Building simulation — the real advances are yet to come

Integrated Environmental Solutions, IES, CAD, building simulation
It is likely that the impact of building simulation on the last 10 years will be negligible compared to its impact over the next 10 years — Don McLean.

The undoubted achievements of building simulation over the last 10 years are only the beginnings of exploiting its full potential. Dr Don McLean of Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) gives a fascinating insight.

Over the last 10 years building simulation has had a profound impact on not only the UK building industry but also worldwide. However, it is likely that the impact on the last 10 years will be compared to its impact over the next 10 years. The foundation of what will be achieved in the next decade has been solidly laid over the past decade.

10 years ago building simulation was moving from being a single user per office or even per-company basis to becoming a day-to-day design tool for low-energy buildings. The UK led the way with the UK consulting engineers expanded their services to incorporate energy-efficient-design advice. Building simulation was also a key component of the hospital and schools PFI/PPP programmes being used to identify if performance-based targets could be achieved. Consequently the use of building simulation mushroomed, and the UK was the world leader in the application of building simulation for low-energy design.

However, the UK Government was preparing a revolution in response to the European Performance of Buildings Directive. Consequently the Part L Building Regulations had to be modified to be performance based. The UK Government approached this with vigour, and a new Part L was implemented in 2006, firmly establishing building simulation as a mainstream technology in the UK market.

3D building models offer the potential for continuously optimising building performance.

In addition, the increased awareness of climate change added considerable momentum to the wider application of building simulation, although the recession dampened this growth.

However, over time Part L had an unexpected detrimental impact on the use of building simulation. Through the recession there was an increased reliance on building simulation to help comply with Building Regulations at minimum expense to the project. ‘Just’ complying was frequently all that was required. This remains a problem today. Incentivising programmes, which reward better-than-code compliance, could overcome this problem.

Elsewhere in the world, good-quality building simulation followed the British influence, and there was considerable upsurge in simulation in Australia, South East Asia and the Middle East. North America, which has its own building-simulation methodologies, has no federal regulations and has relied on market forces via voluntary building-rating systems such as LEED to drive the use of building simulation for low-energy-design buildings.

North American building-simulation tools are used primarily for HVAC simulation and sizing rather than investigating the holistic performance of the building to minimise energy consumption — e.g. thermal mass.

The full potential of building simulation has still to be realised, so what would be reasonable to expect in the 10 ten years? Let’s consider some key elements: the cloud; BIM; simulation based control; low cost sensors; Smart Cities; building rating systems; building compliance; and continuous optimisation of building performance.

Over the next 10 years building simulation will need to become more sophisticated.

For example simulation at hourly time steps will be considered too long and not suitable for capturing the dynamics of buildings. Much greater emphasis will be placed in operating building simulation tools at very short time steps, as short as a few minutes, in order to fully capture the dynamics of buildings as low-energy and sustainability standards tighten both in terms of Government regulations and building-rating systems such as BREEAM and LEED.

Why stop at individual buildings? This city scale 3D model from IES Virtual Environment is just one pointer to the future.

As more complex and specialised equipment and systems are employed in buildings to reduce energy and carbon emissions there will be a greater need for building simulation to facilitate both the design and operation of these systems.

Furthermore, we will also start to see ‘smart’ technology changing our buildings. Consider how the phone and car have been transformed over the last 10, years, with both utilising technology to the benefit of users. Buildings on the other hand have had relatively little technical advancement over the same period, resulting in many buildings performing poorly relative to what is possible.

Whilst it can be reasonably argued that buildings are more complex and do not have many of the advantages of mass production available to phones and cars, we should have made better use of technology.

This is where building simulation is moving in the next 10 years; it will coexist with smart technology. Building simulation will evolve to have a more direct role in building operation. Buildings will have an operational model which will be calibrated with the building in real time, and this operational model will play a key role in reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

The operational model will gather information from low-cost and more accurate sensors and smart meters which will provide real-time information to the operational model, such as small-power loads information, occupant positions in the building and individual occupant preferences (i.e. my microclimate). There will also be continuous optimising of building operating using cloud facilities to ensure the operational model is as accurate as possible to achieve continuous optimisation of the building.

Buildings controlled by operational models will be aggregated to operate simultaneously to form communities that will be much more energy efficient and interact with other communities as well as with utilities to minimise energy consumption and waste.

Hence building simulation use will evolve as a key component in both the design and operation of extremely low-energy buildings, and ultimately of our smarter buildings, and, more importantly, our smarter cities.

Dr Don McLean is the founder (in 1994) and managing director of Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES).

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