Autocase: Cost-Benefit Analysis of Sustainable DesignAECbytes Review (March 2, 2017)

Most AEC professionals are not economists. Yet, each one of our design decisions has manifold consequences, not just financially (in terms of the budget required to build and operate the project), but also socially (in terms of the people whose lives will be impacted by it) as well as from a broader environmental perspective (in terms of how it will impact the planet, in the short term as well as the long term). Chances are that most designers don’t dwell too much on this kind of analysis but instead do a lot of their work based on their intuition of what is a good design decision and what isn’t.

Unfortunately, intuition can only go so far, and increasingly project owners are starting to require hard “proof” that a certain design decision or design proposal is actually going to improve the financial, social, and environmental impact (referred to as the “triple bottom line” or TBL) of a project. And we’re not just talking of nebulous estimates here—for example, the assumption that a green roof on a building will be more expensive in the short term but will benefit the occupants socially and will be better for the environment than a traditional hardscape roof. Those who commission buildings and infrastructure projects need these benefits to be quantified in the form of actual dollar numbers, so that they can compare them for different design proposals and decide which proposal to go ahead with.

Calculating the TBL of a project in actual numbers requires a systematic and exhaustive cost-benefit analysis of the project to be undertaken, a task that has traditionally been done manually by specialized economists, hired on a consulting basis by the project owners. It is also very expensive and doesn’t easily support the kind of quick “what-if” analysis for multiple design options that we have come to expect using analysis-capable design tools such as BIM. Given that we have started automating so many different kinds of analyses required in AEC (energy, lighting, cost, scheduling, etc.) it was only a matter of time before TBL analysis started to be automated as well.

This is the exact premise behind Autocase—automating the analysis of the financial, social, and environmental (TBL) costs and benefits of design projects. In fact, the name Autocase itself comes from “Automated Business Case.” Autocase is developed by a company called Impact Infrastructure headed by executives from HDR and Stantec with expertise in traditional TBL analysis, which they have encapsulated in Autocase.  The product was initially launched in January 2015, including an accompanying plug-in to Autodesk’s Civil 3D for stormwater analysis, and it now has a module for buildings as well, specifically for those buildings applying for LEED certification. Let’s take a closer look at Autocase for Buildings and see how it works.

Triple Bottom Line (TBL) Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA)

TBL analysis is not new or specific to AEC. It is an accounting framework introduced in 1994 that takes into account three criteria—financial, social, and environmental (or ecological)—when evaluating a business venture, project, or performance (Figure 1). The idea is that instead of looking at the short-terms profits alone, the evaluation should take a broader perspective and look at the long-term costs. (A detailed explanation of TBL can be found here.) Taking a simple example, making cars more affordable in countries like India and China by reducing taxes will benefit automobile companies in these countries in the short term, but the increase in cars will lead to more pollution and respiratory problems for the people living there, reducing the quality of life and increasing long-term costs in health care. While the “quality of life” cannot be quantified, the increase in healthcare costs definitely can. And this is precisely what TBL analysis is intended to do.

Figure 1. A depiction of the TBL accounting framework applied to any field. (Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

In an AEC project, TBL analysis is all the more pertinent as every project has a long-term cost, a fact that is well known and universally accepted by everyone in the field. The knowledge that buildings and infrastructure have direct and immediate social and environmental impacts is, in fact, the cornerstone of much of the industry’s thinking and activity. By putting hard numbers to the costs versus benefits for the financial, social, and environmental impacts of an AEC project, those who are responsible for designing and commissioning these projects can make more informed decisions and choose from among different alternatives. In fact, TBL analysis is now required by many government agencies responsible for infrastructure projects (such as the US DOT), specified by major owners (such as San Francisco International Airport), and rewarded by major rating schemes including LEED by the USGBC, which is awarding an additional LEED point for projects using TBL analysis in their application for LEED certification.

How Autocase Works

Autocase is a cloud-based tool, and its Buildings module is currently focused on buildings applying for LEED credit. The workflow of the tool would be familiar to anyone responsible for filling out the information needed for LEED certification. You start off by defining a project with basic details such as project location, building type, total area, number of occupants, construction start date and duration, and operation duration, all of which are pertinent to its TBL analysis. Subsequently, you can drill down into five different LEED categories, Energy and Atmosphere, Indoor Environmental Quality, Water Efficiency, Sustainable Sites, and Location and Transportation, access the LEED credits associated with that category that you would like to apply for, and input the data for it. The Status bar at the top allows you, at a glance, to view the project's estimated social and environmental value, as well as how many credits have been filled out. An example using a sample project is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The use of Autocase for Buildings on a sample project.

