Working with data, still new to many firms, is a must-have skillset and mindset. While recognising the value of building information modelling (BIM), most still use BIM tools today for document creation when design and construction professionals need to recognise BIM’s real value – as a database – and start treating it like one.

For this to come about and to have a transformative impact on projects, firms and the profession and industry will require both top down and bottom up effort.

Liabilities and challenges of working with data

Having the right people on board is critical, especially those who are predisposed or motivated to work with data and see the value in doing so. Brian Ringley, design technology platform specialist at Woods Bagot, suggests that “investment in multi-disciplinary project teams and new graduates with emergent technological specialisations will be key in managing this change”.

Interest in, and appreciation for what data can accomplish needs to be both a top down and bottom up effort. Leadership on the data front must start at both ends, and requires equal dosages of enthusiasm and understanding of how data can add value in the organisation and on project work.

Learning to capture, analyse and apply data is how many of us will take BIM – beyond visualisation, clash detection and coordination – to the next level.

The BIM database can be queried and mined for project data. This has implications not only for the project team who query the model for data that is going to help make decisions – but also for management and leadership, and for business development and marketing of a firm’s services based on past experience that is captured – and now mined – in the BIM.

In one specific example of data mining in BIM, consulting firm CASE has helped firms identify what content should make it into a content library. “Go and explore 50 projects that were done in BIM, then extract all the data, then do a data mining effort to understand what doors are used the most across the firm,” suggests David Fano.

Even more than the acquisition of new skillsets and technological capabilities, to reclaim their roles as leaders, architects in particular need to simultaneously account for data and information derived from their digital models, and also be able to gather, navigate and communicate this information while working collaboratively throughout the complete design and construction cycle.

Leadership in data

Many design and construction leaders don’t know their firm’s data capabilities – the talent, the technology, processes and workflows. What will it take to enable this awareness? Will firm leaders tell their data stories the way they have been telling their collaboration and technology stories? And, most importantly, who will lead the data effort within an organisation? Who, in other words, will be the glue?

There are so many individuals performing hands-on work with data in the AEC and planning space. Is there a need for hands-off management or leadership to help connect the dots?

“I believe strongly in project-based thinking. That’s where ideas and methods are best derived, tested, refined and executed. Abstract exercises often lack authenticity, at least with respect to real-world decision making,” says Gregory Janks of DumontJanks. “I am also leery of ‘management’, especially when it leads to conformity, formulas and orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy can only be right for a brief moment in time, and then must have the capacity to renew itself. This is a very difficult process to manage (centrally).”

How does one describe the role of the leader of a firm’s data-centric efforts?

“A great leader of data-centric efforts is a person who is constantly seeking out new problems, expanding their toolkit, sharing their knowledge and advancing ideas that change the world – this last meant quite literally – that result in actual and effective change in the world,” says Janks. “Let the Darwinian forces of success then allow these techniques to aggregate into a formal body of practice.”

The leader of a data-centric firm strives to understand what kinds of things can be measured, and which cannot, and how both can contribute to decision-making.

The leader of a data-centric firm works hard to allow data to speak qualitatively when it can’t speak quantitatively, and above all, to make data accessible through visualisation techniques and to express itself through storytelling – by telling their firm’s data stories much the way they have told their technology, innovation or collaboration stories in the past.

“This last is fundamental,” explains Janks. “We’ve all been through those endless presentations of number after number that amounts to not very much. If the data is meaningless, keep it to yourself. Find the meaning. Tell its story.”

How important is it that the leader of a firm’s data efforts be hands-on when it comes to technology?

“The first reorganisation of the traditional design team is to merge the BIM leader and the project architect,” says Jill Bergman of dsk architects. “The project leader must be – or must partner on the same leadership level with – the tools expert. I see many young talented design professionals, so well versed in the tools of their craft and either hiding it or making a very clear expectation that they see being a BIM leader as a career-ending path. We need to stop separating the two and merge tool knowledge with building knowledge and give value and reward with leadership.”

Bergman continues: “There can be a lot of distraction by adding team members without that leadership in place. An expectation of having a coder or hacker to aggregate building data, without having the full team understand how every step of work they are doing will aid or impede that data path, is plan for frustration.”

Data and human behaviour

The question of how the AEC industry will adjust to increasingly working with data raises a lot of questions. Can data be crunched into a form that can be analysed by non-experts? Or will architects and other design professionals need to adapt to working with, even alongside, analytics experts? And if so, how will architects adapt to working with quants? Is there a precedent for this situation that architects can learn from and model? And if so, what is it?

“To some degree, architects will be the data hackers,” anticipates Sam Miller, partner at LMN. “We’ve always been in this position of diving into the detail of what it takes to create a space or a building performs in however way we define the performance. In that sense, we’re kind of hacking into the code of the building and the code of the program and coming up with a solution. And this will continue. We won’t just be sitting among, but to some degree, becoming those coders and finding those solutions. Manipulating the tools to create great spaces.”

Leaders will need to determine how data can be used to achieve the greatest benefits and outcomes for those involved: Will reliable, rich data help the firm’s architects do their jobs more effectively and productively? Will it help them win jobs and remain competitive? Will they use data to convince clients to go down a design path, or to increase value for owners and reduce waste for the environment? Or all of the above?

Leaders are needed to determine what the implications will be for using the manufacturer's data-rich BIM objects that have embedded data and can be dropped right into a building project. When is it appropriate to do this – and when is it best to modify the content?

