12 Big Ideas about Building Simulation in the Planning Process

Molly Eagen, AIA

As we continue to strive to meet high-performance building goals such as those outlined in the AIA 2030 Commitment and other standards, incorporating environmental simulation and energy analysis into the design process becomes increasingly relevant. However, with a multitude of tools available, fast moving project timelines, and confusion about who is best poised to perform building analysis, integrating this work into design process can seem overwhelming.

To address these challenges, I recently presented some thoughts on successfully integrating analysis work at the Center for Built Environment’s Advisory Board Meeting, Building Simulation 2017, and USGBC Minnesota Chapter 2016 Building Green Conference. These conversations highlighted strategies and workflows design teams can use to simulate building performance in the planning process.

A series of lessons-learned were presented as 12 ‘Big Ideas’ about building simulation, including:

Why Simulation?

  1. New simulation tools make it possible to understanding building performance in much earlier phases than has previously been possible.
  2. Achieving today’s performance goals requires energy modeling.
  3. We live in an era of resource scarcity but information abundance.
  4. Simulation encourages a process of interdisciplinary inquiry.
  5. Simulation tests our assumptions and establishes informed rules of thumb.
  6. Simulation reconnects us to place and allows for performance metrics to inspire architectural solutions.

Lessons Learned About Process

  1. Begin with design questions, not software capabilities.
  2. