From Insight to Action

Three Ways Design Computation Empowers Better Decision-Making

February 17, 2022

Principal, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Megha Sinha, Nate Holland and Melissa Alexander


Computational tools—which harness the power of computation to streamline decision making—were once considered “nice to have.” Now they are integral to the design process. So why should clients care?

The reason is simple. Computation gives planners and designers the ability to quickly translate thousands or even millions of data sets into actionable insights. Not only does this lead to better engagement with clients and the community, it also creates more successful projects.

While important to all aspects of design, it is especially relevant to planning neighborhoods, districts and cities. Here, we explore three main opportunities—and corresponding real-world examples—for the use of computational tools in urban planning projects.

Simplify the Design Process to Create More Tailored Outcomes

Opportunity: Computational tools can simplify the planning and design process by allowing project teams to organize and analyze mountains of data sets into leverageable insights.

Example: At Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, planners were tasked with developing a comprehensive long-term master plan grounded in data. Using computational tools, the project team was able to translate over a terabyte of data related to land use, ground water information, topography, trees, and use and conditions data about each building and room on campus into models. These models quickly showed how planning decisions would affect physical space and identify use patterns and opportunities. Further, the insights helped the university decide which facilities could be renovated or replaced, pinpoint the best areas for new investments, identify the most strategic targets for limited capital funding, and budget for the most impactful interventions on their historic land-grant campus.

For the LSU Campus Master Plan, linking robust data sets related to all campus systems, landscape, building size, function, age and architecture through a custom-built interactive 3D GIS-based model quickly and accurately showed how planning decisions affect physical space.


Deepen Community Engagement, Co-Design and Input

Opportunity: Computational tools can make the planning process—and outputs—empathetic by giving communities more transparency into the design process, and more opportunities to provide feedback and build consensus with other stakeholders.

Example: On the LSU project, a 24-7 data exchange portal allowed planners to get input from students and staff on how they travel throughout the campus, including their typical paths and modes of travel, and note how they feel while moving across campus. On another project, the Wilburton Commercial Area plan, an upzoning planning study in Bellevue, WA, citizens advisory committee members were able to mark up a 2D map of the area with crayons which became automatic inputs for 3D tools, generating different city forms based on the land use ideas. This rapid visualization enabled quick iteration to build consensus around numerous differing inputs and collectively determine next steps.

Computational tools allowed citizens advisory committee members to mark up a 2D map of the proposed Wilburton Commercial Area plan as an interactive input for a custom data rich 3D modeling platform.


Empower Clients to Make More Informed Decisions

Opportunity: Computational tools make the design process more collaborative by providing clients with the tools to make objective and informed decisions.

Example: The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Knoxville, TN—the largest US Department of Energy science and energy laboratory—needed to develop an interactive 3D GIS-based decision-making tool to guide its multi-year planning and budgeting process for facilities and supporting infrastructure on the 300-acre Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor (EGCR) campus. In response, the planning team created a tool with an easy-to-use interface that allows a user to easily manipulate physical campus planning scenarios and test and compare development options for feasibility and cost implications. The tool is now being used by the client team to test out potential sites on their campus to locate development projects as the need arises.

In many cases, planning tools like this one created for Oak Ridge National Laboratory are becoming final deliverables for clients, allowing users to easily test and compare development options within their own organizations.


One important thread that weaves through the examples above is the growing interdependence between designers and planners, and the tools they use. The artful interweaving of data and information with empathy and intuition can improve our urban environments and create lasting results for clients and the community.

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How Can We Harness AI to Design a More Healthy, Sustainable and Equitable Future?

January 31, 2022

Managing Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Phillip Bernstein, Mark Greaves, Steve McConnell and Clifford Pearson

Editor’s Note: This whitepaper was originally published in the December 2021 issue of Architectural Record.


Architecture needs to do more than ever. It is no longer sufficient for buildings and places to meet Vitruvius’ rubric, firmitas, utilitas et venustas—strength, utility and beauty. Now architects must also respond to a broad range of environmental, social and community concerns.

Designing even a single-family home today requires attention to climate change, pollution, the carbon footprint of every material used in construction, fair labor practices throughout the building supply chain, affordability, racial equity, and the development of healthy communities—in addition to all the usual demands of the client and regulatory agencies.

An explosion of information and data on all these issues now influences every step in the design process, and simultaneously threatens to overwhelm the people running that process. How can architects meet the demands of this new class of design goals without losing sight of their less quantifiable aspiration to create inspiring and captivating buildings?

Recently, I joined forces with Philip Bernstein, strategic advisor to NBBJ, and Associate Dean and Professor Adjunct at Yale; prominent architectural journalist Clifford Pearson; and renowned AI scientist Mark Greaves to outline the increasing potential of AI integration in the design process. Not only can the use of AI help make sense of these growing complexities, but it can also have a positive impact on the built environment—supporting health, education and communities. In addition, we recommend the federal government take three important steps to advance the practice of design to more reliably create places and buildings that respond to national priorities for healthy, sustainable, and equitable places.

You can click here to read our full thoughts in the whitepaper titled “Harnessing AI to Design Healthy, Sustainable, and Equitable Places,” and you can also enjoy a companion piece about this subject in this recent article in Architectural Record.

