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Trending: Power Solutions Must Bridge Beauty and Function

April 3, 2019

As alternative workspaces like open floor offices and outdoor options continue to trend upward, challenges to provide safe, effective power solutions increase. Christoph Trappe talks with Tyler Jennings from Legrand about how they are bridging the gap between beauty and function.

As alternative workspaces like open floor offices and outdoor options continue to trend upward, challenges to provide safe, effective power solutions increase. Christoph Trappe talks with Tyler Jennings from Legrand about how they are bridging the gap between beauty and function.

Christoph Trappe: Hello, everyone. It’s Christoph Trappe, chief content officer at interiors+sources. Thanks for joining us for another episode of our podcast, I Hear Design.

Today, I’m joined by Tyler Jennings. He is the director of product marketing at Legrand North America. Thanks for joining us today, Tyler.

Tyler Jennings: Thanks, Christoph. I look forward to the conversation and happy to be here.

Christoph: I’m excited to speak with you. You have over 15 years of experience in commercial and residential building systems. You lead the product team focused on bringing IoT off grid in DC Powered Solutions in the traditional commercial spaces. And that’s certainly one thing I’m always passionate about. I always run out of power. There isn’t a place to plug in. So, I’m excited to hear what you can share about the topic.

Tyler: Yeah, it’s an interesting one because it’s a problem that we all face, whether you’re at the airport, whether you’re at a Starbucks, whether you’re in your office or wherever you might be. There’s always going to be the challenge of, “My phone’s about to die. What do I do? Oh crap.” So, that’s one of the realities we all live with.

It’s been really interesting for me over the last couple years, having the chance to meet with large companies to talk to large retailers, etc. and find and understand their challenges. And really one of the big things that we’re seeing is the trend towards open space creates less walls. And when there’s less walls, there’s less obvious power, less obvious ways to hide the cables to get the power to the spaces where they’re needed.

So, with open office design with this trend towards trying to make outdoor spaces more productive, how are you getting power to those spaces so people can connect to the Internet, but also make sure their devices stay properly charged?

Christoph: So, what are some of the trends we’re seeing? How do companies address that problem?

Rather listen?

Trends in Effective Office Space Design and Power in Commercial Spaces

Tyler Jennings of Legrand talks with Christoph Trappe about how manufacturers are designing solutions to meet these needs. Listen now >>

Tyler: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things we’re really focused on is that idea that power needs to be places where it’s not super easy to get to. So, designing intentionally and thinking about how you’re delivering power up front is one of those things for an interior designer and architect that they have to be thinking about trying to get it to that space, know where the furniture layout is. One of our challenges as a manufacturer is to think about how we can do it in the most flexible way possible.

So, in the intro, you mention briefly about DC power, talked about PoE and some of these things that we’re looking at that allow the distribution of power in more flexible ways, less permanent ways. There’s obviously a large market for, I’ll call “in for power,” so designing the system, cutting a hole into the cement and running conduit to those spaces is one obvious way, it’s the predominant way today.

But we definitely see a future where that is not meeting the flexibility. We have a couple of our tech customers who want to run the power through the ceiling and then have the cord reel that drops wherever they want across the ceiling grid, and they drop a cord reel down to power a table or a bench of four cubes or something like that.

Christoph: And is that a good idea to do that or no?

Tyler: Well, it depends on how much you like to have a clean sight line across your space or not, right? So, one of the interesting things is people are starting to sacrifice, I will say, beautiful for functional. And I’m trying to make sure you can get both. That’s one of the challenges that we face is, how do we make it beautiful and functional?

But the trend moves, adds, changes. Spaces that are constantly being redesigned because the amount of people coming into the space or the trend towards hoteling and less confirmed spaces is definitely something that’s driving that need towards more functionality, aka flexibility.

Christoph: So interesting. Really, what I’m hearing is the open office concept has kind of created this problem to an extent, right? I mean because it didn’t—there’s fewer walls.

Tyler: Yeah. There’s fewer walls. I’m sitting in an office right now where it used to be a factory floor. It used to be part of our factory. We’ve now expanded it to be an open office and there are more outlets in the table and the general furniture then there are on the wall. And when that happens, you have to be very intentional in how you design to get the services to those spaces without having to run rows and rows of plug load strips to get from the wall out to these spaces.

I go to some spaces and I see that’s how they’ve had to do it, whether it’s major retailers or communal tables. You look inside the communal table or that retailer with all the laptops, you’re going to notice plug load strip after plug load strip, dangerously chained together. And that’s just because it wasn’t thought about at the design phase.

