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Software and sustainability: How to make the technology work for you

One of the key challenges facing today's architects is understanding and tackling how to incorporate sustainable design principles into existing design workflows and processes. Surprisingly for some, software tools are emerging as an invaluable part of this.

Building performance analysis and energy modeling software is incredibly powerful within the green design process. Through the quantifiable virtual testing of strategies at the whole-building level, it facilitates energy-efficient building design, reduced CO2 emissions, ensures quality indoor environmental conditions, and allows the better utilization of low-carbon technologies and renewable energy.

However, there are a lot of unanswered questions, particularly among architects, as to how this technology works. Questions such as: What analysis capabilities are available to me? What do the results tell me? What tasks should I be doing when? And how do I incorporate all this into my existing workflow?


As a general rule, the most impact is made when analysis and modeling is incorporated right from the earliest stages, well before key design decisions are set in stone. High-quality analysis information can quantify and inform iterative decisions for new and retrofit projects, allowing the team to effectively develop creative sustainable solutions. Analysis can then be used to further refine the design as it progresses.

The issue is that most building performance simulation tools are deemed not compatible with architects' working methods and needs. From the perspective of many architects, many analysis tools are judged as too complex and cumbersome. This stems from the fact that most analysis tools were developed by technical researchers, building scientists or HVAC engineers concerned with empirical validation.

There is a real need to fully comprehend architects' problems in interacting with performance simulation tools-architects have different backgrounds, different knowledge processing methods and are visually orientated. To bridge this analysis gap between architects and engineers, it must be recognized that building simulation is a human, psychological and social discipline, as well as an empirical one. Today, there are many factors that provide a real chance to bridge this gap.


The waves of energy codes and rating systems, such as LEED, as well as a growing social consciousness, are pushing the ethos of sustainable building design to the top of the agenda. Meanwhile, the advent of building information modeling and recent direct links of performance analysis tools to BIM and other computer-aided design tools are pushing a more integrated, information sharing approach to design team working.

Through the introduction of our different levels of interface used from the early design stages, IES Ltd., Boston, is addressing this and moving toward an analysis to understanding approach-helping designers understand and input the data required for modeling, allowing them to simulate, produce and interrogate results, draw conclusions and reach understandings that will support an iterative and more integrated design process.

So how can performance simulation be used by architects? Steven Chu, the U.S. secretary of energy, is adamant that great efficiency, particularly in buildings, will significantly reduce the number of power plants built. So the overall aim should be to reduce overall energy consumption, while looking at applying low carbon technologies and renewable energy sources. However, this lean, clean, green approach should not be to the detriment of occupant comfort.


Comparative analysis of climate, building metrics, solar, energy/carbon, light and natural resources at the early stage, using ballpark figures, can be useful to check feasibility, quantify and inform design team decision making. It can help with those all important master planning, orientation, massing and form decisions; justifying choices and differentiating project proposals. Results can be used to explain and quantify to clients the sustainable impact of different decisions and tradeoffs, offering a competitive advantage. While, feasibility conversations with engineers can easily be started early on before key decisions are set in stone.

Detailed analysis of these and other elements such as airflow, thermal comfort, heating/cooling loads, egress and value/cost at later stages provides more accurate figures and results for system sizing, fine tuning, compliance, costing and documentation. Again, competitive advantage is achieved as results and analysis can be presented to clients, justifying design decisions and providing data for effective commissioning and in-use operation.

We're seeing at IES that more and more architects are starting to embrace and understand the power of analysis; more architectural firms are purchasing or inquiring about our software-firms from all around the globe. For example, Broadway Malyan, London, has been piloting our software in conjunction with Google SketchUp at the initial master planning and massing stages across a number of key projects in London and Dubai.

Kevin Leahy, main board director of Broadway Malyan UAE (United Arab Emirates), said: "Broadway Malyan is passionate about making sustainability fundamental to the design process throughout the practice and believes that the IES/SketchUp interface demonstrates an innovative way to adopt and embed new approaches and methods of working as part of a joined up, integrated team effort."

Stephen Choi, sustainable design co-ordinator at Broadway Malyan, while discussing the promotion of core sustainable design principles, commented: "As simple as it sounds this ability to quickly undertake environmental analysis helps us ensure that any sustainable solution ideas are not dropped as the design progresses and that the design is kept on track energy and performance-wise. It enables us to look at how energy use, carbon emission, solar and daylight are affected at key design iterations right from the very initial stages and then at increasing levels of detail as the architectural design progresses."


Taking this to the next level, due to our plug-in connection to San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk's Revit, designers can now easily progress their design, using IES performance analysis, seamlessly from one application to another. Many Revit users choose to undertake initial concept design within SketchUp and our integration with both applications can significantly enhance their workflow.

"When the architectural design model is also the energy model, energy modelling and responsiveness become core components of the design process. For example, rooms are designed explicitly as 3-D energy-consuming volumes instead of just floor space bounded by walls," said Dustin Eplee, leader of Pittsburgh-based Burt Hill's Energy Analysis team, which was formed as an in-house consulting group dedicated to building simulation.

Brian Tysoe, M. Se., LEED AP and building simulation specialist for MCW Consultants Ltd., Toronto, said of IES: "It allows us to use a common model for both load calculations and energy modelling, and the interoperability of IES with SketchUp and Revit allows for a more iterative process, where we can get involved in the design at an earlier stage of the project."

The "good design is sustainable design" ethos promoted by quantitative analysis can make a great impact. Architects get quick environmental feedback on design iterations and environmental engineers can input more into the design. Achieving this kind of effective collaboration and cross-discipline understanding, in my opinion, is core to achieving truly sustainable, energy-efficient building design.

Dr. Don McLean is the founder and managing director at IES Ltd., Boston. For more information, go to