“What do you want, Brick.”
“I like an arch.”
“An arch? That’s it? Think bigger, Brick. Don’t you want to be a node on a network? Don’t you want to take part in the IOT?”
“You’re kidding, right Brick? The Internet of Things. Listen, you’re not just a brick anymore. You’re a multi-modal, full networked Internet device with integrated seismic sensors. Now you can talk to all the other bricks.”
“Um. . .”
“Look Brick, I like arches too but they’re old school. They’re expensive, and besides, I could just use a concrete lintel. It’s all about data now. You need to step it up otherwise you’re going to get left behind. ”
“I like an arch.”
“OK Brick, you can be an arch. But we’re going to get you a Twitter handle so you can Tweet me if you’re stressed out or about to crack.”
(With apologies to Louis Kahn)
Do Buildings Equal Data?
What is a brick if it has an IP address? Is it still a brick? Or is it a computer? What about Vitruvius’ edict about commodity, firmness, delight? Should we now add “data” to the list of things a building should provide?
These questions were on my mind when I attended the Bldgs = Data conference at the Standard High Line in New York City. I’m a bit of a data nerd so I was really excited about a conference that mashed-up architecture, design AND data. Plus, it was organized by CASE, a BIM and technology firm whose work I admire.
The conference brought together an interesting mix of architects, contractors, building owners and computer programmers. The one commonality among the speakers was an understanding that the old way of doing things wasn’t going to cut it in the age of big data. Here are some of my highlights from the conference.
Blake Shaw from Foursquare talked about using their platform to perform A/B testing for retail spaces. Web designers and marketers use A/B testing all the time to optimize online designs in real-time with real people.
I’ve often wondered how you could apply these online analytic tools to architecture and the physical world. According to Blake, it’s possible through a hybrid digital / physical approach that collects lots of data with very little friction for the user. Using this data, you design experiments in the real world to test your assumptions, then repeat.
Jennifer Downey, the national BIM Manager for Turner Construction, provided my favorite quote of the day. In her talk, Jennifer expanded the “buildings = data” formula into “people + data = results”, underscoring the fact that data needs to be interpreted and applied in order to be of real value.
Andy Payne and Steve Sanderson from CASE discussed their experiments with indoor positioning using iBeacon. Over a couple of months, they tracked employee movement throughout their newly designed office. Yes, it sounds kind of big-brother-ish but everyone who participated opted in to the experiment. Using this data, the folks at CASE were able to identify the high and low use areas. It turned out the office kitchen, which was a focal point for the design, was little used throughout the day.
The iBeacon technology is certainly interesting but what resonated with me was the idea of using post-occupancy data to drive pre-occupancy thinking. If CASE redesigns their space in the near future, they’ll have substantial data to inform and back up their design decisions. This notion of using measurable data to inform the design process is key. Given the proliferation of sources providing data, it’s up to architects and designers to harness the data to design better buildings.
John Moebes, the Director of Construction at Crate & Barrel claimed he didn’t have any data in his talk. He was right, there weren’t any screenshots of Excel spreadsheets or database tables. However, John did have a lot of insights to share. Crate & Barrel has built over 100+ retail stores in John’s tenure. Since they adopted a BIM driven process, they have reduced the time required to design and build new stores AND reduced overall construction costs. Plus he has the data to back it up.
Closing out the event was Roni Bahar of WeWork. In a rapidly paced talk, Roni outlined WeWork’s aggressive expansion schedule. The quick turn around required for opening their co-working spaces demands a streamlined process from signing the lease on to construction and close-out. It was fascinating to hear about working at this pace, though I imagine it must be exhausting.
The conference organizers at CASE did a great job providing opportunities for attendees to meet and interact. Seating was assigned and each table had a moderator who guided the discussion after each talk. As a self-described introvert and someone who doesn’t always look forward to “networking”, I found this format to be really effective.
In addition to the speakers and attendees, one of the great things about the conference was the location. The Standard High Line is located right above The High Line, which is hands-down my favorite place in New York City
All that talk about data brings on a thirst. Fortunately the conference concluded with dinner and drinks on the Standard’s patio overlooking the High Line. Of course, some local Six Point was served, which I appreciated.
So if buildings do equal data, what does that mean for those of us who design and construct them? There’s no clear-cut answer but certainly a lot of open questions. Data is everywhere and we need to be fluent with it if we want to remain relevant. It’s encouraging to see conferences like Bldgs=Data promoting the discussion.
A big hats off should go to the folks at CASE for organizing the conference. I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.