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Making an environmental impact: energy modeling

Thursday, 22 April 2010

As architects, making a positive environmental impact means being more than responsive to project needs: it means being active and deliberate in developing and applying research to make better, more energy-efficient buildings.

An important component of sustainability is the reduction of energy consumption. After all, less energy used translates to less fuel burned, which results in fewer emissions of global warming gases. In addition, less demand for energy results in a need for fewer power plants (whether coal burning or nuclear plants, or even photovoltaic arrays or windmills), using fewer natural resources for construction.

At Shepley Bulfinch, we’re aiming to integrate an awareness of building energy consumption into our building designs. Site orientation, window size and placement and composition of wall assemblies can have major impacts on the heating and cooling needs of a building. It’s important to factor this awareness into building design during all phases of design, but to have a real impact we need to test these strategies analytically.

Energy modeling, a computer projection of the energy use of a building design, is a valuable tool to check a design’s contribution to energy use against the project’s sustainability goals. On almost all of our projects, a detailed energy model is developed at major milestones to verify the performance of our designed buildings. This model offers benefits during the design stages but also after a building is constructed, providing a benchmark to compare against actual consumption data. A discrepancy between the two sets of data can highlight incorrectly installed or operated equipment.

We are also incorporating energy modeling into the earliest phases of our work. Modeling at a conceptual stage can provide important context to decisions about building organizing principles, such as orientation, layout and facade design. Tools we use to develop building designs integrate with tools that predict energy usage, offering quick feedback about different building options.

Not only are we thinking about ways to reduce the energy consumption of the buildings we design, but we are testing our ideas and assumptions to figure out what will really work best for a particular building, taking into account site and climate, building type, design aspirations, and our client’s goals for building use and sustainability.

- Jonathan Baron
Jonathan is co-chair of the Building Enclosure Council of the Boston Society of Architects

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