On May 28, global building information consultancy CASE launched its inaugural conference, BLDGS = DATA, in the High Line Room at the Standard Hotel in New York City. Moderated by David Fano, a CASE partner and managing director, the conference explored the role of data in contexts ranging from search and discovery services and social media to urban behavior and building construction, and its potential to create “positive change” in the building industry. Attended by architects, engineers, contractors, manufacturers, owners, and operators, the event raised many interesting questions about the role of data in architectural practice and the nature of what could be considered a paradigm shift in the way we analyze building performance and approach design relative to user feedback, cost, schedule, operation and life-cycle.
After Fano’s Introduction it was clear that the conference would be operating under the augury of an emergent language informed by the concept of “Digital Exhaust,” which is essentially the reservoir of unstructured information or data that is the by-product of our discrete or collective, infinitely traceable online existence. Blake Shaw, Head of Data Science at Foursquare who holds a PhD from Columbia University in Computer Science, kicked off the conference elegantly in his presentation entitled, “Data for Understanding Cities.” Shaw provided context at the urban scale and focused the discussion of data on human behavior. Most importantly, he described how data may be utilized to glean a predictive aspect, for example, “where we might go or what we might do next.” While the audience raised questions concerning privacy and the security of personal information, Shaw explained that one’s absolute willingness to be traced, or “check in,” is ultimately motivated by a personal gain in the form of enhanced experience. This optimization of real-world behavior is ultimately acquired, according to Shaw, by receiving “the right information at the right time.” Shaw’s visualizations included beautiful, constellation-like manifestations of New York City indicating spikes in user activity across industries over time and within locations he refers to as “venue shapes.” The notions of artificial intelligence and the establishment of “predictive models” that describe the “urban pulse,” for the conference, became intriguing subtexts with scalable value.
In “Data for Building Insight,” panelists Jennifer Downey (National BIM Manager at Turner Construction), Peter Raymond (CEO of Human Condition), and Brian Cheng (Designer and Associate at HDR Architects) introduced new topics and conformed Shaw’s omniscient vision of the predictive capacity of data to the job site and the architectural project. Raymond and Downey offered unique perspectives. While Downey expressed the value of BIM on the construction front relative to cost, schedule, and savings in real-world examples, Raymond, who is described as a “serial entrepreneur” in the bio provided by CASE, introduced the innovation of “wearables,” a technology that considers, via clothing, employees as sensors that telegraph data which correlates performance and the degree in which one is conforming to safety standards. Raymond’s wearable technology, influenced by his research in the area of sports psychology, is in his estimation “incentivizing.” Raymond suggested that, from the perspective of human resource management, we can build stronger teams if we are able to maintain a calculated understanding of our weaknesses and ward off job-site disasters in advance through the monitoring of habit and behavior.
Cheng’s presentation fell somewhere closer to the BIM world most practicing architects are familiar with, a world articulated by the ideal that a centralized model reinforces the three-dimensional coordination of building systems. In addition to this and not dissimilar in spirit to Shaw’s synthesis of a clairvoyant sensibility with the scientific method, Cheng described a programming analysis that considered the allocation of space based on map-able patterns rather than projected use, which was also derived from data exhaust and the human sensor to a certain extent. In the context of architectural practice and the generation of clear, informed recommendations to a client, this metric-driven analysis seemed very useful. Still, the audience alluded to ethical concerns, which continued to raise important questions relative to both security and privacy in the course of the ensuing roundtable discussion. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in the High Line Room remained engaged, inquisitive, and optimistic.
As the conference progressed, it shifted gears from digital trails and human telematics to “dashboarding” and one company’s evolutionary process in the development of a custom software platform created to support their Corporate Store Planning and Development Department. In “Data for Retail Roll-Out,” executives who wish to remain anonymous described how they solved the problem of data management through the acknowledgment of their in-house talent. They highlighted the value of company culture and team involvement and underscored the importance of direct input from those using the software in a way that was not inhibited by hierarchy, seniority, status, or politics. It seemed that this collaborative, integrated approach to the development of a shared technology made the tool more useful and infinitely functional in terms of management efficiency. The company leadership concluded that the accommodation of the various ways in which a range of users work contributed to the dynamic platform’s success. This idea of customization, with respect to in-house technology that is developed bottom up toward the achievement of an operational goal, further elaborates the relevance of data in terms of company growth and performance.
Following “Data for Retail Roll-Out,” CASE’s Steve Sanderson and Andy Payne unpacked “Data for Indoor Positioning,” an in-house study “tackling the question of how data can be used to help people work better.” In this eight-week study, CASE utilized a series of interconnected devices to track staff movement in an effort to learn more about how they use their office. This analysis, less about performance and efficiency and really more about a certain level of honesty, generated provocative insights regarding the nature of pre- and post-occupancy. These insights, acquired through a process of triangulation, suggested that in spite of its “remote” culture, the company still relies heavily on direct locational exchange within a workplace that places the value of serendipity above most things, including the spaciousness of its kitchen. The CASE example, like those preceding it, brings data exhaust back to the indispensable relevance of the human element and feedback.
The final panel discussion, “Data for Building Buildings,” was moderated by CASE’s Aaron Fritsch, Director of Software, and included the following panelists: John Moebes, Director of Construction at Crate & Barrel; Doug Chambers, CEO of Field Lens, and Todd Wynne, Construction Technology Manager at Rogers-O’Brien Construction. Like “Data For Building Insight,” this discussion was field-focused, with special emphasis on Internet-based project management tools, digital document review procedures, BIM workflows and the implementation of new protocols that improve overall construction management through the application of mobile social technology.
The final presentation, delivered by Roni Bahar, Executive Vice President of Development and Special Projects at WeWork and entitled “Data for Galactic Growth,” was both funny and illuminating. Bahar’s presentation of WeWork’s evolution and its ultimate dependency on the analysis of data and the creation of customized technology for the purposes of meeting intense project delivery goals is testament to the capacity of BIM and the leveraging of data toward the goal of innovation in design and construction procedures. The success of WeWork suggests that we should look at the use of data more closely and seriously consider expanding architectural practice to give more value to the establishment of metric-driven, predictive models.
BLDGS = DATA made the case that Architecture is no longer a static physical modality but exists and performs in four dimensions and we must learn from the data our buildings produce over time in order to evolve them. While similar ideas grew out of the use of animation in the design process over the course of the last 15 years, the relevance of the fourth dimension is taking on an expanded role that has direct influence on the evolution of practice beyond the generation of form. The increase in building owner engagement in the metric-driven process has impact on architectural practice from the other end, and while designers are just feeling this pressure, the construction industry seems to be taking the lead on implementing custom technology to satisfy client demands in terms of cost control, schedule control, building performance, and post-occupancy operations management. This dynamic leaves the Architect in a somewhat precarious position to not only catch-up but also evolve in a way that inspires the creation of real building intelligence in buildings that are, in so many words, predictive. As the audience dispersed to the terrace after the conference, scantily clad in AI metaphors and digital exhaust slang, conversation spiked and confirmed the provocation: Where will we go? What will we do next?