University of California San Diego, Health Sciences and Medical Center — San Diego, California
A building with many windows.

How can we translate climate data into actionable insights?

Research Project Name

Mapping Environmental Factors

What We Did

We created a toolkit that directs designers through a series of short exercises to make climate data understandable and actionable, both for the team and for the client. To do this, we researched many existing sources of climate data and tools for climate data analysis, and combined the best of these with a set of templates for capturing and presenting the data in a visually accessible way. This dramatically reduces the time required to finish a climate analysis for projects, enabling all projects to complete this critical step efficiently. It also establishes best practices for gathering, interpreting, and presenting climate data, and ensures that the interpretations of the raw data are scientifically valid. The process serves as a new model for engaging designers with complex scientific data, offering them the results they want quickly, while connecting them to the sources they need for in-depth understanding.

The Context

Sustainability is a concern that is addressed on every project Gensler undertakes, so it is important to streamline the complex process of understanding the effects of climate on a site. There is no shortage of climate data available; in fact, the amount of data is overwhelming. It takes many hours just to know where to start—and after significant effort, the designer has information on such things as BTUs per square foot of global horizontal radiation, but is no closer to understanding the possibilities for climate to positively contribute to the design. At Gensler, we needed a new approach to get projects from scientific data to actionable design guidelines.

The Results

The tool we created represents a new approach to engaging visually oriented designers with building physics issues by creating a system that is accessible, understandable, and actionable. Rather than providing the complex and abstract physics concepts first and then requiring designers to determine how the concepts relate to the site, this tool takes designers directly to the results they require, providing links back to more detailed information that can be explored as they go. By breaking through the barrier of complexity, the tool allows designers to understand in just four hours which passive design strategies are appropriate for their site, and to create a climate “snapshot” poster to share these findings with clients, consultants, and team members. Then, as time permits and understanding necessitates, the tool provides the entry point for designers’ deeper understanding of the issues.

What This Means

We can identify the potential for passive design solutions early. Providing a clear method to navigate complex issues helps the design team and the client make important decisions from a position of understanding. Understanding the issues of climate in the preconcept stage of a project is a key aspect of implementing successful sustainability strategies.

A consistent, vetted process provides for greater data validity. Our research paid close attention to the valid representation of climate data. Graphics are designed to tell an informed, consistent story that is easily understood and actionable.

Too much data, not too little, is often the problem. Harnessing untamed volumes of data and making sense of them in the context of a project is powerful. Knowing what data is appropriate, and when, is essential.

Discussions are shifting from first costs to life-cycle costs. Passive strategies are an opportunity to invest in energy savings across the full life cycle of a building, but they are effective only if integrated early and intelligently into the design process. These strategies can also improve occupant comfort—for example, using thermal mass to regulate temperature is more comfortable than employing forced-air systems.

What’s Next?

We continue to roll out the tool to teams across the firm to leverage its full potential. We find it particularly helpful when designers have projects in locations or places where they lack significant on-the- ground knowledge. We also see opportunities to apply the thought process expressed through this research to other situations in which designers must reduce large amounts of disparate and complex data into succinct strategies and decisions. As our profession becomes increasingly complex, these sorts of strategies will become more and more vital to continually deliver high-performance design solutions.

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Li Wen, Reg Prentice, John Adams, Shawn Gehle, Ken Hall, Eddie Huang, Rob Jernigan, Hae-Sun Kim, Ben McAlister, Olivier Sommerhalder, Rives Taylor

Year Completed