How Building Data Visualization Can Make You a Better Architect

The emergence of big data is bringing with it some very interesting insights into how we can better understand the world around us, and the way we live within its fluctuations. Of course, analyzing this without a plan could be overwhelming and complex, but with data visualization and analysis techniques you can begin to get unique insights into how to make positive changes for better living. For instance, did you know that you can begin to use collected data to help improve the way you design? By knowing what questions to ask about your design process or about your design outcome, you can zoom in on important data that can give you insights into how well your buildings function for the occupants which they serve.

Building Data Analysis
Image Credit: © WavebreakMediaMicro | Fotolia

What Data Would You Like to Visualize about Your Building?

To begin, you need to start by asking questions about the way you design, or by simply asking how you can improve your designs. By asking such questions — more questions will surface, and these will lead you to collect the right data to give you the insights you seek.

In essence, there are five critical steps to the data analysis cycle as taught by Professor Tim Chartier, PhD. of University of Colorado, Boulder in his course called Big Data: How Data is Transforming the World. These steps are as follows:

Data Analysis Cycle (1)

  1. Collect data,
  2. Visualize data,
  3. Analyze data,
  4. Question the data (even ask an expert)
  5. Make a change or correction (then look for changes in data)

Applying Data Analysis to Building Design

For example, you may explore questions to improve building performance for your occupants. And from this point, you simply begin to collect the data that completes the “picture” and solves for your question. Thus, if you are trying to design better office buildings, you may consider asking how you can improve the reduction of stress levels, minimize sick days, and create an environment that boosts productivity. For this case, you could collect the following data:

  • Minimize stress levels to boost health and productivity: Collect data on heart rate, temperature, and time-dependent surveys, deadlines met or missed and sick days. You may begin to make correlations between environmental factors, time, and occupant stress levels. And to get to these correlations, it helps to visualize your data so you can analyze it. Once analyzed, you can begin to make corrections or changes to that environment — and then look for consequential effects (either positive or negative).

By using sensors within the environment together with time-based tracking, you could collect just the right data to help your architectural environments be healthier, stress-reducing places in which occupants can be most productive. And by visualizing your data and analyzing it, you can make building improvements and evolve your design process to help occupants to function better within your designed spaces. Thus, you are essentially solving for how you can make your design better based on the original question asked (before you collected any data). This is a great way to reach breakthroughs in your own design process, and to create environments in which your building occupants thrive.


(1) Chartier, Tim. (2014) Big Data: How Data Analytics is Transforming the World. The Great Courses. Lecture 2.

Design Better Architecture by Predicting Occupant Need

Understand Your Occupant’s Narrative
Get to their Most Pressing Needs

When you design, are you simply putting architectural pieces and parts together in hopes that your occupant will get some use out of them? Or, are you analyzing your occupants’ narrative so that you will better understand what it is that they will need — so that you can design your architecture to preemptively meet those needs?

From design vision to functional reality…
Your occupants narrative holds keys to the design of their optimal environment.
Image Credit: © Albasu | Fotolia

Well, today’s article is all about how you can do a better job at predicting occupant need to improve your design — in other words, finding ways to engage your building occupant with what matters to them, when and how they need it most. This often means that you will need to understand your occupants’ “flow” before-hand, to create a truly humane environment where they can thrive by reaching their goals and enjoying their journey toward accomplishing them.

Three Questions to Think Differently About Architectural Design

With all of this in mind, there are three questions that you should ask yourself as you design your architecture. Each one will get you to think about your design in a slightly different way — but all are designed to get you to calculate occupant need into your design poetically. Here they are:

  • Does meeting occupant need mean that your design needs to morph in real-time?
  • Does meeting occupant need mean that you need to know your occupant’s journey in detail?
  • Does meeting occupant need mean that your design should meet needs that your occupant does not realize they have?

Really, you can answer yes to each of the questions, but the real exercise here is to understand that you can always do a better job at meeting occupant needs. For instance, can your design morph in real-time to meet changing needs? Can you do a better job at understanding the narrative nuances of your building occupant? Can your design solve for needs before they even arise to become an issue for your occupant?

Architecture as an Active Participant in the Occupant Journey

It’s wonderful to design architecture with features that get your occupants to engage and take action — but it is also important to understand how your architecture affects them (in both the short term and the long term). If a hospital patient does not have their environmental needs met, for instance, this could detract from their healing progress — thus, it becomes important for the architect of a hospital to understand more in-depth what goes into proper healing for a patient, their illness and treatment — from a design perspective.

