Using Smart Building Data to Make Buildings Even Smarter

When architects take a more data-driven approach, building performance and efficiency can go through the roof.

Recent technologies have made it easier than ever to collect, track, and analyze data about nearly every aspect of our lives. Smartphones keep us connected to loved ones and business associates halfway across the world, weather apps tell us whether to take an umbrella to work without even looking outside, and wearables such as Fitbit shape our decisions about our health and well-being.

Unfortunately, the AEC industry continues to lag behind the data-driven technology curve. While smart building accessories like Nest — a cloud-based thermostat which monitors occupant behavior and adjusts the temperature accordingly — are becoming popular with the general public, only 44% of American construction firms currently rely on digital technologies, making it one of the world’s least digitized industries.

It’s high time that AEC professionals follow the layperson’s lead and start relying more heavily on data in order to optimize building performance. Fortunately, this adjustment will not require a brand new set of design protocols, but a willingness to leverage impactful technologies that are designed to maximize efficiency, productivity, and value in construction projects.

Grounding Design Processes in BIM

Just as computer-aided design replaced pen-and-paper drafting, building information modeling (BIM) has begun to replace CAD. Though each platform delivers incredibly accurate digital renderings, BIM incorporates an unprecedented amount of building data into every design, allowing architects and other design stakeholders to detect clashes as soon as they emerge and building teams to gauge a project’s feasibility far before arriving at the worksite.

Not only does the data embedded within a standard BIM design improve architects’ understanding of a given project’s needs and constraints — it also facilitates real-time collaboration between all parties involved in that particular project. This makes it easier for each stakeholder to contribute their ideas without jeopardizing efficiency or safety, insofar as it provides a built-in check-and-balance system.

In short, when used properly, BIM leads to better designs, fewer cross-discipline conflicts, and more accurate blueprints. The challenge is convincing AEC professionals to capitalize on its potential. While most AEC firms already use BIM to some extent, nearly every firm could greatly expand its data-driven design efforts.

A Case Study in Virtual Reality

BIM data can be used to create immersive virtual reality (VR) models that provide architects and engineers with unparalleled insight into key building performance metrics. Aesthetics and structural soundness naturally tend to take precedence during the design process, but these are far from the only concerns that must be taken into account.

“User-friendliness” — that is, how well a building will serve the needs of its human occupants — is an essential design metric, but largely due to a lack of sufficient technology, it tends to be an afterthought. With data-driven VR simulations, however, this no longer needs to be the case.

Take a sprawling structure like a school or an airport. In addition to all of the building’s structural features, an architect must also detail safety measures such as the emergency exit system. Because of regulations surrounding these systems, however, the architect must design effective evacuation routes within some unavoidable limitations.

With the help of VR, an architect can place volunteers in a virtual model of the building and analyze how long it takes them to escape the building when guided by only the emergency exit signs. While non-VR computer simulations can run similar tests, only an actual human being will experience the stress for which the design attempts to account. By working with a virtual model generated by BIM, the architect can more accurately assess the design’s performance and alter it accordingly.

This is a single example of how data can improve building performance, but it exemplifies the kind of depth and nuance that effective AEC technology use can deliver in the design process. The groundwork for smarter designs — namely, basic BIM adoption — has already been laid; now it’s time for professionals across the AEC spectrum to take full advantage of everything building data has to offer.

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