The Lyncinerator on… Bathroom taps

This blog was written by Lynne Ceeney, Technical Director at BSRIA

Don’t get me started.  We’ve all been here.  You’re out and about, maybe having a meal, going shopping or visiting offices, and you have to use an unfamiliar bathroom.   You approach the basin to undertake that most basic of human hygiene tasks, washing your hands.  And looking around, you realise you have absolutely no idea how to turn on the tap…  and in many cases, you have absolutely no idea where the tap is.  If you are lucky, there is an obvious spout from which the water should come out.  However in many cases, the detective work starts here – the spout might not actually be in a tap, it might be be under the shelf, or embedded in the granite.  Second detective task:  getting the water to flow.  Sometimes it is a button.  Sometimes a toggle. Sometimes something to turn.  Sometimes a sensor – which sometimes works.  Let’s assume you have managed to actually get some water to use, and you can start on your third detective task – getting the temperature you want.  Often helpful “danger” notices warn you that the hot water is hot (really Sherlock??  – well, I guess putting up a notice is easier than sorting out the supply issue). Clearly many, tap designers are a fan of puzzles, and assume you are too.  No clues to indicate how to adjust temperature, no blue or red symbol to help you out.  You have to eliminate the suspects until you find a way that works.  And after the application of a lot of thought and puzzling, hopefully you get to wash your hands.

Presumably someone thought these taps look great – but ‘clean lines’ are triumphing over clean hands. Whilst this functional obfuscation is frustrating for the average user, it is nigh on impossible for people with learning disabilities, confusion or dementia, something that we can expect to see more of in an aging population. It leads me to wonder what the tap designers and those who chose the bathroom fittings were thinking about.  Probably not the user.

Why should you have to solve a series of problems in order to undertake such a basic operation as washing your hands?

Surely the purpose of designing a functional object is to get it to work, and that requires a combination of form, technology and human behaviour.  The human / technology interface is a critical element of design.  It is irritation with taps that has prompted my thinking, but it led me to wider thinking about the design of buildings and their systems, and a series of questions which maybe we should use as a checklist.

Human error is cited as one of the problems leading to poor building performance, but isn’t it really about design error?  Are we more concerned with what it looks like rather than how it will work?  Are we introducing complexity because we can, rather than because we should?  Why don’t different systems work with each other? Are we thinking about the different potential users?  Do we understand the behaviour and expectations of the people who will use the building or are we expecting them to mould to the needs of the building? Is design that confuses sections of the population acceptable?   Are we seeking to enable intuitive use or are we setting brain teasers? Do we care enough?

We should wash our hands of poor design.  But once we have washed them we have to dry them.  And you should see this hand dryer.  Don’t get me started…

Lynne Ceeney will be contributing a bi-monthly blog on key themes BSRIA is involved in over the next year. If there’s something that ‘gets you started’ let us know and we may be able to draw focus to it in another blog. 

An intelligent building is one that doesn’t make its occupants look like idiots

Air conditioning controls in an office in Adelaide

I’ve spent about nearly 20 years in the post-occupancy evaluation (POE) of buildings, many of which were designed to be sustainable and low energy. Some even claimed to be intelligent buildings. If only they were. Sadly, as many working in POE will despairingly concur, unmanageable complexity is the enemy of good performance.

It’s important to remember that the term intelligent building is very much the lingua franca of the controls and building automation community. It’s not a natural phrase in architectural and engineering lexicons. You won’t find many clients using it either. It’s also a very ‘nineties’ term, like its not-so-distant relation, sick building syndrome (which, somewhat ironically, seems to have died a death). Most of the design community is now working to the ‘keep-it-simple, fabric-first’ definition of intelligence. Why? Because the high-tech approach has proved to be a mirage.

Time and time again, almost without exception, systems and technologies that rely on complex automation in order to achieve energy savings usually fail because practice doesn’t mirror design theory. Practice is a heady mix of:

  • Over-complicated design with little understanding or appreciation of what occupants really want
  • Design that is difficult to apply in the real world, leading to poor detailing, poor installation quality, inadequate commissioning, and the unwitting introduction of technical risks by contractual and product interfaces that go unnoticed until it’s too late
  • Incompatibility of components that require constant adjustment or re-work
  • Over-sensitive and/or hard to adjust controls and settings
  • Excessive need for management vigilance over systems that were assumed by designers and the supply chain to be fit-and-forget, but which become fit-and-manage in practice,
  • General lack of usability, compounded by false assumptions that occupants will take an interest in controlling and optimising the operation of building systems, where frankly they don’t want the responsibility
  • Unexpected consequences and revenge effects: systems modulating automatically annoying occupants, systems that don’t allow enough occupant override, or which people don’t understand because the controls are not intuitive to use,
  • Systems that default to an energy-saving condition rather than putting occupant expectations first (in severe cases causing a breakdown in relations between facilities managers motivated to maintain set-points come what may, exacerbated by a professional belief that things are best controlled centrally)
  • The creation of a maintenance and aftercare dependency culture, where the building owner is dependent on expensive call-outs to maintain or modify the settings of digital systems for which they do not have the expertise to maintain, nor the access rights (and software) to modify themselves.

Is all this intelligent or just stupid?

The essential question a building designer needs to answer is simply this:  what problem are you trying to solve? The solution needs to be the simplest, the most appropriate, the least costly, and the most robust and reliable.  

Designers need to understand more about what end-users actually like and dislike about buildings and their systems. Although making things simple may not be the top of every designer’s list, they need to remember that buildings are intended for people – they are a means to an end not an end in themselves. Automation, in itself, should not be a goal. Building intelligence should therefore, above all else, lead to intelligible and sensible systems. Those systems shouldn’t challenge, they shouldn’t alienate, and they shouldn’t lock building owners into an expensive maintenance dependency.

Most of all, automation mustn’t disenfranchise occupants from making decisions about their working conditions, and prevent them acting upon them. It’s important to give occupants what they actually want, not what they don’t want but what designers think they ought to have.

As the author Guy Browning said: Most problems are people problems, and most people problems are communication problems. If you want to solve a communication problem, go and give someone a damn good listening to…

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