Emerging Technologies for the Built Environment: EDRA 2018

The 49th Annual EDRA Conference held in June 2018 in Oklahoma City was a gathering of academics and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines, all with a shared interest in the design of the built environment and its potential for improving the quality of life. During four days of meetings, presentations, workshops and intensives, researchers in architecture, urban planning, public policy, and health shared their ideas of how to make buildings and cities “safer, more enjoyable and more equitable.” In recent years, emerging technologies were a central part of the EDRA conference. The presentations in 2018 focused on the potential use of new technologies in the design process, evaluation of the environment and presentation. Two significant players this year were virtual/ augmented reality and sensors/big data.

Virtual Reality / Augmented Reality

AR and VR are blurring the boundaries of physical and digital, real and virtual. They are posing challenges and offering great potential for the future of design. Both technologies have been established as powerful tools for representing physical environments. Emily Grant presented a case study on the physiological responses to urban and natural environment simulated in the virtual reality. AR and VR can go beyond being mere representation technologies and turn into useful collaborative design tools. Saeed Oloonabadi presented a participatory design project in which he has used an augmented reality app to facilitate the conversation between residents about the design of streets in a neighborhood. The platform also enabled the residents to visualize what they would imagine for the future of their district using the real-time augmented reality technology. In a different project, Sara Bayramzade presented a Virtual Reality platform for collaboration with health practitioners in the design of health facilities.

What is next for VR/AR?

Augmented reality might be our next sketch tool, and virtual reality can be our next workshop environment. However, the potential presented by these technologies for the design disciplines interested in the built environment is far more than exhausted. How is the meaning of space shaped by the interaction between the layers of reality and how can this shape how people use those spaces?


Since the information revolution, internet companies have benefited from online data to enhance the design of their websites, software and services. This approach was made possible through detailed and enormously large digital footprints left by the users on the web. Architects and planners have started following the same model with the help of sensors. This was evident at EDRA — sensors were everywhere. They have been used for collecting both environmental data and occupant’s data. Ihab Elzeyadi presented a case for using sensors and apps in the performance evaluation of the High-Performance LEED™ Buildings, and Brent Chamberlain showcased a model for using mobile sensors for measuring health and environmental effect on an urban scale. Some presentations addressed the issues of privacy in data collection with sensors. Yaoyi Zhou presented the app he has developed for collecting occupancy data in office space. While the app uses Bluetooth technology, all occupation data is collected and recorded anonymously.

What is next for research with sensors?

Presentations at EDRA show that architects and planners are gradually integrating sensors into their research and practice. Sensors are collecting data across scales and building types. Discussions at EDRA suggested two necessary steps for unleashing the power of sensors in the study and the design of the built environment. First, building sensors should create an integrated ecosystem to allow for systematic analysis of the data generated by the building. Utilization of building sensors that work in isolation can have insufficient benefits. Second, compared to traditional data collection methods, sensors create massive datasets. Therefore, researchers and practitioners should adopt new data analysis approaches in order to utilize the full potential of this data.

Discussions of emergent technologies at EDRA displays an increasing attention to research at the intersection of digital technologies and built environment. These explorations are not limited to architects and planners. For instance, the living lab session at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference (CHI) focused on the design and evaluation of spaces based on the integration of physical and digital. With the collaboration across disciplines, a new notion of design -beyond medium- can be imagined.