December 17, 2020 Kate Zeile

An Ode to GIS in Green Building

Photo courtesy of ESRI.

What comes to mind when you think of Geographic Information Systems (GIS)?

Maybe some of the latest beautifully crafted New York Times maps, like the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election Results map or the constantly updated map that tracks the Coronavirus Outbreak in the United States. Or maybe you recently used Google Maps to navigate to a new take-out restaurant to shake things up during quarantine. Out of all the examples that come to mind, I can almost guarantee that green building isn’t at the top of your list. However, GIS is an increasingly important tool for the green building industry, and it has huge potential for future growth.

To give a brief introduction, GIS is a framework for analyzing and visualizing spatial data. Any data about any topic can be analyzed using GIS, as long as it has a spatial component. Though the intersection between GIS and green building may not be immediately apparent, GIS is stealthily used in green building planning and certification all the time. To exemplify this, let’s view the application of GIS through the lens of the most prevalent green building rating system in the industry: LEED for Building Design and Construction (BD+C).

The LEED “Location and Transportation” and “Sustainable Sites” credit categories have extensive intersections with GIS. The “Sensitive Land Protection” and “High-Priority Site” credits are heavily reliant on geographic data, where the location of the project site is considered in relation to certain environmentally sensitive areas or development zones. The “Surrounding Density and Diverse Uses” and “Access to Quality Transit” credits are focused on the project’s proximity to existing transit and infrastructure, utilizing spatial data as well as navigation and routing components. With the necessary data in hand, these credits can be very easily analyzed and achieved using GIS methods. For example, protected land areas and certain development zones can be overlayed on a map and compared against the project site in order to analyze any overlaps. For density-related analysis, the buildings and amenities within a certain radius of the project boundary can be easily tabulated and calculated using GIS analysis methods.

Beyond LEED, GIS can be applied in other areas to further promote green building and sustainable infrastructure. For example, Walk Score is an interactive GIS platform that ranks locations based on their walkability, which is determined based on surrounding amenities, availability of walking and biking paths, and access to public transit. Assessing the walkability of neighborhoods and cities using GIS-based analysis is a great opportunity for communities to determine gaps in their infrastructure and prioritize sustainable development and urban planning measures.

Another discipline of GIS that has huge potential for application in the green building and infrastructure sphere is remote sensing. Remotely sensed data of the Earth’s surface can be hugely important in assessing the current state of the built environment and determining areas of potential improvement. For example, remotely sensed images can be used to visualize the “greenness” of an area of interest using the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). NDVI is calculated using the wavelengths associated with the near-infrared and red bands of each pixel in a remotely sensed image, creating a visualization of the area’s “greenness” and therefore providing a proxy for the amount of green space and quality of vegetation in the area.

Additionally, remotely sensed thermal images can be used to measure the radiant temperature of surface areas on a large scale, which can be used to assess developed areas for the urban heat island effect. Armed with these remote sensing analysis strategies, urban planners, green building professionals, and community members alike can assess existing infrastructure and prioritize areas for improvement based on the amount of green space and surrounding temperatures.

GIS can be a great tool to augment green building analysis, planning, and advocacy through site, density, connectivity, and remote sensing analysis. The future of green building will be largely centered around information technology, smart building systems, and ongoing data tracking and verification. Let’s make sure the collection and modeling of spatial data is also included in this fast-approaching, data-centric world.

Additional Resources:

What is GIS?

What is Remote Sensing?

GIS for Sustainable Development