Greenbuild 2016 AECbytes Newsletter #83 (October 20, 2016)

Around this time every year, the world’s largest conference devoted to sustainable design and green buildings, Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, is held, typically in major cities across the U.S. including Chicago, Boston, Phoenix, Denver, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. This year’s event was held in Los Angeles in the first week of October. Launched in 2002, Greenbuild is an initiative of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), and it brings together all the key players involved in sustainable buildings including designers, owners, and industry experts, allowing them to collectively push the state of the art of green design. The Expo accompanying the conference provides an ideal forum to showcase green building products, services and technologies. This article provides an overview of the technology offerings focused on sustainable design that were exhibited at the show.

Trimble’s Sefaira Architecture

Sefaira, the cloud-based conceptual performance analysis tool that Trimble acquired earlier this year, used the conference to launch a new functionality in its Sefaira Architecture product called Design Guidance. As shown in Figure 1, Design Guidance uses real-time analysis results in Sefaira Architecture to deliver customized guidance on how to improve a building’s performance, and directs the designer to relevant passive design strategies collated in Architecture 2030’s Palette. This Design Guidance functionality was developed by Sefaira in collaboration with the Architecture 2030 organization, which established the 2030 Challenge calling for all new and renovated buildings to be carbon-neutral by 2030 and created the 2030 Palette as an accompanying free online resource compiling strategies for achieving this goal. Over 70% of the top AEC firms in the US have committed to the 2030 Challenge, making the 2030 Palette a very useful reference for anyone involved in the design of low-carbon built environments (Figure 1), not just in the US but all over the world.

Figure 1. The 2030 Palette is a free online resource that provides guidance and tips on different aspects of sustainable design, such as daylighting in this example.

Getting back to Sefaira, which has continued to expand its product line beyond its initial architectural offering to also include Sefaira Systems and Sefaira Strategies (see the article, Technology Solutions for AEC Exhibited at Autodesk University 2015), the introduction of Design Guidance within Sefaira Architecture enables architects to quickly analyze building performance at the earliest stages of design and get project-specific design guidance from the 2030 Palette, based on its energy-use profile. So, for example, if the biggest driver of energy use in a proposed building is cooling followed by lighting, Design Guidance will link to relevant resources in the 2030 Palette identifying passive strategies to reduce cooling and lighting loads (Figure 2). Following these recommended links, users can explore the 2030 Palette’s online library of strategies called Swatches­—which include passive design principles supported by built precedents—and decide which ones they want to test in their concept. Thus, by combining Sefaira’s real-time analysis with Architecture 2030’s detailed explanations and project examples, the design can be iteratively refined until it shows improved building performance.

Figure 2. The new Design Guidance functionality in Sefaira Architecture. The top image shows the plug-in open for a conceptual design being done in SketchUp­­—also part of Trimble—while the lower image shows the integration with the Architecture 2030 Palette.

Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES)

Greenbuild was also an important conference for IES, which is exclusively focused on performance analysis tools and has a wide range of them, all the way from high-end tools that work with detailed design models that include MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) systems to conceptual analysis tools that can work at the preliminary stage of building design. Its flagship application, IESVE, which we last took stock of February 2015 (see AECbytes Newsletter #74), continues to add new features which were showcased at Greenbuild, including faster HVAC sizing calculations, a new Content Manager for reports, automatic geometry generation using a feature called ModelIT (Figure 3), and new HVAC systems in the library, saving time in the loads and energy modeling process.

Figure 3. The geometry of this design was automatically generated in IESVE from a SketchUp model.

IES also continue to highlight its ERGON cloud service that it launched last year, which allows users to import, manage and interrogate real metered data from buildings—down to 1 minute time steps—and use them in VE simulations. This data can be from the actual building under investigation or normalized benchmark data from other buildings of the same type. Such profiles can be useful in several ways, such as investigating the impact of retrofit options using real building data, undertaking post occupancy evaluations, improving operational models for performance contracting, undertaking LEED measurement and verification, and helping to close the performance gap by simulating design models closer to reality.

Finally, IES showed its new Integrated System Management (ISM) interface within its ApacheHVAC application­ that uses a schematic component-based approach to enable quick assembly of HVAC plant and control systems. With the ISM, there is now a single dialog that provides access to editing inputs and viewing derived values for all significant airside HVAC system parameters, making it more intuitive and user-friendly.

Autodesk Insight 360

Autodesk launched its Insight 360 energy analysis cloud service exactly a year ago at last year’s Greenbuild conference, which was intended to make it easier to analyze and optimize a building’s energy performance by directly integrating the analysis with its BIM model. As described in the Tips and Tricks article on the newly released Autodesk Insight 360 published last October, this was accomplished by installing Insight add-ins in both Autodesk’s BIM tools: FormIt 360 Pro for conceptual design, and Revit for more detailed design. The add-in automatically creates the energy analysis model (EAM) from the BIM model and sends it to the Autodesk A360 cloud for simulation (Figure 4); the results of the analysis are brought back and can be seen directly in the modeling environment, allowing the design to be iteratively refined until it meets the desired performance goals.

Figure 4. Performance analysis insights for a design provided by the cloud-based Autodesk Insight 360.

