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Buildings and Energy

On the 25th of April 2017, the day of the Portuguese carnation revolution, I was told of another set of revolutionary ideas in an event about buildings and energy, but as in any other overthrow of old ideas in favor of new ones, I was not impressed by its promises.

The event location, Putte's Pizzeria i Helsinki

The Nordic think tank Demos Helsinki and Peloton organized a lecture in Helsinki entitle "Buildings and energy" in which the free pizza was the highlight. The main questions were:

- What’s happening with energy behavior in buildings?

-What are the novel ways to improve energy efficiency with building user?

- Who has the innovations?

Antti Lippu opened the floor by stating that "some years ago, buildings and sustainability was a very boring topic, now, its much more exciting, with plenty of new ideas out there". Heating, so he continued, accounts for 30% of Finland's CO2 emissions, and thus it is high time to put these ideas into motion.

Holding two masters, one in Civil Engineering and the second in Architecture, the topic of energy in Buildings has been very present in my life. Specially along Prof. Manfred Hegger's tutoring at TU Darmstadt. I did follow the trend enough to grasp the many faces, social, technical, technological, political and cultural that energy and buildings deal with. Take for example the room usage of buildings which has changed historically, as humans produce heat, it is interesting to see how this pattern has changed, today most houses are empty during the day and offices are emty during the night. Is this efficiency? Can one solve such without addressing politics?

It's an exciting topic, but not because of apps, but because of its relevance in the consumption of natural resources, influence on our life patterns, political manipulation and complexity (however one measures it, remembering here Richard C. Lewontin's concern that complexity cannot be measured!).

The speakers of this day included the companies Fourdeg, Y-säätiö, Fira, Helen and Tieto. The first one, Fourdeg, presented an experiment conducted in a 1970s building. It is a startup company, introducing a smart thermostat, linked with the weather forecast. Markku Makkonen did not convince, specially not on his reply to my question:

"almost 10 years ago, at TU Darmstadt, Martin Kim developed a arduino based house system, decentralized, adapting to a person's temperature needs and habits by learning from it. Why would we need a centralized gadget instead of a low budget, decentralized, based on an ant like system of networked intelligence?" (if one sensor (as an ant) fails, its not endangering the whole).

The right answer should have had been, you see, IoT (internet of Things), is big time Business, (remembering here Adam Greenfield’s quest against the Smart City) and so

IoT is nothing more than other people's computer's in your homes, in need of constant maintenance and acquiring data, all this while offering you a set of shallow features such as heating, music or light.

Thus, and continuing on this business trend, most of the presentations promised energy efficiency and reductions of one's energy bill, ignoring the highest of bills, the personal one as being the rent, and the environmental one from the unfettered usage of natural resources to build and to demolish. Can we not have apps to improve both architecture and politics? Of course we can, and I use this opportunity so generously handed here, to mention my work on architectural democracy.

The Finish construction company FIRA Oy presented a better view on buildings and energy, not by handing out another app miracle but by proposing a startup platform where it invites people to hack the status quo of the construction sector. Also interesting was the "Human as a sensor" by Tomi Teikko of Tieto. Despite the well developed approach, he did go a tick too far in assuming that humans are the best sensors. According to him, one can collect data from humans from 3 ways: - via a button reporting eg. the air quality, - reactive feedback and - via biometric feedback. We have many untapped spatial sensors as Juhani Pallasmaa so well describes in his "The eyes of skin", and I do hope Tomi and his team will tackle this at Tieto's headquarters in Helsinki where they are implementing it.

We are surrounded by startups promising a healthy white cladded future simply because it chooses our favorite tunes at the right shade of light and temperature. Tomi and I agree on the prospect of the smart hell coming from smart cities, where computers control your life fully. One needs therefore to acknowledge, as FIRA Oy seemed to have, that openness and adaptability is essential.

Pedro Aibéo


About the author:

Pedro Aibéo is a trained Design Architect (M.Sc., Dipl. Ing., TU Darmstadt, Germany) and Civil Engineer (M.Sc., Licenciatura, FEUP, Porto) with over 50 buildings designed and built on 15 countries currently practicing at "AIBEO architecture". He is also a Kone Säätiö Research Fellow, a Visiting Associate Professor at UNAM University, Mexico and at Wuhan University of Technology, China, and a Lecturer, Research Assistant and Doctoral Candidate at Aalto University, Finland on "Architectural Democracy". He has also regularly lectured about Architecture at the Universities of QUT Brisbane, TU Darmstadt and FAUP Portugal. He is the founder and Artistic Director of “Cidadania” theatre+games group, Germany, with written and directed theater plays at the United Nations and the Staatstheater Darmstadt on urban slavery and astronomy. He is a professional Musician at "Homebound" and the founder and Chairman of the "World Music School Helsinki ry”. He is a drawing teacher at the croquis nights and at Kiasma in Helsinki and a comic novel writer on mathematics. He is a published current affairs author in several newspapers.

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