Obstacles to data use

What are some of the challenges for utilising data – and barriers to its use? There are several obstacles – securing commitment within teams and the organisation, reinventing internal and external processes, and modifying organisational behaviour – to name just a few. Who will do this?

What are some of the human factors that need to be addressed before the use of data design and construction becomes habitual? What skills need to be developed? What training needs to occur? And what are the most effective ways to go about training, learning and unlearning past behaviours and paradigms?

What are the mindsets and behavioural changes that design, construction and owners’ organisations must make to become data driven? What role does intuition – even art and craft – play when data comes to drive the most important of our decisions on building projects?

Sharing of data

Despite advances in technology and the opportunities to share, many firms are still cautious about sharing data and information. “I think it is going to change,” says Jonatan Schumacher, director of CORE studio at Thornton Tomasetti. “We alone don’t have that much of an impact. But, by having open conversations on the web and at symposiums, and by learning more from the open-source mentality of computer scientists, we’ll be able to work it out eventually.”

Schumacher continues: “If people aren’t sharing, we wouldn’t be learning. Imagine what would happen if all of us in our industry just started sharing their knowledge, as it’s done in the computer science communities? I think we would advance much faster from a technological perspective. This is also the reason why we are organising events such as the AEC Technology Symposium and Hackathon. We really want people to openly share ideas, and even better, to team up outside of their corporate environments and start developing software and solutions together!”

To come up with their structural designs, Thornton Tomasetti makes use of databases. Do these belong to the owner? Are there public or private sources that they turn to for data on a regular basis, or does it depend on the project? Do they collect and warehouse their own data for use in projects or to improve performance?

“As part of our intranet solution, we have a private webpage for every project that features high-level project information – who is the key contact, services offered, construction date, etc.,” explains Schumacher. “We can use this intranet to ask: What do we do in healthcare? What do we do on high-rise projects? What do we do in Dubai? Every project page also has inputs for structural system, average building weight per square foot, and for embodied carbon. I have been considering adding the TTX model for every project in there, too. So that in the future, we can always look back and extract BIM and analytical data. It’s just a database, so we’ll be able to open and read it. It won’t get outdated, like a Revit model or a Grasshopper definition would. And it doesn’t use up much storage capacity. We can open it in ten years and run very detailed queries down to a single BIM element or structural analysis node.”

“As far as giving away tools and ideas, there aren’t too many concerns from our leadership,” says Schumacher. “Everybody is interested in creating better buildings, and having more fun in the process, which is why we are encouraged to share.”

Does it take a certain amount of courage to work in design alongside hard data?

“Data is different – it’s new and it’s scary,” explains Evelyn Lee, design strategist at MKThink. “It’s different from what designers view. With the current architecture curriculums, I don’t think any of the students graduating right now have an issue with working with data. A lot of these programs have a crossover with GIS and energy modelling, which requires data. If you asked any of these graduates, they would tell you they would love to find a firm where they could put all of this into action. You ask a majority of firm leaders, though, in the architecture profession – and we all know that the architecture profession suffers from a generation gap – and they don’t know what to make of it – data – and specifically how to apply it in a meaningful way. Individuals who have been around 10-20 years tend to be averse to it. In many instances, they are scared of finding out that the post-occupancy evaluation results tell them that their design was horribly designed. At the same time I would argue maybe that’s the result of the program you were given to design from, because many architects are not given the correct program.”

How important is it that others in the firm understand that – in addition to their work on buildings and urban spaces – they’re also working on databases?

“Project leaders and senior architects are juggling vast amounts of data in their heads and the teams are making it explicit through drawings, specifications, project briefs and renderings,” says SOM senior digital design manager Robert Yori.

“Over the last decade, as teams have started utilising Revit, it’s been an easier conversation to have. After teams begin to get familiar and comfortable with the tool, I say ‘you know that’s a database you’re working in, right?’ and many of them respond ‘yeah, I know’. It’s really a graphic introduction into what a database is and what it might be useful for.”

Attracting and retaining employees to work with data

Another challenge in teaching data in school is that data isn’t nearly as compelling as the generation of interesting form. We see this as an impediment to data use in the AEC industry, and this habit and misperception begins in academia. It is a relevant concern for students and educators who are both often fixated on form. But there are signs that the current generation is moving away from the strictures of a formalistic approach to building design – they’re more concerned about performance and impacts on the planet – leaving the door wide open for implementing data in their designs. If there is one downside of learning data in school, it’s that graduates become attractive to other industries, sectors, markets and fields.

“The most promising outcome is that they become the future leaders of the firm,” warns Ringley. “My fear is that these recent graduates are going to work for places like Google. The closest they might come to architecture is working for Autodesk. Right now, there’s not really a lot of incentive to go into architecture. You have to go to school for a long time. School is really hard. It’s really expensive. You can barely get a job. The job’s not fun. The job doesn’t pay well. You have no free time. What part of this is worthwhile?”

The firms that succeed in this new data-driven world will be led by individuals who rise to the challenge of making working with data as compelling and interesting as working with form.


Randy Deutsch is an associate professor at the University of Illinois, a BIM authority and architect.Revealing the dramatic impact of technology on current and future practice, Randy Deutsch, an international - highly sought after expert in the field, who provides guidance on the impacts of emerging technology trends such as generative design, automation, AI, and machine learning on practice. Randy has just released his fourth book - Superusers the first-ever guide to help current and future design professionals to succeed in the accelerating new world of work and technology. Randy is an author of many books re-shaping the industry. This July Randy will be speaking at the Transcend Tour held by the Design Futures Council in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.