Autodesk has been hard at work to develop products that contribute to sustainable design within many of its divisions. V1 editor Matt Ball spoke with Phil Bernstein, Autodesk vice president of AEC Industry Strategy and Relations, about the current state of sustainable design, green building, and the future of sustainable design practices, including the Metropolis concept.
V1: What’s your definition of sustainable design?
Bernstein: There are a lot different definitions floating around right now. I would say that sustainable design is establishing a responsible relationship between constructed elements, whether it’s a building, a road or piece of infrastructure, and the environment in which that element exists. A designer that is working sustainably has an explicit agenda to treat the environment in a responsible way. That could involve the use of resources, the relationship of the design to the site or the way the inhabitants of that building are going to experience the environment.
V1: During the opening plenary of this year’s Greenbuild event, you unveiled a sustainable analysis dashboard concept that you developed with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). That concept really fascinates me, and I’d like to learn more about it.
Bernstein: That was my project, and it really wasn’t as much of a product idea as an assertion about how the future of digital design in the sustainable world might look.
There’s a video about the concept that you can see on www.autodesk.com/greenresearch . When you see the video you’ll realize that we didn’t really present a design for a piece of software. The project was simulated on a large 4′ x 8′ multi-touch display screen with three people standing in front of it. They were interacting with three or four different kinds of technology that might assist the sustainable design process — a building information model of a building and a site, various analytical algorithms that were reporting various characteristics about the design as the design was being developed, and some overlays about LEED validation and LEED points as they were being collected.
We didn’t get up there to demonstrate a piece of software to support design right now, what we were really trying to do was to assert a vision of the future for how sustainable design using digital technology might work. We’re now going back to explore how we might change our product to meet that vision. Looking at the kinds of changes we might make to our modelers, and what kind of additional analysis templates we might want to build.
V1: I notice that your building information modeling (BIM) solution, Revit, ties into two different organizations that conduct energy analysis on buildings. Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) and Green Building Studio have tools that sit outside of BIM, but can take BIM information as an input. How do these approaches fit into your vision?
Bernstein: We think that the correct design is to establish an iterative relationship between a modeling platform and an analysis engine, so that at the moment of your choosing you can ask the analysis engine how the model is doing in terms of its sustainability. The Revit platform has interoperable relationships with many different analysis software programs, and we intend to expand that list even further in the future.
The two companies that you mention have two different ideas about that. In the case of Green Building Studio from Geopraxis, you disgorge a blob of XML, post it to the Web, and they do the analysis and send that analysis back to you. In the case of IES, that’s a piece of software that runs on the same machine as the modeling software. You can relate information directly between Revit and IES and IES will report the energy consumption/carbon footprint characteristics.
V1: Does IES come anywhere close to the dashboard model? Is there any real-time back and forth between model and analysis?
Bernstein: It’s real-time in the sense that there’s push button compatibility between Revit and IES. You can query IES and the information crosses the bridge and gets run. But one of the provocative things about the sustainability analysis dashboard is the concept that the information will be simultaneous.
Simultaneous analysis is a much larger and more visionary design problem. It’s theoretically possible of course, but will take time to develop. IES was set up as a freestanding PC-based, single screen application, and that’s not how it works.
V1: Do these analysis tools take into account the parametric model within Revit?
Bernstein: In order to achieve a coherent view of the characteristics of a design you need a coherent model. What people have done previously is to abstract, extract or assemble information from those two-dimensional drawings and essentially re-enter that information into analysis programs like IES.
A tool like Revit has a three-dimensionally described, parametrically accurate, behaviorally interesting digital model of a building. It’s a building simulation. From that virtual building, it is much easier for a tool like IES to evaluate the energy consumption of that model, to see the water it will use, to understand the daylighting. There’s not a re-mapping process, and you don’t have to invent information that’s not there because it wasn’t described in 2D drawings.
V1: BIM, as it stands now, is fairly young in its development. I’m imagining that the full possibilities of a parametric model haven’t been explored and that there are a number of exciting ways that the model can be leveraged, including larger geographies.
Bernstein: That idea is central to Autodesk’s BIM strategy. The essence of rich sustainable design is being able to reason inferentially from a digital model of the thing you’re designing, whether it’s a roadway, a neighborhood, a building or a building component. The best way to reason inferentially while designing is with a digital model. The relationships between models of different scales are pretty explicit, and that’s a clear part of our strategy.
V1: I understand that the USGBC is working on standards for larger geographies such as sites and neighborhoods.
Bernstein: They’re working on a couple of LEED standards, not just for building design, but also for neighborhood and regional design. The USGBC is working on a LEED for new development, essentially a sustainable neighborhood design standard. We’re watching that closely because we don’t just have building modeling tools such as Revit, we have civil engineering and geospatial modeling tools and building component modeling tools. Autodesk feels that all of these tools will support sustainable design approaches.
For example, a project that we screened at Greenbuild and Autodesk University called Metropolis is essentially a geospatial viewing system that reports cross sections of information about the geospatial area that you’re investigating. There are viewers and analysis algorithms and tools that allow you to understand the behavior of a region or a neighborhood. That idea has gained interest.
The USGBC is interested in providing tools for the broad-scale design community, and those are the same goals that we’re interested in. They’re trying to create sustainable design standards and we’re trying to create digital design tools. There’s an excellent intersection between those objectives.
V1: Within Autodesk, the different design tools are segregated by design discipline out of necessity I would guess. It’s good to hear that there’s a vision to bring some of this expertise together. Is there a cross-disciplinary team looking at integration at different scales for sustainable design?
Bernstein: Autodesk is working toward that in a couple of different ways. The AEC industry is handled by one division, but we have good working relationships with our sister divisions that work with manufacturing and geospatial issues.
