Utilizing BIM for Sustainable Architecture

An analysis and continuation of my graduate thesis at the University of Texas at Austin.

The best of Ecotect & SketchUp: Project Vasari

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on November 29, 2010

Autodesk recently developed a quick design/analysis tool called “Project Vasari.”  The tool focuses on conceptual building design (parametric massing) and provides energy/carbon analysis results.  Many of the analysis features are what you would find in Autodesk’s Ecotect and Green Building Studio products – the difference here is that it works seamlessly with Revit and the conceptual design process is far more intuitive (not unlike SketchUp).  After you finalize tweaking the massing design, the Vasari model can be brought directly into Revit without losing any data.  A free trial download of the software can be found here.

I am curious if this product will remain as a separate software tool or if it will eventually become part of the Revit bundle.  Either way, it is a good step in the right direction.


Posted in BIM & Sustainability Metrics, Building Information Modeling (BIM), Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

More support for BIM & GIS

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on October 19, 2010

Here is more support for the integration of BIM and GIS at Spatial Roundtable.  Shelli Stockton views BIM as a tool primarily for design and construction, whereas GIS is a tool primarily for ongoing facilities management.  Both tools overlap and should ideally “plug” into one another, but each has its area of appropriate application.  The next step in supporting integration, however, is determining the technical interoperability and data-sharing methods between BIM and GIS.  First, it is important to ask:  What is the future of BIM & GIS?  Should there be emphasis on overlap or separation between functions?  Will a third-party tool be developed that can bring together BIM data and GIS data OR will there be a import/export file type between databases?

To date, there appears to be evidence towards keeping BIM and GIS tools in their respective realms of application.  Futhermore, it also appears that integration and interoperability will occur through import/export file type(s).  There has been some research performed involving the export of BIM data through IFC data schema and imported into ArcGIS.  This case study summary by Mikael Johansson and Mattias Roupé demonstrates that building geometry done using Revit can be successfully imported to ArcGIS with correct spatial parameters intact.  buildingSMART International has been working on integrating data transfer protocols between BIM and GIS platforms through it’s Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) data schema.  The latest IFC 2×4 release has new features including the ability to “connect the BIM/IFC schema to information held in GIS databases.”  I’m assuming this means that GIS data can be imported into BIM tools and vice versa.

While this research and development is encouraging, I am curious how future development of IFC will handle both BIM and GIS data interoperability.  One challenge I foresee (beyond the difficulty of translating/interpreting data between tools) is in the management of file sizes and data permissions/ownership.  I’m sure there are more, but I’m waiting to hear from other experts out there…anyone?

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How do we improve AEC relationships in an economic downturn?

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on September 24, 2010

I came across an insightful post by Phil Bernstein entitled: “The Destruction of Trust,” which talks about the current state of AEC groups during this economic downturn.  Generally speaking, the combination of high-unemployment, low-balling fees, cut-throat bidding and skepticism within the building industry has created a climate of distrust between AEC groups.  The biggest fear, according to Bernstein, is that the surviving AEC groups and the building industry as a whole could be permanently damaged if these trends continue.  The key to avoiding this fate would be for all project stakeholders to maintain a vested interest and commitment to long-term sustainable practices (not only environmental, but also economical and social), which would include not low-balling fees and the discouraging of highly competitive bidding practices.

The practice of developing healthy relationships between stakeholders might be a good credo or mission statement, but I believe it is much harder to put into practice.  So how can this goal be achieved in a practical fashion; how do you create trust in a distrustful environment?  Well, as I explain in Chapter 5 of my thesis, my theory is that “collaboration can happen earlier in the design process and new relationships can solidify faster with the use of BIM.”  I realize that BIM, in and of itself, is probably not a panacea for eliminating the ills currently afflicting the building industry, but this economic downturn presents an opportunity for AEC groups to use BIM as a means for holding everyone to a higher standard of accountability and creating more transparent decision-making workflows.  I believe this opportunity will determine which AEC groups will survive over the long-run and will inevitably shape a lasting impression on the building industry as a whole.

