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Autodesk crunches numbers for greener buildings

The architecture and design software company is trying to popularize green building retrofits with a suite of sustainability analysis tools for building professionals.

WALTHAM, Mass.--Green buildings aren't only for well heeled individuals and corporate headquarters. There's an ocean of existing buildings ripe for an efficiency makeover.

Autodesk, a company best known for its AutoCAD three-dimensional design software, has spent the past year developing extensions to its existing products focused on green renovations of existing commercial buildings, company executives said here on Monday.

Last year, Autodesk acquired two companies that had developed analytical tools intended to bring more hard numbers to sustainable design efforts. When used with Autodesk's existing applications, professionals such as architects, designers, and contractors can get a snapshot of how existing buildings perform in terms of energy and water use and can simulate the impact of architectural changes.

A screen shot from Ecotect, an application acquired by Autodesk that allows architects to measure and plan the environmental impact of design decisions. Based on an information model, the application here shows the heat gain inside a building from different sources, such as ventilation and the sun, during different times of the year. Autodesk

The focus on renovation is partly driven by the downturn in the building industry but also a raft of building efficiency mandates coming from national or state governments, said Catherine Palmer, the marketing manager for Architecture, Engineering & Construction solutions at Autodesk.

For example, the federal government earlier this month issued an executive order (click for PDF) that mandates that all new federal buildings built by 2030 need to be net zero energy, or generate as much as they consume. Many of these regulations also apply to renovating existing buildings, Palmer said.

About 40 percent of energy use and greenhouse emissions come from buildings in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. And about 85 percent of the buildings that existing today will be around in 2050, Palmer said.

Green building retrofits are 5 percent to 9 percent of the commercial building marketplace now but are projected to grow to more than 20 percent in five years, according to a recent report from SmartMarket.

Wanted: good building data
There are a number of examples of commercial buildings that have been retrofit to be more efficient. The Empire State Building, for example, did a $20 million conversion which is expected to lower energy consumption by 38 percent. Autodesk's office here is a LEED-certified Platinum level building. Rather than tear down an existing structure, the company used the shell of existing building and remade the interior with a number of green-building features, such as light sensors, more sustainably produced materials, and the use natural daylight to cut down on artificial lighting.

The challenge with these efficiency retrofit projects is that the tools to analyze the potential savings in energy, water, or materials are slow or inaccurate, according to Autodesk executives. A building owner may compile current energy use in a spreadsheet, for example, which is not connected to the building-management system or design software.

In Autodesk's lobby in Waltham, Mass, the company chose to display a number of projects, including printed three-dimensional models (on top) and a multi-layered map of a city that shows both buildings and underground infrastructure such as subways. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Autodesk now offers two add-on products to its Revit Architecture building-information modeling application to capture existing building data in a 3-D model and then simulate possible changes.

During a demonstration on Monday, Autodesk technical marketing manager Chico Membreno showed how designers and architects can quickly convert photos of an existing building into a 3-D model in Revit.

From there, an application called Ecotect Analysis allows an architect to input various data, such as weather patterns and available daylight, and to see the environmental impact of different design choices. That building model can then be imported into a hosted application, called Green Building Studio, which will tell the user how the building will perform in terms of energy use, carbon emissions, and water.

"A lot of people use rules of thumb," Membreno said. "This empowers the architect and gives them data to back up their design decisions."

For example, a company could use Ecotect analysis to simulate how much electricity could be generated by solar panels or how much daylight is available for internal lighting. Green Building Studio can then analyze how those choice will impact the environmental performance with data such as projected energy costs and water use.

The company has designed its sustainable analysis products for architects and building professionals and contractors working on new construction or renovations. But the tools could also be used to monitor whether green building investments measure up to expectations, which is often not the case. Energy-service companies, for example, need to quantify efficiency improvements to secure financing, said Palmer.

Autodesk executives declined to give a price for the software but a third-party review indicated that Revit Architecture's suggested retail price was about $5,500.

That price and the training required means that individual homeowners are unlikely to use the software. But the commercial market is very large: Autodesk estimates that $400 billion a year will be spend on commercial renovations.