Link Lab researchers envision intuitive buildings adusting to workers’ needs

Not in the mood to write that PowerPoint presentation? Let your building help! While it may not turn the party lights on, it could adjust the warmth of your LED lighting and adjust the temperature to improve your concentration. Creating buildings that respond to their occupants’ needs is the goal of an ambitious project being led by Arsalan Heydarian, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment at the University of Virginia School of Engineering.

“We envision a new generation of commercial buildings that can identify different types of human activities and adjust an individual’s indoor environment to encourage productivity, promote emotional well-being and ensure their comfort,” he said. “Instead of being a static environment, it’s dynamic. Instead of being a place where you work, it’ll be a place that works with you.”

To achieve this goal, Heydarian and his colleagues must create a number of intersecting systems. On one hand, they must establish connections between occupants’ surroundings and their cognitive and emotional states. For instance, they might try to understand the conditions that tend to enhance a person’s alertness. At the same time, they must create models that will enable offices to identify the typical tasks employees perform so that they can optimize the environment for the task.

Heydarian’s team is interested in collecting aggregate data, which will enable them to draw generalized conclusions about behavior and the indoor environment. “Our idea is to compile real-time as well as longitudinal data about environmental and behavioral changes,” he said. “The majority of studies related to human behavior, cognition and interactions in buildings are too simplistic, too limited in scale and, many times unrealistic.”

Ultimately, however, they would like to create building systems that can learn to support specific individuals, which means that they must craft these systems in ways that ensure the occupants’ privacy and security.

Enabled by Link Lab

A number of circumstances came together at UVA that made this project possible. Foremost among them was the creation of the Link Lab, which brings together researchers from around UVA Engineering whose work touches on cyber-physical systems. These are systems that rely on the internet and computational methods to draw information from the physical world and to modify it in some way, which means that creating them is an inherently interdisciplinary process. Creating responsive buildings requires expertise in embedded sensors, analytics, control strategies, privacy and security, robotics, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, machine learning and more. Virtually all this expertise is available at the Link Lab.

As important as the expertise assembled under its roof is the 17,000-square-foot Link Lab facility itself. Most research on the interactions of people and the indoor environment has been conducted in specially constructed laboratories. While these laboratories allow researchers to isolate particular features of peoples’ surroundings that influence their moods or behavior, they are hardly realistic.

The construction of the Link Lab was in the planning stages when Heydarian interviewed for a job at UVA in 2017. He immediately saw the potential to create a testbed for long-term data collection and experimentation that reflects the way people work. The Link Lab has offices for more than 20 research faculty and 100 research assistants. “As soon as I got here at UVA, I met with Kamin Whitehouse, the original director of the Link Lab, with my idea,” Heydarian said. “He was very enthusiastic.”

So was the National Science Foundation, which awarded Heydarian and his colleagues a $750,000 grant to pursue this vision. They instrumented the building with a variety of sensors — supplemented by wearables and image-based sensing techniques — and equipped building systems with smart controls and centrally controlled lights. The sensors and wearables will monitor such building parameters as light, temperature and air quality, as well as occupant parameters such as physical presence and activities, heart rate, arm movements and skin temperature.

“The more data we collect — and the longer we collect it — the more confidence we will have in our conclusions,” Heydarian said. “And because we are making this data publicly available, we will be able to collaborate with researchers from around the University, who can use our data to pursue advances in such fields as psychology and organizational behavior. We are very excited about the potential of this project.”

Prof. Arsalan Heydarian talking with students

Alan Wang (left) and Arash Tavakoli are Ph.D. students and graduate research assistants in Arsalan Heydarian’s lab. An array of sensors placed around the Link Lab collect data on environmental conditions in the building that the team uses in its research.