the functionality and interoperability of objects and devices. The work places things in terms of their ‘service’ value to users and not the object itself. By adopting this approach it allows a mesh network to be constructed that represents an individual’s building and community. This can then be examined as to how it responds to process demands placed on it and what role ICT can play in improving services in the future.

The research draws on building performance, architecture, social science, control theory, system analysis and network theory to arrive at a methodology that provides a way of validating the hypothesis, that:

A ‘social’ (functional) language and methodology can be developed that will allow the built and virtual environments to be harmonised and the resultant system assessed in terms of its ability (value) to support individual outcomes in a future smart city (community).

The mere mention of the word ‘system’ in association with buildings and communities raises strong and often polarised views. Architects view ‘system’ as in some way an industrialisation of their work constraining their design freedom either in terms of layout, components or construction method. The people that occupy the buildings and form the communities in which we all live are also rightly concerned about their lives being systemised as it represents a threat to freedom and personal choice. The fact is however, that culture is defined by routines and systems and while we all think we are different we regularly conform to our stereotype. Modern day consumerism also segments and systemises our interactions. The unstoppable growth in commercialism on the back of ICT, the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data will inevitable mean that individuals and the buildings they occupy will be subject to propriety systemisation even if the architectural discipline that designed them was not.


As Christopher Alexander argues:

‘We must face squarely just what the task of city planning is; it is nothing less than the design of culture. A culture is a system of standard situations. Each of these situations specifies certain roles, certain allowed limits of behaviour for the persons in these roles, and the requisite spatial setting for this behaviour’ [2].



In terms of the built environment, architecture and planning shape and reflect culture and how people live their lives and it would be foolhardy to comment on the vast body of existing work, for example [3], [4], [5], [6], [7]. However, while people as physical entities living in a physical city are defined by roles, behaviour and spatial setting, in the future many of the traditional community service delivery models and individual interactions will change. They could be largely independent of location (either building type and/or personal mobile services), may not be provided by specific centres of excellence (often associated with specific building types, for example hospitals) and will not be predicated on physical mobility as they have been in the past. Already modern day culture is changing as a result of ubiquitous communications but in the future, ICT will bring control and the pseudo intelligence to how the built environment functions and how we realise benefits from it. To respond to this, the value of a building in its entirety must be better understood not just in terms of its resource efficiency (for example energy efficiency has been a prime concern over the past 30 to 40 years) but in terms of what functional role it can play in a more distributed, ICT enhanced, building and community service model with the individual at the focal point.

Approximately 100 years on from Le Corbusier’s statement that the ‘the house is a machine for living in’ it may finally come true. Not as Le Corbusier considered it as an industrial suppression of human culture and urbanism giving rise to the modernist movement that largely still survives today but as a dynamic and adaptive, people centric, data driven, control system that will inevitable sweep the physical building along with it. The building structure, fixtures and fittings will not just support ICT systems but will become active in themselves and a variable in a control system that together with appliances and devices will manage resources and deliver new occupant benefits in a building that hitherto just provided safety and isolation from the elements. Systemisation, depending on where the boundaries are drawn, is inevitable. The key, certainly in terms of buildings, is to do this in such a way that the new dimensions of functional control and resultant occupant value augments the visual richness and satisfaction that can be gained from seeing or being in a well-designed building of human scale and accessible to human sensibilities [8], [9].

The approach adopted in the research has been produced solely to support the people centric nature of the research and it may or may not have any future validity depending on the findings of the research. The approach also requires a certain level of ‘intellectual trading’. As architects, engineers, physicists and planners the focus is usually to excel in terms of technical expertise or design. In the research outlined here this is consciously traded for ‘horizontal’ network/system complexity (see later). While sacrificing vertical subject matter depth is very risky the initial assertion is that by adopting this approach it may provide an easier route to identifying the social impact of buildings and smart systems that will far outweigh the negative impacts of failing to consider all (vertical) issues across all (horizontal) disciplines. Indeed, as the work develops additional vertical rigour can be backfilled in to the methodology. The approach, given appropriate vertical compromises however, does benefit from supporting the integration of horizontal issues and hence the potential to consider outcomes and not just outputs in service delivery.

The Drivers

The research work is in response to a number of technical, environmental, social and financial imperatives. These will only be dealt with superficially but to a greater or lesser extent they are likely to be significant influencers calling for a better understanding of the intersection between occupant, building, community, ICT and efficient and equitable communities of the future.

The National Agenda

It is beyond the scope of this document to review government policy but the Government Digital Strategy [10], [11] has sixteen actions that are summarised by:

  • Create digital services so good that people will choose to use them,
  • Support those who aren’t online,
  • Build digital capability,
  • Use digital to improve policy making.

