The Melbourne Consciousness Workshop

John's Notes:

Keywords Longevity, interdependency, conviviality, symbiosis, uncanny, opportunity-follows-form, designed anticipation of decay and end-of-life, interior

Dean's lecture for CAADRIA, University of Melbourne, 2016

Terms of Reference

BUILDING: In this document, the term ‘building’ does not include re-purposed structures (e.g. discarded freight containers) or natural spaces, such as caves or trees. It is usual to describe buildings as passive and inanimate objects. However, this document seeks to look beyond their existence as physical, or architectural entities. It therefore aims to identify them as systems that combine physical and non-physical parts. While it acknowledges the importance of particular materials and technologies that were essential to its design and construction, all buildings will have been purposefully, shaped, fabricated, assembled and organised according to the prevailing customs, specifications, beliefs and assumptions. These include legislative, cultural, political and organisational instruments that guide attitudes and behaviours by everyone involved in a given building’s lifespan (i.e. planners, construction companies, architects, occupants, etc).
CONSERVATION: This is reasonable, given the ‘preservation’ and ‘conservation’ have been used fairly interchangeably to refer to slightly different attitudes to how we maintain buildings. They reflect...
RESTORATION: This term reflects the view that historic buildings could be improved or completed using more modern methods.
PRESERVATION: Seeks to retain the historic milieu and original fabric by means of conservation, maintenance and repair. It acknowledges and respects the changes made to a building throughout successive occupancies.
REHABILITATION: Applies to buildings in poor condition. Seeks to retain the building’s historic milieu and original fabric, but anticipates replacement as being necessary because of deterioration. adaptive reuse.
INFORMATION: The term ‘information’ differs according to the culture of practice. ‘information’ changes how we behave. These differences of language have a long-term effect on the cultures that use them.
TOP-DOWN: The adjective ‘top-down’ describes situations in which control over the design and construction of a building has been exercised largely by experts, officials and trained specialists. Top-down design decisions in buildings usually entail making decisions and specifications that will be replicated throughout the whole building by others. It is, therefore, more organisational than operational.__
TOP-DOWN LANGUAGE: As top-down processes are largely involved with decision-making and the management of activities by others, the language used tends to be symbolic, abstract, generalised and declarative compared with ‘bottom-up languages.
BOTTOM-UP: The term ‘bottom-up’ denotes situations in which there was clear initiative from the building’s intended occupant, or when occupants were able to exert a decisive influence over the functionality, ambience, or visual appearance of the building.
BOTTOM-UP LANGUAGE: While they may, therefore, resemble top-down languages, bottom-up languages may also be part of an ongoing series of minor modifications and incremental changes by the building’s inhabitants, who have little or no specialist competence and expertise in designing, constructing and maintaining buildings. As such, the language they use to achieve their aims is likely to be more procedural, situated and specific.

A Vernacular Building

A vernacular building is one in which the design and construction is likely to be strongly influenced by in situ, ad hoc craft methods that have been handed down as practical experience and tacit understanding, rather than via theories and professional training. In some cases, the inhabitants may also be involved in its design and, or, construction. The building may, or may not, have been planned and designed via sketches or drawings. An important aspect of this kind of building is that it includes a significant level involvement by the inhabitants, whether directly (e.g. self-build) or indirectly, via local habits and customs that are agreeably familiar to the inhabitant.

A Traditional Building

A traditional building or structure is one in which the design and construction phases are managed mainly by trained architects and builders who are unlikely to become the structure’s inhabitants. The specifications and appearance of the building is likely to have been planned and designed via drawings. These may have been generated and stored as line drawings on paper, or as digital CAD files. An important aspect of this kind of building is that it reflects a predominantly ‘top-down’ approach to planning and design. However, the inhabitants may have had some influence over the design and specifications of the building, provided they are the commissioners of the original project and know how to work with an architect to achieve what will please them. However, in the industrial era, it is customary for the appearance of a building to be predetermined very largely by the choice of exterior cladding and detailing that unlikely to have been designed to be adapted or modified over the lifetime of the building.

A BIM Building

A BIM building or structure is likely to conform to the above description of a traditional building, except that data describing its form, appearance, and performance are also stored together in a digital format. This usually includes drawings, projections, and structural parameters that can later be modified to reflect additional information or subsequent modifications to the building. Unlike traditional architectural drawings, which merely depict the outward appearance of the building, BIM data files also act as models, or simulations, of the building, it’s purpose and, or, its expected performance. BIM buildings embody a planning and design approach that is at least, if not more ‘top-down’ than that found in traditional buildings. This is because the management and control of the stored data will also be overseen, in part, by other professionals, such as planning officers, engineers and building contractors. Hypothetically speaking, this could change, given that BIM files are usually dynamic and, therefore, subject to data management retrieval and modification. This might mean, for example, that they could be made interoperable by many participants, including non-professional occupants or users. This suggests that the design of additional feedback loops, say, between user/inhabitants and the building and itself, could facilitate the emergence of

Smart Buildings

A Smart Building (sometimes called an ‘intelligent building’) is one in which there is an automatic control of it's interior environmental conditions, such as air temperature, humidity, lighting etc. via a ‘Building Automation System’. This (‘BAS’) uses algorithms and automatic sensors (e.g. thermostats) to monitor and maintain pre-determined conditions rather than trusting human inhabitants to maintain control over energy expenditure. It is thus designed to reduce energy and maintenance costs.

