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Software to Save the Planet?

Buildings are the single largest contributor to global warming, accounting for almost half of total annual U.S. energy consumption and CO2 emissions.As a consequence, an emerging answer to the continuing build-up of greenhouse gases is to design and build greener buildings.

All is not well with the third planet from the sun; and one of the culprits may come as a surprise:
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, buildings are the single largest contributor to global warming, accounting for almost half of total annual U.S. energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

As a consequence, an emerging answer to the continuing build-up of greenhouse gases is to design and build greener buildings; and when it comes to green buildings, it's pretty straightforward: reduce energy consumption and subsequent CO2 emissions.

Easy enough on paper, but how do you go about this?

USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) benchmark and certification program for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings lends a good and detailed hand by isolating and recognizing green construction achievement in five key areas of both environmental and human health:
-sustainable site development;
- water savings;
- energy efficiency;
= materials selection; and
- indoor environmental quality.

The Challenge
However, when the rubber gets closer to the road and it comes to designing a green building, be it an office building or a data center-especially if the owner and architect are aiming for a high LEED rating such as Gold or Platinum-a small ocean of factors enter the equation which elevates the design from chore to challenge.

In designing a green building, architects and engineers need to consider not only sustainable building materials, but they also need to determine, among other things, the optimum orientation of the building, available water recycling options, the best type of light fixtures, and the internal distances to windows for both natural light and ventilation. These and other factors all have bearing on the sustainability of the design.

To the Rescue
Now, what if there were a software that could design a building with all of these green factors in mind? A software that could calculate and display the carbon footprint ramifications of such and such an HVAC system or that would automatically work out the energy savings achieved by double, or triple, glazing. A software that could determine the impact of a 20 feet narrowing of the building structure; or of, say, better-rated exterior insulation.

Enter the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and Autodesk.

At the Chicago Greenbuild 2007 Conference and Expo last November, Phil Bernstein, Vice President at Autodesk, explored whether a design team could in fact receive real-time feedback on the carbon, energy, and water usage impact of their design choices; all the while tracking their LEED credits as well, also in real-time.

He did this in the form of a futuristic demonstration of Building Information Modeling (BIM) that allowed designers to change their plan on a touch screen, and immediately see the environmental ramifications of those changes.

The software database, he explained, would hold sufficient historic and product data to allow the designer to immediately view the result of design choices, and further enable him or her to adjust these choices to maximize LEED credits.

All to an enraptured and enthusiastic crowd.

To be sure, this software does not yet exit, but it is far more than a glint in someone's eye at this point.
As Rick Fedrizzi, Founding Chairman of the USGBC put it at the conference, "This kind of tool will have a tremendous impact on our ability to effortlessly integrate sustainability as a priority in everything that we do."
"Perhaps it will be available in beta form by the Boston Greenbuild 2008."

The USGBC and Autodesk Agreement
This development effort is the result of a 2006 agreement between Autodesk and USGBC, which aims to transform and automate the practice of sustainable design

and to reduce the man-made causes of climate change through expanded use of Building Information Modeling.

Specifically, the November 2006 press release stated that the Autodesk and U.S. Green Building Council agreement aimed at "expanding the use of technology and to facilitate further adoption of sustainable design and green building."

According to the same release, Autodesk and the USGBC plan to work on several initiatives to make sustainable design easier and more efficient through the use of technology such as the Autodesk Revit platform for building information modeling, ultimately reducing the causes of climate change by increasing the number of green buildings that emit less carbon dioxide.

As part of this agreement, USGBC and Autodesk are to explore opportunities to integrate Autodesk's technology with the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system to help the building industry more easily and rapidly meet goals for reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Potential areas for collaboration are to include consulting, joint development of new technology initiatives, as well as industry education.

To facilitate rapid adoption of sustainable design practices, Autodesk and the USGBC also plan to share the knowledge and results of their partnership with the building industry.

BIM meets CAD
At the heart of Sustainable Design Software lies Building Information Modeling (BIM), a data repository and analysis engine capable of generating and managing building data throughout its life cycle.
BIM covers geometry, spatial relationships, geographic information, quantities and properties of building components (for example manufacturers' details) and can be used to project the entire building life cycle including the processes of construction and facility operation.

Quantities and properties of materials can easily be extracted; scopes of work can be isolated and defined. Systems, assemblies, and sequences can be shown in a relative scale to the facility or group of facilities.
The American Institute of Architects has further defined BIM as "a model-based technology linked with a database of project information" which reflects the general reliance on database technology as the foundation.

Naturally, if this database were to include all aspects of green building, or all details necessary to design and build a LEED certified building, half the battle would have been won.

Computer Aided Design (CAD)-the other half of this equation-is a mature platform that has e
xisted for many years.

The marriage of these two platforms, however, is what will make Autodesk's and USGBC's initiative bear fruit.

When recently asked about Autodesk progress on this initiative, Jay Bhatt, senior vice-president of AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) Solutions explained that "the best way to see sustainable design, from my perspective, is the creation of something that can be simulated effectively from the factors that contribute to energy conservation and energy efficiency around the building footprint. The only way to simulate and run the analysis to make sure the building's going to perform in a sustainable, green way is to utilize data to run BIM analysis processes."

Bhatt went on to share his view of how best to do this; and what he termed "three Cs" of BIM: consistency, coordination, and computability.

First of all, the BIM database must contain consistent data that you can depend on.
Coordination is crucial for sustainable design because all of the participants in the design process have to come together to create a true sustainable building. An architect can't create an efficient model of a building if the HVAC engineer follows with an inefficient heating or cooling ventilation system.

The computable element-data such as material specs, heat emission factors, etc.-is crucial for sustainable design because until you can deploy such BIM data to run relevant analyses, you remain, at least to an extent, in the dark as to causes and effect.
Without a database-oriented design process, and the quantitative simulated analyses it affords, the architect is left with the old-manual-way of doing things and will be not be able to accurately project how "greenly" the office building, or data center, will perform over its life cycle.

To Market

No word as of yet as to when this will be available. Yet, we hope Rick Fedrizzi is right: "Perhaps it will be available in beta form by the Boston Greenbuild 2008."

Los Angeles-based Ulf Wolf writes for the IT industry as Words & Images (

Photo by Jes Mugley Creative Commons License Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic


Ulf Wolf is a Swedish-born, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho based writer and photographer with 20 years of Telecom, CRM, and IT experience, much of which as a very hands-on call-center systems engineer for AT&T/Lucent/Avaya.