Closing the Design Loop: How Big Data Will Change Building Design and Operations
I’m writing here about data and architecture. ARCHITECT recently published a good article exploring this emerging trend, and I want to look at it specifically through the lens of sustainability. But first, a little story about an electric car and my driving habits.
I bought the car several weeks ago, because I believe in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and their ecological consequences. And I like the car! My research told me that a switch to the new electric car from my fuel-based one would reduce my carbon footprint. But it turns out that purchasing the car wasn’t the end of the change. A dashboard display gives me real-time data on the amount of energy my car’s using. It changes every time I accelerate, or brake, or make a turn. I can immediately see the impact of each action on the car’s energy performance. As I watched that display, I actually began adjusting my driving habits to achieve the best performance. After just two weeks, I now drive differently because of that data.
That’s where building design is headed.
AEC professionals are on the cusp of a complete change of mindset in how we carry out design work. We’re going to move from processes rooted in good habits, tacit knowledge and “best practices,” and into working methods that respond directly to building performance data analyses, and even instant feedback on actual building performance. The biggest driver that of this shift is sustainability, specifically the 2030 Challenge.
Our profession has fifteen years left to achieve the goal of 100% reduction of fossil fuel consumption in buildings by the year 2030. According to the AIA’s 2013 report of results from 2030 Commitment firms, the industry stood at just shy of 40%. That’s a marked accomplishment, but we still face many challenges in accelerating our rate of success to hit that 100% goal. One of our biggest hurdles is a longstanding design gap.
Design can and should be a loop. In a loop, we would design a facility, it would be constructed, and once occupied, its performance would be measured. The measurement data would then be used to inform design of the next building. But historically, there’s been a gap in that loop, an absence of performance data (Figure A).
Some designers have attempted to close the design loop by soliciting feedback from users, or by requesting utilities bills from owners to gauge consumption levels. That’s good information, but it doesn’t provide enough detail to reveal the impacts of specific systems, environmental conditions (such as weather changes), or human usage habits on the things we’re measuring. Because of that, even the most committed of design professionals lack an accurate picture of building performance, and have had to rely on a history of rough measurements, assumptions, conventional wisdom, or even guesstimates as a means of trying to create more efficient facilities. Thanks to new technologies, if we can abandon some old habits, we can now finally close the design loop in three ways.
First, in design we have ever-improving modeling systems that designers can use to evaluate the impacts of design decisions on building performance. This isn’t entirely new, but today’s tools are incredibly improved. Even just a few years ago, we might have used multiple different simulation tools and often had to crunch tons of numbers to see what a design change might do to the modeled performance. Now, new software has streamlined the required input, and we can effectively watch modeled performance changes in real time as we work through design ideas and revisions (Figure B).
Second, in built facilities we have emerging and improving building monitoring systems that can track performance data in real time. We can then associate that information with other relevant data into a large set from which we can get meaningful analytical results: how weather impacted energy performance, how existing lighting sensors did or did not reduce energy consumption due to actual user habits, etc. We can use that data as a basis for putting together new, more efficient design solutions. Also, this better enables us to include quantified analytics when talking with clients about implementing new ideas or systems in their facilities construction and operations.
And third, we have the opportunity to make performance data visible to the average building user to help them adopt energy-saving behavior. User habits are a huge factor in building performance. Even facilities that are built with incredible potential for energy savings won’t perform as expected if the users don’t behave in ways that take advantage of how the building’s intended to function. Some facilities have integrated touch-screen kiosks that can display real-time performance data, but that’s disconnected from the user’s behavior. What if we integrated performance displays into every user’s experience, including measurement of their own habits on overall building performance – in real time? For example, my DLR Group peers Michael and Ryan are working on a building data visualization project right now called Data Streams.
Which brings me back to my new electric car. When I bought it, I didn’t expect to change my driving habits. I was passionate about the car as a solution unto itself. Only by showing me the data did I then see how my own actions were a big part of making sure the car performed to the best of its abilities.
Now, is data what gets most of us out of bed in the morning? Speaking for designers, I’d probably struggle to find very few (if any) who entered this profession excited about data. Most of us were passionate about the ideas of architecture – of beauty, of experience of place and space, of a community’s interest in having buildings that represent their cultural aspirations. And all of those things will continue to matter. But as we (and building owners, and contractors, and users) increase our exposure to valuable big data, it can and will become a part of the passion that brought us to our professions. And one that stands to have a huge impact on the future of our life on this planet.