Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    A Hottish Take on the Future of Environmental Technologies in Buildings

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    May 30, '19 6:52 PM EST

    Hi Archinect! It's been a long time since I've posted; first, because I took a job in a (non-architecture related) tech start-up, and second, because I had a child and took a long pause from the working world to spend some time with him. But I recently had the chance to exercise my typing fingers, and wanted to share the resulting text with you. It's about the possibilities we might find for the built environment when we think from the point of view of our thermal micro-environments and the physics of heat transfer. Thanks for reading!


    For humans, the boundary between organism and environment has always been blurry. We create smooth floors to ease our walking, cover our bodies in clothes for warmth, and spray our skin with oils to give ourselves an attractive smell.

    Contemporary interest in wellness, the mind, and bodily experiences is making us more aware of how sensory input shapes our moods, performance, and health. At the same time, the spread of wearable technologies that gather information about our movement, physiology, and environment have made practices of self-quantification and biohacking mainstream.

    For example, Apple predicts it will sell thirty-three million smartwatches in 2019. Wearers often set goals for standing, calorie burn, and heart rate, then work towards these goals by taking stairs instead of an elevator or by getting out of their chair.

    Networked air quality sensors, such as PurpleAir, and wearable ones such as PlumeLab’s Flow, track pollution hyper-locally. With the increasing frequency and severity of air quality events due in part to climate change, people are turning to this data to decide whether to go for a run, open a window, or wear a respirator. What does this mean for buildings?

    When smart and wearable technologies help us manage our physiological states, this can free buildings from the task of maintaining homogeneous environmental conditions, and allow them to instead offer more targeted and opportunistic sensory experiences.

    In a conventional heating system, air is filtered, brought to temperature, and circulated. But the building itself doesn’t benefit from having this volume of air heated or cooled. Reframing the problem according to the physics of heat and the scale of the body, we realize we can meet our thermal needs in other ways.

    Like warmth from the sun, thermal energy travels through electromagnetic waves, or radiant transfer, more quickly and efficiently than through convection, or the movement of a fluid such as air. Even more efficient--and just as satisfying to the senses--is conductive heat transfer between objects that are touching, such as holding and sipping an iced drink.

    Radiant and conductive heat transfer have been used in buildings for millennia, with fire heating stone and water. What sensors enable is for a building to monitor relevant environments, measure our temperature, or ask wearable devices for our preferences and current physiological needs. Thermally active building surfaces, furniture, textiles, and even wearables can provide the comfort of heating and cooling in an energy efficient, user-centric, and on-demand manner.

    Individualized micro-environments become feasible when interventions operate at the scale of a body. Without forced air heating and cooling, allowing operable windows and increased airflow becomes much less costly, as indoor air temperatures can vary more without impacting comfort.

    Glazing can lighten for breakfast diners to be energized by a warm sunbeam, while an adjacent space becomes darker, with cooler surfaces, to soothe a migraine. And the windows could open wide when outdoor conditions and air quality are favorable, offering a connection to the climatic patterns of a place and the pleasure of a breezy summer day.

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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