As a rule, healthcare-focused architects refrain from prescribing drugs, and the gang from Populous (formerly HOK Sport) rarely calls audibles during a game. Yet when it comes to energy conservation, architects have guided the conversation since just after World War II, when the AIA began supporting and advising federal regulators in determining optimal building performance. That endeavor has lately gained new breadth—just in time to seriously tackle climate change.

This summer, the AIA publishes the AIA Energy Modeling Practice Guide, covering the ins and outs of energy modeling. To be sure, an architect can more credibly parry with an engineer than with a quarterback. But what parameters do architects use to make a model equate a client’s standard? And how clearly can energy modeling guide the profession toward a common, strong means of making efficient buildings?

The answer emerges in a 67-year line of projects by AIA’s research arm with titles such as A Nation of Energy Efficient Buildings by 1990, which have reflected the continued urgency of a decades-old energy crisis. The work set a precedent: Those who knew how to tune spaces for human use should guide policy on how those spaces consumed energy. Other professional associations focused on making equipment easier to maintain and install, or on setting optimal fuel prices, but the AIA tasked itself with informing federal discussions on how buildings holistically work.

The January 1979 issue of Research and Design (a journal published by the AIA from 1978 to 1980) reflects the mood in this history. "The federal energy performance standards, due out this fall and aimed at design-stage determination of building energy performance in the '80s, could constitute the most decisive architectural development of the decade," editor Kevin Green hazarded. The AIA responded by helping to shape the mission of the Department of Energy (founded in 1977) and, later, the United States Green Building Council, whose volunteer-developed LEED rating system made energy efficiency a standard for the government and developers.

Indeed, energy modeling emerged in the 1980s in a bid to squeeze more use out of each gallon of fuel, but also as a means of collaborating. The writing in Research and Design from the period abounds with jokes and disclaimers about hippies and beansprouts—as if its editors wished to soften the edges of energy-hawk rhetoric from the Carter administration. But that rhetoric has shifted substantially since then. The researchers scoping out shading and solar power in the late 1970s faced the constraint of oil scarcity. Now, climate instability has added a level of urgency to the debate.

Climate instability and its attendant risks still require buildings to thriftily use energy without sacrificing comfort. These issues also make clients anxious, both about catastrophic weather and carbon taxes. Can leadership still focus on modeling energy use? It can if modeling becomes the first of several agendas that the building professions standardize together. "Architects are going to have to trust the engineers and vice versa," says Nicholas Long, an engineer with National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. "If an architect tells me that I have to put a specific type of electric lighting in a space, I should be able to tell them that they have too many or too few windows in the space." Long and his colleague at NREL, Robert Guglielmetti, both participated in the new guide’s creation and think that it signals a new collaborative spirit.

That spirit may drive inquiries into hard science and safety issues that energy modeling can’t broach by itself. Donald Watson, FAIA, a Connecticut architect and co-author (with Michele Adams) of Design for Flooding, donated brainpower to the AIA Research Corporation in the ’70s and now wants the profession to model for the unthinkable. "Anyone who is not carefully planning preparation for severe climatic impacts should step away from the table," he says. "The scope of interest in this is phenomenal across the world."

This summer's modeling guide intends to help practitioners decide how architecture can gird for an age of scarce fossil fuel and ease down occupancy costs. Susan Ubbelohde, Assoc. AIA, a professor and practitioner in Berkeley, Calif., who specializes in high-performance buildings, suggests that energy models can open designers’ minds to questions about overall building performance. "Energy still costs so little that clients are not thinking about ROI but about comfort," she says. If models link a particular form or set of envelope decisions to energy use, she says, they can make fossil-fuel avoidance part of an aesthetic discussion.

Watson, though, urges AIA members to prepare for as-yet-undefined events. Energy modeling has ripened to industry standard in residential work, he says, and in commercial buildings he sees the opportunity for modeling extreme wind and water forces in and around buildings and urban sites. "The issues and design challenges of climate change are emerging rapidly across international practices, with many complex and new disciplines and computational models devoted to the topic—you have to work closely with an integrated team at the beginning," Watson says. "Modeling future scenarios of risk and remedy has become a critical tool to design for climate change and severe weather. Climate-mitigation models are at the stage where energy models were in the 1980s."

For better or worse, the AIA may need to step up its research work to model not just how to save energy, but how to save lives in a disaster. Collaboration will be more vital than ever.

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