[Work and Learn Anywhere: 3 Rising Trends in Commercial Design and How to Adapt]

Christoph: So, it’s a very interesting dilemma because we want it to look good, right? Obviously, that’s what interior design is about. But we also want it to be functional. And not just functional, but also easy to use, right?

So, if I’m going to another office, sometimes I’m like, “Where do I even plug in?” And I’m looking under the desk, and it’s like underneath the desk, you have to get on your knees and then you have to reach up. Can you picture what I’m doing here?

Tyler: Of course. I have to do it myself often. You always look like a fool when you go into a new space and it’s not your assigned space if you have to do just that. But that’s the point, I guess, for me. And so, we talk to furniture manufacturers, we talk to large Fortune 500 companies and it’s one of those consistent things, is “How do we make a system that enables an easy retrofit or an easy change and that we’re bringing power to the desktop, where the work’s happening?” We don’t want to make anybody get down on their knees and plug into an outlet, if there is one.

I walk into public spaces or some coworking spaces, and you’ll see the communal table and there really is no power. You see people tethered to the walls. And all these tables that are the beautiful meant-to-be-used spaces in the middle of the room have no access to power. And it’s one of the challenges that I hear most often is—why we’re a designed solution in conjunction with those types of people to find ways to make it elegant.

We’re working with one large retailer where we’re embedding the power into the furniture leg. Another one where we’re looking at how we bring this kind of trunk of power through the communal table and there’s a lid in the middle of the table that flips up, and people have the outlets inside of that lid. And so, all you see is the cord coming out.

(Photo: Communal table solution. Credit: Legrand)

So, we have quite a bit of custom business. We focus a lot on the creative and trying to work with our partners to find solutions that meet their needs.

Christoph: So, when I travel, I have adapters for, I don’t know how many countries, probably way too many that I want to admit. And one of my—so I’m in a hotel in Düsseldorf, Germany, and they barely have any true power outlets.

They had USB outlets. I thought that’s really cool. Why couldn’t we just use USB outlets everywhere? And of course, that is a good idea, and it works for some devices. It works for the iPhone and other kinds devices, but it doesn’t really work for my laptop. I don’t think I can charge that with just a USB as far as I know.

Tyler: That’s one of the things we’re actively working. Back to your question, we definitely envision a future where USB-A, it turns into USB-C, which is what you see a lot of the phones being powered and plugged in today. I have a new laptop, and it’s actually USB-C powered. The thing that has to happen to make that a reality for you and for me when we’re going to a hotel is to have a USB-C laptop. And as we do and we see the trend, you know there’s going to be two billion USB-C devices by 2020.

And as USB-C becomes the primary form of powering your laptop, that will make the adoption to pretty much everything in the room being low-voltage DC power direct. There’s a lot of lost efficiency and energy with our bricks when we’re converting AC to DC. So, in the world where everything is low voltage and everything is DC-powered, it’s not only more efficient but, as you said, we can make the aesthetic of the power much more beautiful. I think that’s the future.

Christoph: So, what are some other use cases where people need to be aware of this in commercial buildings?

Tyler: The use cases that I see very often are also just those outdoor spaces. There’s definitely a trend towards biophilic design, bringing the outdoors in and the indoors out is the other part of that. And so, how can we make sure that those outdoor spaces are just as obviously beautiful, also functional?

So, we’ve been working with a lot of people to develop solutions that are meant for you to be able to sit outside and have a meeting or even classrooms. There’s a university we’re speaking with, and we develop products with that they’re looking at having outdoor classroom, outdoor conference spaces. And so, making sure that you’re bringing charging in an all-seasons approved form factor is also one of those spaces where we see a lot of interest.

The Long Island Railroad, for example, is putting power in outdoor spaces, so as people are waiting for their train, they can be productive. That’s something we see across the country.

Christoph: That is certainly something new, right? Because I’m trying to think off the top of my head, outdoor spaces where I’ve worked or where I’ve gathered that have outlets, I can probably number them on one hand.

Tyler: Yeah, totally. And that’s exactly the challenge, but also be opportunity for designers is to think about those spaces. And lots of times, power—no one’s thinking about it from whether it’s the outdoor landscape architect or the architect of the space—they’re not normally thinking about it. And it’s not anyone’s core competency and normally, we’re just focused on lighting. But those outdoor spaces, for them to really be more than just a one-hour meeting before I have to go back in and charge my devices, you can be and should be thinking about the opportunities to bring outdoor power.

So, whether it’s retail locations, whether it’s universities, whether it’s offices, we’ve collaborated with all three of those segments, and also hospitality, honestly. Part of the thing that we’re also looking at when you talk about outdoors is solar-powered charging devices. So, can we put power embedded or solar panels embedded into an umbrella, for example, that allows us to charge and provide a unit to charge based upon the power being stored there from the solar panel? Or a stand-alone solar power panel that has USB charging built into it, so I can put this next to a bench or table?

