So, what happens when architects, and not just planners, embrace the potential of GIS and geodesign? Things get data-rich and complicated very fast. “It used to be that we were operating in the walled garden of architecture, but now we are moving from a place where it was hard to find information to where we are flooded with place-based data,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, an architect, urbanist, and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, comparing the old analog maps and tables with Google Earth. “That change will have a sweeping effect on the design profession.” For both Williams and de Monchaux, the challenge is getting architects to think about data as part of a creative decision-making process and to translate geospatial analysis into built form.

De Monchaux’s most recent project, Local Code: Real Estates, is a deliberate attempt to advance how data is used. He and his students used GIS to trawl through land-use records to identify city-owned abandoned lots in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., with the thought that the sum total of these empty spaces could be optimized for better use.

Using 1,600 vacant sites in San Francisco as a case study (the aggregate parcel is the size of Golden Gate Park), the team layered climate data, health and crime studies, watersheds, public infrastructure such as sewers and transportation, and census reports over the map. With all information layers visible, they generated a landscape proposal—a system of small-scale greenway interventions—tailored to each of the sites. At every location, what was underused and wasted space was transformed into a park, a slice of urban agriculture that acts as a heat sink (optimizing thermal performance) and as part of the watershed by discharging water back into the soil. By treating the locations as both individual sites and as a system or ecology, de Monchaux was able to quantify the positive effects these greenways would have on San Francisco’s energy usage and stormwater remediation, eliminating, he claims, the need for some expensive infrastructural upgrades.

Geodesign in practice is not restricted to a single ESRI-developed software. If fact, its biggest potential for impact on the world at large comes at the intersection between tools—where ArcGIS, Google Earth, CAD, and BIM programs come together. The best way to understand the twin superpowers of GIS and BIM (building information modeling) is to think of Powers of Ten.

Ray and Charles Eames’ 1977 short film for IBM visualizes both macro and micro systems; beginning with a couple on a picnic blanket, the film zooms exponentially outward from a distance of 1 meter to 100 million light years. This is GIS: It offers a grand, global scope. The film then reverses itself and plunges deep into cellular and atomic structures. Here, the parallel is to BIM; programs such as Revit contain the innermost workings of buildings—steel structure down to door handles and screws. “BIM/GIS integration promises the replacement of abstract zoning standards with building … performance that can be tested and modeled for not only the building site, but … the city on the whole,” explains de Monchaux.

Perhaps Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, best illustrates geodesign’s capacity for holistic analysis. Abu Dhabi Future Energy Co. and architecture firm Foster + Partners envision a planned city that is driven by solar and renewable energy and is totally sustainable—zero carbon, zero waste. Given that the city is set to house upward of 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses, each piece must act as part of a larger system in order to achieve carbon neutrality; on a grander scale than de Monchaux’s Local Code, Masdar City incorporates buildings into the GIS model.

Shannon McElvaney, director of geospatial services at Pacific GPS and formerly spatial solutions consultant at Critigen, was on the multidisciplinary team responsible for Masdar City’s scenario planning, translating huge spreadsheets of data—on land use, population density, energy usage, high-speed rail transportation—into three-dimensional maps that visualized the information on both an urban and a regional scale.

Because GIS can’t handle the amount of information graphics used in a BIM program like Revit, McElvaney and his colleagues used basic scripting to dissect massing and pieces of the building, then placed those attributes in the GIS map and ran projections into the future. Then, by transferring the model from GIS to Google Earth, they illustrated landscape and construction scenarios in 3D. The team could quickly answer questions about how design choices affect the net carbon and energy use at each step. For example, on the regional level: How does wind flow across the desert impact the city in terms of heating and cooling? On the urban scale: What would happen to water and waste systems if the city were 50 percent commercial and 50 percent residential? On the building scale: What is the energy offset if we put solar panels on the walls or the roofs?

“The design process worked as a feedback loop,” says McElvaney of how geospatial analysis affected the architecture. “First, we would figure if we could meet our goal. Then the engineers would talk to the designers about how that would impact the buildings. Ultimately, [citywide] need for decreased energy use might change the façade skin or the structure’s positioning.”

The geodesign process works for more conventional structures as well. In fact, these applications speak to something both radical and everyday. Imagine taking a design developed in BIM and placing the building’s parametric attributes in GIS: for instance, a five-story building with 26 residential units and ground-floor commercial. With GIS, it is possible to see traffic conflicts and identify the need for new stoplights or more parking. In the case of an office building, it is possible to input room coordinates and corridor loading, then use GIS tools to see how the data impacts emergency evacuation.

Two big challenges face geodesign today, one internal and one external. The first is to ensure that GIS evolves into an open-source platform, rather than proprietary software, so that rapid integration and innovation can take place. The Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) is made up of 395 companies, universities, and government agencies that are working to make GIS interfaces function seamlessly across platforms and between softwares, because interoperability is critical. The OGC advocates for free, open access to specifications.

The second challenge is training architects to design with geospatial tools. Fisher is making headway on this front, developing a geodesign curriculum at the University of Minnesota. He hopes that optimizing GIS for architecture will foster an agile profession ready to respond not only to local conditions, but also to climate change and global crises.

“All these things are happening quickly. Our decisions will affect millions of people,” Fisher says. “We don’t have time to make geodesign a back-burner issue.”