How is innovation in building design moving up the hierarchy of meeting human needs?

Technology empowered building design means the places where we live and work have the potential to meet more of our human needs than ever before.

When we combine the opportunities that digitalization, new materials and methods bring to building design with advances to reduce our carbon footprint, buildings can start serving their occupants in truly transformative ways. 

Meeting our basic human needs 

Building design innovation will always be driven by multiple basic human needs.

One of the most well-known theories on our hierarchy of needs is Maslow’s theory, which describes human motivations on an ascending scale, from fundamental physical and safety needs, through to social, esteem and the more complex cognitive and self-actualization needs, where technologies to enhance occupant’s creativity, happiness and comfort increasingly come into their own.      

Moving up the pyramid  

From the perspective of building developers, owners, and contractors, safety has long been the priority human need addressed in building design. This is evident in the way buildings are both developed and marketed – with emphasis on safety systems and security features protecting against electricity and fire hazards, as well as workmanship guarantees.  

Today’s buildings draw on new technology and automation capabilities for a more finely tuned balance between individual safety and comfort. Fundamental physiological needs, such as warmth and rest, are ensured using smart building management systems.  

In the post-pandemic workplace, designers and architects are also responding to a heightened need for communal health and safety to be balanced with social interaction, by designing spaces that allow people to mingle at a comfortable, hygienic distance and choose their level of engagement. The communal harmony and aesthetic pleasure modern buildings offer progress to meeting higher levels of the pyramid, towards the more abstract and refined needs at the top. 

Greater societal need 

The critical imperative to protect the earth’s climate is both a larger societal challenge and basic individual need for us all: climate change represents a primary need when it threatens our safety.  

As a global society, and in each community, we must save energy and lower carbon emissions, urgently. Of course, electrification of heating and cooling is one step in that journey. Whether new build or a retrofit, many buildings will go 100 percent electric; removing all fossil fuel systems and using a mixture of sustainable grid power and renewables as part of its power provision.  

In addition, both new and retrofitted buildings are integrating climate-friendly technology such as solar panels, smart building control systems, and energy management systems, all within the building campus. This constant state of innovation allows developers, building designers and architects to envisage lighting effects and allow vast atrium solutions which helps balance the need for efficient energy management with other human needs.  

Sustainability bridges to our highest levels of need  

Interestingly, addressing climate change by building sustainability also provides a bridge to the highest levels of human need. Esteem, accomplishment, and self-realization are all nourished by creating structures with pioneering green credentials.  

At the very top of the pyramid, the domain of self-actualization, is where our most defining and fragile needs are played out against the material world. Creativity and appreciation of aesthetic form – traits which are especially human – are allowed to flourish in buildings and environments where both our fundamental needs and society’s aspirations are fulfilled. 

From Singapore’s beautiful Jewel Changi airport, to the gentle rippling wooden facade of the Oodi Library in Helsinki, to the soft enveloping curves of the Viettel Headquarters in Vietnam, we have seen an explosion in innovative architecture over the last few years. Both striking in looks and using revolutionary technologies under the skin, I am convinced that we are witnessing the birth of the truly smart, thinking building. 

Seen in the light of our shared human need for safety, belonging, and creative expression, it is clear that the human-centric structures we build are more than just temples to great design, more than great-looking spaces, more than just intelligent or smart buildings. 

They are an active and essential component of how we live our lives. They help us realize a more sustainable future where we not only work and play but grow, excel and ultimately thrive as individuals and communities.  

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About the author

Mike Mustapha

Mike is the Division President of ABB Smart Buildings and was appointed in February 2022. In this position he has full accountability for the performance of the global Smart Buildings business in ABB, which includes a broad portfolio of market leading home and building automation solutions as well as the portfolio for energy distribution systems and products. After starting his career in the U.S. in 1990 as an Application Engineer with Rotoflow Corp. Inc., a leading supplier of high-speed rotary and cryogenic machinery for process industries, Mike built global leadership experience with Altas CopCo, a multinational industrial company, where he held various leadership positions. In January 2009, Mike founded the new Pre-Engineered Buildings and Hot Rolled Structured Steel Group, headquartered in Jeddah, KSA with its own independent Board. Mike assumed overall accountability for the company, overseeing the Middle East. Mike joined ABB in August 2011 as Low Voltage Division Regional Manager for India, Middle East & Africa. In June 2014, he was promoted to Global Managing Director for the Building Products Business Unit prior to his 2018 appointment as Head of Global Markets for the Electrification business. Mike currently resides in Dubai and holds a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Southern California (USC), U.S.
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