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Three Rules of Design for Aging Boomers

Rule #1: Learn More on Thermal Comfort
Design for People
"...humans don’t feel the building heat loss, they feel the heat loss from the body."

Recommended Reading

Rule #2: Boiler Rooms in a Box
Design for Familiarity
"...all consumer electromechanical bits and pieces in a home are enclosed in a cabinet (washer, dryer, dishwasher etc.)...why aren't hydronic components?"

Rule #3:
Design for Simplicity
"...the most perfect design is the one which requires no instruction and can only work one way."

“We define infotainment, as the art and science of reducing a set of complex functions to a simple, single integrated solution.”
Dr Sidney Harman, Harman International

Robert Beans' challenge to industry participants is before taking another class on boilers, controls, pipe, pumps and valves, become grounded in principals of design by taking an introductory class on human physiology and consumer psychology – especially one which covers an aging population, then brush up on your basic physics and chemistry. With your newfound knowledge, redefine what it is you do mechanically and electrically in terms that older retiring adults can understand and value.

Suggested Fields of Study for The Hydronics Industry

"Industrial design (ID) is the professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer." IDSA

"Loewy admitted that with few exceptions, the products were good, he was however, disappointed and amazed at their poor physical appearance…and wondered about the unholy alliance of quality and ugliness.

R. Buckminster Fuller, Scientist, Philosopher, Poet

“We need to realize that it took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage. We’re not that smart.” William McDonough, FAIA from “Being Less Bad Is Not Being Good”, calling for new tools and leadership in sustainable design. AIArchitect News


Suggested Reading:
A Dismal Standard by Tedd Benson.  (We would like to hear your feelings on how consumer based HVAC system compare to other electromechanical consumer products such as cars.
Email us. )


Tower of Babble - Confused over comfort.
Copyright 2006 Robert Bean, All Rights Reserved
Reprint this article,

Suggested background studies:
"Get Me the Geeks" A CBS 60 Minutes Production.
"So you want a high tech HVAC system?"
"keep it simple, stupid" R. Tannen, Barclay's 360 magazine, 06/08

Back in 1999, I started to synthesize three design rules for the pending aging of the baby boomers. My current study and third rule which remains the keynote address to industry, is DESIGN FOR PEOPLE rather than buildings. It’s based on the premise that humans don’t feel the building heat loss, they feel the heat loss from the body and so all architectural and mechanical design must be based on how the body thermally interacts with its surroundings. This requires a rudimentary understanding of human physiology and psychology as it relates to the humans sense of sight, sound, smell, and touch and the thermal sensory system in the skin.

Understanding human physiology and psychology is not a prerequisite for an HVAC technician or home builder…go figure #1.

The second rule is DESIGN FOR FAMILIARITY, which started out back in the '80s and is one of the driving forces behind creating a survival form in today’s “boiler room in a box” evolution. It’s based on consumer studies which state that consumers are secure in investing in those things which they recognize and are familiar with. In a very macro sense, hydronic systems are still treated as “custom” so there is no familiar survival form – a shape based on industrial design - the way things look and feel - that consumers can recognize. We argue that all consumer electromechanical components in a home are enclosed in a cabinet and have demonstrated with consumers feedback that this is what they would prefer for hydronic systems. We also argue that the only way to integrate complex new technology for the aging boomer is to keep it intuitive and keep it hidden. Anything, which must have a human factor element such as room thermostats, must be readable with failing eyesight, adjustable with arthritic hands and comprehendible with reduced faculty.

Understanding industrial design, consumer psychology and ergonomics is not a prerequisite for an HVAC technician or home builder…go figure #2.

DESIGNING FOR SIMPLICITY is the first in my trilogy and no better person could have come up with the title of this article than Carmela DiGregorio with her woman’s perspective of a male dominated technical industry. “Look around” she says in the aisle of the tradeshow floor… “to consumers this is a Tower of Babble.” So many brands, so many components so many permutations and combinations left in the hands of thousands of distributors and contractors each with their own souffle mix of methods to customize millions of systems – radiant heating does not need to be so complex. To grasp the magnitude of this challenge, the hot water/hydronics industry needs to compare itself to its big brethren in the air-side of the business when it comes to establishing simplicity by asking, ‘how tough is it to market a brand name in furnaces?’ Decision Analysts reports that North American consumers on whole struggle to recall what brand name of furnace they own. Imagine that - if the simplest of all forms of heating has brand name recognition problems, what chance does an on site customized and complicated hydronics system have. Study after study shows that consumers avoid buying anything with so many choices especially if the item is beyond their ability to understand it. Complicating the matter further is industries infinite internal debates and competitive forces, and attraction to shiny new lures which stack design philosophies and ever changing product features and benefits against one another.

There is so much room for both creativity and interpretation that it leads to significant errors and confusion. Amongst this battle is the installer who no matter how good a design or how creative the application or how zippy a product, they are left to interpret what is in front of them in the boiler room and will ultimately reduce the assembly of bits and pieces down to their understanding regardless of the skill and knowledge required to meet the manufacturers or designers original intent.

