Big Data informs our understanding and actions toward a sustainable future

Sustainability has long been viewed as either our moral prerogative or an economic imperative for individuals and organizations. A new perspective based on available and foreseeable data to inform our understanding and actions toward a sustainable future is emerging. This article attempts to provide a framework for this new perspective and a few case studies on its application.

The intersection of data and sustainability is not new, however; its application to the built environment is emerging. My personal inspiration on applying the power of Big Data to solve global problems in a sustainable manner comes from the remarkable story of “CAPTCHA.”

The founders of this (annoying) tool found almost on every website, to validate the user as a human, realized that 200 million CAPTCHAs are converted every day around the world.They wanted to put the 500,000 hours that humanity spends on CAPTCHAs every day to a good cause. They invented reCAPTCHA through which every conversion digitizes unrecognizable words from old books. Through reCAPTCHA, approximately 10 percent of the World’s population is helping every day to digitize human knowledge.

The CAPTCHA story brings important aspects that could be applied to AEC industry. First, awareness of the data being generated is crucial, which then allows you to question whether we are trying to solve the correct problem. Now, with appropriate data, we can apply creative and sustainable solutions to solve the real problem.

Making Sense of Data

Big Data is a buzzword today in every industry. As other industries are leveraging Big Data to improve and innovate their businesses, the AEC industry is just beginning to grasp the concept of data. Big Data is commonly associated with the volume of data and the AEC industry is not considered as a key industry for Big Data when compared to the other data-rich industries such as automobile or the telecommunications industry.

Such perception about the AEC industry and Big Data, is about to change. The opportunity for transforming AEC industry using Big Data is ripe. Consider a consumer car that we are driving today compared to the very first car that was produced. We are essentially driving giant computers on wheels. Also, the way we interact with a car is completely different today. A very similar transformation related to the way we design, build and interact with buildings is happening. Such intersection of physical, digital and experiential aspects of the built environment will form the source of Big Data for the AEC industry.

Big Data is often described by its attributes as the five V’s: Volume, Velocity, Veracity, Variety, and Value. It is so easy to lose focus on all the buzz about Big Data when we clearly don’t define the most important attribute of Big Data — the value it creates. In order to define the value of such Big Data to an organization, one should define why an organization exists. At DLR Group, our answer to this question is our promise: elevate the human experience through design.

A New Framework

One way to deliver this promise is by thinking holistically about the building lifecycle taking into account the operations and the occupants of the building throughout its useful life. With such holistic thinking we can provide design solutions that consider resources consumed over the lifecycle and their social, environmental and economic impact. So to deliver our promise, at DLR Group, we define Big Data as “a concept of exploring opportunities to collect, connect and analyze datasets from different sources to reveal meaningful design insights.” Sustainability is good design. Below is our approach to leveraging the opportunity at the intersection of Big Data and sustainability.

The design and delivery of buildings are getting more complicated every day; so are the parameters that define design. Rather than merely solving a spatial problem, today architecture is asked to do more — to solve human rights, climate change, economic prosperity, human and ecosystem health, etc. As parameters that impact design decisions are widened, new ways to integrate them are required. Leveraging available and foreseeable data could provide a unique opportunity. We use a simple framework to leverage data: First, “stretch wide” outside of the immediate context. Second, “dive deep” beyond your comfort zone. While there are a numerous ways this framework could be applied to the AEC industry, at DLR Group, we chose to focus on the following three areas: design practice, closing the design loop, and user experience.

