Every now and then, electromagnetic radiation raises popular concerns over its effect on public health and individual sensitivities. The title of this article, however, is not motivated by such voices, typical of innovation skepticism since the introduction of mechanization. I am going to propose here an inquiry into buildings’ capacity to affect wireless communication carried by radio waves of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Architects have historically courted building design and technology to weather factors – temperature, moist, rain, wind: they filtered these by careful planning of enclosures and openings. A new factor calls for our attention now: the demand for continuous indoor wireless connectivity, as well as shielding from electromagnetic radiation in specific scenarios.
Self-driving cars, drones, smart coffee-blenders and thermostats increasingly take up wireless communication bandwidth. We are sharing our cities and our networks with them. Nevertheless, measured to the popular interest in the Internet of Things (IoT), the questions of connectivity and proliferation of networked devices receive proportionally little attention from designers of buildings and urban spaces.
Apart from the mainstream visions of the smart city, and the seamless, slick interaction with the environment it carries, architects rarely consider wireless communication infrastructures and signals in the design of spaces. On a building level, networking and the wireless infrastructure is implemented after the building design process has been completed. It needs to work around all conditions and difficulties inherent in the building design.
This trend continues traditional division of structure and services, observed back in 1960 by architecture critique and historian Reyner Banham. Banham criticized the division of the art of creating buildings into two intellectually separate parts arguing for a holistic approach that would bring out the full potential of what he called “man-made climate”.
This article focuses specifically on the way buildings filter the propagation of wireless communication signals. How do building properties affect the propagation of radio waves? How has this been addressed in building design? How could we bring the thinking about connectivity in space closer to architects?
Bringing Light and Air Into Buildings
Availability of daylight was of great concern for designers of space prior to electrical lighting. Industrial buildings, schools and hospitals were specifically planned with the constraint of delivering daylight to the indoor activities. Early Industrial era introduced the use of steel in construction, which allowed for a wider clear span in the interior. Windows could be made larger and more continuous.
Besides limitations set by construction techniques, the size of rooms and the window openings were courted to the tasks and lighting required in the interior. Saw-tooth roof construction is an iconic example of such a formal solution to the problem of even light distribution. Windows placed at inclined angles permitted water drainage similar to vertical ones, while the other inclined surface would reflect light into the interior. Although the clerestory was used in Roman basilicas and even some temples in ancient Egypt, its use in industrial buildings is more explicit and effective.
Then, around 1880 Thomas Edison in the US and Joseph Swan in the UK introduced electrical light bulbs to the market. Artificial lighting industry was born, and it slowly revolutionized the building industry. The electric lamp gave people complete control over lighting inside their homes and work places at the click of a switch.
Even more importantly, electric light brought networks of wires into homes and offices, making it relatively easy to add appliances and other machines. The introduction of electricity and lighting in buildings brought an unseen flexibility to the ways spaces could be shaped and used. Less dependent on daylight, interior organization could be made more efficient and working time extended.
Another important invention was indoor air conditioning and its widespread distribution in the middle of the 20th century. Concerns for ventilation of indoor spaces came much earlier, from the emerging awareness of the importance of domestic hygiene for medical health. English doctors in the 19th century were pioneers in indoor ventilation techniques, as the houses of two Liverpool homeopaths, Dr Drysdale and Dr Hayward, show.
Banham noted that electrification of homes and electric fans was almost simultaneous. He also linked the potential of fully air-conditioned interiors to the invention of the electric light bulb which replaced smelly oil-burning lights of the time. In “Ambient Commons”, digital design and architecture scholar Malcolm McCullough gave his own account of how these two industries rendered architecture autonomous from the external environment.
Inexpressive in itself, air-conditioning systems have been attuned to forgetting the climate and providing standard air quality throughout buildings. From it’s status as luxury (1930s) to its mainstream application, air-conditioning has had a strong impact on the design of the building skin. Once temperature could be controlled mechanically, glass curtains and vast enclosed spaces were able to enclose a comfortable, cool interior. This new autonomy relied strongly on the availability of electrical power since the beginning. while keeping a low attention demand.
Electricity was perceived as an unlimited power source at the time. It was simply a question of price one could afford for tempering their building well. Reyner Banham advocated for a stronger proliferation of energy-dependents solutions (e.g. air-conditioning) to achieve indoor comfort in his “Architecture of the Well-Temepered environment”, dating back to 1969.
Fifteen years later, in the introduction to the second edition, Banham felt obliged to defend his position towards energy consumption – given the unjust perception that he was merely advocating for wasting energy – he insisted that he did not consider energy as a limitation. The first concerns over access to electrical power were caused by newly raised perception of energy as scarce following the fuel crisis of 1973-74 in the United States. A hundred years later and several energy crises in, the building industry would begin considering energy efficiency as a design constraint.
Connectivity Affords Communication, Monitoring and Energy Efficiency
Contemporary interest in building performance as a design paradigm has emerged from a growing interest in sustainability as a defining socio-economic issue. Starting with the 1960, architects slowly became concerned with performance of buildings and their appraisal assessment. Performance oriented design equally focused on the building form and its capacity to efficiently use energy, as Kolarevic and Malkawi carefully document in their compendium on performative architecture.
Quantitative and qualitative simulation in the design process offered a comprehensive new understanding of the different ways to engage with environmental factors. Wind, daylight hours and orientation could be all taken into consideration when planning heating and shading systems. One of the trends coming out of this awareness is to outsource energy efficiency to smart controls for light, temperature, window blinds.
These systems are strongly dependent on communication networks which enable transmission of wireless sensor data readings, processing this data and sending feedback to the system. The system can then close the blinds if there is too much light; or turn on the heating. Wired or wireless coverage is essential for an operating smart system. Besides monitoring and actuating energy saving systems, connectivity throughout the building has become a standard requirement in interior equipment of publicly accessible buildings.
Shopping malls, train stations, city halls, universities, restaurants and cafes all around the world are fit with wireless networks requiring no more than a click to connect. To ensure good coverage throughout buildings, we are placing access points much in the way we were using air- conditioning units 30 years ago. Without a big picture plan, securing each room has one of its own.
 – Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (London: Architectural P. : Univ. of Chicago, 1969).
 – Ibid.
 – Vidar Lerum, Sustainable Building Design: Learning from Nineteenth Century Innovations, 2016, http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=4014962.
 – Malcolm McCullough, Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2013).
 – Branko Kolarevic and Ali Malkawi, eds., Performative Architecture: Beyond Instrumentality (New York: Routledge, 2005).