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What Challenges will Smart Environments Face?

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © Adistock | Dreamstime

The development of smart environments causes a lot of concern for both designers and skeptics. Both want to make sure that such innovations have great benefits that will greatly outweigh the costs. For this reason, it is important to question advancements as designers and engineers continue to research, test and develop smart environments.


I recently wrote a very brief “smart environment” description as follows:

A smart environment takes the notion of interactive architecture a bit further. With the use of sensing devices and actuators it will be possible to coordinate different objects and materials in a built environment to make buildings more functional and better able meet occupant needs in real-time. One trend is to make smart environments “goal-based” (thus, occupant-centered).


In certain circles the notion of a “smart environment” can be a very hot topic. And yes, although there are many benefits to developing such smart spaces, there are numerous reasons why people get concerned when hearing about this development. The following are a few of the challenges and concerns that I have heard expressed:

- What psychological side-effects might smart environments produce?

- How will smart environments establish a type of transparency that builds user trust by showing “how the system works” to eliminate occupant fear regarding a “loss of control”

- Smart environments must deal with privacy issues if user information is collected.

- How will smart environment technology be environmentally conscious? (Skeptics find that integrating “more technology” is wasteful and ecologically unsound.)

- What backup systems will be in place in case a smart environment has a malfunction? What will be the consequences of such failures?

- Will smart environments serve a “greater good for mankind”?

Such challenges and concerns are completely justified, and it is my hope that researchers are equally sensitive to these topics as they continue to develop solutions that solve such critical points. Nevertheless, it is still important to keep the discussion going.


An emerging technology that will ultimately have profound effects on many different aspects of architecture is nanotechnology. In relation to smart environments, “nano-developments” will help to make system devices micro in size (great for embedding technologies and for getting them to communicate). Additionally, nanotechnology will lead to the progress of “new materials”— allowing building material properties to be transient and reactive, as needed. (For instance, nano-materials can make buildings much more energy efficient.)

Why is this important?

Research and technology evolves. This means that there is hope for the research, testing and refinement of smart technologies and systems. By posing the right questions about what we need, many solutions can be found. What we need is the dialogue, the awareness and the determination to integrate new technologies so that we leverage contributing to the solution of as many challenges as we possibly can. (At present, architects and engineers stand in a position to contribute greatly — for the betterment of human life and our planet.)

Nanotechnology is just one example that can greatly help many of the problems expressed above. The key is to continue with innovation.


One primary goal is for a “smart environment” to help occupants live healthier, happier, safer and more productive lives. I do believe that such architectural progress is underway in hopes of achieving some major improvements. For instance, smart hospitals could:

- greatly reduce stress as patients go through stages of recovery

- reduce medical error by assisting medical staff with various tasks

- help with patient “activities of daily living” (grooming, etc)

- relieve patient stress while in their hospital room

- transition patients when they are ready to go home

- reduce patient recovery time

- prevent patients from having to return back to the hospital

- provide for better building energy-efficiency…

All in all, smart environments have potential to really help architecture optimize its functions and its aesthetic. The path is sensitive and meaningful application through design.






what members are saying...
Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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