Design Practice

This area has already seen the impact of Big Data. Parametric modeling and real-time feedback on design decisions is rapidly becoming the normal design practice. With such computing power we can now include design parameters that were traditionally not considered part of the design exploration. From lifecycle costing to fabrication to embodied energy in materials to occupant behavior, by leveraging data during the design process we can provide more holistic, sustainable solutions. One example of stretching wide is the question we explored while designing the Southwest Campus for our West-MEC client in Phoenix, AZ. As energy is a key program in this new campus, our design concept inspired by the grid itself, creates a net-zero campus with solar power as the grid floating above the buildings. However, to push the student’s thinking, we embarked on designing a completely ‘off-the-grid’ building both literally and visually. Through real-time feedback, we modeled numerous scenarios that allowed us to re-question the problem. Rather than trying to design a building for a typical usage pattern, why not question the usage. The final design solution that we ended up with could inform the operation and use of the off-the-grid building to achieve that off-the-grid status. This building when completed will push conventional thinking about not only the grid but also our perception of buildings — why not change how and when we use buildings to limit the need for the grid and earth’s resources?

Closing the Design Loop

AEC is one of the few industries that has really not closed the design feedback loop. However, almost everyone in the industry would appreciate the value that it would provide. The performance of a building not only from the resources it consumes but also in its ability to enhance the human experience throughout its lifecycle is a critical component to delivering our promise. Building performance is an area wide open for leveraging the Big Data that is already available to first, understand the successes or failures of our design features and then to improve upon for future design explorations. One example of stretching wide and diving deep, the value in accessing and understanding such holistic building performance data was with Rockford School District in Chicago, IL. When the school district had to make a decision on building new versus renovating, using traditional demographic data, they included energy performance of the 45 schools within the district as part of the evaluation criteria. Our team proposed collecting and analyzing indoor environmental quality such as thermal, visual, acoustic comfort and air quality, in addition to the other objective data points. Many schools that performed well on the energy performance scale did not fare well on the IEQ characteristics; on the other hand, schools with poor energy performance provided above industry standard IEQ characteristics. By looking comprehensively at non-traditional parameters, the final decision allowed the district to save certain schools that would have been otherwise demolished.

While closing the design loop can clearly provide value, the challenge is really in collating, curating and interpreting all of this data in a visually engaging manner — data that is both historical as well as streaming live from various sources within buildings. We are very excited to partner with BuildingEnergy.com to use their innovative cloud-based technology. With this partnership we could provide a unique cradle-to-cradle service to monitor and improve building performance from the inception of the building to the end of its useful life.

User Experience

This area is the most exciting when it comes to the intersection of Big Data and sustainability. We consider every interaction that end users have with static and dynamic components of the building as a transaction that could provide a lot of value when collected and analyzed. Such transactions could reveal unique usage patterns that will allow us to re-question the problem and sometime challenge our assumptions. As an example of diving deep, we were curious about the assumptions LEED water use reduction calculators used for considering number of lavatory uses in typical office environments. We replaced our faucets in the men’s room in our office with Chicago faucets that have sensors to track usage. While we realized after a month of tracking that LEED calculators are conservative in usage, we did not expect that we would discover a usage pattern. Of the two lavatories in the men’s restroom — contrary to everyone’s belief — the one closer to the paper towel dispenser was used more than the faucet closer to the urinals. This started a healthy dialogue on what such patterns could inform — such as the best place to install the paper towel dispenser in a larger restroom to avoid dripping, thus providing a healthier environment. The opportunities that user interaction data can reveal are limitless.

With the Internet of Things in its infancy, the data generated by the plethora of sensors that will track our interactions with the built environment poses another challenge — visualizing streaming data in a meaningful way that results in action. We are exploring several ways to tackle this challenge and our initial attempts look really promising to ultimately provide sustainable design solutions that will enhance the human experience.

Data-driven Sustainable Future

The AEC industry is on the cusp of a complete change in its approach to the built environment. As designers of the built environment, we have the unique opportunity to leverage data and provide value not only in the infrastructure phase of a building, but also throughout its lifecycle. The data-driven future of sustainability could change the compensation model for the design profession. Such a future requires a unique skillset and a new holistic sustainability perspective that will require leadership from both academia and practice.


Prem Sundharam is global sustainability leader and principal at DLR Group. As an architect with an engineering background he is a passionate advocate for sustainable design and the aims of Architecture 2030.