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Adopting Early Energy Modeling in an Architectural Practice

Implementing a new technology or workflow in a firm can be challenging. There are many factors to consider and potential obstacles to overcome. In this article, I share how top-ranked architecture firm Lake|Flato adopted Insight building performance analysis software to more fully embrace early energy modeling across the firm. It helps that the firm’s culture favors sustainable design—it’s won more national AIA COTE awards than any other firm in the United States. But the firm still required an implementation strategy.

This article will cover the messaging, training, support, and results—which include the firm’s use of Insight on all projects to report pEUI (predicted energy use intensity) for its most recent AIA 2030 Commitment report. Specifically, I focus on democratizing the workflow, allowing design teams to do much of this analysis themselves, rather than relying on a specialist/group. This in turn allows our building performance group to focus on more complex tasks and questions.

Related: Energy Analysis with Revit Insight and Green Building Studio with Ferny Celina

Goal

The goal is to do energy modeling on most, if not all, projects early in the design process to allow for meaningful changes to be made before the design has progressed to the point where it becomes difficult in terms of a design firm’s budget and schedule. This process also informs the project team on project microclimate and targeted thermal properties relative to a stated EUI goal/benchmark.

Ideally, each project team would have a champion in this area rather than relying on a firm-wide expert (or segregated group of experts). This would help expand the firms base knowledge, encourage staff professional/personal development, and most of all, benefit the project. The people doing the design should have an intimate knowledge of energy use and opportunities related to improving EUI and general performance.

The image below shows the sustainability organization at Lake|Flato. Notice that each project as a designated champion. Also, each studio (higher ed, residential, etc.) has a champion.

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The Key Elements to Implementation

To implement anything, you need some level of buy-in from upper management to spend time and money required to make something come to fruition. That is certainly true here, as staff training is an important aspect of getting everyone started in early stage energy modeling.

Here are the key ingredients I believe are essential for a successful implementation of early energy modeling by architects:

1. Management buy-in

2. Staff buy-in

3. Training

4. Support

5. Documentation

6. Commitment 

I would first like to briefly touch on each of these topics and then follow with more details.

1. Management Buy-in

Given our firm background already mentioned, you may not be surprised that this is one of the easier aspects of implementation, even in terms of required costs to the firm for training and extra time on projects. Firm partners are very much hands-on when it comes to promoting and supporting high performance design. Our building performance team meets monthly with two partners dedicated to ongoing development in this area.

2. Staff Buy-in

Staff buy-in has also been very positive. We have many talented people with formal training in building sciences and energy modeling. Staff have been excited to attend related presentations and to use the tools and workflows on their projects.

3. Training

We have provided multiple trainings at the firm level, studio level, and project level. We also record many of these sessions. We also have a Champions Challenge training where we cover tools and workflows once a month.

4. Support

When needed, our team provides support, and/or just-in-time training to individual staff working on a given project. I also consult with Autodesk experts as needed, when I cannot answer a question. These harder questions often turn into a blog post, on my blog, BIM Chapters.

5. Documentation

When support is provided I try to document the outcome, so we have a knowledge base to reference. This is stored in our KA Synthesis Intranet site called FlakeNet. I have also documented other things like what a specific setting should be to meet minimum state energy codes, or a required setting for an education project. Some of this came from working closely with engineers who do formal, or more final, energy modeling.

6. Commitment

Lake|Flato, as a firm, is a signatory to the AIA 2030 Commitment, a growing national initiative that provides a consistent, national framework with simple metrics and a standardized reporting format to help firms evaluate the impact design decisions have on an individual project's energy performance. Thus, we have obligated ourselves to do energy modeling and report.

Management Buy-in

Lake|Flato management has been very hands-on in the effort to implement early stage energy modeling in the practice. On a related note, I have presented on this topic, in an effort to share knowledge, at the Minnesota AIA Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have also presented at various local AIA COTE working group and workshop events.

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Staff Buy-in

We have many talented people in sustainable high-performance design at the firm. However, there are always challenges with other commitments, personal and professional time and skills. Even so, the overall staff culture is supportive of this initiative. Some support it as project managers requesting their design team do it. Some support it as designers creating Revit models correctly so the Energy Analysis Model (EAM) creation is streamlined.

The big goal is to identify interested staff, so we can hone their skills. This benefits individual staff through personal growth and the firm by better designed buildings.

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Staff Training

As already mentioned, staff training happens in many different ways: at the firm level, the studio level, and at the project level. In addition to recording these sessions, we also use an Intranet to disseminate information and organize reference material, such as benchmarks and workflows.

Below is a recent screenshot of our Design + Sustainability page from FlakeNet.

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Staff Support

Second in importance to the initial training, in my opinion, is providing staff support or just-in-time training when they start applying these new workflows on a project. If they must go-it-alone, then the success rate will likely not be what we hope for. Therefore, it is important to offer support and/or one-on-one training when needed. This is best done by an in-house expert, as they will have more intimate knowledge of the goals and workflows of the firm. However, if that person does not yet exist, then contracting time with a consultant or reseller would be recommended.

