There is often a disconnect between climate change and action in architecture practices. Even though most architects and consultants are aware of the climate crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that half of new nonresidential construction in the U.S. is green. Other economic sectors have rapidly adopted data-driven tools and processes to achieve sustainability targets, but architects have been slow to embrace new technology to make better decisions.
Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction’s 2018 Global Status Report. In response, Architecture 2030, a non-profit organization established in response to the climate change crisis has urged the global architecture and building community to construct new buildings, developments and major renovations with an energy performance of at least 70 percent below the regional average. Their goal is to create a carbon-neutral built environment by 2030 via new construction and renovations that use no greenhouse gas-emitting energy to operate.
Parametric design is a process based on algorithmic-thinking that enables the expression of parameters and rules that, together, define, encode and clarify the relationship between design intent and design response. By using parametric design and energy performance modeling tools to inform the design process, architects can help clients create buildings that perform better, and significantly reduce energy consumption.
We asked a few proptech professionals how technology can help reach the goal of net-zero energy buildings in the near future. Sandeep Ahuja is the co-founder and CEO of cove.tool, a machine learning-enabled platform for building sustainability. Cove.Tool is a part of URBAN-X Cohort 06. Colin Schless is a vice president at Thornton Tomasetti. The organization optimizes the design and performance of structures. We also spoke to Elliot J. Glassman, an associate and technical principal at WSP’s Built Ecology. Built Ecology helps create sustainable built environments. The chat was moderated by URBAN-X program director Miriam Roure at A/D/O.
This talk has been condensed and edited for clarity.
MIRIAM: Elliot and Colin work at really large engineering firms with clients around the globe. They provide technical and strategic advice to clients, whom often are architects. In many ways your technology and expertise are key to the value you provide to your clients. How do you consider building software in-house versus getting something off-the-shelf? How do you make those decisions? Have you ever created something in house and thought it would be great to bring this out to market?
COLIN: Generally, it’s been need based. If there is a problem that we wanted to solve and there isn’t something existing out there — because we live in an age where a lot of people know how to code and a lot of people know how to develop stuff — we’ve had the privilege of building it ourselves. It’s actually a really exciting time in the industry. For whatever it’s worth, we made a conscious decision with a lot of the software we’re developing [to make it] open source. So far, it’s really benefited us. We have thousands of people working on this software instead of a couple of developers.
MIRIAM: Sandeep had a different strategy. You decided to start a company that developed software for architects. What brought you to this decision?
SANDEEP: It was a very conscious decision. I was running a sustainability consulting company and doing exactly what the software now does — only manually. We started off automating pieces of what we were doing because as a person, even if I hire more people, we had one team. It was still a small team. We were under 10. We could only touch so many projects. We did 50 projects a year, which is great, but what about everything else? What about all the other projects that can never afford a consultant like myself? What are they going to do? How will they ever optimize their buildings? That desire to to impact the broader audience, to be able to have a bigger impact than I could personally ever have, was to create something that was easy to use and automated. It should be so easy that everyone can do it. We always call it the mom test or the dad test.That was the goal. A non-engineer should be able to do it so that it becomes a part of life, because people rarely take on things that are super complex to do — that’s what drives me every single day.
MIRIAM: How good is good enough? How do you evaluate when good is good enough when you perform this analysis and make recommendations?
COLIN: In terms of energy performance, the 2030 challenge right now is perfectly viable as a benchmark for how much energy a building should be using to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
SANDEEP: I completely agree with the fact that there’s standards that are helping drive the community which is excellent. But, what I’ve come to realize from the people that are using our software is that a lot of times it’s not about how good we want good enough to be, it’s about how good enough can we afford. Because at the end of the day people have the same amount of money. If somebody has taken out $40 million to build a building, It’s sometimes challenging to get $2 million additional to hit those 2030 targets as much as I want them to. What people end up doing is using technology and leveraging technologies. The thinking is: if this is what I have, if this is my amount, how low can I go for that? What is the most energy efficient building that I can [build] for that amount. That is something that I see happen in every project because we all face a challenge of budget.
COLIN: As a consultant one of the things that is a struggle is at the end of the day you’re not the one making a lot of these determinations. It is the person that is footing the bill. It’s also the design team that has more say over the design. I think that’s why I’m interested in parametric design because it’s borne a whole way of trying to get out those answers to help generate information that is useful to the design team and find that thing that’s hopefully going to be convincing enough and cost effective enough to be able to push the building towards greater performance. Unless we’ve identified thousands of possible different combinations and design solutions, we might not hit upon that pathway that’s going to get us to our goals.
MIRIAM: Developers might be able to save significant amounts of money when these models are implemented correctly, and suggestions are actually put in place. But at the same time, some of the materials or the solutions that you might recommend are actually quite expensive, right? How do you deal with cost when you’re making this decision?
