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Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Building Through Digital Technology

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India is poised as one of the leaders of the world’s building industry in the next few decades, as hundred of thousands of buildings, roadways, bridges and infrastructure are designed, built and operated in support of its growing economy. With this rise in construction activity, however, comes an equal obligation to consider the importance of this construction on the environment, both in terms of how the building process uses materials and natural resources, but also how the resulting artifacts relate to the environment. An emerging green building movement is finding its voice in India, setting standards and examining how Indian building can get ahead of the green curve. This article by Phillip G.Bernstein, Vice President – Autodesk Strategic Industry Relations will examine how digital technology might be integral to such efforts, what opportunities to deploy technology might emerge in India, and how building in the future, empowered by dramatic improvement in digital process, might unfold in there.

Designers and builders have used traditional processes of drawing for thousands of years to create ideas about projects, record and elaborate them, and communicate. The first decade of the twenty-first century brought a disruptive technology to bear on that problem: Building Information Modeling, or BIM, where instead of drawing diagrams of a project (like plans, sections, elevations, or details) a project team creates a behaviorally correct, digital prototype of the building, a BIM, and uses that tool to anticipate the final product. This idea is particularly profound in the context of sustainable design, because unlike drawings, a BIM can be the basis for understanding how a built project might operate in simulated form long before the project is complete. In a building project, for example, a BIM can provide information about the quantity of materials in the project, its anticipated energy consumption and carbon footprint, its impact on the land is is using, and other green factors. For example, consider the Figure:1, where a conceptual digital BIM is examined, as a simple mass, to understand radiant energy emissions:

A wide variety of such analysis is possible from BIM, depending on the quality of the digital model and the tools deployed. A designer attempted to understand and optimize a project’s green performance can examine numerous alternatives, adjusting the design accordingly, and thereby systematically explore best options and select them accordingly. Figure:2 shows some of the types of such analysis possible today through BIM.

BIM can be the evaluation platform for finding best green results not just during design, but throughout the construction and operation of the project. Model-based information can help plan construction, manage supply chain integration, optimize the use of green-house-generating construction equipment, and monitor proper material installation. During project operation, the BIM can be a database for monitoring building performance, planning and executing project maintenance, and cataloging data about replacement equipment and materials in the finished job.

BIM is not an assertion of an abstract, computerized strategy for the building industry but rather a real strategy for changing building itself. In the U.S, where BIM adoption has reached a majority of architects, engineers and contractors since 2011, survey results from McGraw Hill Construction Analytics suggest that “positive impacts on sustainability” is a important element of BIM use for more that 50% of architects and project owners. A direct business benefit for designers is the enablement of green design strategy, and owners are increasingly demanding BIM for their projects to monitor energy and resource usage during operation. BIM is the backbone of green design, and its early adoption in India can put the Indian construction industry far ahead in its sustainable performance objectives.

And those objectives will be daunting to achieve. With almost 12 million housing units to be built by 2016, almost $200 billion in healthcare construction, airports to accommodate 280 million passengers per year, and the other aspects of public infrastructure like schools, rail stations, office buildings and shopping centers, the potential negative impact on the environment should typical Western methods be deployed is epic. But those projects are also an opportunity for India to set an example for the emerging economies of best practice, and perhaps lead the world in large-scale green development. BIM should be a central pillar of that strategy.

At Autodesk we have seen BIM adopted across the world, and believe that embracing BIM follows three distinct phases of understanding, inquiry and implementation. Markets don’t move as a whole, but there are consistent approaches that might be useful for reference for Indian construction professionals to consider if BIM is to be incorporated into AEC processes with a particular eye toward supporting sustainable design. The first is the emergence of significant pilot projects, taken on by cutting edge projects, which can both test Indian processes against new BIM methods and set an example for the market itself. In the United States, for example, firms like Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Parsons Brinkerhoff and BNIM have led the way with green BIM projects like Freedom Tower, the Presideo Parkway highway, and the United States Internal Revenue Center in Kansas City.

Second is the development of standards, protocols for procedures and results that can align the use of technology against particular ends. In India, the India Green Building Council (IGBC) along with the government’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency have made good strides on this front, establishing standards guides and building codes with specific sustainable objectives. Given that such objectives must be both transparent and based on measurable results, correlating a BIM approach – with outputs that facilitate adherence to such standards, could be a good first step.

Finally, irrespective of efforts by industry providers like designers and builders, the involvement of project owners – developers, government clients, and institutional operators – is the final key to moving a green agenda driven by BIM. In India, a recent project by Godrej, sets a standard, having been designed using advanced modeling technology and achieving a LEED © Platinum certification, paving the way for other projects to follow their lead.

And our experience suggests that firms that are early adopters of green digital methods enjoy an early competitive advantage over their slower-to-adopt peers in industry. McGraw Hill studies in the last two years in the U.S. indicate that BIM-enabled green design drives better energy performance design and green certification and easier validation of green results. Green BIM users deploy the technology on more than 75% of their projects through modeling and the resulting analysis.

So if the Indian construction industry can begin to move along a digital, green path, what might the future bring? Technology continues to accelerate as BIM comes to the fore; model-based simulation will become empowered by the vast computational power of the cloud and information about projects delivered anywhere on mobile devices. Professionals will be able to collaborate over social networks that start with projects and extent to the entire AEC community. The physical world can be mapped in three dimensions with high-resolution laser scanning, while the physical elements of construction will be “printed” from models by computer controlled fabrication equipment. All of these technologies, properly aligned around the change from drawings to BIM, can allow India to catapult into twenty-first century building methodologies.

Advanced, high-resolution modeling, paired with simultaneous, cloud-based simulation results, will allow projects to be optimized for green performance before they are built. Those same models can be the basis of systems where certification, done today by people reviewing paper, could be automated, and the vast pipeline of Indian green projects that is surely coming processed quickly and efficiently. Libraries of building materials that are certified for green building use in India can be widely available over the Internet, and those materials may be configured in off-site factories leading to assembled, rather than hand-built projects that are faster and cleaner to complete. Those same buildings could have embedded, networked sensors that understand how the project is operating and modulate its systems to maximize energy conservation. All-in-all, a modern Indian construction economy, empowered by BIM, could be entirely based on performance-based design, construction and certification methods. The data and analysis that come from models make all this possible.

Phil Bernstein is an architect and teaches at the Yale School of Architecture. This article is based on his keynote address at the IGBC International Congress on Green Building in Hyderabad in October 2012.

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