The cost of delivering social programmes (education, health, environmental protection, general public services etc.) could be approaching 50 per cent of the UK’s GDP by 2030 [12], [13]. Currently for OECD countries it accounts for 21 per cent of GDP but this figure is much higher when spending by non-public bodies is included. While the UK is not alone in the rising costs of public social spending as many OECD countries are in a similar position, the hope is that digital delivery of public services will save billions of pounds a year while at the same time improving services and social equity. The future of government is also changing [14] and to a greater of lesser extent is heading towards local control of budgets and services much of which is predicated on, where possible, digital platforms. These include new models for empowering local communities and a greater role for local charities and the third sector. The question is, how will the digital delivery of services impact the service delivery supply chain and what part will buildings play in these new local models?

 Environmental Sustainability

Considerable focus has been applied to energy efficiency and the environmental performance of buildings over the last thirty to forty years and it could be argued that, while efforts must not be diminished in this area, in terms of market transformation the environmental performance of buildings is now embedded in to the practices, procedures and national psyche. Perhaps it is now the social value of buildings that should be considered. This is not just in terms of fuel poverty and healthy indoor environments but the broader interaction and dynamics of buildings, things and communities in a changing and more connected society.


ICT is now fundamental to many people’s lives but it will progress from being discreet devices such as, for example a laptop computer, to being embedded in to most products, devices and appliances and it will deliver a whole new range of services to the individual. While the Internet of Things is often associated with products and appliances, the building fabric and the fixtures and fittings themselves are also likely to become host to smart sensors and devices all of which will allow the building to become more dynamic and responsive to occupant need. However, without understanding the interoperability of building elements in terms of their outputs and how they impact/interact with the user to deliver outcomes, the true value of the entire building or community system cannot be assessed.

Big Data

The Internet of Things and cloud based data and operations will provide sufficient computing power and data to enable complexity and specificity to be provided at the same time to everyone. As the sophistication of intelligent agents improve, specificity will be based on preferences arising from social media/interaction, entertainment, purchasing, social/economic background, energy/waste profiles and general daily activities:

‘The actor changes the state of the (their) world’

Verstraete [15].

While clearly the potential of aggregated, horizontal data sets to provide significant opportunities to deliver integrated solutions [16] and not just isolated outputs, the reality will be tempered by issues of propriety offerings and data ownership.

Other Influencers

Building Information Modelling

Any work to systemise buildings inevitably touches on object modelling and BIM [17]. While a lot of work has been done in the area of object modelling in construction since at least the 1980’s, BIM provides a platform for bringing all information together about every component of a building or construction project. It allows all those involved in design, component manufacture, supply chain logistics, construction process and maintenance to use the data to improve the entire building life-cycle, reduce risk and improve client benefit.

The digitisation of the construction sector is seen as key to achieving a step-change in productivity and performance. Digital Built Britain (BIM Level 3) will not only deliver all the aspirations set out in the 2008 Bew-Richards Wedge but will go beyond the traditional built environment relationships to create a holistic and inclusive industry. The government has committed to BIM Level 3:

The government will develop the next digital standard for the construction sector – Building Information Modelling 3 – to save owners of built assets billions of pounds a year in unnecessary costs, and maintain the UK’s global leadership in digital construction.’

George Osborne (Chancellors Budget, 2016).

Occupant Need and Behaviour

Three areas of work that do deal with occupant need and behaviour in the current design process are design charrettes, Post Occupancy Evaluation (POE) and BPE [18] (Building Performance Evaluation).  Design Charrettes are undertaken before the design process and usually consist of facilitated workshops between design and construction professionals, building users and other stakeholders. POE is undertaken after occupants have been in the building for a number of months and usually consists of a series of structured questions and interviews with individuals. BPE is a broader based evaluation process that includes POE but embraces other technical and building performance issues. These occupant evaluation processes are very valuable to design and in-use assessment of a building and will become increasingly linked to BIM as device and object data becomes richer in terms of functional performance.

Virtual Engineering

Any attempt to establish a user centric language for buildings also touches on Virtual Engineering [19]. Virtual Engineering is a process used in, for example, the automotive sector, where an engineering project or system is produced in a virtual environment complete with its associated internal interactions and behaviour. While this is very difficult and time consuming the benefits in terms of collaborative, multi-disciplinary product development, system optimisation, risk reduction and cost reduction are huge. One particular aspect of virtual engineering is that it provides the ability for users to interact with the virtual system and hence improve the user experience and outcomes.

Digitisation, and increasingly Virtual Engineering, have delivered a step-change in productivity and performance across the manufacturing industry over the last two decades and the hope is that BIM will do the same for the construction industry.

