Chu: For Green Building Design, We Need to Go Open Source

The Department of Energy just opened up $346 million in stimulus funds for boosting the energy efficiency of new and existing buildings — but ultimately the agency’s chief, Steven Chu, wants energy efficiency, and other elements of green building, to be incorporated into structure designs from the get-go by way of an open-source software platform.

screen_shot_ep_sketchupIn other words, in addition to funding tech investments and retrofits with tax dollars in the near term, he wants the DOE to provide advanced design tools at affordable prices or for free so companies can implement them at a relatively low cost.

“We should be inventing a new way of designing buildings — just like we engineered airplanes,” Chu said, offering as an example software for how to integrate passive shading into a building. He didn’t go into many details, but it seems like the idea would be for architects and engineers to be able to run a program that pinpoints things like the most efficient window orientation for a particular site, and then tweak their designs to maximize a building’s energy performance.

“We’re talking about an open-source software platform,” Chu said. “You begin to develop a method, just as there is Windows or Linux…There is still incentive for private commercial development, but you set the building industry on a new commercial path.”

Anno Scholten, vice president of business development for NovusEdge, told us recently that it’s time for the commercial building energy management industry — which is now controlled by a few large companies and “limited by the small number of gateway technologies availableā€ — to start taking a cue from the IT industry and develop open-source projects. The DOE may be taking similar cues to advance and distribute its green building tools.

This idea isn’t entirely new. The DOE already provides energy modeling software called EnergyPlus, which simulates building heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and other energy flows. The program and source code can be licensed at no charge or up to $2,500, depending on whether someone is the end user or planning to distribute the technology.

There’s also a free plug-in for Google’s 3D Sketchup drawing program, called OpenStudio, which helps integrate the program with EnergyPlus, and a program for lighting design and rendering called Radiance, which the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (which Chu used to direct) developed in partnership with the Swiss federal government. The DOE began offering an open-source version of that in 2002.

As Worldchanging noted back in 2007, researchers at the national labs have been working on these green building simulation tools for years, but with limited funding. With all of the money now flowing into developing advanced, efficient buildings, we may see advances coming out of the national labs that could help make these programs more effective.

Carving that new commercial path for the building sector quickly — and making more advanced green building design tools widely available at low or no cost — may be particularly important in China, where Chu noted there will be “a huge buildout in the next couple years.” The silver lining to that rapid expansion is that we can learn from it. China, Chu said, can serve as a kind of “test laboratory.”

That doesn’t mean he expects the U.S. to fall behind. “Once the American innovation machine gets properly motivated and properly revved up,” he said, “the United States should become the leader in this new industrial revolution.”

Graphic courtesy DOE

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