Day 12: Big Data & the Designer

Big Data is a general term for data sets that are so large and complex they need algorithms to analyze them.

These data sets include any and all information collected from cell phones, security cameras, internet searches, and credit card purchases – basically anything that gives off a digital exhaust, which is almost every powered product in today’s world. The amount of data a person in the 15th century was exposed to in their lifetime is the same amount of data exposed to us in one day. Previously, much of the excess data generated would end up getting lost in cyberspace because we didn’t know how to analyze it or utilize it. Companies are now starting to see the value and power of big data and are using it to their advantage.

Big data is already being used within the design industry. When Brown University was trying to decide whether they should upgrade their existing engineering building or move off-campus to an innovation center, the architect used big data to determine how they should proceed. After analyzing twitter feeds, surveys, class schedules and other data, the architect found that there was a high level of collaboration between faculty members of different departments, as well as integration of engineering students across the entire campus. With this information, they made the decision to upgrade the existing facilities, rather than spend the money to build a new facility that would have been detrimental to the culture of the university.

 A similar example exists with Harvard University. During an evaluation of the campus plan, Harvard University insisted that they needed to reorient circulation towards the front door of a certain building. The architect utilized data from security cameras and an app called MyCampus to evaluate where the majority of foot traffic entered the building. They found that almost nobody used the front door, and with this information were able to convince Harvard to rework the entire campus plan.

Thanks to the combination of BIM design and GPS tools, we are not only able to construct a complete digital project in three dimensions, but also walk through an empty site and know exactly what room in the future building we are standing in. Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are starting to have an impact in both design & sustainability realms, from driverless cars to supply chain management and protection of natural habitats. The power of using big data and other innovative technologies in the design process is the ability to take a project from “this is how it should function” to “this is how it will function.” Design as prediction, not preservation, and we are all futurists now.

Article By:
Cara Smeltzer
Rachel Bannon-Godfrey


Calling All Design 2 Thrivers

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Smart Glass: Wiser, Moodier & Cheaper

A new kind of window glass can be electronically tuned to selectively block large fractions of visible as well as heat-producing light.  Image Credit: Delia Milliron

A new kind of window glass can be electronically tuned to selectively block large fractions of visible as well as heat-producing light. Image Credit: Delia Milliron

Smart glass has been around for a while, but not every client has the budget or innovative drive of the NREL RSF. Also, most smart glass blocks only the visible component of light, still letting the invisible IR component enter the space. A new smart glass has been developed that embeds a framework of electrically conducting nanocrystals in a glass substrate. This ‘nanocomposite’ blocks up to 90% of near-infrared light and 80% of visible light, and features three modes:

In addition to the standard bright and dark modes it features a “cool” one, which could help buildings save energy during hot days. It can switch between modes in just minutes—faster than any commercial electrochromic window material... - MIT Technology Review

A cheaper and more reliable manufacturing process makes this technology especially appealing for mainstream market integration, estimated for 2017. 


This case study of the LEED Platinum, Iowa Utilities Board and Office of Consumer Advocate office building, is interesting not only for its high-performance features, but also for discussion of plug loads and glare. Why are these important? As envelopes become higher-performing, and HVAC systems highly efficient, plug loads are becoming a larger piece of the energy pie of a typical building. Where we can design in efficiencies in lighting, envelope, HVAC, water, plug loads really come down to occupant behavior. The electrical engineers can add occupancy-sensor type controls to plug strips and so on, but at the end of the day this significant energy end use is determined by human behavior and dialogue and education from the beginning is key to meeting the energy goals of the building.

“The reason we exceeded our goal is because the occupants got what we were trying to do from the top down…”

“To include everyone in the decision-making process, each section chose an employee to represent them at pre-occu­pancy meetings, which identified strate­gies to reduce loads.”

The result? Modeled plug loads (including data center and fire and security related loads) were 14.5 kBtu/ft2.yr. Actual plug loads from 2014 were just 5.1 kBtu/ft2.yr. But,

The daylight design is also interesting with 95% of regularly occupied spaces daylit. Although there were some teething troubles:

“I characterize our (former) office as ‘a cave down by the river,’” Cooper said. “We had 11 windows in that whole building, and we went from the ‘cave’ and moved in here in January of 2011 when the ground was covered with snow and the sun was low in the sky. We weren’t used to any daylight, and now we had some glare.”

Glare is one of the harder daylight aspects to model, but also the most debilitating if not addressed. Our lighting team is pushing boundaries with the LEED v4 modeling they are carrying out in Light Stanza, so be sure to ask Colin and Shawn about the glare potential in your project. We never want to submit one of our buildings to an architectural journal with the words ‘Accommodations were made as needed’ to describe the post-occupancy cover ups needed!

photo credit: Assassi

photo credit: Assassi

4 Ways to BIM Better


Everyone should learn to code. Or should they? In the architecture world, that translates into learning programs like Dynamo. It's the open source coding language, developed by Autodesk, which runs on top of Revit (in the same way Grasshopper works with Rhino). Use it to design the skin of your building... or just line up all the views on your sheet.