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Home-ownership vs. Home-investment

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on September 8, 2010

The other day I was reading an article in the September 6, 2010 issue of  TIME magazine, titled “The Case Against Homeownership” by Barbara Kiviat.  I finally felt motivated to add my two cents on the subject – including my ideas for possible solutions.  For someone like myself, who has always dreamed of designing and building my own home, this subject is of particular interest and equal frustration as I realize evermore that my dream (as well as many others like myself) will not come true – at least not the same way it has for previous generations.  Below I provide a synopsis of the article and then follow-up with some conclusions.  I would appreciate any feedback and ideas for improvement.


Historically, homeownership has been viewed as a means to create safer communities and better citizens. Politically, it was heralded as a means to “save babies, save children, save families and save America.”[1] The theory has always been that homeownership ensures socioeconomic stability where the residents are actively involved and rooted in their communities.  It’s a place where you know your neighbors and your kids do better in school because everyone feels safe and secure.  According to Kiviat, there has been a growing fetish for Americans to buy and own a house, which has been mythologized into a panacea for all the nations’ problems.

The 19th century glamorized the notion that anyone who could ‘rough-it’ could go out West, buy a piece of land and create a homestead – it was a time to explore, discover and conquer.  The 20th century, however, marked the beginning of a concerted effort to make homeownership available for everyone.  Soon after the Great Depression, political pressure began forcing banks to lend again and the 30-year mortgage was born (how ironic that now there is economic and political pressure to restrict bank lending and reduce mortgage repayment periods).  Even after the economic stability of post-WWII America, there was always a reason to encourage homeownership.  First, it was a means to create jobs in a labor-heavy industry.  Next, it was a means to combat housing shortages for returning veterans.  Next, it was a means to transform unsanitary and cramped multi-family living conditions in the dense urban cities into the spread-out tree-lined cul-de-sacs of single-family housing in the suburbs.  Beyond the social and cultural pressures to own a home, Washington helped to subsidize the homeownership addiction.  For example, homeowners could deduct mortgage interest and property tax from annual income taxes.  Regardless of the situation or the incentive, there has always been a reason to own your own home and it was a win-win situation for everyone – well, at least that’s what we were led to believe.

So, what are the pros and cons of homeownership compared to renting?  First, it is worth defining what this means exactly.  Homeownership in the U.S. is typically in the form of single-family detached dwelling units, which comprises 89% of all homeowners, while only 17% of homeowners live in apartments or multi-family housing units.[2] For the purposes of simplification, let’s assume we are comparing single-family detached dwelling units to multi-family apartment rental units, since this is the majority situation.  One advantage of owning versus renting is that it has the potential to be a smart investment in the long-run when compared to paying rent over the same period of time.  Along with the freedom of owning your own home comes the ability to do what you want with it – you don’t have to worry about a landlord keeping your deposit because of stains on the carpet or holes in the wall.  And if you want to remodel your kitchen or build a fence, you are free to do so.  In addition, homeowners are more likely to invest time and money into the physical upkeep of their home and use their yard for gardening.

However, as the past few years have demonstrated, there are risks associated with homeownership.  First, there are the obvious financial risks involved.  Most families can’t afford to pay the cost of a house upfront in full, so loans and mortgages are the preferred alternative.  In a stable and controlled economy, this method is perhaps not a bad idea, but when lenders become greedy and families purchase beyond their means, it is only inevitable that homeownership will become more of a problem rather than a solution.  Another risk (and irony) of homeownership is that while it can be liberating, it can also be restricting.  For example, let’s say a couple are paying off a 30-year mortgage on a home and without warning one of them loses their job.  Now, they are at risk of not being able to make their monthly payments.  To make matters worse, they can’t easily sell the house and move somewhere else with better job prospects – especially if the property value is less than the mortgage amount.  This is a common situation many families still find themselves in since the housing bubble burst in 2008.