Sustainability and Quality Standards

Since the late 1980’s BRE’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) has focused primarily on environmental sustainability but now BREEAM, and other sustainability tools, are increasingly considering the human aspects as is research surrounding indoor comfort. BRE’s recently introduced Home Quality Mark is firmly focused on assessing the home in terms of the benefits it offers its occupants.


Systemising a Building

There is little doubt that there are sufficient and varied quotes to support any argument but one made by the late Steve Jobs is interesting:


‘Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.’

Steve Jobs [20]



This is not to diminish in any way the importance of design (how it looks) as good (building) design can visually lift the heart while at the same time provide comfortable and agreeable internal spaces capable of supporting daily life in an environmentally friendly way. Indeed, for many people, perhaps one of Apple’s main contributions to ICT is their contribution to the visual design and the move away from grey boxes. The question is, how well is design (how it works) understood for buildings particularly in the context of the smart agenda and the opportunities it offers for new mechanisms of delivering social programmes and community models in the future? Clearly there are Design Charrettes and Post Occupancy Evaluation processes that bring rigour to assessing how the building will be used but these are largely subjective and require interpretation in the architectural design process. A process that may be more related to how it looks rather than how it works….

‘The house is a machine for living in’ was one of Le-Corbusier’s favourite slogans; it appears numerous times in his writings. The slogan itself already suggests that the house is not about living, it is already about something else. Pre occupied with pure geometries and philosophies, Modern Architecture did not really provide the house which is a machine to live in. This to my mind is not really surprising or tragic. What I find very surprising and indeed tragic is that we are yet to see the house which is ‘a thing for living in’.  Free from all needs to symbolize, satisfy irrelevant styles, and convey imaginary associations. Free from all superimposed and irrelevant metaphors… Can a house be at last about living? With all the complexities and specificities it demands, at a specific place, for specific users, with specific needs and wants? Free from all superimposed and irrelevant geometries… Can the specific conditions, internal and external forces, needs and wants, generate the geometry they really call for? Free from pseudo- scientific “precise” analysis, used in the end graphically, in a way which renders its “precision” meaningless. How about precisely comfortable, or precisely performing, Can it be just more or less, fantastic? Can it be roughly great? If it can, and I believe it can and eventually will, it is not simple and will take time. As in order to respond to life as it is, and not as we imagine it to be, we have to develop specific tools that will help us to better understand what “it” is’.

 Scenario architecture [21].


While inevitably the challenge of defining what ‘it’ (life) is for any individual, or a number of individuals in a building, is beset with many problems, can a house finally be ‘about living’ free from all ‘superimposed irrelevant geometries’. One that meets ‘all the complexities and specificities’ of living at ‘a specific place, for specific users, with specific needs and wants’. While as physical human beings we require physical geometries by way of boxes to protect us from Mother Nature much of what the smart agenda has to offer is not related to physical geometries and it can deal with complexity while at the same time being specific in terms of place and user. If anything has been learnt since the advent of the transistor by Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain back in the 1950’s it is that ICT, the ubiquitous microchip and the growth in data, big data, is ideally placed to deal with complexity and specificity at the same time.

….. in theory at least, mining specificity from complexity for each individual and building using ICT and big data should be able to help deliver what ‘it’, (a person’s life), is.

Finally, maybe the smart agenda will go some way to making the house (building) a machine for living in. A machine not to constrain people or communities and fire fierce debate surrounding classical and modern architecture as Le Corbusier but one as a system of interrelated parts with separate functions that are ideally suited (optimised/adaptive) to the end purpose. A machine seen as a physical envelope with a visual aesthetic but one where its functional performance and value is anything but rooted in its simple, physical past.

In terms of the domestic sector, new community models for delivering social programmes and the use of ICT will mean a blurring of traditional building boundaries. Healthcare will no longer be just confined to healthcare buildings but it will be delivered, often within non-specific buildings (homes), or on the move via mobile technology. Delivery models will become increasingly arms-length and the systems and processes run over them will need to have the appropriate checks and balances.

Making comparisons is always tricky but perhaps the building can be considered to the car engine forty or fifty years ago; bear with me, I know the industry has been compared to the automotive and industrial sectors many times before! While the mechanical engineering aspects of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) has improved immensely, Henry Ford would still recognise them. They are still largely reciprocating machines with cranks, pistons and valves which are fuelled by petroleum spirit (diesel).  The same cannot be said however, of the electrical/electronic engineering and the control environment under which the mechanical engine performs and the benefits it delivers.

