(Not-so-) smart buildings

At the time I was so anxious to get away on holiday a few weeks back, one of the problems I was hoping would resolve itself while away was my new workplace.

The thing is, the very week I went away my source of income and daily unpleasantness moved to a new building – which we were assured was one of these “smart buildings” you hear so much about. Humungous sums were spent refitting premises which were not more than 20 years old anyway with “state-of-the-art” kit. Management sent around almost daily e-mails with photos and video reels to prepare us. Over a million, we were told, had been spent on the heating and air conditioning alone.

Maybe we should have twigged all was not as it seemed when promised tours of the building failed to happen due to a “tight deadline”. Because the truth is, if this building was a person, it would be in special needs.

Take, for example, the refreshment facilities. As any office worker knows, all you need is a kettle, a sink to fill said kettle and wash the cups, some dish towels and/or a paper towel dispenser, a fridge, and maybe a water cooler for fresh drinking water.

The new premises has kitchen areas on two floors and very little of the above. Instead of a kettle or a water cooler there’s a fancy tap which dispenses not-quite-boiling or not-quite-cold water according to which button you hit. While each kitchen area serves at least 50 staff, the fridge is about the size of one of those jobs you get in hotel rooms. There are no towels of either paper or cloth variety. The microwave broke within a week and has not been replaced.

Then there are the washrooms.

Oh yes, they have a shower facility to please the junior management morning cyclists and lunchtime joggers, and the cubicles are adequate. But, there are no taps on the washbasins (just one of those automatic things that recognises when you put your hands under the faucet, but only squirts water for about two seconds) and no towels, just an air hand-dryer which makes a racket like a 747 taking off and can be heard two rooms away – as numerous people have pointed out. There might as well be a brass band waiting to sound a fanfare every time you void your bowels.

And these are not even the worst mental and physical health hazards. Oh no, because that would be the infamous (and wildly expensive) air conditioning and heating system. Regardless of the weather outside, or number of people, volume and nature of work or physical conditions inside, this is presently pumping out air at near Arctic temperatures. One suspects that it has been set to a computer program for the entire year, which knows that the average temperature in W on the Xth of Y should be Z, and therefore that is what we get.

We have asked (politely and increasingly not-so-politely) for the temperature to be set according to the actual conditions, but have been told this is not possible. When asked why, we are simply told that because of the seven figure investment on the system we should put up with it until it teaches and adjusts itself. In practice, this has led to staff working in winter coats on days when the temperature outside is in the upper 20’s, and outbreaks of ‘flu. I, for example, spent yesterday croaking like Lee Marvin singing “Wandering Star” and this morning coughing up enough phlegm to fill a whiskey glass.

So, dumb building, or just dumb planners? It is tempting to get caught up in some David Cronenberg scenario of a malevolent building which has logically decided that the staff are dispensable, but I suspect the failings are more human than mechanical.

It could simply be that they are inflexible bolt-necks who cannot admit that they made unwise choices or got some details wrong. Such dolts reproduce themselves; this is the built-in design flaw of management.

But I idly wonder if certain local households have just had posh new kitchens, bathrooms and perhaps heating systems. If so, I just hope that they malfunction too, and that the owners enjoy paying out extravagant repair fees.


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