When a new science building at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts had some available contingency funds in its budget, CBT Architects considered upgrading to windows with a lower solar heat gain coefficient and a shading interlayer to reduce energy usage. But before committing to the $200,000 change, CBT ran a simulation through one of its in-house energy modeling programs, VE-Pro by Integrated Environmental Solutions.

The result was “a real eye opener,” says CBT associate principal and project manager Chad Reilly, AIA. Because the academic building was primarily occupied from fall to spring, the proposed windows would have actually decreased the building’s performance by undermining the solar heat gained through the glazing and increasing the building’s heating load. “We could have misspent the money, albeit with the best intentions,” Reilly says. Armed with knowledge gained from the energy model, CBT specified the most-appropriate windows.

As a firm that conducts its energy modeling in house, CBT—which is not an AE firm—is an exception to the traditional practice in which architects outsource the number crunching to a technical consultant. However, as an integrated design process becomes the norm and energy moves up in the timeline of discussions with the owner and project team, Reilly expects design teams will “look at the impact of energy even as the first notions of form, massing, and orientation are taking shape and before the design process really begins.” Proactive design firms will themselves be able to conceive and vet energy-saving strategies themselves before subjecting them to confirmation by a dedicated energy modeler.

To help design firms get started in energy modeling, the AIA will release “The AIA Practice Guide to Integrating Energy Modeling in the Design Process” at the end of this summer. The guide will provide an overview of energy modeling procedures and address common process, technical, and business questions, says Rand Ekman, AIA, Cannon Design’s Chicago-based director of sustainability, who served on the AIA’s Energy Modeling Working Group that developed the guide.

The perception of energy-modeling software as a black box that spits out a single number that is required for code compliance, LEED certification, and even capital fund-raisers overshadows its ability to provide design guidance. “Some designers expect the energy model to be a reflection of a design outcome,” Ekman says. “It’s not usually that. It’s a way of making decisions.”