Perhaps the biggest problem with homeownership is that it can restrict mobility and create areas of economic stagnation.  According to Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, there is a correlation between areas of high homeownership and high unemployment.[3] Americans are becoming more mobile and transient than ever before, yet our idea of housing has changed very little.  Decades ago it was expected that workers would stay with one company for decades and that a family would live in one house for most of their lives.  Today, that notion is being flipped on its head – the workforce is demanding workers to change companies and even professions several times throughout their career and it’s not uncommon to have lived in many places in one’s lifetime.  The fact is that homeownership – at least in its current form – is not for everyone.  Before the housing bubble burst, banks and lenders were convincing everyone that a owning a home was within their reach, even if they couldn’t afford it.  This myth must be dispelled and change must occur with the way homes are financed and built if we ever hope provide adequate housing opportunities to all Americans, while avoiding a similar housing bust in the future.


Before reading this article by Barbara Kiviat, I have had my own thoughts about homeownership and how it could be improved.  Moreover, I’ve been involved with a few housing initiatives which have been specifically focused on affordability and high-performance ‘green’ design.  My list of proposed solutions below addresses housing improvements from multiple facets.

1) Change the financial structure from home-ownership to home-investment

One potential solution to achieving homeownership is to enroll everyone in a type of home-investment plan, where families – whether renting or owning – invest a fixed percentage of their annual income towards the future purchase of a home.  A ‘home’ in this sense does not necessarily imply a single-family detached dwelling unit in the suburbs, rather it refers to a long-term living condition – this could be rural, urban, single-family or multi-family.  For example, let’s assume a typical family income is 100k/year and that 10% of that annual gross goes directly to a federally insured savings account.  And the invested amount could be more if there was added interest.  The idea here is to do away with any kind of long-term loan repayment plans (30-year mortgages, for example) and instead it would be like setting up a savings account specifically for purchasing a home.  The benefit with this financing model is that the risk is much lower and the benefits of homeownership are still achievable – it just might take longer to acquire a minimal amount of equity, but a family could own their home sooner.  In the case of low-income families, federal subsidizes could be set aside for those who qualify.

If a family decides to relocate, the money from selling the home would go back into the savings account.  But this doesn’t really solve the mobility issue does it?  Well, let’s say that home owners had the option to sell directly to banks or the federal government instantly without having to wait for a private buyer.  With this option, the sale price might be lower compared to what a private buyer would be willing to pay, but it allows for faster turnover, which could be advantageous for a family needing to move quickly because of opportunities elsewhere.

2) Ensure that renters and owners are treated equally

This may seem like an obvious notion, but the fact is that renters are typically discriminated against in favor or homeowners.  Part of the problem can be attributed to landlords and property managers who are more concerned with making a profit than they are with the well-being and safety of home-renters.  The other major problems can be traced to political pressures.  For example, cities will purposefully zone a neighborhood area to exclude multi-family dwellings, which are commonly associated with minorities, poverty and crime.  Cities also exclude or charge additional fees for providing services for apartments or multi-family dwellings, such as recycling.

There seems to be a negative connotation associated with renting – we instantly conjure up images of small apartment units occupied by minorities located in poor neighborhoods plagued with crime and drugs.  When we think of a single-family home, however, we picture a middle-class neighborhood and a house with a yard and a white picket fence…etc, etc.  Obviously this is not always the case, but it is quite common nonetheless.  But whether renting or owning, everyone who is legitimately paying for a place of habitation should be treated equally from an economic, social and political perspective.

Part of the solution requires changing social perceptions of rental housing and renters.  The other solution (and perhaps more direct approach) is to change city zoning ordinances and building codes to better integrate rental housing to create diverse, but equal, communities.  You want to get renters involved in the community and create safer neighborhoods?  Give them the same opportunities and benefits as homeowners – simple as that.

3) Require higher standards for housing design and construction

Finally, we need to improve the quality of design and construction of housing for both single-family and multi-family units.  According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, the residential building sector consumed 22% of the total energy use in the United States in 2008.[4] Other sectors include commercial (19%), industrial (31%), and transportation (28%).  Buildings alone in the United States consume 39% of total energy use; emit 38% of the total carbon dioxide emissions; use 40% of raw materials; consume 14% of total potable (drinking) water; and produce 30% of the total waste.[5] Based on these figures, it is clear that if these unsustainable trends continue, future generations will face increased hardship, decreased quality of life, and unnecessary destruction to the environment in order to meet their basic needs.  On a more positive note, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, approximately one-third of all new construction in the U.S. meets some form of ‘green’ building standards.[6] While this trend is holding steady during the recession and is anticipated to increase in the coming years, the quality of construction and overall building performance still has a long way to go – especially for housing, which tends to have the least stringent building code requirements out of all building types.

