Last week, the engineering simulation company, SimScale, held a one-day event specifically focused on the AEC industry, highlighting the importance of simulation technology in the design of projects ranging from individual buildings to entire cities. It was held to coincide with World Cities Day, which is held on October 31 every year to promote the global effort to create a more sustainable planet.
SimScale is an engineering simulation company that was started in 2013 and develops cloud-based high-fidelity computational fluid dynamics (CFD), finite element analysis and thermal simulations. It has, until now, been primarily focused on industrial and product design in industries such as aerospace, automotive design, electronics, and consumer products, which is why it has been, until now, relatively unknown in AEC. However, with the growing importance of sustainability in building and infrastructure design, SimScale is expanding the scope of its products and services to the AEC industry (Figure 1), not just with its own line of cloud simulation software but also by jointly developing sustainability tools with leading AEC firms like Thornton Tomasetti and KPF and partnering with technology firms like NVIDIA on its Omniverse offering.
SimScale’s World Cities Day Event provided the opportunity to learn more about these initiatives as well as the larger context of climate resilience from which they have emerged.
The fact that the climate crisis is now seen as the biggest challenge that humanity faces can hardly be disputed, given the rise in global warming and the increasing severity of extreme weather events like hurricanes, flooding, and drought all over the world. Of course, it’s not just the built environment that is exacerbating the climate crisis; industries such as transportation, energy, agriculture, livestock, etc., also play a significant role. While each of these “offenders” is working on innovations within their industries to address the climate crisis — such as the growing move to electric in the transportation industry, or the increasing harnessing of solar power in the energy industry — the AEC industry has its own set of challenges that it needs to address, such as the growth in urbanization, the rapid expansion in the built environment to accommodate population growth, and the profligate energy consumption of our existing building stock.
One of the sessions at the SimScale event presented the concept of the “net zero city” as a key solution the AEC industry needs to adopt to combat climate change. (Net zero refers to the reduction of global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide to zero, which is when global warming will stop: see https://netzeroclimate.org/what-is-net-zero/). The idea is to not only get to net zero, but to get there as quickly as possible; and the city is the right place to start, because by the end of this century, 90% to 95% of the total human population will be living in cities. An action plan to transform a city to a net-zero city was also presented, both in the form of a conceptual infographic (Figure 2) as well as a highly detailed roadmap (Figure 3), laying out what needs to be done at multiple levels of the city by its many players to achieve a net-zero status.
Last year, AECbytes published an article capturing the many technology development initiatives at CORE Studio, the advanced technology group at the leading structural engineering firm, Thornton Tomasetti. These included several specialized custom tools to augment their use of BIM, analysis, coordinating, visualization, and other commercial applications. Adding to this roster is a new digital wind tunnel tool for architects that CORE Studio has developed by integrating SimScale with Rhino. It can perform multi-directional pedestrian comfort and single direction wind studies wind studies powered by SimScale, as shown in Figure 4. The objective for developing a simulation tool built on top of a CAD application is to make it easier for architects and engineers to perform design optimization within their workbench (Figure 5) rather than handing it off externally.
Another joint development effort in AEC is between SimScale and the architectural firm, KFP. Being a global practice, KPF designs projects all over the world, and with the escalating climate crisis, minimizing the operational and embodied carbon emissions of its designs is a top priority. It has developed a new Microclimate Analysis app in-house called FLOW, which is focused on wind simulation as well as thermal analysis. Similar to CORE Studio’s app, the FLOW app is powered by SimScale and works as a plug-in to Rhino (Figure 6), cutting down on both the modeling time and the simulation time, which can typically take hours when done separately and is also very expensive. The simulation is currently available for six locations in the world — Boston, San Francisco, London, New York, Shanghai, and Shenzhen — but more locations are forthcoming. The plan is to deploy this first to all the architects within KPF before opening it up to other firms.
In addition to Thornton Tomasetti and KPF, the SimScale event included brief presentations by the firms, Zaha Hadid Architects and Atkins, showing how they were responding to the climate crisis in their designs. In Zaha Hadid Architects, this has taken the form of a “Science Driven Design” approach that uses analysis tools to understand and optimize the building’s passive behavior and comfort levels while lowering its carbon footprint and environmental impact. To this end, a wide variety of analyses are conducted including wind simulations, daylight analysis, solar exposure, and solar reflection along with the study of materials, renewable energy, energy balance, and other environmental factors. Some of this analysis is done using SimScale’s simulation tools; additionally, several tools and solutions have also been developed in-house for the complex and challenging geometries the firm is known for. Some examples of these analyses are shown in Figures 7, 8, and 9.
At Atkins, which is a global planning, design, engineering, and project management company, the sustainable design approach is in the form of an interoperable “daisy chain” connecting the wide variety of design authoring, design analytics, and custom tools that are used within the firm (Figure 10). As an example, Atkins demonstrated a case study of a project it is working on in the Middle East, an Innovation District for which three different design options were tested and evaluated. The overall concept was to have a cluster of buildings around a central open space, and SimScale’s wind simulation analysis was used to better understand how the open urban spaces in three different design options would perform. The wind speed analysis was correlated to pedestrian comfort, which is also enabled by SimScale (Figure 11). The analysis was helpful —along with other design parameters such as access, relationship of the open space to the buildings, solar radiation, etc. — to determine which option worked best for the project as well as in the detailed design of the open space of the selected option (Figure 12).
And finally, we learned about the integration of SimScale with NVIDIA’s Omniverse — an open platform for real-time 3D visualization and simulation — that was introduced in 2021. (See a detailed overview of the Omniverse in the article on NVIDIA’s GTC 2021 conference and an update on it in the article on the GTC 2022 conference held earlier this year.) While the Omniverse is not just targeted to AEC — its ability to enable synchronous collaboration between multiple team members makes it useful in many fields including movies, gaming, manufacturing, product design, etc. — an increasing number of AEC applications have developed connectors to Omniverse, allowing them to “live sync” to the platform. This means that while all the team members can still continue to work on their tasks within their individual applications, they can see the collective project taking shape in the Omniverse, as everyone’s pieces are plugging into it in real time.
The new SimScale plugin allows scenes to be exported from Omniverse to SimScale, where the simulation is performed, and the results are then exported back to Omniverse. This allows designers that are using Omniverse to collaborate on a project to easily deploy SimScale’s simulation platform to analyze the environmental performance of their designs as they are being developed (Figure 13).
Simulation is, of course, far from being the only tool in the arsenal of the AEC industry to create more sustainable buildings and infrastructure. We need so much more — innovative design techniques, improved building materials, the development of sustainable products, more environmental research, stricter energy regulations, etc. But the ability to accurately assess the environment impact of a proposed design through simulation and continue to iterate it until the results are satisfactory is significant, not just for improving the sustainability of the planet at a macro level, but also to improve individual well-being and comfort at a micro level.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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