Using Design Technology to Improve Building Performance

It has long been a challenge for designers to identify the best sustainability strategies for their buildings, but the emergence of a data-driven technology is helping them find better ways to enhance environmental performance.

Computational design—the application of computer programming and scripting to the design process—has introduced many useful applications to the design process, such as automating workflows, solving complex problems and generating data visualizations.

WSP USA’s Built Ecology practice, which is dedicated to creating a sustainable built environment, has been championing the use of computational design as part of its high-performance building analytics and consulting services.

“Built Ecology is leveraging computational design to enhance our building performance analytics and better integrate with our clients’ design process,” said Elliot Glassman, WSP USA building performance associate. “We can provide more robust analysis in early design phases to help inform fundamental decisions that will impact energy, daylight and comfort, leading to more successful project outcomes.”

Computational design can benefit a project’s environmental performance in multiple ways.

“Early in a project, there is not a lot known about the design, which can make it challenging to provide accurate feedback,” Glassman said. “Computational design allows us to explore a wide range of scenarios using brute-force modelling combinations of multiple variables. Metadata analysis can reveal which parameters are most critical for achieving performance targets and set the course for the design’s development.”

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©WSP USA

The computational design process can help designers make quicker data-driven decisions that will eventually lead to a more economical, environmentally responsive and inspiring built environment.

Growing Popularity

While computational design has been around for several years, it has recently gained widespread adoption as visual programming tools like Grasshopper and Dynamo have made scripting more accessible to designers. Built Ecology provided comprehensive sustainability consulting services and incorporated computational design on many international projects, including:

• Viet Capital Center, a mixed-use development in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
• U.S. Government buildings in Latin America and Asia
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), a medical education building in Bethesda, Maryland
14th@Irving, a technology training and networking office building with a multi-level ecosystem in New York City
• Block 18, Amazon’s 17-story office tower in Seattle

WSP uses the tool to find solutions that reconcile conflicting project priorities.

On the Viet Capital Center, for example, the client wanted to make sure the occupants were protected from direct sun, while the architectural design team wanted a highly glazed building with clear glass.

“Seemingly, these goals were in conflict, but we used computational tools to help design and optimize an exterior sun screen that would effectively filter direct sun, preventing visual comfort concerns while reducing solar cooling loads,” Glassman said. “The screen was designed to allow in indirect light to provide a well-lit interior and to preserve views. Since the screen was reducing the solar energy reaching the window, the design team had more flexibility in the specification of the glass transparency.”

For the USUHS project, WSP conducted a series of parametric studies of the façade to find the most effective parameters for daylight and energy performance.

“It was a great collaboration because the design team was really interested in having this input as part of the process,” Glassman said. “We were able to provide façade parameters such as window-to-wall ratio, shading ratio, and glass specifications for the different orientations of the building, which were incorporated into the design.”

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©WSP USA

WSP used computational tools to help design and optimize an exterior sun screen for the Viet Capital Center, meeting the goals of both the client and architect.

From Hesitance to Confidence

Still, clients are sometimes hesitant to diverge from traditional design processes that have been successful in the past, even as increasing building performance requirements demand more than the business-as-usual approach.

“Many clients do not understand how computational design technology can be leveraged to drive and inform the designs for performance and environmental responsiveness,” Glassman said. “Often, we are brought into the discussion after many of the design decisions that matter most are locked in—such as orientation, massing, and glazing ratio—and we are only able to trim around the edges to improve performance.”

Traditional modelling relies on fixed inputs and geometry, which can make it difficult to keep pace with the changing nature of the design throughout the design process. With computational design, inputs and geometry can be parameterized, providing more flexibility to make updates quickly.

Glassman’s team is addressing this challenge by illustrating what can be done with computational design to inform the building through environmental considerations, and demonstrate how it can be used to drive designs instead of just evaluate them.

“To leverage the full benefits of computational design-fueled performance analysis requires an integrated design process where we can provide early input,” Glassman said. “We can empower the design team to make data-driven design decisions that are most consistent with their architectural vision but that perform well.”

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©WSP USA

Matthew Payne (left) and Elliot Glassman (right) introduce WSP clients to the benefits of computational design analytics to hit environmental performance goals.

Improved Integration

Since more clients are using scripting for explorations of architectural forms, computational design gives WSP the opportunity to better integrate with the design process. The open source nature of the computational design scripting environment allows the combining of different analysis types for a more comprehensive view.

“Performance analysis typically is limited by the capabilities of the software tools we use,” Glassman said. “With scripting, we can create our own custom software, opening a wider range of possibilities to answer emerging and project specific questions. We can overlay a layer of analysis to their formal exportation to give feedback on the performance implications of each alternative, and generate unique visualizations that better communicate the factors influencing building performance so that it is better understood by all project stakeholders.”

WSP provides meaningful insights into the way the building can be designed to minimize loads, improve indoor environmental quality, incorporate renewable energy, and a host of other performance considerations.

“We can balance multiple performance aspects such as energy, peak loads, daylight, and visual comfort so that we don’t inadvertently optimize for one at the expense of the other,” he said. “We can also integrate other sources of data as a way of interpreting results and understanding the implications of decisions on other design considerations.”

As it gains wider acceptance, Glassman believes that computational design will revolutionize the way buildings are designed and constructed.

“The aspects of the built environment that computational design can benefit are only starting to be explored,” he said. “Eventually, the designs of our buildings and cities will be driven by data relating to the environmental influences, the behavior of occupants, and the efficiency of the structure and infrastructure. By demonstrating how we have leveraged these workflows to achieve successful architectural and performance outcomes on other projects, we hope to promote their wider use.”

He said there are an unlimited number of ways that the scripting can be used to model and optimize the performance of the built environment. “It will be interesting to see how social and environmental concerns can be incorporated together in the future.”

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©WSP USA

WSP uses computational design to improve daylight and visual comfort, energy performance of building façades and optimize shading and solar panel placement.

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