The role of Data-supported design in Architecture and Urbanism A critical review
Research stage: Initial doctoral stage
Category: Extended abstract
The use of digital technologies and the application of data to inform design decisions has been in practice for many decades in the field of engineering. In Architecture and Urbanism, its use has only recently been incorporated in workflows 1 2 3. “Data-supported design” was introduced to the design research and practice as an aid to solving design challenges, enriching visceral ways of thinking and working with more strategic and tactical methods. With environmental changes and multiple urban crises, a data-supported approach to design is seen as an enabler for sustainable solutions. Summed to these challenges, is the rapid data technology advances and higher user demand for a smart way of living. In the new millennium, designers embrace projects with multi-faceted design agendas, incorporating environmental, economic and social dimensions. With this, Architects and Urbanists broadened their design skills and created new specializations and understandings of what is “data”. The term “data” can refer to, among others, data for design to meet user needs 4, such as real-time data collected by sensors, GPS, mobile phones, or social media posts; data for modelling and testing 4, such as digital 3D models produced by designers, municipal building regulation data 5 or even architectural data-sets such as building plans 6; data for analytics 4, cross-examining data-sets such as big data and governmental geospatial data 3; and data for the transparency of development processes 4, especially open data with spatial components that make it easily visualized and communicated. Even though there lacks a single definition of what is “data” in Architecture and Urbanism, there is consensus that it should serve as creative material for the design process, have a spatial component, be machine-readable 4 and help designers achieve a certain intent or disciplinary agenda.
To develop an investigation about what is data in Architecture and Urbanism, and what role data-supported design plays in achieving the disciplinary agendas follows a 3 step methodology. The first step aims to trace the research background through a literature review. Contextualizing when data became a creative resource for Architecture and Urbanism, through a retrospective of the development of digital technologies (and, subsequently, the use of data) in design research and practice. Based on this investigation, it is possible to derive the disciplinary agendas for the design practice in the latest stage of development, as well as the scale of projects in which data-supported design becomes uniquely relevant. The second step is an exploration to clarify the modus operandi of the design process, specifically in strategic urban-scale interventions, more precisely sustainable densification around transport nodes. This exploration aims to inform a theoretical framework, based on literature review and case studies, to define phases of the design process, steps within the phases and types of data used for supporting design. The third and final step is to select one phase (urban analysis) and a specific type of data (urban data) to investigate the role, potentials, and challenges in its application to support the design of transport nodes. This step requires a demonstration case through research-by-design, embracing the real case of Rotterdam Zuid station areas as an object of study. An area with clear socio-economic strains 7, Rotterdam Zuid hosts several public transportation stations envisioned to centre densification redevelopment to cope with urban growth until 2040. The main goal is to learn from this study what is the role of urban data in the project analysis phase, for strategic transport node development when dealing with an urban regeneration task.
The research background (step 1) builds up on the report “The Digital in Architecture: Then, Now and in the Future”8. From this starting point, this research draws certain periods in time in which key developments took place digital technologies and cybernetic thinking in Architecture 8. To include references from the Urbanism domain, further investigation followed the same chronological setting, enriching the initial overview by Claypool. The literature review allowed discerning when did digital tools enabled designers to start using data as resource for the creative act of design, according to the designer’s intentions. As a synthesis of the literature review, the timeline drafted in Diagram 1 (full page), contains seminal contributions to the field of Architecture and Urbanism, pointing the design focus of the investigations from each period. In conclusion to this investigation, this research proposes the demarcation of different periods on the development of digital technologies: the Age of Utopia, The Age of Experimentation and the Age of Awareness. These were crucial moments to set the basis for the understanding of data-supported design in Architecture and Urbanism, as the access to the tools and the data that aid the design process changed through time, as well as the mentality and intentions of the designers adopting it.
The theoretical framework exploration initiates with literature review about the design process phases and steps, from the point of view of architecture 9, integral design 10 and geodesign 3. As the criteria to select which data to use may vary according to the Architect’s task, the exploration is enriched through the case-study of sustainable densification around transport nodes. The resulting framework specifies the phases of design: understanding the context, defining a typology for a project, elaborating creative interpretations of design, composing different spatial configurations 10, or evaluating and sharing the final results. It also describes the data applicable in each phase. Geospatial data can help to inform designers about the project’s urban context 3. Local regulations, sun, wind, sound, and flood data, can help model typologies and even make building permitting easier 5. Design gestures can be replicated by automated scripting, evaluating the different performance of multiple scenarios 8 11 12. The project’s final models and plans can be shared through web platforms and games, to stimulate the engagement of a diverse public. With the broader application of data in the design process, there is now an opportunity to reflect what is its role in supporting design to fulfil Architecture and Urbanism disciplinary agendas.
The investigation about the role, potentials and challenges of data-supported design adopts a research-by design method. It considers a type of intervention that deals with plural disciplinary teams, multiple stakeholders and run through a long period of time, in changing political and economic conditions 13. The example of densification of transport nodes 14 15 16 is of especial relevance in light of the current urban transformations ongoing in the Netherlands. The governmental efforts for densification around transportation nodes 17 respond to the demand for extra 50,000 homes in liveable environment by 2040 7. This poses a challenge to the urban development in Rotterdam, even more so in Rotterdam Zuid. That is an area with a considerable socio-economic strain that can profit or suffer from the transformations to come. Data-supported design has demonstrated to be a useful tool in what refers to informing the designer about the performance of energy, water, green, waste, and user capacity. Nonetheless, a design that disregards the social and cultural aspects of its context can never be deemed truly integral or sustainable, no matter how “net positive” or “carbon-free” its quantifiable evaluations prove it to be. This research sets the basis for further research to assess whether our methods of using data-supported design in Architecture and Urbanism are promoting undesirable consequences such as segregation.
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