What’s a Building Whisperer?

What’s a ‘Building Whisperer’ and what do they have to do with making better homes?

This is something I wanted to find out when I got the opportunity to talk with David Bartlett, Vice President IBM Smarter Buildings.

David Bartlett is passionate not just about making buildings better in their own right, but improving how we as humans interact with building. One of David’s strong messages is that it’s important to ‘listen’ to buildings to find out what they’re telling us.

I really enjoyed speaking with David because it reminded me of some of the reasons that I do what I do. We discussed how buildings are full of interdependent systems, and how concepts of biomimicry can help us reframe the true purpose of building systems.

What is the real purpose of buildings?

This is a question I’ve posed before and it was interesting to listen to David talk about this issue. For many of our buildings, particularly our homes, we really have to ask if the core purpose is being adequately achieved. How many of our homes truly keep us warm, dry and healthy by effectively protecting and sheltering us?

Ventilation is a Building’s Respiratory System

David discussed the example of ventilation systems being equivalent of a building’s respiratory system and how this is good example of biomimicry. At least, it would be a good example, if the ventilation system was a good one. Such an analogy is useful in diagnosing some of the issues found in a lot of New Zealand homes where ‘ventilation’ is provided by a one way fan blowing air from less-than-ideal conditions in a roof cavity, into the living space.

Follow Up Question

After speaking with David, I was left thinking about what all this means for the average homeowner. Is it relevant? Here’s the question I posed to David via email:

MCW: Much of what you do is quite high level and applicable to big projects and big budgets. What steps can homeowners take right now, today to ‘listen’ better to the buildings they use?

David Bartlett: Think about the different lenses one can use to review your relationship to your home.  One lens we talked about yesterday was energy but another important lens is  health, wellness, and productivity.  Studies have shown we have the opportunity to boost our productivity as much as 19%  by living in healthier spaces. So put your home on a diet!  All diets should start with a health check.  Just as we have become conscious of making better choices in the foods we consume, we should do the same for the materials our houses consume.  Levels of select pollutants are on average 2 to 5 times higher inside a home than outside it.   Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) are emitted by a selection of different gases and solids such as paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, and craft materials including glues and adhesives and permanent markers.  Particular focus should be on carbon monoxide and radon monitoring which can be done inexpensively.  The newer and ‘tighter’  a home is the more thought should be given to a proper air exchange strategy.    Inspecting your filters in your homes ‘respiratory system’ and investing in better filters if the dust, pollen, or pollution warrant it.

What about lighting and noise pollution?  Review your lighting and strive for proper task lighting as opposed to just lighting up a room – this may involve moving desks or workspaces to harvest more natural light or repositioning lamps and changing the lumen output to meet the demands of the task.  A work area that harvests natural light and air can significantly improve productivity.  Creating outdoor spaces is a great option.  One area that is often missed is noise pollution.  Consider sound as a construct  that can either assist tasks or activities or detract.  I believe we should all engineer houses to include very quiet spaces in addition to fun spaces.  White noise can be helpful when you cannot control all sounds and there are some great apps to help with that like ‘White Noise Ambience.’ 

…So plenty to think about! What’s your home telling you?

David B. Bartlett,  Vice President, IBM Smarter Buildings

David Bartlett, Building Whisperer
David Bartlett, Building Whisperer

David Bartlett leads the IBM’s Smarter Buildings initiative, helping clients create more green, cost-efficient cities, campuses, corporate offices, commercial sites, casinos, hospitals and neighborhoods worldwide.  As IBM’s “Building Whisperer,” he is a vocal advocate at industry events and in media for using data analysis to better control buildings’ function and tame wasteful energy practices.

Dave brings a unique set of capabilities to his function, stemming from his professional experience and academic training.  In his nearly three decades at the IBM company, he has led teams in autonomic computing, software development and internationals roles. Recent recognition includes:  the top 15 people to watch in 2013 for Intelligent Buildings, the 2012 winner of the VERGE 25 Award for Next Gen Buildings, the 2012 winner of the IBCon Digie Award for most innovative campus, and an AIANY Honorarium Award.  Dave is also on the Better Buildings Editorial Advisory Board and is a regular contributor to GreenBiz.

His academic work melds ecology, biology, computer science and policy studies—integral to the interdisciplinary Smarter Buildings area.   His academic background includes the Graduate School for Computer Science at the University of Minnesota, the Graduate School for Business at the University of North Carolina, the Graduate School for Project Management at George Washington University, and the Undergraduate School for Life Sciences at the State University of New York.   Ha has also completed focused programs at Harvard and sponsored sustainability projects for the last 2 years at  MIT.

You can follow Dave on twitter at @davebart and on IBM’s Smarter Planet Blog at http://asmarterplanet.com/blog/2012/10/meet-david-bartlett.html

Links from this Episode

At the beginning of the show, I mentioned Soapbox from Vtricity. This was how I first got in touch with David, and I recommend giving it a go to grow your Twitter tribe.

Nest Learning Thermostat

We briefly mentioned the Nest Learning Thermostat during this podcast. This is a fascinating device (with an equally fascinating history). Probably more than what the average kiwi home needs because it’s more focussed on control (being a thermostat), not just knowing what the temperature actually is (i.e. a thermometer). However, I love the idea of making this type of information more available, and in a stylish way. How many other thermometers do you know of that actually look good, and you’d want to show off on the wall?

David’s Book Recommendation

 Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter H Diamandis & Steven Kotler


We also talked about the concept of Biomimicry
Biomimicry by Janine M. Benyus