This is true for most all building types. Architectural design impacts occupants through their experience. This is why architecture should be considered an active participant in the experiential journey which occupants take.

Solve For Occupant Needs Before They Arise

So, make certain that you are not only taking occupant needs into account by solving for them once they arise, but also by solving for them before they arise. You can do this by analyzing your building occupant’s journey — by finding their milestones and goals, and by understanding how your architecture can help them to reach those. After all, if your architecture is preventative and proactive, it will go from merely solving for symptoms to getting at the root of what yields occupant happiness, health and safety.

Use your architecture to communicate to your occupants, by placing them at the center. Be predictive as well as reactive with your designs — for this will take your designs into another realm where occupants will find true comfort, beauty, and function on new levels.

Examining the Relationship Between Architecture and the Human Body

Architecture Designed as a “Nest” or “Cave”

The relationship between architecture and the human body obviously has a long history. And the questions that arise when exploring this relationship are more than simply about finding the proper dimensions and placements within architectural space to “accommodate” a person and their behaviors within it. The relationship between architecture and the human body delves deep into why those behaviors manifest in the first place, as it calls upon the experiential characteristics and qualities that spark when the two unite — impacting not only occupant behavior through the body, but also impacting occupants intellectually, emotionally, physiologically and even spiritually through the body as well.

Architecture and the Human Body
Image Credit: © high_resolution | Fotolia

In a lecture which I once heard at Harvard University, the architect Sou Fujimoto describes the contrast between what he calls the “nest” and “cave” type architectures. I found this quite interesting in that he identifies the nest-type architecture as an environment that is made for people, customized for them in order to comfort them in specific ways. In this case, architecture acts more as a guide, directing when, where or how occupant behavior can take place. While conversely, Fujimoto describes the cave-type architecture as a building with an inherent “landscape” — where within the architectural fabric, occupants will ultimately find their own comfortable place which suits their needs. In this case, the architecture is more of a strategically designed fabric which invites people to use their own creativity and curiosity as they adapt what they want to do into the space.

I find Sou Fujimoto’s two descriptions quite fascinating as I often write about architecture that is innovative and adapts to its occupant at specific “just-in-time” moments throughout their day. Because of this, I think it is great to further explain how an adaptive architecture can also have integrated within it cave-like qualities, which Sou Fujimoto describes as more “creative” and “experiential”.

Exploration, Adaptation and a “Sense of Place”

Thus, the human body and architecture are engaged in a “dance” where each adapts to the other — where you as the architect need to find the right balance between the two. As you delve into this balance, the question soon becomes about that interplay, finding where the two meet, exchange, part ways and influence one another. The goal here becomes to find those just-right moments within your design to take your occupants to a new “sense of place” that arouses curiosity, creativity and/or comfort at the right time.

As we are already entering an age where materials are becoming more malleable, transient and inherently yield more functionality within less and less space, I think architects will expand the range of what a space can do when it comes to “adaptation” between building and occupant. The interplay between freedom and control is becoming more fluid and dynamic; and for an occupant, “exploration” may be carried out in renewed and innovative ways.

However, it is key to remember that the relationship between architecture and the human body is as much about being “still” as it is about “movement” — whether that be physically, emotionally or spiritually.

Variation, Skin and Emerging Methods and Tools

The purpose of my writing this particular piece is to light a spark that helps you think beyond meeting your occupants’ needs in a one to one relationship. For, there are creative design methods which can yield both comfort and unexpected awakening for your occupants as they travel within your architecture, which can both adapt to them and provide them with an environment that allows for their curiosity and natural instinct to learn, explore and be surprised.

Just as Fujimoto, within his designs, uses layering to establish greater variation and in-between situations to better connect architecture with the human body, you too can explore such gradations, particularly as you begin to understand emerging architectural methods and tools that can be integrated within your architecture. I think that with greater variation and layering, and by making strategic use of “surface” and “skin”, you as an architect can creatively expand the way architecture relates to the human body — pushing boundaries that make a positive difference in your occupant’s lives.

This means that it is important for you to hone your ability as an architect to capture that “sense of place” where your building not only speaks to your occupant, but communicates with them in a two-way dialogue. And to do this, new forms of materials and ways of thinking about information (including the way we think about communication itself) are making themselves more available — and with those you can begin to reconsider just what “sense of place” will mean for you and your occupants, as the relationship between building and body expands.