Data-driven Design Is Poised to Transform the Existing Building Stock Based on the Numbers— but We Have to Be Open to Mining and Understanding Them

Digging for Data

On the surface, “Big Data” has a sort of conspiratorial ring to it that’s reminiscent of the ever-watchful Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984. It’s true, technology has enabled unprecedented access to and collection of information, and the implications for personal privacy are certainly cause for contemplation.

But in the realm of design and construction, data mining and analysis hold tremendous potential to measure and transform the existing building stock. Data-driven design is already a trend experts agree will perform an increasingly vital role in planning and executing building retrofits, as well as in day-to-day operations.

Taking Information to the Next Level

Until now, building information modeling (BIM) tools have largely been utilized for construction project planning and delivery. Programs, such as Autodesk’s BIM 360, for example, help project teams realize efficiencies, reduce errors and improve communication (to name a few benefits) from onset through project delivery. But the industry is only beginning to tap into the tremendous potential of data collection—or Big Data—to measure and increase building performance.

“As we start instrumenting buildings and collecting more data that’s objective, I think it will allow us to make much better decisions on how to plan and design and build buildings because the data will be non-biased.” —Zigmund Rubel, AIA, co-founder, Aditazz

“As we start instrumenting buildings and collecting more data that’s objective, I think it will allow us to make much better decisions on how to plan and design and build buildings because the data will be non-biased.” —Zigmund Rubel, AIA, co-founder, Aditazz

The definition of Big Data is somewhat difficult to nail down because it depends upon the context in which it’s being used. The term may refer specifically to a server containing hundreds of BIM models or to broadly gathering information to inform the observer of trends and to predict future outcomes, as noted in the book, Data Driven Design and Construction (Wiley 2015).

What may help frame the discussion is a simple analogy, as noted by Zigmund Rubel, AIA, co-founder of architecture and planning firm Aditazz, San Francisco. At a very broad level, Rubel suggests the building industry has been measuring performance for a long time in the same way a doctor might use touch and feel or a stethoscope to diagnose a patient. However, with the development of MRI and CT machines, medical professionals are able to uncover tremendous amounts of data and information about what’s actually inside the patient. Similarly, with tools, such as BIM, and participation in energy-tracking programs, for example, building owners and AEC professionals can get a much more accurate picture of building performance.

“I think that’s where the future might exist in terms of informing building owners and designers about the decisions they need to make about the health of their buildings, current and future,” Rubel explains.

“Design and construction professionals need to recognize BIM’s real value—as a database—and start treating it like one,” says University of Illinois Associate Professor Randy Deutsch, AIA, and author of Data Driven Design and Construction. Deutsch tells Design Intelligence that “learning to capture, analyze, and apply data is how many of us will take BIM—beyond visualization, clash detection and coordination—to the next level.”

Benchmarking: Tools and Programs

To determine what “the next level” is and how to get there, baselines must first be established. Data collection and analysis provide the framework to set and achieve those benchmarks.

But for many commercial building owners and managers without a large real-estate portfolio, gathering, tracking and analyzing data on building performance can be a costly, full-time job—a luxury they may not be able to afford.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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