Wise Buildings

The primary purpose of virtually all artificial systems is to produce something in addition to its own system. An artefact not a living being. It is only sustained by human agency, without which it would fall apart and lose its identity. Whether it be a car, a house, or a factory production line, its survival is sustained only because we continue to find it useful and, or, because it acquires symbolic or aesthetic attributes that we want to preserve. A living creature is different. (We will substitute the term ‘living system’ for ‘creature’). Its primary purpose is to create and, or, manage its own predicament as a system, in order to survive. The whole process as a blend of inward-facing and outwardly-facing tasks. These include the maintenance of internal metabolic processes and the management of appropriate interactions with the creature’s habitat. Although These must always work together in harmony. In order to survive, a living system be able to regulate its in accordance with how it is perceived by other living systems with which it has an interdependent relationship.

The flow of energy & materials.

A living system's survival can be understood in terms of its interior and exterior identities, say by managing its persona (e.g. where possible, by regulating external conditions transactionally, in order to ‘save face’). This is the inspiration for the idea of a Wise Building. Whereas the modern house can be thought of as a ‘machine for living in’, the Wise Building co-adapts to its inhabitants in such couples, structurally, with its inhabitants to form an autopoietic unit. This means that , the feedback processes that maintain our metabolic wellbeing include systems of internal compensation that operates at micro-levels, and systems of organization that operate at the macro-level. These internal compensation processes may permit unity to continue despite unfavourable conditions.

The 'Smart' Building

One of the problems with Smart Buildings is that their allopoietic nature (including thermostatic and associated control mechanisms) tends to override the natural adaptive processes that regulate the human body. Our addiction to air conditioning and central heating has made us overlook many of the reasons why we feel ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’. If smart systems cannot ‘second-guess’ the best interests of inhabitants, perhaps they should tease, or trick us into wearing more sensible clothing, getting exercise, or eating better, instead of turning the temperature up. In the 21st century, clocks and thermostats as we know them are obsolescent because they distance us from Nature and ourselves.

Beyond Newtonian/Cartesian data
  • Clocks are probably our dumbest 'instruments of measurement' - of course, they don't measure anything.
    • In the last few centuries we learned to trust them in preference to our sensations/judgements or, even, bodily needs.
    • See my article Clocks with Awareness that calls for new ‘synergies of awareness’.
    • This would need to match the complexity of the nervous system, and its awareness of the environment as/via 'sensate experience'.
    • This experience is both:
    • noumenal (measurable as temperature data, humidity data, etc.)
    • phenomenal (subjective - interpreted via concepts in language).
    • The phenomenal includes (analogue) feelings/experiences that are complex, and may drift
    • Compared with the digital noumenal, these may seem contradictory:
    • e.g. sensory confusion between hot and cold
    • In the West, our experiential language became fragmented/reduced by (formalistic) ancient Greek grammar & Enlightenment science: e.g.
    • By simplifying/fragmenting the common discourse of motion, Galileo+Newton reduced our experiential horizons (or 'Umwelt').
    • Also, we now language our feelings & experiences using jargon borrowed from psychotherapy, brain science, physics, etc.
  • We have 'forgotten' how to experience the full complexity of weather conditions:
  • This is because we have learned to think in isolated, technical parameters:
    • Temperature
    • Airflow
    • Humidity
  • Thermostats are designed to register data in accord with artificial temperature scales.
  • They are also designed to present it in a simplified, numerical format.
  • In the Nest thermostat, the main user-feedback is a numerical read-out that indicates temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

The 'Wise' Building

What we need is a radical re-envisioning of these relationships; guided, perhaps, by the insights and sensibilities of artists and other radical thinkers. Systemic changes can be registered as:
a) Adaptive
b) Non-adaptive
Control of the system is by:
a) Regulation (i.e. like a thermostat of whole)
b) Coordination (i.e. interdependency of parts)


  1. SUGGESTION: Treat consumers as though they were fallible, but highly intelligent learners (e.g. toddlers or pets).
  2. SUGGESTION: Augment the individual's/family's experiences to heighten their responsible relationship with Nature.
  3. SUGGESTION: Encourage individuals to co-define their identities primarily in negotiation with their local communities - i.e. not in a solipsistic way, or driven by a State-imposed mandate
  4. SUGGESTION: Record the (locally situated) context
    • The purpose of technology is to augment human capabilities and experiences.
    • People feel too cold/hot for a variety for reasons, few of which can be measured precisely.
    • While domestic energy is usually represented numerically, consumer experience may not be:
  5. SUGGESTION: Give smart thermostats data that represents the CONTEXT of the regulatory task.
    • Medical & other care issues
  6. SUGGESTION: Devices that record eating times / calorific intake / exercise.
    • These could remind wearers that if they feel too hot/cold this may not best be solved by extra heating/cooling.
    • Local wellbeing
    • Exercise at the gymnasium is one way to regulate one's temperature, but bodily fitness can be synergised with community work.
  7. SUGGESTION: Create complex, blended and 'subjective' indices of pleasure and fun
    • (c.f. Arne Naess was a philosopher & hiker who quoted Chuang Tzu’s term: 'contraries indistinguishably blended').
    • Comfort is complex and subjective (not a fixed integer)
  8. SUGGESTION: Data from several probes might feed into a device to show ratio/correlation between:
    • a) Calorific energy expended in personal exercise over a given period
    • b) Fuel energy expended to heat up a given living space during the same period.
  9. SUGGESTION: Instead of using numerical scale, use Zadeh's Precisiated Natural Language translator to interface with (and tease) the user.

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