(Photo credit: Legrand)

Those are the types of things that we’re looking at. Or even lounge spaces. And so, there’s quite a few use cases, whether I’m a retailer and I’m trying to get people to stay longer and order that next drink, or I’m hotel or a hospitality location and I’m trying to make sure people enjoy their pool time and don’t have to go back into the room because their phone’s going to die.

Christoph: So, what’s interesting about that too, that’s probably an evolutionary phase we’re in too, for how people work, right? So, for example, I’m currently in Cedar Rapids, but I was in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, where of course, it was beautiful and nice, maybe high 60s, 70s. And then last week I was in Mexico, so weather was really, really nice. And there’s really no reason why you can’t work outside.

So, it’s every once in a while, I talk to companies and what happens is they say, “Well, these people are sitting outside on the grass.” And I say, “Well, okay. And what are they doing? I mean are they having a picnic or are they working?” And they’re working. They’re writing something on their laptops or they’re having a meeting. Of course, walking meetings is a little different because you probably can’t bring power there. But you’re sitting outside. Why do you have to be inside for certain activities if you can do them outside? So, that can probably help with employee satisfaction I would think, if you were able to go and work outside and enjoy the air when it’s appropriate.

Tyler: Yeah. We did a session at Greenbuild last year, and it was really interesting to get the feedback. Every session was full, and we were talking about bringing the indoors out and bringing the outdoors in. And this trend towards biophilic design and the idea that we’re making any space productive is really hot right now. And I think it’s something that we recognize that we all want to be in a more natural state. We feel better. We have a higher level of satisfaction in our environment when we can take advantage of that time when the weather is nice.

I’m here in Connecticut. I’m just itching for it to get above 60, so I can go outside and work comfortably. But I think that’s the trend that we really see coming, and we are very active in making sure that those outdoor spaces become more productive.

And bringing power and charging—we’re actually working on a project right now where we’re bringing a Wi-Fi hotspot into a power station, so you have power and Wi-Fi coming from a single source. And I believe that will really enable people to work anywhere. As long as you have your phone and your laptop, like you said, whether you’re in Mexico or Iowa or Düsseldorf, Germany, most of us can do our job now with those two devices.

Christoph: It’s very true. It’s unbelievable how things have evolved. So, I do have a use case actually where a company had outdoor power outlets. And what happened is they had a bunch of employees who had electric cars, and they plugged them in. At one point, I couldn’t tell you how much extra that cost in electricity, I really don’t know, but somebody did raise that question.

“So, if we have outdoor outlets, how do we control cost?” I guess if your goal is to keep people near your business, that’s not necessarily a point of discussion because you want people to be there and that’s part of doing business, I guess.

But are there cases where companies need to think about how do we control the outdoor outlets?

Tyler: Sure. It’s actually one of the things we’re working on right now is an IoT-enabled power. So, it’s one of the questions we get quite often, especially from large corporations or large universities, who are in a public setting, and people can come across the campus and plug in. So, that’s one of the things that we’re looking at currently is you can start the schedule to when the outlets will work. You can lock the protecting door when it’s off hours and you don’t want people plugging in. Or if you see the load that’s being pulled is too high. So, we’re setting parameters for when the electrical should work and when it shouldn’t.

But on the other hand, I would also say it’s a matter of positioning and where you put it. So, your example where the preparation concerned about people charging their cars, well, that might have been a misapplication of where you put it. Somebody would had to have run a really long extension cord to their car if you didn’t put it right next to a parking spot I’m guessing, right?

So, it’s also cognizant in the design and making sure that you’re putting it next to the settings where you believe people would sit and work and how you can enable them to be proactive.

Christoph: Very interesting. And so, bringing the indoors outdoors and the outdoors indoors. We can never just make everything happen the way it is, right? We always need to pull the positives, right? That’s really what it comes down to.

Tyler: 100%.

Christoph: Pull the positives from the outdoors into the indoors and the other way. Great. Very interesting discussion, Tyler. What else do we need to talk about that we haven’t discussed already on topic?

[Power solutions for outdoors: Outdoor Ground Box]

Tyler: Yeah. So, I think the other big trend that we’re seeing and that we’re really researching is getting into transmissioning high voltage power in data packets. And this is a new thing, something that isn’t super into the market yet. But I would say from an awareness standpoint, it’s termed “digital electricity.” And what that’s going to enable a flexible ceiling.

