Dear Smart Buildings,

I spend a lot of time on corporate campuses. And if there's one thing I've learned, it's that corporations love to construct buildings that look like this-

These buildings are invariably "smart." But the word smart here is a misnomer. These buildings are smart like Clippy the Paperclip from Microsoft Office 2000 was smart. 

You're going to want to click "No" there.

And I despise these buildings for the same reason I hated Clippy: the meddling, ham-fisted hubris. The well-intentioned yet incompetent interference.

It's like the time a dear old lady in our office was put in charge of the group when we were tasked with baking a cake at an all-day team building workshop. It turned out she thought she was Betty Crocker, but we started to realize she wasn't at about the same time that she began to micromanage the shit out of everyone. First off, no one really cares how this cake turns out, MARGRET. We're just glad to be getting paid for a day of not working. Secondly, I know damn well we shouldn't be putting ten pounds of butter into a single cake. We started to suspect she was in some sort of kick-back cahoots with a local cardiologist.

I get a similar feeling of resentment every time I'm sitting in a bathroom stall and the motion sensing lights go out. Without getting into the logistics or time management particulars of it, sometimes I need more than five minutes to conclude my business. I wave my arms like Tom Hanks trying to flag down a plane in Cast Away. No luck. The sensor is by the bathroom entrance. I pull out my phone, turn on the torch, and finish my affairs by flashlight like a boy scout taking a midnight shit out in the woods. 

But as awkward and primitive as that is, worse by far is when someone else is in there with you when the light goes out. Just this week I went to the bathroom and one of the interns limped in behind me. I didn't ask him why he was limping, but I assume all the coffee runs were beginning to take their toll on his frail frame. Anyway, I picked a stall, sat down, and tried to remember not to whistle I Kissed A Girl as is my custom while evacuating, but I may have forgotten and let out a few bars. Then the lights went out. 

My blood ran cold. Somewhere, out there in the silent darkness, maybe four stalls down, maybe right next to me, was a man with his pants around his ankles. I listened for the reassuring squeak of  a rubber sole, the creak of a shifting toilet seat, or the soft rumble of a toilet paper dispenser spinning in the void. Anything to reassure me of his location. Nothing but silence. I knew he hadn't left because I would have heard the door open and close. My eyes couldn't penetrate more than a foot into the inky blackness. I couldn't see my own hand in front of my face, much less someone else's hand sliding under the wall of my stall. I thought I heard a muffled breath. The sound was very close.

The actual thought that went through my head was, "Am I about to be raped?" Raped by a fragile boy barely out of puberty, at least six inches shorter than me and who I had literally watched limp into the bathroom on a gimpy foot but five minutes prior. Even in that moment I had to chuckle to myself as I reflected upon the absurdity of that very serious concern which had bubbled up from my subconscious to voice its fear. And I don't know what that says about my subconscious; I'm sure there's a Freudian interpretation, but I do know that I don't like sitting next to silent strangers in the darkness. I also know that living life as a petite woman would be terrifying. I would stay in my house at all times with five large dogs and a comically long chain of padlocks on the door.

A couple seconds later the bathroom brightened a little as someone somewhere turned on their phone's flashlight, but the tension was already broken.

Smart buildings are all about saving energy and making their occupants uncomfortable, and another great way to do that is with something that architects have euphemistically entitled, "passive cooling." These buildings are passively cooling in the same way that my cousin Noah has been living in his parents' attic and passively looking for a job the last five years. In my experience there's only one thing that passively cools a building, and that thing is Winter. The problem there of course being that most people don't want their building passively cooled in the winter. But that is the central paradox at the heart of passive temperature control.

What they really mean when they say a building is passively cooled is, bring antifungal cream and an extra pair of underwear in July, because you are going to sweat your ass off. I remember one summer, Chad in Marketing bought an XL box of desiccant packs and made a game out of seeing how many he could stuff down his trousers before they started to fall out of his pant legs. Desiree used to bring lemonade to work every day until she eventually realized it was so popular that she could probably make more money selling cold drinks than she was as the mailroom manager. So she quit her job and started operating a lemonade truck, which she parks outside the main entrance. Now Desiree makes more money than any of us, and even worse, she taunts us with her truck's AC as we walk by in the morning.

Sometimes I have the urge to quit my job too. 

That feeling becomes stronger when the exterior blinds of our smart building begin their slow trundle down the outside of the windows in the conference room where I teach a class every Thursday morning. 

Every goddamn Thursday morning. This building is about as smart as a sundial.

I'm at the whiteboard drawing flowcharts, my colleagues are sitting around the big conference room table taking notes, except for Margret who hates everyone now and is making a point of looking elsewhere with disinterest, and then that tell-tale screech begins. Like a father dragging his screaming six-year-old through a Wal-Mart parking lot, it's impossible to look away. Work ceases. The clacking of keyboards dies out like the clatter of a few tumbling stones echoing through a canyon. Everyone turns to stare out the window, except for Margret who had already been staring out the window with a look of glum contempt on her smug face. Time slows down to a crawl and we all watch what feels like the director's cut of the world's most boring movie.

And like most movies it ends in darkness. There we sit in the dim twilight, looking around restlessly like a bunch of children who have been put down for a nap time by their overbearing nanny. Someone groans and gets up to turn the lights on as I whimper to no one in particular, "Please don't rape me."

Every goddamn Thursday morning.

Sebastian Braff


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