So what does this have to do with homeownership?  Well, homeownership is a long-term investment, yet our building and construction practices for housing do not reflect this fact.  The purchase of a home isn’t a one-time cost – there is also the cost of annual utilities and periodic repairs/maintenance, otherwise known as operational costs.  These long-term costs can sometimes make or break a family’s ability to afford keeping their home, especially during tough economic times.  If these homes are designed and built to higher standards, then the long-term operational costs will be lower and less frequent.  Today, homes are built to last maybe 15-20 years before needing major repairs.  In general, most homes aren’t designed appropriately for the local climate and site conditions.  This includes addressing solar orientation, diurnal temperature variation, humidity, ventilation, wind direction/speed, surrounding vegetation and light/noise pollution among other considerations.  Specifically, the building envelope is where most of the problems arise due to air infiltration, thermal bridging and minimal insulation.

Most of the housing infrastructure problems could be avoided if city governments required more stringent building standards for residential development, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes Rating System.  I would even suggest that architects should be required to design and oversee construction of all residential projects to ensure higher quality and performance standards.  Currently, housing design and construction is typically managed by local builders or contractors.  While this has perhaps been sufficient in the past, our buildings are being more complex and have a greater impact than ever before.  The bottom line is that if unsustainable housing development continues, it will surely make home-investment harder to achieve and maintain for generations to come.

[1]Kiviat, Barbara. “The Case Against Homeownership.” TIME Magazine. 6 September 2010: 42.

[2]Kiviat, Barbara. “The Case Against Homeownership.” TIME Magazine. 6 September 2010: 44.

[3]Kiviat, Barbara. “The Case Against Homeownership.” TIME Magazine. 6 September 2010: 43.

[4]U.S. Energy Information Administration. “Annual Energy Review.” U.S. Department of Energy. 17 March 2010. <http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/consump.html&gt; (4 December 2009).

[5]U.S. Green Building Council. “Green Building Research.” U.S. Green Building Council. 17 March 2010. <http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=1718&gt; (17 March 2010).

[6]Carter, Franklyn. “Green Building: A Real Estate Revolution?” NPR. 8 September 2010. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129699450&gt; (7 September 2010).

Posted in Affordable & 'Green' Housing, Financing Structures, Sustainable Design/Development (General Discussion Topics) | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

AIA Article on Green Affordable Housing

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on August 27, 2010

The Greening of America’s Public Housing: More Options, More Technologies, More Support” by Mike Singer.  This article discusses the growing interest by affordable housing developers to specify “green materials and energy-efficient technologies.”  Since affordable housing projects have long-term financing structures (they need to remain affordable over a period of “x” number of years), there is a concerted interested in utilizing durable green technologies to minimize long-term maintenance and operational costs.  Apparently, HUD has green criteria associated with its affordable housing funding, but it is voluntary compliance at the moment.  (For more information about HUD affordable/green housing funds, see my previous post).  In the case of the Alley Flat Initiative, the City of Austin has an incentive for developers/builders to meet green building criteria in exchange for waiving inspection and permitting fees.  The addition of energy-efficient buildings are in the city’s best interest, since Austin Energy is the city-owned utility company.

I’m interested to know how many of these projects have explored or are leveraging the capabilities of BIM to further improve upon affordable/sustainable goals.  I discuss the potential benefits of BIM in Chapter 3 and Chapter 5 of my thesis as a means for reducing hard/soft project costs and for performing a wide array of analysis to improve overall energy/resource efficiency.  Perhaps, along with requiring green building criteria, HUD could also require the use of BIM for the design/construction process – I know this would be a huge leap and could potentially stall the development of affordable/green housing since most non-profit developers and small-scale architects have still not invested in BIM technology.  Nevertheless, housing authorities and funding organizations like HUD or city governments could help to subsidize the cost of BIM tools and even help to train staff.  I’m sure BIM developers would be open to the idea of discounting software/training costs for non-profit groups.

