Smart Window Design Through Four-Field Framework: Commercial, Responsible, Experimental, and Discursive

Zerong Yang
15 min readDec 16, 2020

Zerong Yang | MDes Seminar | Fall 2020

0. ABSTRACT

Windows are an important element of a building to create a connection between the outside and inside. Several studies indicated that there are some issues with the current window design, so windows should be considered to have a disruptive change. I selected four common and representative issues to analyze: energy concerns, bird-window collisions, indoor air quality problems, and privacy issues. I used the “Four-Field Framework” (Tharp & Tharp, 2019) to help me explore future smart window design and respond to the mentioned issues from different perspectives. The framework emphasizes four different approaches and directions to design the future smart window: commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive. Designers should use the four approaches as a practical device to assist design decisions and communication. With the different focus in design practice, design studies, and design exploration, designers should cooperate in considering the underserved, explore possibilities of using new and emerging technology and materials, find problems from user reflection, and produce commercially developed products in order to design future smart window.

1. INTRODUCTION

Windows are an essential part of a building’s structure. They create a connection between the outside and inside, and they provide light, view, and fresh air for the occupants in the rooms. The current window design has remained unchanged for far too long. As more and more smart home devices appear, windows as an important part of building design should be considered to have a disruptive change.

Windows do not last forever, and the average lifespan of a window is about 20 years. After the current windows exceed their time limit, people could benefit from the replacement of smart windows. Some smart windows save energy of heating and cooling in a more efficient way, increase privacy and security, and control daylight, sound, and air quality.

The value of smart window and smart glass market worldwide has increased significantly over the past years and is forecast to grow even further in the upcoming years. Smart glass could be used in several main fields, including automotive industry, commercial buildings, and personal property buildings. In this paper, I focused on smart windows in buildings. Most of the smart window designs in the market are commercially driven. These windows are made of several layers of smart glass to control the amount of sunlight and heat entering a room. In recent years, these windows became more and more popular because they are considered as a more efficient and convenient option for managing energy and brightness when compared to other window shades.

To better understand the future of smart window design and explore the possibilities in different aspects, I decided to use the “Four-Field Framework” (Tharp & Tharp, 2019) as a methodology. The four-field framework assists in decision-making and communication for designers in fundamental design thinking and doing. It emphasizes four primary approaches: commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive. A commercial design agenda centers on profit. A responsible design agenda centers on serving the underserved. An experimental design agenda centers on exploration. A discursive design agenda centers on audience reflection. (Tharp & Tharp, 2019) Rather than focusing on how windows are designed, the four-field framework focuses on why windows are designed.

2. BACKGROUND

In the 13th century BC, the earliest windows appeared in a roof as unglazed openings to admit light during the day. Later, windows were covered with animal hide, cloth, or wood. Over time, windows were built with multiple small pieces of translucent material to protect the inhabitants and transmit light. (Schreiber, 2012) In ancient China, Korea, and Japan, paper windows were economical and widely used. In England, glass became common in the windows of ordinary homes in the early 17th century. (Langley, 1996) After the industrial plate glass making processes were perfected, Modern-style floor-to-ceiling windows became possible. (Schreiber, 2012)

Nowadays, there are multiple types of windows based on their locations, functions, materials, and frames, but the main purposes of the current window design are the same. Windows allow exterior light to enter the room, can be opened for ventilation, can be closed for isolation of heat and sound, and are important for the aesthetics of the building.

3. RELATED WORKS — Existing issues of current window design and factors for consideration

As an important element in modern architecture, windows provide our homes with light, warmth, and beauty, but there are still some existing issues for the current window design. I selected four issues that are common or representative to analyze. Windows play an important role in energy consumption of heating, cooling, and lightning, but the current window design is old and inefficient. Bird-window collisions are one of the most underestimated problems for wildlife birds. Bad indoor air quality may cause health problems, and people stay indoors almost 90% of the time. Privacy is considered as a basic human right, but a peeper through the window could crush a person’s feeling of privacy and security.