There’s also a corporate director of sustainability at Autodesk. One of her core responsibilities is to coordinate all the sustainable design efforts that are going on, and to get our product strategies synchronized. There’s a corporate commitment to making this happen that’s pretty strong. Carl Bass, our CEO, is a very large supporter of this.
V1: Is there a lot of automation in these toolsets? Iterative design functions are something that I’ve seen at Autodesk in the past, but mostly in the manufacturing sector. I’m wondering if that type of iterative design is incorporated elsewhere.
Bernstein: We’re focused pretty exclusively on the representation and analysis parts of problem right now. Those are the parts that we think are the most important. I suspect that over the very long term we’ll get to the point of automation, but we’re not there yet.
At the same time we’re working on the sustainability projects, we also believe there are strong relationships between manufacturing tools, AEC tools, geospatial tools and our media and entertainment tools. We’re working on a lot of cross connections between those.
An integrated AEC demo at Autodesk University showed a variety of Autodesk tools being used throughout the design process. We used manufacturing tools, project collaboration tools, design tools, and not all of them were made by our division.
One of the more interesting parts of that presentation involved a designer that designed a sunlight control louver in Inventor, which is our manufacturing modeler. He then moved that Inventor model into Revit and used that louver model as a wall in his Revit model. We’re starting to see those kinds of design intersections in a lot of different areas. I think designing for sustainability is one of the things that will tie the different tools together.
V1: The General Services Administration (GSA) has established a mandate for BIM, and I’m wondering if that has pushed BIM use and sophistication forward.
Bernstein: They’ve been very good advocates and leaders, raising awareness and creating demand. But their focus started with a very specific problem about understanding and monitoring the creation and use of space in their projects. Questions such as: How much space do we need, where is our space, what space do we get with the project, how does the space we receive conform to our needs?
Because they’re the government, they can make the concept of BIM attractive for their consultants, but they can’t force anyone to do it. Calvin Kam, who is leading this effort for GSA, has done an excellent job with it.
V1: Are standards going to be a strong means for integrating the various technologies?
Bernstein: If you take a broad definition of standards, I think they will. If you define standards as everyone’s software reads everyone else’s data, we’ll never get anywhere. If you define standards as the community agreeing on underlying business relationships between adjacent software, and then supporting connections between those pieces of software, then I think you’ll get there.
Top-down global intergalactic standards rarely work. A lot has to be built over time incrementally as we get more experience with what’s going on. Do I ever think there will be open source BIM standard that everyone will adopt? Doubtful. There’s too much proprietary work necessary to do BIM.
You can imagine the amount of work that it took to get to the DWG format, to do 2D and 3D graphics (lines, arcs and circles). Doing a building information model is two orders of magnitude more work than that. To get something that represents a building, and describing every element of a building in a database, is a big undertaking.
V1: Can you speculate a bit on the future of sustainable design?
Bernstein: We’re trying to make three or four lines of inquiry and market development intersect into an intelligent strategy. You have the rapid evolution of: sustainable design, digital technology infrastructure (software and hardware), different project delivery methodologies (how people design and implement projects), and the LEED standard itself.
LEED is going to change next year. It’s going to be structured and organized differently than the current LEED 2.0 standard. If you’re going to support all these advancements with software, you have to think about how all these things are going to converge. We’re working on the intersection point, the moment when demand, technology and a mature standard make a different market.
V1: I’m really interested in how the environment plays into this. When you have a building you have a very defined system with very defined elements. We treat the Earth as a system, and we have some understanding of how interactions take place, but we’re so early in our understanding of the impact of a building on a site, and know even less on the impacts of larger scale developments locally or regionally.
Bernstein: You’re right. One of the things that we’re very interested in is idea of the network effect, which is what happens when you take multiple designs and plug them into the network that is a neighborhood.
We have a number of customers right now that are using our tools and modeling regions and neighborhoods with very sophisticated landforms, and doing analysis of permeable to nonpermeable surfaces, optimizing location and parking, looking at rainwater collection strategies, and calculating carbon footprints.
When you have a model it is a lot easier to drive the data than through traditional manual processes. So much of the geometry and the basic characteristics of the design already exist in the model and you don’t have to recreate them or create them inferentially.
V1: Another thing that was reported on at the Greenbuild event is the Autodesk/AIAGreen Index Survey. Is that an ongoing effort?
Bernstein: We refine the questions yearly and expand the number of targets every year. This is our third year doing the Index, but the first time we partnered with the AIA. Basically, we’re trying to measure the characteristics of sustainable design that we think the market needs to understand. The results of the survey guide the way that we think about the problem.
V1: Is the benefit of using BIM a key component of the survey?
Bernstein: There are enough BIM users that we now have a statistically valid response. The sub-segment of the market that are BIM users are also using accompanying analytical tools. We found for the first time this year that the likelihood that a designer will be doing sustainable design or using analysis software increases dramatically if they’re using BIM.
It validates what seems to be intuitively obvious. But we know in the technology realm that what seems obvious doesn’t always work out that way. There’s often something that causes people not to move in what seems an obvious direction.
There’s a big discussion right now about why the civil engineering market is struggling with the value of model-based design. Part of the problem is that engineering firms are paid for roadway work as a multiplier of their salary cost, and there’s no incentive to get more efficient. Modeling means that you’ll do the project faster and more efficiently, but you’ll get paid much less based on the pricing model.
Trying to triangulate the business and technology drivers is a very interesting part of managing our strategy. There are a lot of strange anecdotal characteristics of the design business models that create behaviors that are counter-intuitive. That’s something that will break down as the software gets more intelligent.