If the terms computational geometry and rule-based design excite you, Dynamo has an excellent Primer for getting started



Collaboration for Revit, or C4R, is the new offering from Autodesk which basically acts as Revit Server in the Cloud. No longer bound by internal company networks or location, a project team can now collaborate on Revit models with partner firms and consultants, without ever havingto exchange files. You can even use the Wi-Fi at Starbucks to work on your model. Bonus features include a built-in chat function, to keep everyone on the same page. (RNL is currently testing this add-on service with an out-of-state partner design firm.)



Autodesk this week announced Stingray, a real-time virtual reality tool that interfaces with Revit and 3ds Max. That's right - take your model from Revit into a live, rendered, game-like environment and have your client walk through it on an iPhone or favorite VR interface (Oculus Rift, anyone?). Make a change to the model in 3ds Max and have it show up in Stingray automatically. Just don't bump your shin on the coffee table while you're exploring your virtual design.

Image Credit:  In The Fold

Image Credit: In The Fold

Image Credit:  In The Fold

Image Credit: In The Fold



Revizto, the cross-platform 3D model review app, has changed their licensing model, making the base version of their product free! Revizto allows one to export a Revit or SketchUp model and fly through it on an iPad or Android tablet, or on a Windows PC or Mac. I'm looking for someone to test it out. If you're interested, e-mail

Image Credit:  Revizto

Image Credit: Revizto

Header Image: Dynamo


This week the social media world was lit up by the release of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan. At over 1,500 pages long, let’s jump straight to the synopsis:

The plan calls for US electric power plants in total to reduce their CO2 emissions 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.  Each State has been given its own targets, based on how offensive their power plants are currently. Each State can decide how exactly it will meet their specific target: switch from coal to natural gas, boost renewables, push commercial and residential energy efficiency programs, enact cap-and-trade systems, whatever works best for their economy.

32% sounds huge, but let’s not forget power plant emissions are already 15% lower than 2005 levels thanks to the recession, improvements in wind technology, increased energy efficiency programs, and falling natural gas costs making coal seem less favorable. This doesn’t mean the plan falls short, but that carbon regulation is needed in other sectors to keep the momentum going – vehicle emissions, industry and agriculture.

If you are interested, this article does the best (most concise) job of describing what the plan entails:

And this article has a great infographic showing the targets per State:  




Chicago may favor deep-dish for its pizza, but a company is going thin crust for its green roofs and living walls. The Omni Ecosystems Green Roof technology grows more plant options in half the weight of conventional green roof systems. With installations in Chicago the system is clearly being tested under some of the harsher conditions in the U.S (hot summers, cold winters, high winds). The benefit of the lighter weight and more concentrated plant diversity is wider applicability on existing buildings where significant structural upgrades to the roof may not be possible. The same technology is applied to their living walls, with equally appealing financial benefits:

“Whereas most living wall products require constant plant replacement - as much as 100 percent every six months - our system has required less than six percent in the 18 months since installation”

Whether these claims bear the test of time, their next partnership is exciting in that it sets up a PPA-like relationship between roof owners and a group called Roof Crop:

“Building owners meet their green roof obligations for sustainable development in the City of Chicago, receive rent from The Roof Crop as the “roof tenant,” and have a reliably maintained green roof. The net effect is a green roof that pays for itself and is truly maintenance-free for the building owner”

Their first leased rooftop farm was recently installed in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood.

And their Omni Tapestry living wall wins Biophilia of the Week Award…

photo courtesy of Omni Ecosystems

photo courtesy of Omni Ecosystems

Sustainable Apparel Brands

For those of you who would like to reduce your personal foot print even more…

The average American throws away 68 lbs of clothing every year, yet 99% of used clothing is recyclable. It takes 700 gallons of water to produce one cotton t-shirt, the same amount of water the average person uses per day including household uses like dish washing and laundry. A whole day’s worth of water, for one t-shirt.  We all have some clothing items that should never see the light of day again for various reasons, whether we accept to believe it or not, but there will always be some thrift store shopper who can rock any retro fashion mistakes. Reuse is one thing, but smarter purchasing is another. So next time you need feel the need to go shopping for clothes that aren’t covered by Patagonia’s catalogue, consider a brand that is committed to sustainable materials and practices:

7 Sustainable Apparel Brands

Image Courtesy of Victor Athletics


The ‘Lighter Quicker Cheaper’ approach to place-making - the fast food of urban design or a way to kick start the journey to longer term solutions?

This article presents some examples of a quick and small way to create community spaces – by closing down unused streets and adding simple landscape furniture. One particular interesting observation:

“..based on these brief observations it seems as though certain demographics dominate the space more than others. It would be interesting to return to this space at a later time and see whether programming has been added that attracts more women and children, as is the case with Corona Plaza.”

photo credit: Nikita Malviya and Himadri Panchal

photo credit: Nikita Malviya and Himadri Panchal


(no, you don’t want an image of this…)

The headline wrote itself… Poop jokes aside, a professor at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, has created a mixture containing bacteria that, when exposed to water, produces calcium carbonate that fills micro-cracks in concrete. This self-healing concrete has the potential to extend the life span of concrete structures by 30%, reducing the labor, cost, waste and material production associated with cement production. In addition to the technology, this article is interesting for the reminder to think life-cycle instead of first costs. While pointing out the cost is about 50% more per cubic meter of conventional concrete, the Professor adds:

“…concrete is only about 1% of total construction cost, so contractors can highlight the long-term cost reductions to building owners, who will recoup the initial premium in three to four years through reduced labor costs”