3.1. Energy Concerns

Windows have a large impact on energy consumption in indoor spaces, affecting heating, cooling, and artificial lighting requirements. More than 50% of the total energy used in the building envelope in the Western world is spent on cooling, heating, and lighting the interior places. (Khandelwal et al., 2017) By allowing natural light to go through the window, people can reduce electric light usage in the daytime. By using blinds and curtains, people can avoid solar heat gain but are disconnected from the outside.

3.2. Bird–Window Collisions

Most people did not realize how many birds were killed by windows. Windows in the forms of sheet glass and plastic are the principal human-associated avian mortality and annually kill billions of free-flying birds worldwide. (Klem, 2015) Windows deceive the perceptual systems of birds as unseen barriers, and birds almost always kill themselves after striking a clear or reflective window. Most birds strike windows because windows create a realistic mirrored illusion of the outdoors. If the space which window covers is darker than the outside, it is very easy to provide a mirror image on the window. (Klem, 2015) The injury and death from birds striking windows are foreseeable and preventable, but most commercial products are not concerned or designed to protect these birds.

3.3. Indoor Air Quality Problems

We are the generation that spends 90% of our life indoors. Our homes became the places we would never want to leave, especially in this COVID pandemic. Indoor air problems can be caused by a variety of factors related to the building and what people are doing in it. People cook, shower, breath, play, work, and do everything in the room to generate harmful gases. When the air turns bad inside, the windows are the only thing in the house that allow air to exchange. The air inside homes is up to five times more polluted than the air outside. It turns out that kids’ rooms often have the highest concentration of toxicants in the house. Living in damp and moldy homes increases the risk of asthma by 40%. (Moses et al., 2019) In fact, millions of homes are unhealthy to live in.

3.4. Privacy Issue

Window allows natural light to get into the room, but occupants may concern about the visual privacy issues. “Almost every day there are news stories about criminals caught peeping into homes,” says Roger Murphy, president of Hy-Lite, a U.S. Block Windows Company. (Henderson, 2019) People may have blinds or curtains on their windows to protect privacy, but they also want natural sunlight in their homes during daytime. A study was conducted in one of the traditional houses in Bahrain to investigate the importance of visual privacy and daylight in homes through a survey questionnaire administered in Bahrain. (Aljawder, 2014) The survey measured the tradeoff between visual privacy and daylight at home. There is a contradictory relationship between the need for daylight and visual privacy in residential buildings. (Aljawder, 2014) The results showed that the need for visual privacy and daylight for people in the space is strong.

4. FOUR-FIELD FRAMEWORK OF DESIGN

After I indicated the issues and challenges, I wanted to find a structure or framework to help me explore future smart window design and respond to the issues from different perspectives rather than focus on the product itself. I wanted to know what factors should be taken into consideration when designing the smart window, so I used the “Four-Field Framework” (Tharp & Tharp, 2019) as a methodology. Instead of focusing on how windows are designed, the four-field framework starts from the core — why windows are designed. The framework provides a sense of order to assist designers in decision-making and communication. It is efficient and effective to employ as a tool for fundamental design thinking and doing. The four-field framework emphasizes four different approaches and directions to design the future smart window: commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive. A commercial design agenda centers on profit. A responsible design agenda centers on serving the underserved. An experimental design agenda centers on exploration. A discursive design agenda centers on audience reflection. (Tharp & Tharp, 2019) Using the framework across the product category of window design, I listed four window examples which fall into the framework and could possibly respond to the issues mentioned in the previous section: energy efficiency, bird-window collisions, indoor air quality, and privacy issue.