Like the Tower of Babble, without a common “hydronics” language, there will be no single easily understood consumer based communication and without communication, there is no “word of mouth” and thus lack of cooperation. Without cooperation, there is friction and consumers don’t want friction in the purchasing process - period.

The real enemy in all of this isn’t whether you are for or against condensing boilers, mixing valves vs. injection pumps, PEXa vs. PEXb vs. PEXc, steep curves vs. flat curves, constant flow/variable temp vs. variable flow/variable temp vs. constant flow/constant temp, or zone valves vs. zoned circulators…it’s the language and the gazillion dialects we use to communicate our personal biases to a mass consumer base. It is the regional difference coast to coast or north to south. It is the different message we send to first time homebuyers all they way through to those building their retirement homes. It is the rapidly changing technology and jargon that the aging boomers do not understand, do not want and will never use but has become an industry metric for competition. As such, the zip factor is introduced into consumer marketing to its own detriment. Radiant is considered an upgrade by consumers, technical by aficionado’s and expensive by builders at the same time its being hooked it up to water heaters purchased at DIY outlets. If radiant is an upgrade does that mean everything else is a downgrade? What does the brain have to rationalize when it buys upgraded products at discount outlets? Expensive or cheap? Good, better or best? So what exactly is radiant supposed to be? Looking down from the bleachers, this industry observer 40 grit sandpaper macro opinion is hydronics is the most convoluted complicated consumer product anywhere in the world. Even those who disagree with that voice contribute to the souffle with their homegrown version of “simple”. From a North American marketing perspective, thousands of homegrown simples just adds up to more paralysis from the consumers analysis regardless of how basic the system and whether it “works” for the business serving ones neighborhood.

In ones 100 mile radius of competitive commerce the individual contractor brands of on-site custom installations fabricated with hundreds of other bits of manufacturer brands might work to serve on a micro scale the small independent business of hydronics building serial # 000001; but on a macro “big business” scale collectively tens of thousands of trades supported by hundreds of wholesalers and manufacturers simultaneously and independently trying to stick build a tower to hydronic heaven with conflicting and scattered messages to the common Jill and Joe boomer from coast to coast –won’t have an impact unless all is condensed down into something that the soon to be retired bus drivers, bankers, receptionist, nurse, and teacher can understand and value.

Suggested viewing, "Get Me the Geeks" A CBS 60 Minutes Production.

Designing for simplicity is not a prerequisite for an HVAC technician or home builder…go figure #3.

Some will think this babble is a load of gibberish but remember a handful of air side manufacturers of generic looking rectangular boxes can’t get no respect even though they own the 'H' in HVAC.

Let me try to put this into another perspective. Consider that it was not long ago over 60% of the population was employed in the agricultural business. Today’s it is less than 5% and with over 330,000,000 people in North America, the technowienies in hydronics are still outnumbered by those still employed in farming. Consumers find it easier to remember tractor brands than brands of furnaces, do you think they care about zoned circulators, zone valves or variable pressure pumps? Consumers don’t have the same dreams and passions as wet heads and will never care what is in the mechanical room unless we show them why with a simpler less complicated less divided message that is redefined into something they “get”.

Perhaps DESIGNING FOR PEOPLE , FAMILIARITY, and SIMPLICITY is a rose colored lens project too massive and beyond the capabilities of the hot water heating industry but if it's all babbling in different tongues to the consumer as I have experiences in 25 plus years - there is no way it will work effectively together to enjoy what it has in common - a once in a lifetime opportunity to serve a wealthy aging consumer who just wants an efficient and effective architectural/mechanical system in a familiar form which creates and maintains an environment that satisfies the health, wellness and comfort factors for the least amount of operating cost before passing away.

My challenge to industry participants is before taking another class on boilers, controls, pipe, pumps and valves, become grounded in principals of human factor design by taking an introductory class on human physiology, consumer psychology, industrial design and ergonomics – especially ones which covers an aging population, then brush up on your basic physics and chemistry. With your newfound knowledge, redefine what it is you do mechanically and electrically in terms that older retiring adults can understand and value.

1. Reference: Innova Instruments

Words to consider from Janet Ahmad, President, HomeOwners for Better Building in response to article in Fine Homebuilding Magazine, A Dismal Standard, A veteran builder bemoans the state of the construction industry today by Tedd Benson

"To reiterate, this country has made unbelievable strides to help make life better; in the medical profession organ transplants, immunizations and pills to cure all types of dreadful diseases, brilliant minds made text messaging and cell phone available to billions. For those who can remember way back in the 60’s scientists succeeded in putting man on the moon. More astounding is that unreliable cars of the 60’s and 70’s with one-year warranties have become a thing of the past. Today’s cars are more reliable, longer-lasting; have life-saving safety features, and in some cases have warranties of up to 12 years."

12 year warranty for an HVAC system on wheels...makes you think doesn't it?  RB

"In any industry, one of the most important and difficult tasks is to explain a nuanced process to someone unfamiliar with the field. At its grass roots, design is a process like many others; it has theories, strategies and examples that can be explained on a general level. It’s not a matter of what type of information is given, but rather how it is presented and to what type of audience." Speaking Design to Non-Designers, IDSA


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