Building an Energy Modeling Master Plan

With commercial building retrofits starting to take center stage — bolstered by federal support, spurred by public disclosure of performance benchmarks and popularized by hallmark projects — demand for energy modeling services may soon be in the spotlight.

And while LEED and an increase in whole-building performance analysis has driven demand for energy modeling services, there are several barriers that must be overcome to maximize energy efficiency and achieve aggressive performance goals.

The bottom line? Energy modeling is anything but black and white, said Ellen Franconi, a senior consultant with Rocky Mountain Institute‘s buildings practice, “There have been great improvements in modeling tools over the last decade, facilitating a transition in modeling applications from research to the private sector.

Yet, because practitioners do not obtain their knowledge through a formalized curriculum, she continued,  methods are not standardized.

RMI and industry partners such as the International Building Performance Simulation Association and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers are working with energy modeling practitioners to standardize processes and create a long-term vision. In turn, they hope that this will not only bolster individual skill levels, but also help the industry at large.

“Ultimately, we want to see building design teams using energy modeling in the earliest stages of concept design to make informed decisions throughout the design process in selecting orientation, building materials, passive design features, and systems to optimize building performance,” said Lynn G. Bellenger, president of ASHRAE. This integrated design process can be widely accepted throughout the industry, and embraced by building owners, developers, architects, engineers, contractors, occupants and operating personnel.”


Lack of standardization is a substantial barrier the industry must hurdle in order to streamline methods and improve reproducibility.

Ultimately, standardized procedures can help modelers make a more compelling financial case for low-energy buildings by delivering reliable data building owners can use to vet different investment proposals and guide efficiency decisions.

And although many private companies, professional organizations and government entities are working to improve best practices, software and training, the efforts thus far have been limited.

“RMI finds itself in a unique position to support the modeling industry because of our non-profit status and our mission,” Franconi said. “Generally, private-sector companies can’t give away their consulting know-how because of competitive pressures. For instance, as a short-term solution, we are sharing our in-house tools and resources developed to streamline our methods and improve the ability to evaluate deep retrofits. In the long run, we hope method and tool improvements will help modelers do their job more effectively. ”

Getting on the Same Page

Training, tools and a coordinated master plan are all necessary elements to get the industry on the same page, effectively deliver deep energy retrofits and capitalize on new business opportunities.

If the industry wants to advance and drive toward deeper, more cost effective-efficiency savings, we need to solve this problem in a more integrated and collaborative way,” Franconi said. “In response to the increased demand for energy modeling services, individual companies have been building-up in-house capabilities. We have an opportunity to build on these developments to move the industry as a whole forward.”

Specifically, practitioners could benefit from greater tool integration, interfaces that facilitate quality assurance review, quick incorporation of new technologies into components and more modeling data resources.

Franconi points out that tools such as IBPSA’s BEMBook (a new wiki developed to contain a cohesive  body of knowledge for building energy modeling) or RMI’s Energy Modeling Toolkit (a collection of free tools and templates for building design analysis) are helping modelers by freeing up time, facilitating  quality assurance, and helping the industry communicate with software developers about product needs.

While these resources provide short-term fixes, RMI is zeroing in on a long-term opportunity to improve the overall quality and ease of building energy modeling. RMI will convene a Building Energy Modeling Innovation Summit on March 10-11 in Boulder, Colo. Developed in partnership with ASHRAE, IBPSA-USA, The U.S. Green Building Council, and The Institute for Market Transformation, the event will bring together invited representatives from the building energy modeling industry to collaborate on a long-term plan for improving tools, modeling processes and increasing the number of skilled energy modelers. (The invitation-only event is full, but findings will be publicly available shortly thereafter).

“We are bringing a wide variety of stakeholders together — expert modelers, younger practitioners familiar with a new wave of applications, researchers, academics and building owners who need these services —  people who represent both supply and demand in the modeling industry,” Franconi said.

We see the summit as an amazing opportunity to get industry stakeholders together to collaborate, discuss critical issues and approach problem-solving in an integrated way,” she continued. “This is the industry’s chance to address the largest barriers preventing widespread use of modeling to support low-energy building design and operation.”

For more information on energy modeling and RMI’s RetroFit initiative, visit RMI’s RetroFit Depot.

(Originally published in Greenbiz on March 3, 2011)