4.1. Commercial Design

Figure 1: Electrochromic Laminated Glass (Baetens et al., 2010)

Most of the smart window designs in the market are commercially driven, and most of the smart window companies are trying to solve energy problems. A smart window design is intended to reduce the solar heat gain while allowing sunlight to go through the window and creating a transparent view to the outside. Presently, there are some commercial electrochromic windows that can reduce cooling loads, heating loads, and lighting energy in buildings. The efficiency has already been proven, and the electrochromic windows are able to modulate the transmittance up to 68% of the total solar spectrum. (Baetens et al., 2010) Figure 1 shows an example of electrochromic window which can change properties such as the solar factor and the transmission of radiation in the solar spectrum in response to an electric current or to the changing environmental conditions themselves. (Baetens et al., 2010) This application leads towards a huge reduction of the energy consumption by reducing cooling loads, heating loads, and the demand for electric lighting.

By using this commercial window design, people will save money on energy due to the window’s high efficiency. Besides, it also promotes the company to increase profits. The primary motivation of commercial design is profit. In order to develop a smart window, it is important to know the performance of current commercially available windows, learn their deficiencies, and improve them in the new smart window design.

4.2. Responsible Design

Figure 2: Bird-Safe Glass (Guardian Bird1stTM, n.d.)

Avian window casualties are important for birds and people, and they have nonhuman animal welfare, biodiversity, sustainability, legal, and ethical and moral value justifying responsible human action. (Klem, 2015) A short-term and a long-term solution are generated to prevent this unintended and unwanted lethal hazard for free-flying birds. The short-term solution includes external window screens, sunshades, or tempera paint to form patterns on the window. (LEE, 2014) It retrofits existing panes by applying various materials to cover the outside surface of windows. The long-term solution utilizes a new type of bird-safe glass which uses ultraviolet (UV) signals. UV signals have been shown to transform windows into barriers that birds see but humans do not. (Klem, 2015) Figure 2 is a type of bird-friendly glass. The left piece of glass shows what birds see, and the UV stripe coating helps prevent collisions. The right piece of glass shows what humans see, and the UV stripe coating is virtually invisible to the human eye in dry conditions.

Avian window casualty problem is largely ignored. The primary motivation of responsible design is to help those in need. This responsible window design uses a type of bird-safe glass to help the overlooked and underserved bird species. Saving more bird lives from windows is a necessary responsibility and obligation for humans who have created the hazard. After all, “smart windows” should not be considered “smart” if birds are dying after hitting them.

4.3. Experimental Design

Figure 3: Intelligent Window Control System (Geng et al., 2018)

Air ventilation in a room is crucial to health, and windows are the key to adjust the indoor air quality. Currently, most of the windows in the market are simply push-pull or translational and are controlled by humans. Figure 3 shows a control system that can automatically control the window switch according to the indoor and outdoor environment changes. (Geng et al., 2018) Five engineers and researchers in China developed the control system program and did a set of experiments to test the intelligent window design. The control system uses optical sensors to detect air quality, infrared probes to probe the outside case of the window, temperature and humidity sensors to detect the indoor temperature and humidity, photo-resistor to measure the light intensity. The controller collects data from sensors to control the stepper motor to change the state of the window open or close. The experiments utilized several ways to control the windows: regular switch, key switch, and wireless remote-control switch. After testing, the system achieved remote control and automatic controlled function of the window. (Geng et al., 2018)

The primary motivation of experimental design is exploration, so the process is more important than its outcome. There might be some technical and commercial restrictions while developing the intelligent window control system, but the experiment shows how these possibilities improve the performance of a window and what a future smart application may look like.

4.4. Discursive Design

Figure 4: A Robotic Curtain That Prevents Peeping (Roy, 2010)

To prevent people from peeking through windows of houses and capturing occupants doing private things at home, a robotic curtain was created to guard privacy. Figure 4 shows the robotic curtain that prevents nosey looks of pedestrians passing by. In an attempt to create a “little piece of privacy,” Niklas developed this curtain with the aid of a surveillance camera to track passers movement by using computer vision. The curtain automatically followed passers along the window to block their view inside. (Roy, 2010) This design brought a sense of humor. It was fun to watch pedestrians walking back and forth in order to see the curtain move. The curtain made a large sound when moving, and it did not move smoothly. When multiple pedestrians appear, it started acting weird. However, it was still a successful discursive design, because it drew people’s attention and provoked people to think about privacy by having the curtain to block the view of inside.

