The benefits of an open-source system for gathering and sharing design performance data

The Design Future Council’s 2014 Sustainability Summit, held in Salt Lake City in September 2014, hosted several lively presentations and group discussions on the topic of AEC Design Transparency. At the end of the summit, over 30 firms volunteered to join together and help develop a more transparent, scalable, open-source system for gathering, organizing and sharing design performance data within the global AEC industry. This article provides an overview of the opportunity, the progress to date and how interested readers can get involved.


“AEC Design Transparency” refers to the measurement, tracking and public disclosure of performance metrics of materials, products and projects within the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industry’s global supply chain. The purpose is simple: to allow everyone (designers, engineers, builders, manufacturers, owners and users) to better understand, evaluate and improve the performance of AEC design solutions while reducing their negative impacts to the natural environment and human health.

AEC design performance metrics (actual or estimated) include but are not limited to:

  • Useful Lifetime
  • Energy Performance
  • Embodied Energy
  • Renewable Energy Use
  • Carbon Footprint
  • Water Footprint
  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  • Recycled Content (in and Out)
  • Occupancy Density, Human Health and Well-being
  • Manufacturing Processes and Practices
  • By-Products and Waste
  • Transportation Requirements
  • Material Chemistry
  • Material Volumes and Weights
  • Material Placement and Exposure

Unfortunately, the AEC industry’s current approach to Design Transparency is fragmented, inefficient and costly. Too much disclosed information is unnecessarily complex, trapped in dead-end documents or scattered among proprietary tools, many with paywalls and/or conflicting standards.

While the approach has sponsored competitive experimentation and continuous improvement, it has also severely constrained the industry’s ability to aggregate and leverage known information in order to design and make better materials, products and projects, which is the whole point of Design Transparency. Although filled with good intentions, the status quo is effectively broken.

What should be done? The first step is to recognize that AEC Design Transparency a big data problem. Its solution must address the AEC global supply chain in a comprehensive and integrated manner. Our industry needs — and owners and users deserve — a simpler model that provides public access to open-source data that is easy to search, report and aggregate at minimal cost.

As an industry, we also need to learn from the open-source systems already deployed in other industries — including airline, automotive and apparel — that have achieved broad global adoption and value creation. The common lesson is that no single organization, public or private, can solve this problem alone. It requires a sustained, collective effort of designers and makers across the AEC industry, including organizations that traditionally compete against one another.

Importantly, AEC Design Transparency must be driven not by the proprietary or financial interest of any organization, and instead by our shared higher calling — as industry leaders — to do the right thing.


During the 2014 Sustainability Summit, the AEC Design Transparency Working Group was created to pursue this opportunity. A preliminary outline of the group’s intentions:

  • Develop strategies to massively scale the collection and organization of AEC performance data, simplify access to and use of the data, and enhance the ability of everyone to leverage the data to create higher-performance materials, products and projects.
  • Pilot open-source, non-proprietary data stores with public interfaces for third-party tools, and significantly increase the contribution and use of high-quality, trustworthy performance data within the AEC industry (see illustration).

The purpose of disclosure is to create understanding that informs good decisions. AEC Design Transparency only happens when all three are seamlessly connected together.

  • Make it as easy as possible for designers, makers, owners, users and tool-builders to access the information at the least possible cost. Simplicity is a virtue, and it is essential to achieve scalability, broad adoption and deep impact. Unnecessary complexity must be avoided.
  • Provide the information under a creative commons license. For-profit derivative works (analysis and reporting tools, etc.) that leverage the data will be permitted, but the data itself will be freely available to anyone and cannot be resold by any party.

Outreach to other industries will continue to be important. Global automakers, for example, have deployed an International Material Data System (IMDS) in which their networks of suppliers participate. Importantly, the system supports ‘referencing’, which allows each party to rely on the disclosures of its suppliers. IMDS models the composition of an automobile within a tree-like structure: leaves represent basic substances, branches represent intermediate materials, components and assemblies, and the trunk represents the finished vehicle. IMDS provides real-time tracking of product changes within global supply chains, and is much more integrated and flexible than AEC disclosure systems that focus on compliance via documentation (which is both difficult to aggregate and quickly becomes stale).

Similarly, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, launched in 2010 by Patagonia and Walmart, now includes over 50 apparel companies representing over a third of all clothing and footwear sold in the world. Their aim is simple: “An apparel industry that produces no unnecessary environmental harm and has a positive impact on the people and communities associated with its activities.” The Coalition correctly recognized that the goal was too important for any single company to pursue alone. Their social and environmental performance index is open-source, available to everyone, and reflects the collaborative efforts of industry competitors working together.


To date, the response to the AEC Design Transparency open-source initiative has been strong. On December 3, 2014, over 60 people participated in our kickoff webinar, during which over 30 individuals volunteered to join one or more teams focused on the following six work efforts:

  • Finalize Vision and Mission
  • Prioritize High-Value Performance Data
  • Engage Leadership in Other Industries
  • Define Governance Approach
  • Pursue Funding Sources
  • Explore Hosting Platforms

The responsibility of each team is to self-organize, select team leaders, arrange their own teleconferences or webinars, collaborate, and prepare recommendations to present to the larger AEC Design Transparency community during monthly webinars.

At the same time, no one should underestimate the scale and complexity of the AEC industry’s big data challenge, nor the sustained collective effort that will be required to address it. A simple ‘pre-mortem’ suggests a number of potential threats to its future success:

  • Strong early interest followed by a drop-off of engagement
  • Lots of talk and little action
  • Redundancy and overlap with other organizations and initiatives
  • Lack of effective governance that impedes decision making
  • Lack of executive engagement that limits organizational commitment and resources
  • No sustainable business model to support the group’s activities over the long-term
  • Actions that remain driven by proprietary commercial interests instead of doing the right thing

As with any open-source project, the ultimate success and influence of the AEC Design Transparency initiative will rest on the shoulders of the organizations and individuals who set aside their competitive instincts, openly contribute their collective talents and expertise, and fully deconstruct the silos of AEC design performance data. The goal is not to re-invent the wheel, by any means, but to build on past and present success while eliminating unnecessary complexity and fragmentation.

In doing so, engaging a diversity of perspectives is essential. The AEC Design Transparency community includes architecture, engineering and construction firms, product manufacturers, data/tool vendors, real estate owners, academic institutions, research groups, professional organizations and other non-profits (see illustration). If you or your organization is interested in adding your voice to our open-source initiative, just visit the web site There, you can sign up to our e-mail list as well as download presentations and future work products as they are developed.

We look forward to your participation and leadership!

Ken Sanders FAIA is a Principal and Managing Director at Gensler. He serves on the Executive Board of the Design Futures Council and is a Senior Fellow.