By Tilde Herrera

Over the last several years, many companies have turned to cloud computing to help them further their sustainability goals.

By storing data and software virtually, which is accessible from our laptops and desktops, they eliminate the need to run their own data centers, while also reducing energy and electronics waste.

But cloud computing also allows peop le to collaborate and share data in ways they''ve never been able to in the past. At the same time, the cloud offers a high degree of computational power that may unleash a revolution in the way we design buildings.

A webcast held this week explored the potential of the cloud to change building design. It was a high-level view of the opportunities, current struggles and ways in which vendors are trying to bridge the gap.

First, a little background on where we''re at. It turns out we don''t know as much as we need to know about the way buildings perform. There''s a few reasons for this, according to Steve Sanderson, a founding partner of virtual design and construction consultancy CASE.

He noted that lots of people set energy reduction targets for buildings, many referencing the 2030 Challenge, which asks the worldwide architecture community to commit to carbon neutral building operations by 2030.

"While this is an ambitious and admirable goal, the fundamental issue is we have absolutely no idea how well we''re actually doing," Sanderson said.

The problem: Energy code practice is based on expected energy use of a theoretical sample of buildings that all meet code requirements, which is entirely different from using actual measured building energy use as a basis for determining progress toward those goals and are often too optimistic.

It gets worse: The building industry has no building performance data that can be used for comparison. The U.S. Energy Information Administration Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey used to fill this role but for a variety of reasons, the last useful data set is from 2003, with budget cuts finally axing the program earlier this year.

In other words, buildings across the country are earning green rating points based on theoretical models and obsolete data.

"This problem lays not in a networked cloud of machines, but in a networked crowd of people," Sanderson said. "The true potential of the cloud as it relates to building energy is not to churn through more and more precise simulations of predicted performance on theoretical buildings, but to connect the designers, owners and occupants of these buildings to actual performance data."

Other future opportunities for building design in the cloud: More computational power. A shift toward more biological design processes.

"Instead of chasing one solution, we now have the capacity to explore multiple designs and take these multiple designs to a very high level of maturity where we understand their performance much better and we can work with a greater amount of certainty," said Sivam Krish, founder and CEO of Genometri Pte Ltd. "Programs will increasingly handle much of the design work."

Speed is another blessed benefit of the cloud, said Matt Jezyk, senior manager of AEC Conceptual Design Products at Autodesk. He described how a client using Autodesk managed to significantly cut the time needed to take baseline energy use data of several buildings, each of which took up to 1.5 months.

"They started to use our back-end tools Conceptual Building Analysis and Green Building Studio Web Service, both connected with Project Vasari, and were able to take that five to six weeks per building down to four days per building," he said. "This is the type of thing we start to see with a tightly-integrated solution, and with a collaborative team working together, you can start to become more productive, start to answer questions more efficiently and then move on to the next level of design discussion."


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