Architecture Students Put Energy to Good Use

Architecture Students Put Energy to Good Use

By Associate Professor of Architecture Matthew Lutz

What is a resilient building? It’s one designed to cope with the prospect of rising energy costs, rising sea levels, or rising global mean temperatures. It’s a building that uses passive environmental energy to light itself, to heat itself, and to make itself beautiful. It’s a building that doesn’t play to fluctuating energy prices, because it generates its own energy. It’s a building made simple enough so that it can continue to perform when mechanical systems fail.

To be sure, the discipline of architecture is all abuzz today with the notion of making resilient buildings. But in the School of Architecture + Art, a group of nine students looked deeper into how resilient buildings actually perform and included in their questioning: “What makes a resilient building beautiful?”

And this is where a new generation of digital energy modeling tools comes in. Nine students in my AP312/412 Architectural Design Studio began using newly introduced day-lighting and energy analysis tools to peek into the future to not only see just how well their semester projects would behave in the real world, but also to see how energy analysis could make their proposed buildings more attractive.

Using new comprehensive digital energy modeling software, such as Sefaira, a complete look at a building’s energy profile can be obtained really quickly.  The learning curve is pretty mellow, so without a huge investment in time, students can start getting objective feedback on their designs.

The modeling software allows students to see annual day-lighting levels inside the building, annual electricity consumption, annual heating and cooling loads, and how the project compares to regional performance standards, as well as to accurately size solar photovoltaic arrays according to energy demands. These metrics ultimately support or reject design maneuvers, so the “gamble” of how the building performs in the real-world is nearly eliminated.

For their project, students were challenged to design a Building Arts Research and Demonstration Facility for the Shaughnessy neighborhood of Montreal, Quebec.  The site for the proposed project is adjacent to the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which features an architectural library and architectural exhibits and hosts guest lecturers from around the world. The proposed new facility would complement the existing Canadian Centre for Architecture by acting as a bridge between the technical and poetic aspects of architecture.

A typical upper level architecture studio course offering, AP312/412 challenges students to develop a complete schematic-level design for a 20,000 square-foot building in an urban environment. These designs make a complete graphic narrative of the building and its nearby environments: Floor plans, cross-sections, elevations, perspectives, egress plans, mechanical and structural systems diagrams, and site plans begin to tell a story of how the building might exist in reality.  Despite all of this graphic work though, it’s rare that architecture students get to see how their buildings might respond to regional weather conditions, and thus perform in long-term energy usage. Using software like Sefaira, however, students can see the consequences of their design maneuvers, allowing for a solid feedback loop that sets up a natural iterative design process.

Today, it’s estimated that buildings account for 48% of our total energy consumption. Couple this with atmospheric C02 levels reaching their highest levels in the past 800,000 years, and the notion that man-made climate change is targeted as the reason for rising sea-levels and rising global mean temperatures, and it becomes pretty clear that energy modeling is destined to become a mainstream practice in the architecture design studio.

In the future, a predictive energy model for a proposed building will be as common as construction documents are today. Students in the School of Architecture + Art are getting a head start on this emerging technology and new aspect to the practice of architecture, and will be ahead of their peers when they graduate.