Software helps design greener buildings in real time

Software helps design greener buildings in real time

Courtesy: Sefaira
In Sefaira for Sketchup, architects quickly can see, in real time, the impact their design decisions have on how the building will perform in terms of energy use.

Many architectural firms swear by design hallmarks they call upon to achieve specific goals for energy efficiency, occupant comfort or optimal building performance. No two buildings, however, are ever truly perfectly alike.

This is the rallying cry for 5-year-old cloud software pioneer Sefaira, which sells products and services for performance-based building design. Its technology helps architects, engineers and designers interpret the potential ramifications of including certain elements long before the project team has become too committed to a particular direction. Its big differentiator: the ability to do this in real time.

“Often these decisions are made too late in the process,” said Mads Jensen, founder and CEO of Sefaira.  “If you want to design for performance, you have to build analysis and performance into this from the beginning."

Sefaira raised $10.8 million in Series A funding from a group lead by Braemar Energy Ventures in April 2012 to help get its idea off the ground. It was named to the Cleantech Group 100 list of promising companies for the past two years.

Technically speaking, the pioneer's biggest competitors hail from the world of traditional, after-the-fact performance analysis, including giant simulation and architectural software company Autodesk.

Since it started pioneering this emerging category, the London-based company has signed up more than 400 customers in 30 countries. Early adopter Christine Reinders, sustainability leader for the Boston office of architecture firm CannonDesign, points to a recent project in which her company’s team was planning to include integrated window shades because most of its buildings do.

Using Sefaira’s software, however, CannonDesign determined there was little benefit to doing so for this particular building. This enabled the team to concentrate on other priorities in order to achieve the client’s sustainable design goals.

“Performance analysis is transitioning away from being an afterthought, and is becoming more integrated into projects from the beginning,” Reinders said. “Now we’re starting to think of it as an intrinsic part of the design process.”

The Sefaira Architecture technology is a web-based service that analyzes existing models. The company also created a plug-in that integrates with one of the most widely used building information management  platforms, Autodesk Revit, as well as Trimble Buildings’ 3-D modeling software, SketchUp. The software provides real-time feedback on how certain design choices will affect energy consumption, daylight quality, carbon emissions, thermal comfort and other operational considerations.

Its latest software includes analysis for mechanical systems and building envelope. For example, orienting a building for maximum sunlight certainly will improve daylight harvesting but how might it affect energy consumption or thermal comfort? Rather than guessing or analyzing these questions after a proposed design is complete, Sefaira’s technology helps design teams consider them along the way.

“Historically, early collaboration between architects and engineers has been hampered by technical barriers,” said Sefaira product director Andrew Corney in a press release about the new software. “Engineers typically rebuild an architect’s model from scratch before they are able to perform any analysis, making it time-consuming and costly for engineers to provide insight.”

Duane Carter, director of sustainability and building performance at Solomon Cordwell Buenz, which has been designing residential high-rise buildings since the 1920s, said his firm uses the software whenever it makes sense.

“The issue is integrating these tools into the process and the culture of the firm,” he said. “People have a certain way of doing things, deadlines. But if you wait until things are done, it becomes too late to influence change.”

Sefaira’s software has allowed Solomon Cordwell Buenz to make decisions based on data, not intuition or past experience.

“It makes us smarter when we talk to the consultants, and we can talk more intelligently about the likely impact,” Carter said. “We can also be more skeptical.”

Sefaira Architecture is licensed as an annual subscription. Pricing for the complete package, along with the plugin in for Revit or SketchUp, starts at $6,000 per year for six-seat licenses.

This story was updated Jan. 14 to clarify pricing.