Automated shades: Save energy without sacrificing workplace happiness

office roller shadesIn early 2003, the New York Times Company approached the Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory with a problem. The paper’s new corporate headquarters – an all-glass structure in Manhattan – was intended to be an architectural symbol of the paper’s commitment to “transparency.” But all that glass – in addition to providing a compelling metaphor – presented unique architectural challenges. The company wished to keep the building as “open” as possible, while still ensuring employees’ comfort and minimizing energy costs.


The company used this challenge as an opportunity to push the envelope in terms of sustainable design. The system they eventually developed – which combined automated shades with dimmable lighting and an underfloor air distribution system – consumed 24 percent less electricity and 51 percent less heating energy than a comparably sized building designed just to code. It also provided a tangible embodiment of the paper’s commitment to its readership.


Chances are you aren’t interested in the metaphorical implications of this anecdote. However, if you are responsible for managing a large space – whether it be a school, hospital or office building – the New York Times project has a lot to teach about good window design – a vital component in any energy saving strategy.


The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that nearly three-quarters of all U.S. commercial energy usage comes from lighting and HVAC systems. In this context, windows represent both a challenge and an opportunity.


Windows can save energy by reducing our dependence on artificial light and heating – to say nothing of the increased productivity that comes with plentiful sunshine and good views. Still, if not managed properly, windows can also increase glare and drive up cooling costs.


Increasingly, facilities managers are relying on building automation systems to help strike the appropriate balance. These systems range in price and complexity – with more advanced models integrating lighting controls, automatic shades, photocell daylight dimmers near windows and occupancy sensors.


Despite the promise these systems hold, one persistently annoying quirk is the lack in many of effective manual override controls. This point was driven home in a post-occupancy study of the New York Times’ offices. The study, in addition to demonstrating the environmental and economic merits of the experiment – highlighted some of the challenges inherent in daylighting schemes.

One of the most persistent of these is the inability of most systems, no matter how intelligent, to control for confounding factors like glare. For this, there is still no substitute for human intelligence. Studies have consistently found that workers in buildings with automated shade systems want to be able to manually override the system when necessary, and are frustrated when they cannot do so.

Knowing this back in 2003, the paper’s management insisted their system incorporate such an option. The company that eventually won the bid for the New York Times office relied on local switches and touch screens to override the controls.


QMotion has found a much more elegant and intuitive solution in its patented manual override feature, which allows shades to be raised or lowered with a simple tug, as well as from users’ smart phones, tablets, or home automation systems. The QMotion system – unique among its peers – can minimize workers’ frustration, ensuring that energy savings don’t come at the expense of workplace happiness.

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