As the smart agenda grows the control opportunities for buildings and their occupant need also grows. However, the level of ‘smartness’ and the benefits it can bring do not follow a linear relationship. Forty years ago electronics provided a bigger spark to ignite the fuel/air mixture similar perhaps to today where the electronic thermostat provides better control of temperature. Up to a certain level of control and automation the benefits are largely vertically orientated and confined to that particular sub-system, perhaps control of the boiler, for example. Beyond a certain level of smartness i.e. a system with sufficient monitoring, control variables, data exchange and intelligence, there is a step change in the potential control scenarios and the resultant benefits become more horizontal in nature. Of course, some may see this as a bad thing but like it or not it is happening to the way we communicate, how we do business, entertainment, transport, utilities etc. Buildings in the future will be subject to convergence just as many other sectors and the inevitable move to greater smartness is just part of the reassignment of human tasks to alternative agents which has been going on for thousands of years;

  • Human muscle to animal muscle,
  • Muscle tasks to machines,
  • Mind tasks to calculation machines; and in the future,
  • Conscious tasks to mental machines.

Nolte [22].

Perhaps when considering buildings and their system performance there is even a need for a new term to describe the entire building. Horizontal convergence will mean that those issues traditionally ring-fenced in terms of technology, purpose or location will have their boundaries blurred as they function as part of a broader system. Room lighting levels and computer VDU intensity levels may well become inter-related for example? While a buildings physical presence will still be recognisable, and they will still keep us warm and dry, in the future the tasks being undertaken in them and their response to resources and waste will change dramatically.

In the future a building and its spatial setting in a community or city will need to be overlaid with the new service delivery models of a smart agenda, fixed and mobile, thereby changing the culture. Perhaps a ‘building’ is no longer a good descriptor, certainly in terms of the functional performance and value, of the benefits provided by a smart personal environment operating in a smart building and a smart community system.

A building with its largely physical and heavy construction connotations which are only connected by basic utilities and rely on intelligent users and transport to deliver ‘life’ is about to change. A change that demands, at least in understanding if not immediate market transformation, a step-change in thinking and a new inclusive nomenclature.


What is a Building of the Future?

As already mentioned the work to systemise a building is in its early stages. The fact that more automation and control will enter the built environment is hopefully not open to question but what does this mean? Is a building, as we currently understand it, going to stay largely unchanged as a physical box and smartness remain the preserve of internal products and devices or is smartness going to become embedded in the fabric, and to what degree will this happen? Often there is a very close relationship between the mechanical performance envelope and the electrical/electronic control environment under which it operates but what does this mean for buildings? It is easy to think that for some time to come smartness is likely to be confined to relatively minor incursion to the building fabric as over 80 per cent of domestic properties and 70 per cent  of commercial properties in 2050 are here today. However, the invasiveness of ICT and the IoT could get even the most rudimentary elements in a building to perform in whole new ways in terms of occupant outcomes. While clearly there is a need to improve the basic ‘building machine’ much can be done with its control environment to make it more dynamic and adaptive. The good thing about the smart agenda is that at some level it:

  • is applicable to all new and existing buildings,
  • has relatively short product life cycles supporting rapid development,
  • has the necessary scale of investment to bring about change (within its capabilities),
  • can cope with complexity and specificities at the same time,
  • is familiar to most individuals.

The devil is, of course, in the detail but in terms of society, business and commerce the march of ICT is accepted. In terms of buildings, while the future is still open to question, at least the smart agenda is of an appropriate scale and fit to bring about change.

Interestingly, the primary drivers for change may not be from the construction industry, Government or even extremely important but sometimes individually weak energy saving arguments viewed with today’s short-termism. It is most likely to come from the hearts and minds of individual’s and the benefit of their data. Within a slowly changing physical built environment sector the biggest changes in building performance could come from the control environment under which the building operates as part of a community supply chain. The mechanical ‘machine’ must be improved but for every incremental step a plethora of control scenarios open up.

Already demand side management (demand response) of electricity is emerging which will remotely reduce device and appliance electricity consumption when local or national demand is high. In terms of the technology and communication protocols this could be done today although market adoption will take a lot longer partly based on acceptance and product availability. It does however, provide an indication, along with mobile phone apps for controlling boilers remotely or using occupant location data to ensure the building is at the right temperature as you walk in the door, what might be done in the future. It is only a small step from that to embedded sensors, circuits and controllers in fixtures and fittings. Maybe even structural components such as bricks, blocks and insulation take on new roles to save energy, structural monitoring or better support wireless communications.