ELLIOT: I was once told by a developer that the only green he really cared about was the green in his wallet. Sometimes when it comes to people as open-minded as that, you have to make the case from a first cost standpoint, which can be challenging with certain types of projects where they’re just going to sell the building off as opposed to receiving the benefit of energy cost savings themselves. You have to make sure that you can make the case that they can sell their project for a higher price if it has a certain performance. You can also highlight the need to improve performance because of the increasing bar for energy code compliance. We use these requirements to push for early design stage investigations that can identify some first cost neutral solutions. Maybe you don’t have to invest in better glass if you’re not putting so much fenestration facing where you’re going to get solar heat gains. Obviously, if a client is going to own the project and be paying those energy bills then the easier it is to make that case for making additional investments to offset operational costs now. It requires all the tools at our disposal to identify how to keep things as efficient as possible in terms of where to invest so that we can get the best performance possible.
SANDEEP: Everything about the way that we wrote the software shows that we live in a market where it was really hard to sell green. Interacting with people and getting buy-in from people that, perhaps, are not necessarily on the cutting-edge of green is a great challenge. The only path to success we found was to talk about money. Talking about how much money you’re going to save up front because you’re making the most cost-optimal decision. You’re trying to figure out how to get the biggest bang for the same buck. If the developer is going to own a building for a long time, then you’re helping them make the case based on how much they’re going to pay in energy bills even if energy doesn’t become any more expensive, which is impossible. The other argument is for standards like LEED. Talking about things that people can relate to which then lead to higher-end [design]. The decision maker is the owner. If it’s money driving you, let’s talk about money. If it’s that you care about the world driving you, well, great. We don’t have to make it dirty by all the money talk.
ELLIOT: One of the things that is becoming more and more obvious and yet is something that is a little bit harder to quantify is the costs of employee retention and productivity. The Harvard Business Review came out with a study that said that access to daylight and views is something that employees list as the No. 1 thing that they look for in an office space more so than on-site childcare. You see the cost for a company to have to hire and train somebody else if they leave and that easily approaches $30,000 per person. What is the cost of getting people to stay just because they love the work environment that’s created? What is the cost of them being healthier, happier and more productive in spaces with daylight? It’s something I’m very passionate about, but it’s harder to make the case for than first costs.
COLIN: I think one of the more poignant cost issues is identifying the source of cost. In our process, a lot of times, the fingers get pointed at efficiency. I had a project recently —it’s a passive house project —and the client said it’s too expensive to do passive house. We started looking at that project compared to all the past passive house projects and it turns out that that project had double the window-to-wall ratio of any other project we’ve worked on in the past. So, it turns out it wasn’t passive house that was expensive, it was the architecture that was expensive and layering passive house on top of that increased the cost. Don’t accept the flack that green equals expensive. Take the time to dig into the source of cost and really understand the business model of what you’re trying to move forward.
MIRIAM: I’m fascinated by the notion of comfort. And often buildings are optimized for a standard of temperature. I’m originally from Spain. My parent’s house doesn’t have AC. How do you think about comfort? You have projects around the globe. Is it something that you think about in your recommendations?
SANDEEP: Definitely. When you say comfort my mind starts thinking, “are we thinking thermal comfort?” which is how hot or cold or humid or uncomfortable physically I am. Or is it a visual comfort? For instance, if I’m sitting in the space, is there a lot of glare coming to me? They’re both important. I’m not from Spain and I’m still too cold in most places. So it’s not you. Most women are uncomfortable thermally. That’s because the temperature is designed based on random tests that we’re done in the 1980s. I think that’s a very important conversation because we spend all of this money and energy making the buildings comfortable which uses more energy. Just right-sizing and right-temperaturing and right-comforting a space can save so much money. And, sometimes there’s conflicting metrics, right? Because if we want all of this amazing daylight, which we do, of course, right? It makes us happier. What about all the heat gain that’s coming with it? How do we counter that and find that balance of daylight, but just enough and not so much that we are dying with glare and that it’s heating up our spaces. Those are the nuances that everyone on this panel is looking into which is exciting and I’m glad our industry as a whole is doing that finally.
ELLIOT: It’s a multidimensional problem. It is a lot easier to fixate on that number on the wall. It’s very complex here. That’s not true of other countries. On days that are extremely hot or cold, they just deal with that during a couple months occurrence and they’re just used to adapting what they wear or their circumstances around comfort and that’s an approach that I think would probably save a lot of energy here in the U.S. I think the recent heat wave in Europe brought up this debate again. What happens when we have more extreme events? A lot of engineers I know argue that they don’t want to be the engineer whose building cannot provide the amount of cooling for people to survive during a heat wave.
COLIN: I wonder if there’ll be a transition? Everyone else in here has a cool t-shirt on and shorts and sneakers and that’s a cultural evolution that didn’t exist 10 years ago or 20 years ago. It’s a really interesting efficiency strategy.
MIRIAM: What are some of the most vital design changes that architects can make to drive down our emissions?
SANDEEP: Placing windows appropriately in the right location to get the daylight without crazy heat gain would be great.
COLIN: Putting them in the right location. It’s not radical and it’s not exciting, but smart windows.
ELLIOT: It’s kind of funny that hundreds of years ago people knew how to orient their windows and to have high ceilings so that the building would be passively more comfortable because they didn’t have air conditioning. So, is that radical? I would say that in some ways what we’re reviving old approaches to passive design and coupling that with digital technology to evaluate design opportunities and the complex interactions between the building and the climate and the site. Maybe this will generate some unique forms out of that process that could lead to some new architecture which I’m very excited about.