I’m really passionate and excited about the opportunities and what it means for interior designers, when you have a grid of items that can be all plugged together via a low voltage cable, but they can do all of the things that high voltage can. I know that might sound a little weird, but if you Google “digital electricity,” take a minute and look at it because I believe it will dramatically change the way that we design and layout the power and services are going to (unintelligible).

It’s not here today in any real way, but we are actively working on making sure it becomes something that is affordable and effective, and we’re beta testing it with a couple customers right now.

So, whether it’s low voltage power and USB-A, USB-C, whether it’s making your power more smart and thinking about the IoT side of it—the other part that I think is important is really when you think about what California is doing and some other states around energy efficiency, and as lighting has decreased as a percentage of the building’s load, plug load is taking that share.

So, if you can imagine LED has decreased the amount of load coming from lighting and the amount of energy you’re using, but the amount of devices we now bring to the work station, the average person is bringing in three or four devices now, that load has been replaced by our auxiliary devices instead of the lighting. So, when you think about the opportunities for energy efficiency and energy management in a space, a lot of that’s going to come from plug load control.

And the reason I brought up California is, California has now made that law. You have to control 50% of the outlets in office space.

And the other part of that is we want to make that information actionable. So, we look at the plug load and we want to allow that information to inform you on occupancy, on what spaces are being utilized. So, we can see it as a utilization opportunity.

We see a lot of companies right now who are interested in understanding how their space is being utilized. They’re trying to go from 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet. They’re looking for justifications on how you do that, right? So, there’s a lot of other companies who will say, “Hey, buy a sensor or buy something that will then allow you to have actionable information.” And I think one of the potential opportunities for companies to think about is, “How do you look at this space with the embedded infrastructure that you already have?”

And so, that’s what we’re looking at, enabling is giving you actionable data at an energy—of the granularity of an outlet, up to the completeness of a whole floor or whole building. So, I think that’s the other topics for people to think about is energy management, not just up the lighting but of the electrical load.

And the amount of data points you can collect and the amount of information in those electrical loads is going to be far superior then what you’re getting from an HVAC system or what you’re getting from a lighting system in terms of data points.

I think that’s also an interesting topic to think about as we move forward into 2020, into 2025.

Christoph: Yeah. Things are certainly moving forward. What do you think is the future, so 1015 years from now, will we still need any outlets? Or can it be wireless?

Tyler: Yeah.

Christoph: I looked at that the other day in video production, and that’s already possible, except it’s just the cost is way not affordable for anybody to really do, or most companies. Do you see it happening at some point?

Tyler: Yeah. I think you’re right. There’s a lot of companies that are looking at wireless charging. The primary use case for wireless charging that has to become true is that it can power a laptop. The challenge with wireless charging as it exists right now, and we’ve been in a lot of the wireless power consortiums. We know what everybody is doing. The capability of the wireless charging right now is not there to power our laptop.

(Photo credit: Legrand)

And the challenge with our phones and wireless charging is it has to be touching. And wireless charging as it exists today requires contact. And I don’t know a lot of people who sit at a Starbucks and just leave their phone still. If they’re sipping their coffee, they have their phone up off the table when they’re holding it in some way.

So, we’ve had a few customers who’ve gone almost completely away from wireless charging, early adopters who pushed back and say, “Hey, we don’t want to do this because of that limitation around it has to be touching today.”

But I do believe that the technology will get there, wherein a safe, effective way you can transmit it you know 6- 10 inches off the table. I also do believe that it will get to the point where it can do laptops. It’s not there currently, but we are actively looking at it.

And I think you’ll see it more in hospitality and some of these applications where I’m going to bed for the night, or I’m going to leave my phone still for a couple hours, and I can just leave it on the pad and let it charge.

So, wireless charging is here. It is somewhat useable today. I think it will continue to get more usable. And the other interesting part about wireless charging is the idea of batteries. And so, I can foresee an open-space application where I kind of power bricks that are wireless charging units that I can charge up at night, and I deploy them out to my office space during the day and they’re the wireless chargers at the people who are hoteling, just sit their laptop on top of.

I think you could see embedded in furniture manufacturers in the future. We do have conversations with them about that. I would just say it’s still a few years out. But yeah. Back to your question, 10-15 years from now, will there be standard outlets in the typical office space? I doubt it.

I think between USB wireless charging, the outlet as we know it today, you won’t see in an office unless you’re talking about a vacuum or a copier.

Christoph: And then 20 more years down the road, we’ll just have everything on the table. We don’t even need our laptops anymore. And everything just transfers. Now, we’re dreaming.

Thank you so much, Tyler, for the discussion. Thanks everyone for joining us.

I was joined by Tyler Jennings, director of product marketing, Legrand North America. Until next time.

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