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At the flick of a switchJuly 2007

Many user controls in new buildings simply aren't up to the job. They're often over-designed, lack proper labels, or are just too complicated or confusing for ordinary people to understand. New guidance aims to change all that. Roderic Bunn explains.

Picture this. It's been a long flight. One wheel of your trolley bag is still in the Boeing. Your hotel room is on the fifth floor, and the lift is out of action. You drag your wonky luggage into the room, grab a stiff drink from the minibar, flop exhausted on the bed, switch on the telly and start the ritual channel-hopping.

You begin to relax. The TV remote control is familiar and intuitive to use. But as your metabolic rate slows to somewhere near normal, the room strikes you as a tad wintery. You get up to adjust the air-conditioning. For a building services engineer this should be a doddle. Your troubles though, have only just begun.

You study the controller. Alarmingly, it has no annotation, just a rotary dial with a seemingly random series of dimples, and Hi, Lo and Med settings. What on earth do they mean? Temperature or ventilation rate? Extract or supply? Is it on or off? There are no lamps to say. You choose a Lo setting, hoping vainly it will make you warmer.

That night, with no ventilation, you sweat beneath your duvet. At 2 am, in sleepy desperation, you open the window. At 5 am you are roused by the clatter of market traders setting-up shop in the street below.

Wouldn't it be justice if you worked for the supplier, systems integrator or M&E contractor that installed the controller?

User controls in buildings are vital in the performance of a building, yet they are never given enough attention by architects and engineers. Too often, highly complex building services are attached to controls that are over-designed, poorly labelled, and far too complicated for ordinary souls to operate.

Rarely do controls specifications address the usability of controls. The controls subcontractor or system integrator may select controls from a catalogue without much reference to the design intent. Any mismatch won't be evident until the building is occupied, after which it's game over - there's no money or willingness to improve the controls. The occupiers have to work it out for themselves.

Evidence from occupant satisfaction surveys reveals that the less that building occupants are able to influence their environment, the more dissatisfied they become, and the more likely they are to fight the building to get the conditions they want. Facilities managers, who have the unenviable role of balancing system setpoints against the wishes and needs of occupants, can find themselves caught in the middle. Their response is critical.

Some facilities managers explain to their staff how the controls are supposed to work. Some do what the controls supplier failed to do: they scribble labels on the controls using an indelible pen. Others disconnect the controls, lock them in a housing, or ban staff from touching them.

What this tells us is that designers need to think through the design of user controls far more carefully. More attention should be paid to controls ergonomics, such as clarity of purpose, the design of switches and buttons that are intuitive to use, have clear and explicit labelling, and are easy to use. Considerable attention to detail is required to devise effective and durable controls that will do their job well and reliably.

Controls for End Users - A Guide for Good Design and Implementation addresses ways in which the technology can be suitably configured, designed, annotated and labelled. Funded by The Carbon Trust, the guide has been produced by BSRIA and the Usable Buildings Trust for the British Controls Industry Association (BCIA).

Architects, engineers and the controls industry need to improve their understanding, strategy and attention to detail. We need a new generation of user controls that offer useful user interaction and information rather than simply extra gee-whizz features. The examples, iconography and checklists in the BCIA guide would be a good place to start.

Controls for End Users - A Guide for Good Design and Implementation is available from the BSRIA Bookshop:

or phone: 01344 465529


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