Energy Modeling for High-Performance Buildings (Video)

The black box “voodoo” that many consider building energy modeling to be today is being dragged into the spotlight.

New, more aggressive building efficiency standards, codes and disclosure rules such as those implemented in San Francisco, New York City and Washington, D.C., are already acting as change agents, driving greater focus on the importance of energy modeling as an accurate predictor of true energy use.

The not-so-good? A currently fragmented industry needs to work together to provide leadership, guidance and a clear path for widespread solutions for low-energy buildings with reduced electric demand.

Last month, Rocky Mountain Institute convened more than 50 key stakeholders in Boulder, Colo., to discuss the future of building energy modeling. Hosted in partnership with ASHRAE, IBPSA-USA, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Institute for Market Transformation, the two-day Building Energy Modeling Innovation Summit aimed to identify immediately actionable opportunities and facilitate solutions across several broad categories: methods and processes, software tools, education training and certification, market drivers, and support and resources.

“This is a game-changing event that will set the standard for the industry,” said Lynn G. Bellenger, president of ASHRAE. “It will set the stage for where we are going for the next decade.”

Watch attendees of the BEM Innovation Summit discuss how the industry can grow

Watch more videos at RMI TV

The road, however, is anything but smooth. Between energy efficiency opportunities being left on the table and a “box check” attitude by building owners uneducated about the value of energy modeling, much of the discussion focused on how to combat the poor impression energy modeling currently holds in the market place.

“Energy modeling needs to be part of the design process, so that it’s iterative,” said Cliff Majersik, executive director of IMT. “The energy model doesn’t just happen once the design has been completed. It’s an important tool in optimizing the design for energy efficiency and comfort.”

Closing the gap between the accuracy of modeling predictions and actual building energy performance, many agreed, is critical to changing that perception. A big barrier is for architects, design teams and building owners to get beyond the “What’s the number?” mindset.

“There’s a technical gap between what energy modeling tools can do and what’s required for simulation,” said Chris Wilkins, ASHRAE member and an engineer with Hallam-ICS. “And there’s a marketplace gap between expectations and how much time energy modeling takes, how much money it costs.”

Architects primarily do what their clients want, said Bill Worthen, vice president of green building consulting firm Simon & Associates. The problem is, he said, many building owners may not know what they want. (Read his recent blog)

Worthen, who is also the American Institute of Architect’sresource architect for sustainability, said most owners know their budget and have an idea what type of building they want. But much of the rest, he said, is left up to the architect to decide. “A lot of the things that we would use in an energy model aren’t known. Most architects don’t even know the right questions to ask to find out how a design can help be part of the solution for a high-performance building.”

Engineers aren’t necessarily brought into the design team until after concept design, he continued, and then they’re asked to make the mechanical systems fit. “It’s a hit or miss. The assumption is that that’s a perfect science, and it’s really not.”

Owners are not asking ‘what assumptions did you use,’” Wilkins said. “As an engineer, you want to provide a long and complete answer. But all they want to know is ‘what’s the number? How many LEED points am I going to get?’”

The industry needs to think ahead about the questions energy modelers will be asked in the future, said Lane Burt, the USGBC’s director of technical policy.

“We’re not doing the best job answering the questions that are asked now,” Burt said. “A month ago, President Obama announced the Better Buildings Initiative. And that’s going to involve modeling at some point. If we know we will be asked questions about building efficiency, lets take an active role and make sure we are able to answer those questions.”

The need to identify best practices and deliver quality tools to perform in-depth performance analysis has never been greater. To that end, RMI is continuing to work with BEM Summit attendees and key industry stakeholders to develop a holistic roadmap that outlines short- and long-term needs and prioritizes industry efforts.

In order for the industry to move forward—saving a lot of energy and growing the energy modeling industry at the same time—we need to embrace doing things very differently,” IMT’s Majersik said. “As long as we’re in this, ‘check the box, just do the minimum,’ energy modeling won’t be used the right way.