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What Can Architects Learn from their Data-Savvy GIS Cousins?

While GISers thrive on data, architects seem to exist in a vacuum of data, something which I feel has to change and will change - soon.

Last week Eric Gakstatter wrote an interesting piece contrasting GeoDesign with “GeoConstruction”. In it he laments the dearth of data that typically is available to architects as they work on projects – in his words: “I’ve worked with many architects and I’m astounded at how poor the information is that they have to work with”. While GISers thrive on data, architects seem to exist in a vacuum of data, something which I feel has to change and will change – soon.

I have witnessed this culture of of data desolation in my own personal experiences – both firsthand in working with an architect, and in attending a few local meetings of architects as part of a research effort for our own 3D and BIM product strategies. These experiences stand in stark contrast to a typical interaction with a person of a GIS background. The GISer is quite often a bit of a data cowboy. He’s used to doing MacGyver-like maneuvers on a regular basis to gather together data from a wide variety of sources in order to accomplish whatever the project requires. Very few, if any, GIS projects start with a blank sheet of paper or an empty canvas for the GIS technician (or GeoDesigner) to work with.

In contrast, the architecture world seems to have been able to work in a near vacuum of contextual information. Part of this has been related to the typical toolset, and part of it related to the availability (or lack) of contextual data. But regardless, the cultural expectation of the architectural field is radically different than that of the GIS field. Having data in hand prior to beginning a project is the exception to the rule. Ask a friend of mine about the consequences – he recently discovered his newly poured house foundation was 10 feet lower than it should have been for the surrounding terrain and adjacent homes! (At least he isn’t blocking any of his neighbours’ view!)

I predict that this flying blind is going to change (and going to have to change) in the next short while. For one, the data landscape is dramatically different today than it was even 5 years ago. Governments of all kinds are moving to make their data available freely to citizens. Remote sensing imagery is becoming ever more current and inexpensive. Highly detailed point cloud scans are moving from luxury to Walmart price tags. So there is no excuse on the data availability front.

Software will also have to catch up, but it is almost, if not completely, there already. The major design packages are getting facilities to incorporate different data types, and we’ll certainly be doing our part to facilitate the types of data integration that would benefit these workflows.

Which leaves just the cultural and workflow issues of employing context as part of design. I would expect that the intense pressures of market competitiveness and efficiencies will go a long way towards dealing with this as well.

One way or another, I predict it won’t be long until architects are going to find themselves working in an ever more fertile data landscape. The economic and environmental benefits are too great to ignore. GISers, embrace your architect cousins, show them your inner data-MacGyver; teach them not to be afraid of spatial data file formats, and in doing so help them make the world a better place.

Just think of the countless hours MacGyver could have saved if FME had been around in 1985.

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