Data and Design

We have seen the dawn of the Digital Age, and now we live it every day. While advances in technology continue to grow with increasing frequency, this is no longer a new world to us. We all have computers, smart phones are common, and we work and play wireless even to the point where our pens and refrigerators are computerized. The practice of architecture is slowly beginning to take advantage of these leaps in technology by advancing the design process into the digital realm. However, now that the digital foundations have been laid, designers are finding that the surface has only been scratched, and that there is a great untapped potential in the tools being developed which will have a great impact on practice, primarily in the design process and communication methods.


Data is at the core of these new issues facing designers; the concept of information as a valuable resource is continuously growing. To get an idea of how important data is these days, have a look at this infographic, which shows us the staggering amounts of data being transferred.

Click here for a larger image / Credit: GOOD and Oliver Munday with IBM

We are producing and storing data at an intense rate (which in and of itself is has a set of challenges and opportunities for businesses). Within architecture, as our models and structures become more complex, we must use this production of information to advance the profession of architecture and take the next steps in building design. In the immediate future, we are going to (and have already begun to) see this happen in two very distinct ways.

The first is in the tools we use, which is no longer limited to a screen. Developments in 3D technology is continuing to bring the digital world into the real world, with 3D printing and augmented reality working to breakdown the barrier of the computer screen. With these newer methods of architectural design from pre-design to fabrication are going to see data used as a core ingredient, as an almost tangible resource.

The second is in the relationship between architects and the rest of the world. Our communication methods will rely on to establish how buildings are presented to clients and the public, and architects must be very conscious of the ways in which this information is handled and framed.


The development and fabrication of architecture has been changing before our eyes. First CAD, now Revit is the standard, bringing with it new ways to understand design development. Revit, along with other programs such as Rhino and Grasshopper, have a consistent pattern; the more you dig into them and put into them, the more they seem to give. Revit has grown from a method of drafting to a method of building a complete, virtual, architectural model. While at first this was handy for making in depth renderings and quick construction documents, it developed to allow communication and input from everyone involved with a project, including engineers and contractors. This powerful collaboration led to a new method of project modeling and tracking which we now know as Building Information Modeling, or BIM.

BIM allows us to systematically construct a digital building before construction, recognizing Revit’s true potential beyond basic modeling. Of course this is not yet a perfect tool, and its full potential will never be unlocked without the adoption of new tools into the practice of designers, engineers, and contractors together. Through interdisciplinary collaboration and practice, these newer technologies and methods can be explored in depth. Revit is currently making its way into many architecture and engineering firms as the main resource for utilizing a BIM structure. However, Revit is not the only tool that is utilizing building information in a new way.

There is a growing interest in the use of Rhino and Grasshopper for digital creation and fabrication. Rhino is a modeling program that allows both command-line and graphic user interface to create objects. Simple enough. Grasshopper changes the game by allowing for parametric modeling to create the forms within Rhino. Essentially, by creating data parameters within Grasshopper, the program is able to generate points, lines, surfaces, etc. in the Rhino model. This is shown in the form of a visual code, a more approachable way to coding than line-by-line text. Currently, the programs are used for creating structures and envelopes that can be easily manipulated, fabricated and built. Two independent studios from Iowa State University demonstrated this ability just last year.

Energy Model (Left) and Built Form (Right) / Credit: Daniel Siroky, Daniel Eddie, Jake Groth, and Thomas Choi, advisors Kris Nelson and James Leach

Parametric modeling does not end at creation and fabrication. By providing the quantitative limits of the creation into the model and creating a looping code, Grasshopper and Rhino can generate iterations of a model, very similar to the way that a designer might go through iterations of sketch models. By setting a criteria and allowing the program to run, different options can be explored and modeled automatically. For example, let’s take a theater seating array, a scenario that I worked on with my 5th year studio partner, Dan Siroky.

Grasshopper Code and Model for Seating Array / Credit: Brandon Wlosinski and Daniel Siroky, Instructor Tom Leslie

Within practice, we have all the rules for making a seating array within a theater: seat dimensions, space requirements, etc. If we were to create the code for it, we could take this information and plug it into a Grasshopper model and allow it to create iterations of the seating array, checking line-of-sight, boundaries, and occupancy requirements. Another example of its use would be for creating iterations of daylighting or acoustical studies using Ecotect, a plugin for Revit that emulates environmental data for testing. By utilizing plugins for Grasshopper, Ecotect has the ability to interface with the information and generate studies for the model. If the model fails to meet the requirements, it can be passed through another iteration, with some values changing in between iterations.

The tools for analysis similar to those utilized for creation. By using BIM, we can then create models to predict the performance of a building, and then utilizing building technologies, we can begin to track real-time results of the buildings after completion. This is where we really begin to change the way the architecture game is played. Before this age of technology, we never had the ease of access to acquire information regarding buildings and the ability to test their results against predictions. There is a huge debate in our field right now regarding the costs and benefits of green design. If architecture firms begin to move towards an efficient and accurate information structure that utilizes these newer technologies and reporting methods, discussions like this will work themselves out in a matter of years.

Let’s take this one step further. We now know that we can analyze buildings and gather real time data. We know that tools are being developed to allow for design criteria and quantitative data to set the parameters for generating iterations of models. If we were to take this information, which at BNIM would be kept within Revit models and a Deltek Vision database, and use it to create different parametric models within Grasshopper, there comes a possibility to create even more in depth tools to create and analyze buildings. By interlacing different design tools, we see a bigger picture unfold.

At the end of the day, this is not an endorsement for only data driven design. To believe that information alone can make a building ignores what makes architecture both an art and a science. The architect’s imagination and hand are what truly makes architecture come alive. At BNIM, while everyone has a computer, you will still see hand drawn sketches and notes as well as small charrette models around workstations. This conveys the understanding that technology is another tool and, as with every tool at an architect’s disposal, it has its place.


The line between the art and science of architecture is exactly what designers must toe to truly be responsive to the data we can now generate. It is not enough to simply look at graphs and efficiently optimize our buildings. The idea is to take the qualitative aspects of architecture and back up our methodologies with real quantitative data. The challenge is to create beautiful buildings that effectively utilize the information that we harness — and BIM models are just the beginning. By creatively using data management and encouraging new tools within firm culture, we very well could be looking at a new age of digital design.