Smart – Replacing ‘Open’ Vertical Community Systems with Closed Horizontal Ones

In many ways how an individual uses a building or engages with the surrounding community can be viewed as largely an asynchronous heterogeneous system. Within a framework of largely vertically orientated community service providers ranging from hospitals to the local corner shop, and the home in which we live, individuals interact as required based on their needs and wants. Their information input is subject to multiple disconnected paths and their response is based on personal values, socio-economic background and peer influence. Realising the service is often predicated on physical mobility either within the building or the community. Depending on the quality and appropriateness of the input, and the decisions made by the individual, this may result in an output or ideally an outcome [23]. For example, to achieve the best outcome for education requires very much more to be taken in to account about an individual student than just teaching the subject matter. The teacher can only be truly successful when subject matter is contextualised in terms of the student’s current understanding and situation. Whether this is achieved or not for an individual often depends on knowing the student as much as it does knowing the subject matter.


Figure 1. Outputs and Outcomes: Complicated and Complex.
Figure 1 Outputs and Outcomes Complicated and Complex

As more data becomes available and the resultant outputs of the system are feedback, the opportunity arises to introduce system control options and intelligence. However, for this to happen in terms of the social value of buildings and communities, the system must be better understood in the context of individual need. So too must the process steps necessary to achieve the outcomes whether that is provided by the community and local institutions or demanded by the individual. Automation must relate to how individual’s actually live their lives but this cannot be done without knowledge and tools to characterise buildings, things and communities over which defined processes can be run that deliver the desired outcome. This is difficult enough for the basics of building control. For example, having remote control of a thermostat could be very important for energy savings but if the lagging or ventilation in the building is not appropriate then there may be a risk of frozen pipes or mould growth and poor air quality. A saving of, for example, 10 to 20 percent on an energy bill may be quickly wiped out by a leaking pipe or poor health. This is not to say that these or any other devices are ill-advised but that the building as it currently stands is a physical system in itself and a balance of many things including temperature and moisture gradients, structural integrity, resource efficiency to mention just a few. Any controlling strategy to optimise social value (outcomes) must be able to draw on well characterised building performance (functionality) data to combine with the additional value provided by virtual ICT propositions; and both of these must be placed in the context of occupant need.


A Social Language

The use of the words ‘social’ and ‘language’ in this research has already been explained and as long ago as 1977 Christopher Alexander et al [24] applied the term ‘language’ to their book entitled ‘A Pattern Language’ which detailed the design of several hundred building elements based on producing buildings with ‘human scale’. More recently Salingaros [25] in his book ‘Principles of Urban Structure’ has considered urban form and structure in the hope it will lead to ‘urban science’; the application of physics and fractals to ‘urban coherence’ provided by the ‘correct combination of geometry and connection’. In many ways of course, both works are dealing with how people engage with buildings and communities and do so in a very thorough and thought provoking way. The work introduced in this paper is perhaps more decoupled from the built environment form and spatial setting but considers its service functionality and how well it can support information and process delivery to the individual thereby allowing it to be harmonised with ICT mechanisms. The visual aesthetic, while extremely important, is a service attribute scaled by personal choice and hence no value judgement is made as to whether it is good or bad in absolute terms.

Clearly the performance of some aspects of the building may be very difficult to imagine as part of a smart system, for example a brick/block wall. It is easy to see this as simply providing form, safety and environmental protection. Of course walls also provide a visual aesthetic, thermal insulation, internal/external structural fixing, moisture transmission, acoustic insulation to name but a few. In the future they may be considered for example, as an active part in thermal storage, be a getter for indoor air pollutants or radio frequency screens or wave guides to support wireless security or communications. This is all before they really get smart in terms of materials, imbedded electronics, sensors, lighting and much more. While some of this might seem a long way off, much of it is being talked about today and it is only issues of legacy buildings and market transformation that stop this from happening today – although these are very big issues!

In terms of smart buildings and communities perhaps their evolution can be considered as a number of classes or ‘shells’. The work by Duffy [26] and subsequently Brand [27] considered a building as a number of ‘shells’ (the ‘4 s’ and ‘6 s’ respectively) each with its own characteristics and lifetime. These range from the ‘structure’ that may last for hundreds of years through to ‘services’, ‘scenery’ and ‘set’ that may change every few months. The growth in smart systems could be mapped against their attributes, value and how easily they can be accommodated in to new buildings or the existing stock. This way transparency will be bought to the process of ‘smart’ rollout and the processes and outcomes it delivers i.e. in terms of how Duffy views buildings, there is no such thing as a smart building, just a series of interconnected smart sub-systems. Latterly Duffy has been considering how the virtual world interacts with architects and urbanism.

To produce a language there is a need to develop a set of rules and symbols that allow building and ICT functionality to be harmonised in terms of a system and then placed in the context of user need; and ideally outcome. To do this there are a number of key issues to deal with:

  1. There is a need to find a Lowest Common Denominator (LCD) that will allow all parts of a building and community to be bought together on a common platform,
  2. The LCD needs to also relate to ICT delivery mechanisms,
  3. All parts must then be capable of being interconnected to form a system (a mesh),
  4. The system must be customisable in terms of a user’s physical and virtual environment and particular preferences,
  5. The system should be capable of analysis in terms of suitability of delivering top-down processes and/or bottom up user requirements.


A Lowest Common Denominator

The use of the word ‘social’ places the research in terms of individual’s and not physical performance or environmental impact, although these are sub-sets that will come out later. The first step is to place people at the centre of the analysis. At the highest level all individuals are subject to interactions, inputs and outputs if you will, that include information exchange, building spatial reference/utility, internal environment, device/appliance benefits, community benefits etc. These interactions are associated with the basic need to metabolise oxygen, comfort, safety etc. but are also related to humans as mobile and social animals capable of processing information, taking actions and acquiring knowledge. Indeed, it would be very interesting to consider a theory of psychology, for example Maslow’s [28] in relation to building/community elements and the interoperability of building, device and community functionality.

Many of the interactions are associated with things, for example, TV and entertainment, heating system and warmth etc. Actually the end benefit to the individual can be considered as a service [29]. Individuals want entertainment. Entertainment, within the context of ‘TV’, characterised by being delivered remotely and by electronic means, is based on communications and the device that brings this alive is the physical TV. Even today only the first two connections are largely correct; individuals want entertainment. Historically, (again in the context of TV entertainment) this has been provided by a physical TV and ‘TV’ programmes but the latter can now be viewed on a tablet or other connected device as convergence takes place.

By focusing on a service based model where the value to a user is defined by what a thing does and not what it is, provides, to a large extent, a consistent and congruent approach to placing the benefits of a TV on a common platform with, for example, a skirting board or a table. While each has a very different set of service attributes they also have several that are the same. Once the service attribute table for each thing has been defined they can be connected in to a mesh network that mimics a person’s building and/or community. The attributes themselves can be sub-divided in to classes and streams associated with the type or category of thing, or value, provided to the individual.



Figure 1. Outputs and Outcomes: Complicated and Complex.
Figure 1 Outputs and Outcomes Complicated and Complex


Figure 2. Indicative Service Stream Classification.


Clearly this is a very simplistic, indicative diagram as some streams are sub-sets of other streams and the metrics, at first glance, seem completely incompatible. However, by defining the terms and relationships, the language (see later), a good model can be constructed of a building and community and clarity can be bought to how an individual interacts with it. For the moment the streams are just considered in terms of what the building and community are providing an individual i.e. top down. In the final model the streams are customised, along with the mesh, in accordance with an individual’s need and preferences. They are also bi-directional (bi-directional ‘input’ and ‘output’ attributes) in terms of dealing with feedback responses from the individual as well as cater for active and passive things in the mesh network. The methodology can also support resource and energy mapping in terms of individual need.

By dis-aggregating the service benefit from the thing a LCD is established that allows very different things to be bought together on a common platform thereby paving the way for an individual’s supply chain mesh, the language, to be constructed.


The Language

‘Language: a language is a phraseology and vocabulary of a particular profession, domain or group; a system of symbols and rules’ Oxford Dictionaries, 2013.

Having a LCD that potentially allows all things to be interconnected in a mesh then calls for a set of rules and symbols that not only define a consistent and congruent approach to the service attributes of a thing but also how they are connected in a mesh such that it is realistic and mimics an individual’s interactions with their building and/or community.

Inspiration for a language (both at a mesh and thing level) was gained from a famous quote:

‘A rose is a rose is a rose’ Gertrude Stein.

This can be interpreted to mean a semiotic (study of signs and sign using behaviour) chain that translates:

  • The surface structure; the physical rose itself,
  • In to a symbol of a rose; the imagery captured through vision, in to,
  • The deep structure; the conceptual ‘meaning’ of a rose with memories and associations.

Notle [22].


While the service based mesh sounds very simple, and it clearly does not deal with the personal satisfaction normally associated with the outward expression of physical possessions, if the right data structures are used it forms the basis of a very powerful approach capable of assessing physical and virtual interactions between individuals, their buildings and communities. The mesh can be customised for what an individual has (things and community services) in their building or community and the priority of the service attribute table can be customised for an individual’s profile (personal values, preferences, age, disability etc.). The combination of customising the attribute tables and mesh allows the right process interventions to be made that provide integrated, horizontal solutions to the individual. The mesh can then be given stimuli in terms of demand-side process need from the individual or supply side process delivery from civic institutions providing community services. A good fit between an individual’s need and their physical building and community mesh indicates a person is getting the services they require from their physical community. The physical community mesh can then be overlaid by an ICT mesh (clearly much less defined by the physical location of the individual or service and with different service attributes and priority) to overcome any shortcomings and/or enhance an individual’s social environment. By customising process interventions (individually or as groups) based on individual preferences and mesh capabilities, service outputs can be bought closer to outcomes and a way of mapping how physical only communities of the past might progress to physical/virtual communities in the future is provided. This includes the benefits and drawbacks of not only today’s physical community but the negative impact of future virtual communities, for example on physical exercise.

The parameters of the axis are defined by an individual solution or that of a group, for example by age or impairment and then the performance requirement of both the physical and virtual systems can then be visualised.


Figure 3. An Indicative Contour Map of Physical and Virtual Profile (axes removed).
Figure 3 An Indicative Contour Map of Physical and Virtual Profile axes removed

By focusing on service it also opens up the opportunity to assess how the service might be delivered by alternative means. For example, if building directional or locational data is required for an elderly person or one with dementia, not only might it be provided by different ways today but these may change over time and, in terms of smart buildings, become more electronic in the future. The service model does not concern itself with changes in things as long the service need for the individual is met. The outcome service based model also supports better analysis of interoperability, not in terms of data bus connections and ICT protocols but in terms of how the outputs of things can be bought together to provide outcomes. This is provided by the rules applied to mesh connection and the bi-directional capabilities of the things in the mesh.

As with many mesh systems they are multi-input and multi-output but many of the intervening network paths are fixed reducing the number of final solutions [30]:

‘there is no need to have infinite issues to end up with infinite design’ [25].

The mesh approach also allows alternative non-ideal solutions to be identified and therefore provide alternatives value routes where the building, thing or community performance falls short of what is required for the delivery of a defined intervention and complete solution. The mesh approach does not try to systemise people but brings clarity to the interactions and processes between them and the buildings and communities in which they live. It is perhaps akin to the positive aspects of data traffic management/analysis (signals intelligence) while not considering the message itself [31].



This paper provides an introduction to an approach that may provide a new way of assessing buildings and communities in terms of their social value today and as the smart agenda grows. The research intentionally trades vertical rigour for horizontal integration. The indications so far are that by taking this approach significant and meaningful insights can be achieved ‘on the other side of data’. While the starting position may seem very simple, and even naïve, the network solutions and implications surrounding buildings and their impact on individuals are every bit as complex as any other engineering or design discipline.

By shaping data correctly a sensible response can be made to the initial hypothesis. A hypothesis that focusses on what buildings can do for people beyond just keeping them warm and safe. The approach inevitably touches on many well established academic and professional disciplines and the potential inter-actions and overlaps are many as are the conflicts, assumptions and questions. Having said that, the hope is that the research outlined in this and subsequent papers adds further to the thinking (BIM etc.) surrounding the social value of the individual/building/community interface and the smart technologies, data and process flows that interconnect them.

The smart agenda offers so much but, inevitably, is usually underpinned by a commercial imperative that is predicated on market differentiation.  Automation and increasing smartness are inevitable but this is not the fear for most people. The real fear is inappropriate and ineffective silo interactions that further confine and burden individuals and require interpretation in an already complicated and busy world. ICT and big data, if managed correctly, and placed in terms of the user, offers the opportunity to deliver solutions but the system as a whole must be characterised and tuned for the individual and their required outcomes; what role will the building play in future life?

The next paper in the series will outline how things can be systemised in terms of their service value to individuals (Service Attribute Class tables) and the following paper will outline a building assessment tool that goes part way to capturing the necessary raw data. Following papers will look at mesh analysis techniques and the series will finish with a description of a Geo-social application.


The author would like to thank Johann Siau of the University of Hertfordshire for his continuing support, encouragement and guidance. The author would also like to thank Al-Azhar Lalani and Emilio Mistretta for their discussions. Thanks go to BRE for funding the work and Guy Hammersley of BRE for being so supportive.


BIM        Building Information Modelling.

BPE        Building Performance Evaluation.

GDP       Gross Domestic Product.

ICE          Internal Combustion Engine.

ICT          Information and Communication Technology.

IoT          Internet of Things.

LCD        Lowest Common Denominator.

OECD     Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

POE        Post Occupancy Evaluation.

SFL         Social Functional Language.

VDU       Visual Display Unit.


Big Society: Big Society is a government initiative empowering individuals to take greater responsibility for themselves and their communities; it is a national culture change programme (Conservatives, 2013).

Complex problems: complex problems refer to interventions where the causal pathway is adaptive or emergent and where it is not possible to set out in advance the details of what will be the outcome. The intervention may not have pre-identified outcomes, but rather a vague, goal-level description of the desired end result without a clear pathway of how to get there (it might also include investigation of recursive feedback loops and emergent outcomes (Rogers, Sage, 2008).

