Researching Bias: A Data-Driven Path to Restorative Justice

Sarah Wicker June 17, 2022

Juneteenth is an opportunity to reflect on the still far-reaching effects of slavery in the United States – from the disproportional rate of Black people in prisons to bias in the building code. Today, Sarah Wicker, our Director of Research, discusses her team’s efforts to address these political, cultural and socioeconomic inequalities from a data-driven lens, especially concerning the built environment

The built environment reflects and supports the people who operate within it. At CRTKL, our core values of designing for people, the planet and positive design further emphasize this deceivingly simple notion. While human bias is a well-researched issue, the built environment is no exception to the consequences of both conscious and unconscious bias. To be aware of these biases and, further, to minimize them as much as possible is to design “places for people.”

In 2020, as part of our CRTKL Research Microgrant Program, we set out to uncover: “What biases exist in the 2015 International Building Code (IBC) and what is their effect on the United States’ architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry?”

We had a few main dimensions to our research: first, to determine what biases exist in the 2015 IBC, and then to uncover where what type, and how much these biases persist. Our approach was to review the code, code commentary and IBC documentation. We analyzed this data by dissecting every sentence in Chapter 12 of the code; we examined the ‘metrics’ used to develop the code, traced said ‘metrics’ and tagged the code for any potential bias.

We had a few significant findings in our analysis – first and foremost, the International Code Council (ICC) has standards and strategies to address bias through reviewing and advisory committees. When analyzed, we found that approximately 70% of chapter 12 traces back to a specific source (non-biased metrics). About 30% of chapter 12 cannot be traced to a definitive source – indicating potentially biased metrics. Out of the 70% of ‘non-biased metrics,’ a portion references studies or other research that does not apply to the International Building Code chapter and/or content.

We came to a few significant conclusions that alleviate the bias we found in the code. First, those generic terms need to be more defined. When there is room for interpretation, there is room for bias. We were glad to see, though, data reinforces many metrics. We believe a review for bias of 30% of the IBC’s chapter 12 needs to occur.

In order to ensure equality in the AEC industry, we must address bias on both a structural and personal level. With a commitment to data-driven research, we can support the development of new, more egalitarian spaces – ensuring both the safety and comfort of the communities that occupy them.



Author Spotlight

Sarah Wicker
Sarah is a Principal and Director of Research, based in the CRTKL Chicago office. She is responsible for overseeing the team’s research programs, including the annual MicroGrants and Global Fellowship program, and championing research projects within the design practice. She specializes in trend forecasting, human-centered design, research design and application. With almost 20 years of experience, Sarah has worked with global clients to deliver meaningful knowledge and insights that positively impact projects and communities. Her work has been featured in Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, and she is a frequent contributor to industry publications, speaker at ICSC, ULI and AIA conferences, and in 2018, Sarah was recognized as an ICSC Centerbuild Leader Under 40 for her proven leadership and contributions to the retail design industry. Sarah has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from Oklahoma State University and will complete her Masters in Psychology from Harvard in 2022.