Peter A. Bacevice, Director of Research, HLW

I recently participated in a week-long hands-on workshop on big data methods at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.  Not surprisingly, big data is everywhere.  Every time we like something on Facebook, post something on Twitter, purchase something on Amazon, or drive anywhere in our cars, we are both contributing to and consuming from giant pools of data.  Maybe more surprisingly are the ways that big data can add to the value of architectural design and enhance the user experience of space once its occupied. 

This workshop provided an opportunity to reflect on what big data means when applied to the practice of architecture and workplace strategy.  Some immediate parallels are revealed when you consider how big data is transforming the planning and management of cities.  Smart Cities author Anthony Townsend writes about how individuals or groups of citizens can crowdsource data that civic leaders can, in turn, use to solve a host of challenges – such as areas of cities that need snow removal or the location of potholes.  A workshop discussion of the Motor City Mapping project in Detroit showed how people could feed data about the city’s blighted properties to the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force.  Similarly, the workplace is a built environment where user inputs can influence more effective planning and design.  Tools like DScout are useful for gathering user data about a range of workplace attributes – both good and bad – that affect productivity.  Conference room and virtual meeting technologies are now equipped with feedback loops that allow the user to rate their experience so that future improvements can address pinpointed concerns.  Smart meeting rooms can even use data to create a custom experience for users upon entering a space – for example, rooms can be set to a desired lighting level, temperature, display format, and sound profile through sophisticated reservation systems. 

As we collect more data in the course of architectural design, we gain new ways of discerning the ROI of projects.  As clients use metrics and data in more sophisticated ways, architects and designers can add value through an equally sophisticated use of data.  Some examples of how we do this today include:

  • Plan analysis – Whenever we commence a project, we analyze a client’s existing floor plans and capture a wealth of data about the layout, program, and affordances.  When a project is complete, we run the same analysis on the final as-built plans and compare the results.
  • Building Information Modeling – The sophistication of BIM tools allows for a robust layering of information about a space into 3D plans. 
  • Employee work patterns – Employee or other end-user surveys are an effective way to ensure wider participation in the design process.  They are also a powerful tool for capturing data on a range of other measures including work patterns, satisfaction, engagement, flexibility, use of technology, and use of amenities. 
  • Space utilization – Many organizations have under-utilized space or space that isn’t used the way it was intended.  Money spent on under-utilized space could otherwise be invested elsewhere in the business.  There are multiple ways to rigorously capture utilization data around how many people use space at any given time as well as how it is used when it its occupied.  Such insights can help identify opportunities for significant capital cost savings.
  • Health and wellness – Even as companies look for ways to use space more efficiently an in a cost effective way, the needs of employees continue to factor heavily in real estate decisions.  This is increasingly true as companies look for ways to help enhance employee health and wellness.  There are several ways to capture data on factors that contribute toward a healthy work environment.  These include measures of light penetration, acoustics, air quality, or other employee-driven variables. 

Many before vs. after (or pre- vs. post-occupancy) comparisons generate data that can illustrate the ROI of the new space.  Given the major capital expenditures that a client invests in new space, these ROI measures are invaluable.  Furthermore, the process of data collection can even count toward meeting the requirements for LEED or other similar certification processes.

We live in a world that consumes data at a rapid pace.  Americans consume 3.6 zettabytes of data in a single day – that’s 16 standard PC-sized hard drives worth of data for every person in the U.S., per day.  That’s a lot of streaming music, TV shows, mobile phone minutes, and general screen time.  As the consumption and production of data evolves into a subliminal activity for most of us, architects and designers can tap into this behavior to inform increasingly sophisticated user-centric designs.