Connecting People and Place: Data Tools for Architects

Good architecture requires that architectseek a deep understanding of the site. A careful climate analysis allows designers to do just that. The findings from a climate analysis provide the information needed to leverage the sun, wind, land, and vegetation that surround a project to create better buildings. But what about the people? What are the health and equity considerations? What values and risks surround a project’s site? How can viewing a site as part of a community inform designs to create better communities?  

Literature surrounding social science, public policy, public health, architecture, and urban design contend that building and community design decisions can have long lasting impacts. So how can an architect be better and do better?  

Architects can be more and do more by leveraging and learning from data such as that provided by governmental agencies like the US Census, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and the Environmental Protection Agency in the form of an environmental justice (EJ) tool.  Tools such as Building EJ ToolEJScreenClimate and Economic Justice Screening Tool and Spark Map are online websites that allow architects and urban planners to gather social, economic, and environmental data on surrounding communities to inform design. Understanding local conditions can have positive impacts on the health, safety, and welfare of local communities. 

Building EJ Tool 

Developed by Autocase, the Building EJ Tool is a free online tool that provides local community data, data sources and resources on local communities. This tool is great for residential and multi-family projects. Users can create a “Project” with basic cost, size, location and use. Information is displayed in graphic tiles via a Data Dashboard which gives a broad overview of the socioeconomic, environmental, climate change, amenity, and demographic indicators. Project information can remain private or be shared publicly across the Building EJ Tool community. In addition to informing good sustainable design, the Building EJ Tool summary can also be used towards LEED Social Equity Pilot Credits 

EJ Screen 

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently developed the EJ Screen, a free web-based tool, that combines environmental and demographic indicators allowing users to compare environmental justice indicators for their design location to state, regional, and national averages.  This EJ tool is great for firms and project teams that want to understand the local climate, climate risks, and surrounding community. Users simply enter their project address to display graphic mapping information by percentiles for environmental justice indexes, supplemental indexes, pollution, socioeconomic indicators, health disparities, climate change data, critical service gaps and additional demographic data. Users can also download the full EJ Screen Data as a CSV file that can be used in conjunction with other software such as GIS or statistical software for more advanced analysis. While the EJ Screen tool does not capture all the environmental, social, and economic risks for things such as water quality or indoor air quality, it is an easy-to-use screening tool that helps users understand some of the risks and limitations of a community. If architects want to know more to do more, EJ Screen is a good place to start. 

Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool 

This EJ tool was developed as part of an executive order under the Biden administration as part of the Justice-40 Initiative which seeks to deliver 40% of overall benefits of investments towards climate, clean energy, and related areas to disadvantage communities. This EJ tool is great for project teams and firms working on commercial projects, specifically civic, cultural, institutional, and office projects. The tool is a web-based graphic map display requiring no sign-up and is free. While this tool is not as comprehensive as EJ Screen or Spark Map, it’s a super-fast easy way to access climate, environmental, health, housing, water and wastewater, as well as workforce development.  

Spark Map 

Of all the EJ tools discussed Spark Map is the most comprehensive. It has a wide range of indicators from environmental, income and economics, housing and families, to healthcare outcomes This EJ tool is a comprehensive catch all that is great at the designer, design team, firm level for all project typologies. User registration is required. While there is a free version which gives users access to 80+ indicators, the premium level is worth considering if projects are public facing. The report has in-depth summaries below each graphic map that benchmarks design community percentages with local, state, and national data (when available). A full Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) can be exported as a PDF or displayed as high-level graphical tiles.  

The bottom line is this. Each of these EJ tools is useful. They all, to some extent, cover the three pillars of sustainability with indicators across economic, social, and environmental issues. They’re all free or offer some free version. While there are plenty of tutorials to offer guidance, no training is needed. They’re all web-based which means there is no software download or installation required. They’re all somewhat intuitive and simple enough to get graphics, maps and/or reports for project community within minutes. Small residential projects might choose the Building EJ tool which gives broad indicators that can help inform design. Small and large commercial projects will find Spark Map and the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool super helpful. The challenge for architects is taking the time to swim in the data and really make efforts to understand the community and its history while designing for its future. Architects thrive within constraints but using EJ tools can help identify issues and reveal opportunities. These EJ tools are useful, practical, and give architects a greater understanding on which to base design.  

Sandra Montalbo, Assoc, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, LFA, is Design Performance Manager at Overland Partners Architecture. Sandra has a BA in Communication and Public Relations (The University of Texas at San Antonio, 2006 [UTSA]), an MA in Global Leadership and Sustainable Development (Hawaii Pacific University, 2010) and a MArch (The University of Texas at San Antonio, 2015). She was the lead researcher and primary author of “The Habits of High-Performance FirmsSandra was awarded the AIA San Antonio’s Rising Star Award and served on the NCARB Experience and Advisory Committee in 2018.  She helped develop The City of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) and served on the USGBC South Texas Regional Council.  In 2019, she was awarded the Texas Society of Architect’s Associate Member of the Year Award, and UTSA’s CACP – Distinguished Alumni Award, and was a recipient of the AIA National’s 2019 Jason Pettigrew Scholarship.  In 2020, she led a research team for “Intersections: Climate Change, Racial Justice & the Pandemic” for AIA National. In 2022, she was recognized by the Design Future’s Council as an Emerging Leader at the 2022 Annual Leadership Summit “The Future of Environmental Responsibility.” Sandra is currently a Design Performance Manager at Overland Partners Architecture and a PhD Student in the Land Use Planning Management and Design (LPMD) at Texas Tech University. 

Read the original article on AIA KnowledgeNet.

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