Energy-efficient design

February 2, 2017 Sanjana Saluja

An MIT team has developed a computer simulation that can help architects optimize their designs for both future operational energy and the initial energy required for making structural materials — at the same time. This new methodology can push building solutions in interesting and unexpected ways and lead to new designs that are high-performance, innovative, and architecturally expressive. MIT News explores how the researchers from MIT are helping architects optimize both design and energy efficiency.


The technique rapidly generates a set of designs that offer the best compromises between those two critical energy components. The architect can then make a choice based on quantitative information as well as aesthetic preference. The demonstration produced some striking results. In one case, choosing a design that was slightly less efficient in operational energy cut energy for structural materials in half — an opportunity that would have gone undetected using a simulation that optimized operational energy alone.

In recent years, concerns about global warming and greenhouse gas emissions have prompted efforts to make buildings more sustainable, or “green.” The main focus has been on reducing the energy that buildings require for heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting. But an increasing role is being played by “structural embodied energy,” that is, the energy used to extract, process, and transport the structural materials in them.

“Newly constructed buildings have become so efficient to operate that the energy embodied in the materials required to create them is becoming a larger and larger percentage of the total energy used,” says Caitlin Mueller, assistant professor of architecture and of civil and environmental engineering at MIT. “Energy is embodied in building materials such as finishes, insulation, and cladding, but far more is in the building’s structural system.” And while benefits from more energy-efficient operation are spread over the lifetime of the building, energy savings from reducing that structural embodied energy — notably, by early decisions about a building’s overall shape — are reaped immediately.

Read more about the sustainable building design and the changing role of simulation here.

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