High Performance Building Design: The Advantage of Using Energy Modeling and Analysis

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California’s 2016 Energy Standards, effective as of January 01, 2017, are the most recent upgrade to a policy that has been in place for almost 40 years with the purpose of saving electricity and natural gas, thus reducing the need to build more power plants and ultimately helping to diminish our impact on the environment.

The main idea behind these standards is that by using better materials, processes and designs, developers, constructors, architects or designers – and even manufacturers and suppliers – can help to make buildings more efficient in terms of energy and water usage, as well as for indoor air quality.

Although they are all-encompassing standards covering construction, additions or alterations in both residential and nonresidential buildings, 2016 rules have a particular focus on attics, walls, water heating and lighting. This means that as a policy, we are facing more stringent sets of norms that regulate very specific aspects of our work, and in order to keep a sound bottom line, we must be very creative to comply with the law, satisfy our clients and definitely, remain competitive.

The standards have three sets of regulations: the first one is mandatory for any case. They are the base for maintaining and consolidating the level of achievement in terms of reduced emissions, energy usage and construction of new power plants. The two other sets are where we, as professionals, have to make a decision. Either we take the prescriptive set, with its minimum and top measures or we choose the performance one, looking to “perform” our best solution; that is, achieving a high performance building design, through a complete energy analysis of our proposal.

The prescriptive option is a safe bet. Just follow them, and you will be on safe ground in terms of compliance. The downside to this option is that costs will go higher since there is ample room for inefficiencies, that is, we will not be able to analyze or explore possible modifications or combinations that make our design a better performer. We can call it, the safest path. 

The performance option is the one where designers and builders will be able to find the most efficient solution to every project with regards to materials, water, lighting, etc., because we can incorporate innovations in many ways, be it materials, design and even technologies. In this option, we also have the advantage of adjusting our design to the particular climate zone in which the state of California has been divided. This option then, gives us the opportunity to find what we can call the most efficient path. 

Now, how can we design using the most efficient solution for every and each of thousands of details? This can be both time consuming and error prone. There is no way we can juggle so many variables at the same time, without losing control of our design. 

The answer lies in energy analysis computer programs, which allow to run simulations with many possible sets of solutions in order to find the best and most cost-effective overall design. We can analyze many possibilities and find the best, most efficient one. 

But having the software is one thing, and finding the best combination of solutions is another. That is where expertise is needed; we need someone capable of extracting the most out of the software while keeping control on cost, compliance with the standards, and attractiveness of the design. And no doubt, the earlier we do this, the less costly it will be for us.

California is a beautiful and diverse environment. Making it better and maintaining the quality of life that characterizes it, is a huge task. Standards, being what they are, can make that task harder. For architecture firms, non-compliance is not an option. And costs have to be kept down. Energy analysis computer programs are the answer to make both ends meet. 

E3 speaks energy. We are fluent in load calculations as well as 3-D and performance modeling.


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