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Teaching Early Energy Modeling to Architecture Students

On a related note regarding training and support, Lake|Flato has been very supportive of my role in academia. Each fall semester, I teach a Building Information Modeling seminar to graduate architecture students at North Dakota State University (NDSU). The photo below is one of those classes. In this class we cover may things, including early energy modeling, lighting and analysis, and more.

I point this out to highlight the fact that this effort increases my knowledge of the subject matter by continually preparing to teach it and respond to questions. It is also a way of sharing, or giving back, to the profession. You should do this too. It is very rewarding.

Teaching early energy modeling to graduate architecture students
Teaching early energy modeling to graduate architecture students.

Students are required to share a cloud-based Insight model with me as part of an assignment. As you can see in the image below, I have a lot of shared projects in my Insight dashboard.

Student shared energy modeling projects via Insight
Student-shared energy modeling projects via Insight.

Sharing an Insight project is a great way to get those who do not use Revit involved in the process. They can open the Insight project and adjust inputs and save scenarios. All they need is a modern web browser and an Internet connection.

Documentation

It is helpful to maintain a user guide of sorts based on the firm’s tools (IES, Sefaira, Insight, etc.), goals, and workflows to help staff be more efficient and successful. When problems or challenges are encountered, it is also helpful to clearly document the issue and solution for future reference. If you cannot create this material internally for any reason, you might curate a list of articles, YouTube videos, and previous AU/BILT sessions.

I'll share a few examples I have created, beginning with material in the Revit textbooks I have written.

Detailed Revit plus Insight workflows handout
Detailed Revit plus Insight workflows handout.

Autodesk Insight provides the primary results in either EUI or Cost. Having a feel for the actual EUI of existing buildings can be helpful. The graph below is based on research the US EPA conducted on more than 100,000 buildings. We obviously want to do better than these numbers. Remember, AIA 2030 and MN B3 also provide EUI data.

Example EUI data for reference
Example EUI data for reference.

An important document I created was a list of all the inputs available in Insight. At my previous firm, I worked with our in-house engineers and architects to provide guidance on code-minimum settings for Minnesota. Notice the mention of climate zone, occupancy type (education, for example), and links. The asterisk indicates a typical selection.

Documented Insight inputs and commentary for staff
Documented Insight inputs and commentary for staff.
Documented Insight inputs and commentary for staff
Documented Insight inputs and commentary for staff.

Firm Commitment

When an AIA-member firm becomes a signatory of the AIA 2030 Commitment, they are agreeing to self-report energy modeling data for all of their projects. This is a great way to make the effort of early energy modeling compulsory within a practice.

Lake|Flato has been a signatory for 10 years. Our firm-wide results can be seen in the image below. (We are the orange bar, versus the national average; higher is better.)

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Firms from all over the United States have been tracking and reporting projects since 2010. More than 500 firms with projects in nearly 100 countries have joined the 2030 Commitment.

The number of firms—and the amount of gross square feet in projects—has grown exponentially since the 2030 Commitment launched. In 2017, 212 firms submitted their design portfolios covering 3.2 billion square feet.

Conclusion

Much of what was discussed here is not groundbreaking or entirely new. However, seeing what others are doing in terms of implementing energy modeling earlyand not waiting for the engineers to get involved when it is often too late to make significant changesmight be a big motivator to others.

There are, of course, many additional tools and workflows we could discuss, such as annual daylight using Climate Studio, embodied carbon using Tally or EC2, and more.

Thank you for your time and dedicated attention. I look forward to hearing what others are doing and the success you have had.

Learn more with the full class.

Daniel John Stine AIA, IES, CSI, CDT, is a registered architect [WI] with over twenty years of experience in the field of architecture. He is the director of Design Technology at Lake Flato Architects in San Antonio, Texas. Dan has presented internationally on BIM in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Slovenia, Australia, and Singapore at Autodesk University, RTC/BILT, Midwest University, AUGI CAD Camp, NVIDIA GPU Technology Conference, Lightfair, and AIA-MN Convention. By invitation, he spent a week at Autodesk’s largest R&D facility in Shanghai, China to beta test and brainstorm new Revit features in 2016. Dan teaches graduate architecture students at North Dakota State University. Dan is a member of the American Institute of Architects AIA, Construction Specifications Institute CSI, Chair of the National IES BIM Standards Committee, and Autodesk Developer Network ADN, and is a Construction Document Technician issued by CSI. He has presented live webinars for ElumTools, ArchVision, Revizto, and NVIDIA. Dan writes about design on his blog, BIM Chapters, and in his textbooks published by SDC Publications.

Companion Class

Learn how top-ranked architecture firm Lake|Flato adopted Insight building performance analysis software to more fully embrace early energy modeling across the firm. It helps that the firm’s culture favors sustainable design—it’s won more national AIA COTE awards than any other firm in the United States. But the firm still required an implementation strategy. This session will cover the messaging, training, support, and results—which include the firm’s use of Insight on all projects to report...

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