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    IN PROFILE: University of Sydney's Thomas Parkinson

    Stephanie McDonald

    Lead image: Brothers Tom and Alex Parkinson, a PhD student and research assistant from the University of Sydney’s IEQ lab, are behind the new SAMBA technology and research tool. Photo: Maja Baska.

     

    Thomas Parkinson is a PhD candidate and technical officer with the Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory (IEQ) at the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning.

    He is currently working on technology to measure and improve the indoor human comfort factor of office buildings, known as SAMBA. The new technology was created by Parkinson and his brother Alex, an IEQ research assistant, under the leadership of Professor Richard de Dear, head of architectural science at the University of Sydney.

    Architecture and Design spoke to Thomas about SAMBA, its potential for use in the industry and how well the industry is dealing with IEQ.

    Can you tell us about SAMBA?

    SAMBA, the ‘backronym’ for which is Sentient Ambient Monitoring of Buildings in Australia, is a low-cost suite of sensors that record key IEQ indicators to enable both spatial sampling across the building’s floor plate and between floors, and longitudinal measurements through time. It measures a range of parameters relevant to the four main components of indoor environmental quality – thermal comfort, indoor air quality, acoustics, and lighting. These data are wirelessly communicated to an online dashboard that delivers prompt and concise visualisation of all measured and calculated IEQ parameters for interpretation by non-scientists.

    It has been under development at the IEQ Lab in the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney, and basically enables us as researchers to have ‘eyes, ears, nose and skin’ in many different buildings around the country.


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    Where did the idea come from?

    As much as I would love to regale a 'light-bulb moment', the idea for SAMBA was a slow-burn borne out of necessity more than anything else. Part of our research programme at the IEQ Lab revolves around field experiments in real office buildings across Australia. We employ a very common methodology in the field that involves collecting data from two distinct realms: the subjective evaluations from occupants, and the objective assessment based on measured physical parameters.

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    For the subjective evaluations, which may include questions about comfort, overall satisfaction, acceptability of environment, we developed an online questionnaire platform as part of the BOSSA (Building Occupants Survey System Australia) project. This really simplified the data collection process and allowed us to effectively collect subjective IEQ evaluations from occupants out in real commercial buildings en masse. 

    We wanted to complement this extensive subjective data with the other half of the equation – the objective assessment – but soon realised that there were no off-the-shelf hardware packages designed for this type of pervasive data collection. The options were to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a handful of precision devices that measured one or two variables of interest to accuracy levels that were overkill for our needs, or to continue with the labour-intensive task of visiting individual offices and conducting in-situ measurements using our mobile IEQ cart. Neither of these options allowed us to capture both the temporal and spatial variations in IEQ. They only allowed in-situ measurements at a moment in time, so we took it upon ourselves to come up with a better solution.

    How does it differ from previous technology that measures indoor environmental quality?

    When we were initially rolling around the idea of SAMBA over two years ago now, we couldn't find an all-in-one device that measured the most important parameters to conduct a thorough IEQ assessment. In that time there has been some efforts to develop personal environmental monitoring systems for either a residential setting or as wearable technology. These are excellent developments that will work to increase awareness of IEQ and its relationship to health and well-being, particularly in the built environment.

    But from the beginning, we were interested in generating big data on IEQ in commercial office spaces, and there is no technology that I'm aware of that is capable of doing that. This type of insight into indoor environments, unprecedented in volume and resolution, will be a boon for our research programme and the IEQ field as a whole.

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    The main points of difference in SAMBA to previous technologies are: cost; wireless technology; and pervasiveness.

    How can those in the property industry use the tool for better buildings?

    When discussing SAMBA with people from the property industry, there has been a lot of interest in using it for diagnostics to help optimise building control systems, in the commissioning process, evaluating new office fitouts or designs, or just as a facilities management tool. Arming the property industry with information could lead to large improvements in IEQ across the entire building sector. To be honest, we are only just scratching the surface of how SAMBA could help to improve the IEQ of buildings. 

    In our minds, the really exciting benefit of the SAMBA system is its ability to democratise IEQ. Converting large, complex datasets into easily digested packets of information allows anyone to understand how the indoor environment may influence their comfort and health.

    How well are designers and others in the property industry incorporating IEQ aspects into buildings?

    There has been a surge in interest in IEQ over the past couple of years; it is a natural progression from energy efficiency. The challenge is working out how to deliver comfortable and healthy indoor environment for building occupants without expending excessive amounts of electricity.

    There is no shortage of enthusiasm or commitment from the property industry to address these challenges, but it is very difficult for professionals to get feedback on the effectiveness of their strategies. Not everyone is an IEQ expert, and accessing the information needed to evaluate the success or failure of a particular design is a major hurdle.

    What do you hope SAMBA will achieve in the property industry?

    We have been very careful to design SAMBA in such a way that makes it an enabling technology. Our hope is that it can raise awareness of, and interest in, building IEQ in the property industry, in the same way that energy or water is currently considered. Fostering this understanding and appreciation will undoubtedly raise the bar of indoor environmental quality across the entire sector. That's an exciting premise for me as a researcher, as well as the property industry at large.

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