Transforming Sustainability Through Open Data in Design

Last year, we launched Quartz Project, a collaborative open-data initiative to provide access to the information that we need to build sustainable, healthy buildings. In academia, open-data initiatives have encouraged sharing of clinical research to build on previous findings or conduct the same research across broader patient groups. In international development, where data is often difficult to gather but essential to making informed investments in areas from climate change to food insecurity, open-data initiatives have promoted a broader agreement on the biggest challenges and most promising solutions.

Government has also embraced open data. The U.S. Open Data Initiative was launched more than seven years ago to promote transparency in the federal government. Visit SF OpenData and The Opportunity Project for some examples. If data was once considered something to be locked away and guarded, today there is a pretty universal recognition that information is most valuable when it is shared.

Quartz started by collecting data on more than 100 of the most common building products and making it available online in a way that is easy to access and understand. Quartz data is free for anyone to reference or download for their use. Today, the data has proven to be most useful as a point of reference or benchmark for architects, consultants and research groups. Some of the most compelling use cases we see for this data are incorporated into the building design process and workflows. The ability to augment current design workflows with sustainability data to give designers real-time feedback is the dream. And it can transform the conversation around material health and sustainability and thus the materials that are available in our ecosystem.

This is exactly what a few AEC professionals conjured up at a recent construction-focused hack-a-thon called Hack Construct this past February. The team delivered a concept flow chart showing how they would read a BIM model and tag elements with materials from Quartz, along with example charts and dashboards made in Tableau demonstrating how they would like to visualize this data during the design process. Their idea is ambitious and would require more work tackling Revit’s data structure and proper element-tagging methods to become functional. However, better access to data brings us much closer to realizing this data-driven process.

When you don’t have good data, you really don’t know what you’re missing. But when you look at the product labels that come with most building products today, it is clear that a lot of useful information about health and environmental impacts is off limits. There are hundreds of thousands of building materials on the market but little transparency or consistency in product labeling. Manufacturers use different thresholds to report product ingredients, and they all have different definitions of human health impact. Some labels address human health while others focus on environmental impacts. Some products disclose almost nothing on their labels, while others have lengthy “ingredient” lists that are difficult to understand. As a result, most of us just do not know whether we are designing places that are nurturing us or harming us.

Access to this valuable information is the first step in creating more sustainable, healthier structures. The next step is to encourage innovative use of data to guide decision-making. Indeed, the promise of Quartz is rooted in the fact that data is not the only component necessary for solving material selection and optimization problems, but rather the foundation that enables and propels innovation and intelligent design. Our open-data initiative is meant to inspire a more transparent, digitized and holistic model for the AEC industry to adopt and expand upon.

Over time, data sharing can help advance the sustainable building movement, so that “green” is a defensible label that is backed by solid information. Communities would be able to use this information to inform entire developments. Eventually, manufacturers would be motivated to make the less-toxic, lower-impact materials with improvement metrics driven by the demand of consumers. This is the power of open data. And, like green building, open data is an idea whose time has come. By shedding light on the contents and impacts of our building materials, we are excited to provide some practical tools to the AEC industry and encourage a richer conversation about sustainable building.

Vivian Dien is a co-founder of The Quartz Project, an open database of composition, health hazard and environmental impact data for building products.