How Eco-Friendly Builders are Using Big Data to Make Design Decisions

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Regardless of the position of the current administration or politicians at a local and state level, consumers are increasingly concerned about climate change and the effect it will have on our everyday lives in the very near future. A new study shows we have just over a decade to make some major changes to prevent serious, irreversible damage.

Even for those who dispute the facts about humanity’s contribution to climate change, there is no denying that large buildings have an impact on cities and the environment there, and even these localized effects can be mitigated with an eco-friendly approach.

This means that builders are increasingly looking to go green, from large skyscrapers to single family homes and multi-family complexes. They’re using a lot of methods to do so:

The real news is about more than just energy efficiency and renewable energy, though. Breakthroughs are coming through the use of big data to inform design decisions, using data not available or used effectively even a decade ago.

How are eco-friendly builders gathering and using this data? Here are some amazing facts, and what the future might hold.

Relevant Data Gathering

One innovation, even in the last few years, is the gathering of data about the correlation between building design and the impact of that design on the environment. A big part of the reason is that building design software is becoming more accurate, agile, and easy to use. Sensors have become more affordable and are often moveable. Analysts can get a better picture of what is really happening in a building.

Just a few years ago, data was compared year over year for things like water and energy usage. With larger data sets and more information, data can be compared day to day, and even hour to hour with the right systems.

What does this mean? If water usage goes up from one day to the next with no clear reason, a smart meter can detect a leak that can be fixed before it becomes a costly break. Power usage can be monitored, temperatures controlled by automated systems that respond to things like sun through the windows warming one area while others on the other side of the building are cooler.

Things like temperature, humidity, and oxygen levels can also be monitored and kept at optimal levels efficiently. Using plants as both insulation and oxygen generators helps a great deal, and even watering systems can be automated with the right sensors.

Integrating these features into a new building and even remodeling existing ones with new technology is one of the many ways builders are using big data to make designs that are eco-friendly.

Industry Cooperation and Data Sharing

One of the positives that comes from the threat of climate change is that it unites industries in unique ways. In October of 2016, a unique for-profit joint venture was announced between the U.S. Green Building Council and Green Business Certification, Inc. to establish a system whereby any building from a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Certified developments to those not yet “green certified” can start measuring progress toward eco-friendliness. The cooperative effort is known as arc.

The projects can use any standard they want, from industry ones to goals of their own. The idea is to make data gathering and sharing easier. This makes the green building industry more accessible, beyond the large projects originally targeted by LEED Standards. The idea, according to Scott Horst, the CEO of arc, is to “go higher, lower, broader, and wider.”

What this means is sharing more data between builders, and even encouraging the use of big data to create energy efficiencies across industries. “The future of green building is not rating systems,” Horst goes on. “Data is the greatest truth-teller. The only question is, what kind of data.” There are also unconventional data sets as well. Although not as open at the federal level, 128 cities nationwide, every state, and the District of Columbia have made at least some level of data available to the public.

The good news is that there are better answers to those questions as more data becomes available. Inefficiencies in one building need not be repeated in another development project, and even when it comes to residential developments, lessons learned from larger projects can be applied.

This data sharing and industry cooperation are helping expand the set of big data available and develop ways it can be more practically applied.

Eco-Friendly Infrastructure and Beyond

This trend is more than just about buildings, though. Much of the infrastructure in the United States needs to be updated, and while builders are working on these projects, they are often adopting green practices in the design. As bridges are being replaced or remodeled, not only are builders adopting different types of bridge design based on data and technology they previously did not have access to, they are also using more sustainable practices, adding vegetation and shade, and even installing solar panels to power bridge lights and traffic control signals.

Many bridges are also being rebuilt with bike and pedestrian paths along with public transportation and commuter lanes to encourage alternate forms of personal transportation.

Green infrastructure including all forms of water management is also a part of development. Big data can play a big role in the development of rainwater collection systems and systems that mimic the natural water cycle in a building’s ecosystem. This water conservation and management, especially in more arid climates, is a big part of eco-friendly construction.

Location, Location, Location

There is more that big data can tell us too, even at the earliest stages of development. The use of big data in the documentation of climate change is well known, but just as important is the selection of a location for developments. It is not only what kind of building and the various features installed that make a difference to the environment, but how the humans who work and live there get to the building.

For example, housing communities can be designed to be walking and biking friendly, and also situated near access to public transport, from trains into the city to bus lines and park-and-ride locations. Big data can show the ideal locations of these developments, or even how public transport can be rerouted or relocated to serve existing ones.

The other possibility is to create multi-family housing that is affordable either in downtown areas so workers will have to travel less or near bus or rail transport, reducing the economic impact of commuting. This data is already being applied to locating housing developments near BART stations in West Oakland, California. The idea is to make a car-free, public transportation-centric development in places where it is needed most.

Eco-friendly builders are using big data to make all kinds of design decisions, from location to amenities. More data than ever is being created and shared, meaning that the buildings and infrastructure of tomorrow will be designed to combat climate change and protect our environment and our way of life.

About the Author

Avery Phillips is a freelance human based out of the beautiful Treasure Valley. She loves all things in nature, especially humans. Leave a comment down below or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or comments.


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