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Our Coastal Cities Are Under Threat

Four Ways Designing with Natural Ecology—Rather Than Against It—Can Mitigate Climate Change to Create Beautiful, Just Cities

January 26, 2022

Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Phu Duong, Margot Jacobs and Tom Sieniewicz


Coastal cities are central to discussions about our urban past, present and future. In the US alone, coastal areas account for 40% of America’s population—with population density far greater than the national average. And globally, over one billion people live in low-lying coastal regions. These cities and towns are intimately connected to our seas, oceans and other watersheds—economically, culturally and socially.

They are also under unique threat as they face acute and ongoing ecosystem destruction, stark environmental pressure and the impacts of climate change. In the near-term, this presents challenges related to either too much water (with 100-year floods and storm surges now becoming an annual occurrence) or too little water (with increasingly concerning drought conditions). And on the horizon, significant sea level rise and associated flood risks will deeply affect these communities and environments.

The way we think about, plan and design for, and live in coastal cities is changing rapidly. This imperative to rethink the way we design buildings and urban spaces in coastal areas is already driving toward a new kind of building and infrastructure. Here, we examine key considerations for designing for coastal cities.

Think and Design Across Scales and Perspectives

From individual buildings and streetscapes to corridors and districts to entire masterplans, designing for coastal cities requires thinking across scales and perspectives. It also requires acknowledging the relationship between buildings and their surroundings as a living system in which the built environment, infrastructure and bodies of water work together to maximize impact and combat climate change.

At the building and campus level, this shift means radically rethinking what resilient and community-oriented infrastructure can look like in response to future coastal flooding and extreme weather events. A healthcare system on the East Coast, for example, is currently imagining its more coastal and climate-adaptive future, with a new campus design that can self-sustain for up to 96 hours, and act as a hub and resource for the community in the event of hurricane force winds and storm surges. In New Orleans, the Southeast Louisiana Veteran Healthcare System’s Replacement Medical Center—which replaces the VA Medical Center lost to Hurricane Katrina—is designed to remain fully operational without outside support for a minimum of five days during a disaster, with enough provisions and accommodations for 1,000 staff and patients.

As a streetscape, advanced stormwater management strategies can reduce the negative environmental impact of buildings and hardscape in the hydrologic cycle, mitigating polluted runoff and promoting groundwater recharge. This includes permeable paving that reduces runoff and retention pond areas that capture water slowly and release it back into the ground. Once runoff is captured, remaining hardscape can drain via vegetated swales, runnels and landscaped terraces that move water across structures and sites while creating unique moments of interest and connections to nature for people.

Lastly, at the district and neighborhood scale, embedding ‘Sponge City’ design principles like those explained above—as well as clustering development; protecting, conserving and even restoring environmental features; and incorporating water related ecosystem—emphasizes porosity and connectivity.

Further, by studying the way that humans interact with the coastal edge and considering how layers of people, landscape and mobility flow together—from walkability and bikeability corridors to public transportation and vehicles—we can design cities focused on people and the environment rather than cars. This integrative approach can be seen in the design for Tencent’s Net City in Shenzhen, which collects water on campus, manages runoff and flooding, and plants mangrove trees at the shoreline’s edge. Most importantly, Net City prioritizes the needs of its inhabitants and the natural landscape at every step, from sensors that track environmental performance and flooding to the comprehensive transportation network that emphasizes public transit, micromobility vehicles and pedestrian access.

Tencent’s Net City in Shenzhen meets the goals of China’s ‘Sponge City’ initiative by collecting water on campus, managing runoff and flooding, and planting mangrove trees at the shoreline’s edge.

Rethink Infrastructure

Designing in anticipation of rising sea levels and storm events is inspiring elegant and unexpected new forms, typologies, materials and geometries with high performance outcomes. Closer collaboration between designers, engineers and consultants can also result in new solutions, such as elevating walkways, incorporating bridges or building direct passages and public spaces with greater visual access and sweeping views. On the Net City project, the design team worked closely with engineering consultant BuroHappold to design the new district to capture and harness sea breezes. The breezes baffle off the buildings, returning to and cooling the ground plane. This strategy, combined with additional tree canopy, results in a decrease of ambient air temperature by 10 degrees Fahrenheit during hot and humid months.

In addition, major new pieces of coastal protection infrastructure like parkland, wetland, levies and flood walls enable the introduction of new elements that are beautiful, functional and provide amenities such as recreational public space with walking and biking paths. This way of designing and planning for coastal cities offers new opportunities to expand the public realm and open greenspace while creating an attractive and accessible waterfront.

Finally, leveraging new data and technologies allows us to plan for and design around detailed information more accurately. For example, by tracking weather patterns decades into the future, or analyzing the parameters of materials (porosity, corrosiveness) and of context (wind and water capacity, temperature and humidity), parametric design tools are exponentially increasing the pace at which we can design innovative solutions for coastal cities.

Parametric design tools such as this Grasshopper plugin allow designers to address rising water levels due to climate change.

The complexity of designing and planning for coastal cities requires designing with—rather than against—our natural ecology and landscape. Understanding where water comes from and where it flows provides invaluable insights and directly informs design outcomes. Planning for the future of coastal cities presents us with an opportunity for unprecedented design innovation, balancing functionality and ordinary utilitarian goals with designs that make our cities more beautiful, habitable and just.

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