The curtain itself is not a well-established product, but it is a discursive design whose primary motivation is to achieve audience reflection. By following people and blocking inside views, it creates a discussion with the passers and makes people think about the current privacy issues of peeping through windows in an interesting and humorous way.

5. DISCUSSION

Windows are an important part of any home. I mentioned four issues of the current window design: energy concerns, bird-window collisions, indoor air quality, and privacy issue. Then I found examples through the four-field framework to increase energy efficiency, consider animal welfare, adjust indoor air quality, and improve privacy and security with a smart window design.

5.1. Design from Multiple Perspectives

During the process, I compared the four frameworks to find how designers could use them to develop future smart windows. Commercial design is a practical and necessary way to develop future smart windows. Responsible design help designers have a better understanding for those in need. Experimental design could be concept-driven and technology-driven to explore the possibilities of smart windows. Discursive design is a way to communicate with the public and stimulate their thinking of some current window problems. The four-field framework contains four design categories with different emphasis, but it is not a taxonomic classification. The four design approaches help designers to think and design from different perspectives. Instead of separating design into four fields, it provides a meaningful and constructive way for designers to generate ideas from these unique views. Designers should not be limited by the framework but should use them as a practical device to assist design decisions and communication.

If we connect the four-field framework with design practice, design studies, and design exploration (Fallman, 2008), we can see that the four frameworks fall into these three activities. Commercial design relates to design practice, which exposes to the industry in the real world. Designers work in a multidisciplinary team and create products that will be manufactured and sold. Responsible design and discursive design are parts of design studies, which closely resemble traditional academic disciplines. Designers conduct their research and work to find new problems and try to solve them. Experimental design is a kind of design exploration, which serves society at large. Designers explore their ideas and communicate them to academic groups and industries in order to shape the future.

Design practice, studies, and exploration are three activities with different traditions and perspectives. Some designers spend most of their time in design practice, and some may focus more on design studies or design exploration. Different designers bring new perspectives to the field. Combining these three activities will create fresh, innovative, and unique design ideas. Designers who focus on different areas should work together to create the future smart windows. The four frameworks provide a meaningful and constructive way for designers to generate ideas from the four different perspectives, and the three activities ask designers from different fields to work together. In order to create the future smart windows, society needs designers from design practice, design studies, and design exploration to cooperate to make profits from design, serve the underserved, explore more possibilities, and communicate with users.

5.2. The Future of Smart Windows

The current window could be replaced by smart window designs which save energy efficiently, protect birds’ ecological environment, adjust indoor air quality, and protect home privacy. By analyzing the history of windows, I found that these issues and responses we mentioned above are temporary. Window design changes as time goes by, technology develops, and building design changes. People in the past would not imagine the conservation of energy when they used windows as tools to admit light. They would not care about bird-window collision because the windows were not made of glass. People’s aesthetic appreciation for windows is also changing. Everything is changing over time, so there is no perfect window design. New materials, new technology, and new challenges will appear in the future. Designers should always design the window with consideration of the underserved, explorations of new and emerging technology and materials, problems and findings from the reflection of users, and commercially acceptable and feasible design solutions for mass production. Through this way, the future of smart windows can meet people’s requirements and improve their user experiences.

6. CONCLUSION

Four issues of the current window design were mentioned: energy concerns, bird-window collisions, indoor air quality, and privacy issue; and there were four examples through the four-field framework to possibly address these issues, but there are more potential improvements of window design to be discovered. The four-field framework provides a meaningful and constructive way for designers to generate smart window ideas from views of commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive design. Designers should use the framework as a practical device to assist design decisions and communication when designing smart windows. Designers with different focuses in design practice, studies, and exploration should cooperate to consider the underserved, explore possibilities of using new and emerging technology and materials, find problems from user reflection, and produce commercially developed products in order to design future smart windows.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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