Posted in Affordable & 'Green' Housing, BIM & Economical Factors, BIM & Stakeholders - Communication & Workflows, BIM for Housing - What's the Argument?, Financing Structures | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“BIM + Integrated Design”

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on August 27, 2010

This is a very good blog by Randy Deutsch AIA, LEED AP covering topics related BIM and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD):  http://bimandintegrateddesign.com/

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Affordable/Green Housing Funds

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on August 25, 2010

The HUD’s Recovery Act and Green Retrofit Program is aimed at funding new jobs and helping to build sustainable housing.  The press release can be found here.

Perhaps local affordable/green housing initiatives in Texas will take advantage of this, like the Alley Flat Initiative?

Posted in Affordable & 'Green' Housing, Financing Structures | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Blog about BIM & Sustainability

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on August 23, 2010

I just stumbled on this blog titled: “Sustainability – High Performance Buildings – Knowledge-based Building Information Modeling Systems – BIM – 3D 4D 5D BIM” which seems to cover a wide range of topics involving BIM and sustainable, high-performance buildings.

Posted in Building Information Modeling (BIM), Sustainable Design/Development (General Discussion Topics) | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

BIM/IPD workflow and collaboration

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on August 13, 2010

This is an older article, but it is still relevant: “NEXT-GEN BIM: Graphisoft Teamwork 2.0 will revolutionize BIM/IPD workflow and collaboration” by Jerry Laiserin, July 2009.  This is an interesting introduction and analysis of how BIM authoring tools approach project sharing and collaboration where the goal is to enable greater project integration without sacrificing workflow flexibility.  The article also brings up an interesting point regarding how worksharing capabilities tend to benefit larger firms/projects while penalizing smaller firms/projects with unnecessary management complexity.  This article focuses on the [new] teamwork framework for Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD 13.  Although I’m personally biased towards Autodesk’s Revit suite, I think they could learn a thing or two from Graphisoft’s approach and I think they are going in this direction (if not already with v2011).

For more information on this topic, see Chapter 3 of my thesis discussing BIM/IPD and comparing various BIM technologies.

Posted in BIM & Stakeholders - Communication & Workflows | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

“Builders try to prove green homes can be affordable”

Posted by Justin Firuz Dowhower, AIA, LEED AP on August 13, 2010

I came across this article about affordable ‘green’ housing developments in Oregon and Arizona.  This is positive news in a time of economic recession, but I’m not sure what the builders of these homes (or author) considers “affordable” – the Oregon housing development has housing units starting at $257,900 while the Arizona development begins at $174,900 – is this at least 80% MFI?  I doubt it.  The Alley Flat Initiative case study in Austin Texas, which I discuss in Chapter 4 of my thesis, has been able to achieve 60% MFI at $100,000 for a one-bedroom house.

The energy bills are estimated at $734 annually for the 1,640 square foot (smallest) Arizona development home.  This might sound impressive, until you look at the Passive House standards, which would cut utility costs down significantly (<$100 annually).  But the increase in design/construction quality would undoubtedly increase the upfront housing costs.  I believe the way to get around this dilemma is for builders/architects to work directly with local city governments and utility companies to help subsidize the cost of housing developments if they can be proven to achieve an energy efficiency target (net-zero for example).  This would enable housing to be more affordable without sacrificing quality and it would be a direct benefit to all stakeholders involved – the builder/architect can charge more for providing ‘green’ housing and the city and utility companies can reduce peak energy demand.  In addition, if builders, city governments and utility companies utilized the capacity of Building Information Modeling (BIM) for the design, construction and data collection for these housing developments – thinking about housing units as part of a greater interdependent ecosystem, rather than as individual and isolated buildings – it would assist in quantifying and tracking actual energy usage while provide a baseline for improvement.

Posted in 'Green' Design Strategies, Affordable & 'Green' Housing, BIM & Stakeholders - Communication & Workflows, BIM for Housing - What's the Argument?, Financing Structures | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »