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James McAllister

Intelligent Buildings Senior Consultant

Smart and intelligent buildings are all about making our lives easier. From regulating the temperature to controlling lighting and managing security systems, automating these central functions means that a building can perform as efficiently as possible, and in a way that matches the needs of its users. But what happens when this technology actually ends up alienating or excluding many of the people it was initially intended to help? And how can we be sure that the intelligent buildings we are designing today really do create the best environment for everyone?

The role of smart technology

‘Smart’ has become something of a buzzword. From smart watches to smart phones, tv’s and even fridges, new technology continues to influence every aspect of our daily lives. Intelligent buildings – and let’s take the office as an example - take this concept even further. They don’t just give us smart data about how a building is being used; they show us how to interpret that data and, in many cases, go on to automatically moderate performance in response to user requirements. However, unlike a smart watch or smart phone, with just the one user, the number of people using a single building can reach into the thousands. How then can these buildings provide the best environment and best solutions for everyone?

In short, they don’t.

Of course, no one sets out to deliberately exclude anyone. We can ensure that mobile wayfinding apps take into account wheelchair users (and many systems don’t), but what about braille features to meet the needs of the blind or visually impaired? We can respond to inherent differences in preferred temperatures by regulating different floors or areas of a building to within varying °C, but what about less obvious aspects of inclusion? Facial recognition technology might not work for certain users, for example those who wear religious face coverings, or increasingly with the advent of medical face masks. How should we take into account the needs of those that are dyslexic or colour blind? And what about technical inclusivity; is everyone easily able to understand and use the technology available?

The paradox is that the more we try to build-in inclusivity, the more we risk alienating the mass market by moving further away from or distilling aspects of building design that meet the needs of the majority. We can’t ignore inclusion issues, but at the same time, we do – by necessity – typically end up designing for the many. We need to start thinking about how we can better include the few.

Embedding inclusive design

Setting up a user experience session at the very start of the building design or retrofit process is key when it comes to understanding the demographic and the needs we must respond to. Assumption is the enemy of all good design, which is why we advocate going through such a heavy testing process to understand the user persona and track their journey through a building. We need to consider multiple touch points and the challenges they could represent, before we even get close to designing any solutions.

At the moment there is no British standard for inclusivity, so we have to start designing from the point of ‘what is most well-known’. Crucially, we need to look beyond just technology and take a more considered approach. What exactly do we want to achieve and, most importantly, is everyone on the project team aligned to this vision?

Building owners are generally happy to bear the upfront cost of installing visible accessibility features, such as wheelchair ramps or lifts. These are physical interventions that have an immediately obvious and practical use. In contrast, apps are constantly evolving and improving. They typically only have a lifespan of around five to six years before needing to be redesigned, and this has to be factored into the whole lifecycle of an intelligent building. As the technology develops, we can work towards ever-greater inclusivity, but building owners and developers need to be aware of this from the outset.

Inclusion needs to be firmly embedded right at the very start of the design process; it’s not an add-on that can be solved by choosing one app over another. As an industry, we may not yet have designed the perfect all-inclusive building. However, by opening the debate and continuing to challenge what ‘inclusivity’ means we can push the boundaries of how smart technology is installed and applied, resulting in Intelligent Buildings that truly do redefine inclusivity and access for all.


Contact James McAllister at