While the earlier version of Insight 360 used EnergyPlus—the sophisticated whole-building energy simulation engine developed by the US Department of Energy—only for calculating heating and cooling loads and relying on the faster but less-detailed DOE-2 engine for the rest of its dynamic thermal simulation, the new version of Insight 360 launched at this year’s Greenbuild can now use the full power of EnergyPlus for running its annual energy simulations without comprising on speed. By being able to work on the most widely-respected and accurate energy analysis engine, the performance “insights” generated by Autodesk Insight 360 for a proposed building modeled in FormIt or Revit can now be better trusted. Additional updates to Insight 360 include the ability to use average statewide or nationwide averages for electricity and gas rates to calculate the energy cost for a project, a new retrofit analysis tool for comparing actual building utility costs and recorded weather data for a retrofit project, and compliance with gbXML’s new Level 3 certification for Building Information Model (BIM) and Building Energy Model (BEM) translation.

Vectorworks and Graphisoft

In addition to Autodesk, two additional leading BIM developers, Vectorworks and Graphisoft, also exhibited their solutions at Greenbuild. What they have in common—apart from the same parent company, Nemetschek—is that their performance analysis solutions are built into their BIM offerings. In the case of Vectorworks, this is Energos, while for ArchiCAD, it is EcoDesigner. While both Vectorworks and Graphisoft used Greenbuild to showcase their main BIM applications as well, it was, undoubtedly, the energy analysis components of these applications that were most relevant to the theme of the conference.

Vectorworks’ Energos tool is fairly new, launched just a year ago in the 2016 release of the application (see AECbytes Newsletter #76). As with all built-in analysis tools, it allows designers to get a better idea of the energy performance of a proposed design being modeled in Vectorworks and make critical decisions about sustainability as the design evolves. Energos was enhanced in the recently launched 2017 version of Vectorworks by providing the user with greater control over the precision of the various types of units utilized by Energos, allowing the analysis to be far more accurate. In addition, user created geometry can now be included within Energos calculations by adding the appropriate Energos records to these objects (Figure 5).

Figure 5. The ability to include user created geometry in Energos calculations.

While Graphisoft’s EcoDesigner tool for ArchiCAD-based energy analysis has been around for longer (see its AECbytes product review published shortly after its launch in 2010), it is the recent enhancements in the newly released ArchiCAD 20, with their focus on the “I” (information) in BIM, which make for an quicker and more accurate energy analysis. The new filters and graphical overrides in ArchiCAD 20 make it easier to display critical energy efficiency information that has been incorporated into the model. An integrated building performance simulation tool helps turn ArchiCAD BIM models into multiple-thermal-zone Building Energy Models (BEM), allowing high-end simulation and reporting to be done right within ArchiCAD (Figure 6). In addition, EcoDesigner also includes advanced BEM export interfaces (such as gbXML and PHPP) to connect to more specialized analysis applications, enabling collaboration with building energy consultants and allowing data to be exported from ArchiCAD to local building energy code compliance calculation applications.

Figure 6. Using EcoDesigner in ArchiCAD for performing a dynamic energy simulation of a proposed design.

Analysis and Conclusions

In addition to the solutions highlighted here, there were some additional products being showcased in the Technology Pavilion of the Greenbuild Expo. Some of them were general technology solutions not specific to green design, such as Dodge Data & Analytics, which provides construction-related analytics and intelligence, and Procore, which provides construction management software to help firms increase project efficiency and accountability. There was also a brand-new energy-specific solution, Measurabl, which is a commercial real estate energy and sustainability management software that is being used by building owners and operators across several countries to measure, manage, and improve the energy and sustainability performance of their properties (Figure 7). It is good to see some concrete technological developments for measuring and improving energy performance on the FM side of AEC as well.

Figure 7. The Measurabl dashboard for a property in Florida, summarizing its energy performance.

In general, however, I found that the number of technology solutions for sustainable design exhibited at GreenBuild was quite limited, which was surprising to me given that sustainability is one of the key issues of our times. On the other hand, the call for green design is not as vociferous as it was some years ago, when everyone seemed to be jumping on the “green” bandwagon. Perhaps, this is a sign of the “wheat being separated from the chaff” which is not a bad thing, as it means we will be left with a smaller number but more serious and sophisticated solutions.

And, of course, it behooves us to keep in mind that effective green design can only be achieved, first and foremost, by skilled designers who can come up with good design strategies for reducing the energy use of buildings. In the hands of these talented designers, technology tools such as those exhibited at Greenbuild can be greatly amplified, but they will be all but useless otherwise. This, of course, holds true in any type of industry where technology is important, but as technologists, it is helpful to be occasionally reminded that technology is not the be-all and end-all of everything!

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

AECbytes content should not be reproduced on any other website, blog, print publication, or newsletter without permission.

Related Archive Articles

  • Vectorworks Architect 2011
  • A detailed look at the BIM capabilities of Vectorworks Architect, a relatively late entrant into the field of architectural BIM applications, to explore if it is indeed possible to create a full-fledged BIM model with it.
  • Autodesk's Rebranded A360 Cloud Solution
  • This article explores the interface and functionality of its rebranded cloud offering, A360—the platform as well as the tool—and looks at how it compares to other cloud-based project management and collaboration solutions in AEC.
  • Technology Product Highlights from AIA 2013 Expo
  • Enhancements to the conceptual design app, Formit, a new application for design scripting called Dynamo, Trelligence Affinity 8, form.Z 7.0, the new IESVE for Architects, the launch of Vectorworks Cloud Services, the new release of SketchUp from Trimble, and the upcoming TurboSite for Google Glass from IMSI/Design.
  • Assigning Information in ArchiCAD for Material Takeoffs
  • A Building Information Model is built on an integrated 3D database. This tutorial by ArchiCAD expert Tom Simmons examine ways that you can use this database to assign properties to building elements and generate a material takeoff in ArchiCAD.