Complicated problems: complicated problems are ones where to achieve an output there are multiple components often with multi-step causal chains orientated in a mesh. These might include multiple causal chains occurring simultaneously suggesting more than one overall theory of change (Rogers, Sage, 2008).

Entity: the existence of something considered apart from its properties.

Environment: environment (built, virtual) is used to describe all aspects of a particular sector or discipline. In reality it is more focused than that as the research consciously sacrifices certain aspect of both the physical and virtual environments to achieve its goals.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): GDP is an aggregated measure of production equal to the sum of the gross values added of all resident institutional units engaged in production (OECD, 2001).

Horizontal: horizontal (services/outcomes) in terms of this report refers to the consideration of how parts of various sub-systems (data, processes etc.) can be utilised to deliver an integrated solution, an outcome, which is customised in terms of individual need.

House/building: much of the work outlined in this and subsequent papers is focused on producing the generic building blocks required to construct functional/process models of buildings and communities. Generally, throughout the papers, the focus can be considered as related to the domestic environment but actually as the key focus is people, it is more centred round individual needs. For example, it might be more pressing, both in terms of the individual and market transformation, to apply it initially in critical areas such as care homes or hospital discharge assessment processes for suitability of domestic premises etc.

Information and Communications Technology (ICT): is a broader term than IT (Information Technology) and applies to a more integrated network of communications including computers, telecommunications and associated software (Davies and Riley, 2010).

Input, output: input and output are used as a general term meaning how a device (thing) ‘connects’ with other things in the mesh. In reality things can be bi-directional meaning that for certain processes input and output are reversed.

Knowledge, Data and Information: knowledge is what we know, data is fact and information is captured data at one point in time (Infogineering, 2013).

Language: a language is a phraseology and vocabulary of a particular profession, domain or group; a system of symbols and rules (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013).

Machine: in the context of this research the word machine is used to describe a system of interrelated parts with separate functions that are ideally suited (optimised/adaptive) to the end purpose which support lives and does not control them.

Outcome: outcomes are end results whereas outputs describe service specification, delivery mechanisms, etc. (C4EO, 2013).

Physical: 1) Physical as related to a physical thing such as a building, 2) A service or benefit gained from a physical thing through either a face-to-face intervention (which might also be associated with physical movement/displacement) or a physical intervention (sensing and actuation) as a result of a virtual delivery mechanism.

Process intervention: a process intervention is a single transaction across the mesh. A number of these may be required to achieve a process output and finally an outcome and each of these may be delivered by various things or groups of things in an individual’s mesh. Interventions can be physical or virtual in nature.

Service: service within the context of this study refers to what a thing does and not what it is. Cowell states that ‘what is significant about services is the relative dominance of intangible attributes in the make-up of the ‘service product’.’ ‘Pure services do not result in ownership although they may be linked to a physical good’ (Jobber, 1995, p. 662).

Simple problems: simple problems are ones where the final output is known and the path to achieving it is known, predictable and consistent (Rogers, Sage, 2008).

Social equity (as a result of Public Expenditure on social programmes): The National Academy of Public Administration defines the term as: “The fair, just and equitable management of all institutions serving the public directly or by contract; the fair, just and equitable distribution of public services and implementation of public policy; and the commitment to promote fairness, justice, and equity in the formation of public policy (The National Academy of Public Administration, 1967).

Social programmes: social programmes in terms of this research are those programmes provided by public bodies for social purposes and include health care, education, national security etc. It can also include non-public body spending on social purposes.

Social: social (benefit, value) in the context of this study is used as a general term to describe interactions and outcomes in relation to individuals – people centric. It embraces every need (and responsibility) of an individual, a number of individuals in a community, and their relationship with the State as part of a developed society. It is used to differentiate the focus of the study from buildings/community physical performance and environmental performance, although these are sub-sets of the final social value. Social; relating to human society and its organisation (Oxford Dictionaries).

System thinking: system thinking is used in engineering and management consultancy. Much of its foundation is based on Deming et al and it was first applied in the manufacturing sector. This has now been extended to service based systems, for example in the health care sector (Systems Thinking Review, 2012).

Thing: an entity, an idea, or a quality perceived, known, or thought to have its own existence (American Heritage Dictionary). Equipment, utensils, or other objects used for a particular purpose. (Oxford Dictionaries).

Vertical: vertical (disciplines/services) are those that are confined to a particular sub-system.

Virtual (and virtual mechanisms): this relates to the delivery of a service via an ICT environment including the infrastructure and any data conveyed. It may range from something as simple as data transfer or it may be a complicated physical intervention made possible by sensing, actuation and monitoring.


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