Credit: Sarah Hanson

The aim of the AIA’sAn Architect’s Guide to Integrating Energy Modeling in the Design Process” is fairly clear. But integrating energy modeling into the process of courting clients is less straightforward. Even if clients know what the term means, they will more than likely think it is a guarantee of performance. Moreover, common knowledge about energy modeling is uneven across the U.S., given that mandates, requirements, and skill levels shift from state to state. We asked four architects around the country to weigh in on the most important thing a potential client needs to know about energy modeling. The responses—even those having to do with the term itself—may surprise you. —William Richards

1. Energy modeling is an important design tool, but the results have to be treated with care. The output is only as good as the robustness of the inputs. I often try to lower clients’ expectations since the variation in inputs makes it difficult to predict the outputs of a model. We’ve noticed a need for improved energy modeling accuracy, which is one aim of the AIA practice guide. It’s helpful for a client to understand everything that goes into a model so that they don’t think it’s just a black box. Clients have to buy into the assumptions of energy modeling: This is what I’m planning, this is how we’re going to model it, and here’s what we can expect down the line. One thing we really try to do is high-level conceptual energy modeling—which includes creating a pie chart of what percentage goes to heating, what percentage goes to cooling, and so on—and it’s a good way to spark discussion. —Roger Chang, Assoc. AIA, principal and director of sustainability, Westlake Reed Leskosky, Washington, D.C.

2. As far as energy modeling goes, I always stress that it’s not necessarily a tool to forecast energy cost, but that it is a tool to evaluate the performance of one bundle of strategies over another. I prefer the term “design performance modeling” in lieu of “energy modeling.” That’s what we use modeling for: to assess how a building will perform. A simple analogy is if you use glass “a” versus glass “b”—one reduces the cooling tonnage by 50, the other by 100. We do a lot of modeling here in our office, but we don’t touch the mechanical systems. We model the passive architectural options and leave the mechanical system design to engineers. It’s an effective tool for architects to communicate to their clients the innate value of their proposed design. —Kirk Teske, AIA, chief sustainability officer, HKS, Dallas

3. Modeling is a very good tool to show how your building responds to energy needs and uses. In California, we have a lot of codes, so we talk to clients about the necessity of meeting codes, the regulatory environment, and LEED standards. Many jurisdictions want projects to be 15 percent better than code, so that’s a consideration. Occasionally you get a client who wants to do something very energy efficient, like building a net-zero building. We are leaders in the field of energy modeling, so we look for solutions within the design in order to work with owners, architects, and engineers. There are many misunderstandings about what building design can and can’t do, but we try to clarify things with clients. —Thomas Burnham, AIA, project manager and associate, Loisos + Ubbelohde, Alameda, Calif.

4. Energy modeling is important, but it doesn’t predict performance, and you have to know the pitfalls of your modeling software. We, as architects, need to design buildings that perform, but we cannot account for how the occupant performs; they may have behaviors that aren’t modeled in the software. The first priority is to get the building to perform properly under presumed occupancy and use. Then, once you get the building working, you can help the client with their personal use of the building. I make it really clear to clients in the beginning: My priority is to make you comfortable. —Paul Welschmeyer, AIA, principal, Paul Welschmeyer Architects/Energy Consultants, Fremont, Calif., and acting AIA California Council liaison to the California Energy Commission