Why Architects Are Putting Data in the Driver’s Seat

The term “big data” often sounds scarier than it is, but the reality is that data can inform design thinking, as a recent Think Tank panel discussion at EYP’s Washington, D.C. office affirmed.
EYP architecture big data

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis; Andrew Heller, portfolio analyst, U.S. General Services Administration; J. Douglas Lipscomb, assistant vice president, planning and design, George Mason University; Troudy Vaughan, mid- Atlantic regional manager, CBRE; Teresa Rainey, director of high-performance design, EYP Courtesy Sam Kittner


A typical architectural commission might begin with a programming study that asks clients what they need, then organizes spatial volumes around those requirements. But once designed—and, in some cases, set in stone—buildings can undergo changes in use as an organization’s priorities shift. To assess the highest and best use of a space, and whether a gentle reconfiguration or a more aggressive rebuilding will accommodate changes in thinking, architects such as EYP turn to data.

The term “big data” often sounds scarier than it is, but the reality is that data can be used to inform design thinking, as a good part of a recent Think Tank panel discussion at EYP’s Washington, D.C. office affirmed. Architect Teresa Rainey, EYP’s director of high performance design, explained her use of pre- and post-occupancy data as a means of setting a building’s baseline that informs performance strategy: “On the energy side, we’re tapping in the utility data to really dial it in to understand the current building. Then we can understand the impacts to inform design decisions,” she said. “The post-occupancy part allows us to see those results, and utilization studies to help use space better.”

EYP architecture big data

EYP renovated the Birch Bayh Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in Indianapolis. Courtesy EYP


For real estate advisor Troudy Vaughan, who is the mid-Atlantic regional manager of public institutions & educations solutions at CBRE, there are three main metrics for evaluating space, the first being utilization. “It sounds simplistic, and some efforts are relatively low-tech: For the first two months, we might just walk around and count people in seats,” Vaughan says. “Another is facility condition assessment, trying to estimate how much deferred capital maintenance exists on the building. Then the third component would be a sense of market value of the building and whether it’s being used for highest and best use.”

The hard data about utilization helps commercial clients evaluate upgrades, or seek new real estate arrangements altogether. These kinds of comparisons reflect the long-term thinking of people like Andrew Heller, whose role as assistant commissioner for the General Services Administration’s Office of Facilities Management puts him in charge of several hundred occupancies across the country. When it comes to the assets of the judiciary, the GSA recognizes specific sets of concerns regarding many of its historic courthouses. “We’re comparing the renovation cost—and any reduced operating expenses that we might realize as a result of that modernization—to the cost of building new and operating that building over 30 years,” Heller said.

EYP architecture big data

The Birch Bayh Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in Indianapolis Courtesy EYP


Courthouses pose a unique set of challenges, as many occupy prime downtown real estate, yet their age makes them candidates for significant overhauls to meet the current needs of the judiciary. But adopting reuse strategies can yield unexpected performance results, as EYP’s work with the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Indianapolis proves: “It was a historic building, so we really did not touch the materials, but it was an infrastructure upgrade of bringing in fire protection, getting the technology in, and upgrading the mechanical systems,” Rainey explained, adding that the data EYP has collected since the renovation show that it is one of the highest performing buildings in GSA’s Region Five. “We have the data to demonstrate that it’s outperforming some of the newer buildings.”

Whether it’s a historic courthouse undergoing modernization, or even just a commercial office gaining a more efficient layout, architects are now armed with metrics that make the case for better spatial organization. As Rainey put it, “The performance analysis tools have really changed a lot. Before, we just had a sense that things would be better. Now we actually have data.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on September 26 and 27 in Washington, D.C. The conversations were presented in partnership with DWR Contract, DXV/GROHE, KI, Sunbrella Contract, Visa Lighting, and Wilsonart.

EYP architecture big data

The Birch Bayh Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in Indianapolis Courtesy EYP


You may also enjoy “Art Is Enough For Steven Holl.”

Categories: Architecture, Think Tank