Inputting the data for a credit is pretty straightforward if you know the numbers, which should have been calculated for the LEED accreditation process anyway. So, for example, for the Optimize Energy Performance credit under Energy and Atmosphere, you would enter data such as the amount of electricity and natural gas saved every year, the kind of energy analysis (whole building energy simulation or prescriptive compliance) that was used, and some additional criteria required by LEED for this credit (Figure 3).

Figure 3. The data that is needed for the Optimize Energy Performance credit under the Energy and Atmosphere category.

After the data has been entered, the results of the analysis are computed by Autocase in a matter of seconds and displayed in a detailed Results page, as shown in Figure 4. A summary of the project's split between Financial, Social, and Environmental value is displayed at the top, while the lower section of the page contains detailed results, including value by point, impact, and stakeholder group. The results can be downloaded as a PDF document, either in the form of a two page summary or a full report, which, in the case of the sample project shown here, ran to 126 pages.

Figure 4. The results of the TBL analysis for the sample project, as seen on screen. Both the top and lower parts of the Results page are shown.

Assessment

I found the interface of Autocase very easy to navigate and use. Of course, the real effort lies in compiling the data needed for the analysis, and I would imagine that there are dedicated people in AEC firms that are responsible for gathering this data for a project. But once all this data had been compiled and input into the application, the results are almost instantaneously generated, almost by magic. While it may seem deceptively simple, there is actually a lot happening behind the scenes—many algorithms, formulas, calculations, and data processing—as evidenced by the size of the full report, which can be studied in detail to understand the analytics behind the numbers. In fact, I think that Autocase does such a good job of hiding the complexity of the analysis that it seems almost “too easy” to be trusted.

With so many analysis tools in AEC now plugging into BIM applications and getting the data they need directly from BIM models, the current workflow in Autocase where all the data needs to be manually entered seems a little antiquated. Of course, most of the data that is needed for the TBL analysis in Autocase (such as local and historical precipitation and weather data, demographic data, economic/job data, and so on) does not actually require the geometric and spatial information about the design that other traditional analysis tools like energy, lighting, cost, scheduling, etc. use, so even if an integration did exist, it would reduce only slightly the amount of data that would need to be compiled and input into Autocase.  That said, Impact Infrastructure is exploring some integration with BIM tools for buildings as well as for infrastructure design. The first avatar of the application as a plug-in to AutoCAD Civil 3D still exists, but it is not relevant to the Buildings module, and is even somewhat outdated for infrastructure projects. It would definitely help Autocase, at least from a perception standpoint, if it could integrate with popular conceptual design tools such as SketchUp—it would make the application seem more “intelligent.”

Impact Infrastructure is also exploring integration with other non-BIM applications that can automatically bring in some of the other data that Autocase needs such as GIS. Going forward, the application could also benefit by integrating with energy analysis tools which can bring in the energy and LEED data automatically, and possibly, estimating tools as well.

Also, in addition to the current focus on buildings that are applying for LEED credit, Impact Infrastructure is looking to expand Autocase to additional modules that would cover other types of projects, such as generic buildings or other forms of rating schemes. This is in response to the feedback from existing customers that “valuing the intangibles in dollar terms” is valuable outside of their LEED process. As the AEC industry gradually evolves to a stage where sustainable design is the norm and buildings do not have to “apply” for LEED credit to prove that they are “green,” it would seem to be prescient for Autocase to be able to do a generic TBL cost-benefit analysis for a project, rather than one focused on sustainable design only.

Conclusion

Autocase is the first tool of its kind in a very niche field, automating the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) cost benefit analysis of infrastructure projects. Any task in the AEC industry that can now be done in-house instead of handing it over to an outside specialist firm is a welcome development, as it makes the process more transparent and allows many more design alternatives to be tested and trade-offs weighed than it would be possible to do otherwise, helping to arrive at more informed and hopefully better designs. The focus of the tool on LEED helps to build the case for sustainable design, proving in tangible terms, in actual dollar values, that sustainable design decisions—several of which can be explored to determine which work best—are not just beneficial socially and environmentally, but can even be better financially in the long run.

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 lachmi@aecbytes.com.


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