Autodesk's Ambition to Change the Green Building Industry

GreenBuilding1When software is designed well, it can radically improve the way an industry works. That’s the vision behind ongoing efforts at Autodesk (s ADSK) to upgrade its building performance modeling software — to make energy retrofits of buildings cheaper and easier. The San Rafael, Calif.-based firm believes the improvements it’s making to its suite of construction industry software will compress the time it takes to do detailed sustainability analysis (energy, water, emissions) from weeks to days and as a result, make such analysis cheap enough to be accessible to a majority of the building market.

More than 100 million buildings in the U.S. are leaky and inefficient and could use an energy makeover with measures like better insulation, heating and air conditioning systems and natural ventilation. But most of these structures are relatively small (homes and offices), and the cost of building accurate computer models to do detailed analysis on them is often too high with current technology, according to John Kennedy, senior manager for sustainable analysis products at Autodesk. He says energy service companies (ESCOs) -– businesses that develop, install and finance energy efficiency projects –- today won’t touch a building less than 10,000 square feet.

But Autodesk believes the economics will dramatically change once engineers and architects can build a model in, say, a day or two and have it automatically spit out recommendations with the impact on cost and performance for each measure. Some of the new or improved features Autodesk is working on include: an increased use of cloud computing that would make sophisticated analysis quicker, more leverage of deep reservoirs of data about local weather conditions and the performance of different building products, more accurate and faster modeling of natural ventilation and water use, and an emphasis on making sure all of this “sustainability criteria” can be easily and accurately shared between the different software used by architects and engineers. Kennedy didn’t provide a timeline for these upgrades.

Autodesk also wants to incorporate the embodied energy of building materials (the total energy used in manufacturing, transporting and installing) more thoroughly into its software models. “It makes no sense to put triple-paned windows in a house in Los Angeles when the energy saved from its use would never exceed the amount needed to build it,” Kennedy said. Few vendors currently supply or even have this data to provide, he added.

Still, even with Autodesk’s planned improvements, it’s unclear how far down into the building market its software can penetrate. At some point, it will always be cheaper for boutique energy retrofitters focused on the residential market to analyze a home than an architectural or engineering firm charging $150 an hour.

Autodesk says that current versions of its software –- such as performance modeler Ecotect Analysis and its on-demand Green Building Studio –- has already shrunk the time it takes for sustainability analysis from months to weeks, and the firm can also boast of a growing customer base. But the use of building performance software, from Autodesk or anyone else, is still relatively uncommon among design firms.

Part of the reason for this slow adoption is the perceived high cost of using these tools. Another reason, however, is that the industry –- broadly speaking -– is still operating collectively as if energy and water use don’t need to be factored in during design. It’s what Dawn Danby, sustainable design program manager at Auodesk, calls a “cultural” problem. While stricter building codes and the growing prominence of green building standards like LEED are pushing the embrace of performance software, widespread adoption won’t happen until architects and engineers change their habits.

That helps to explain Autodesk’s mounting marketing push alongside its software development. As part of that effort, in July the firm announced its “Clean Tech Partner Program” through which it will give away software packages worth up to $150,000 each to 100 early-stage cleantech startups. According to Danby, the firm is working hard to inform designers and building owners that its software is relatively easy to use, inexpensive and gives quick feedback.

Still, changing the construction industry will be a long slog, even when one of the strongest pushes is coming from a fast-moving software company.

Image courtesy of NREL.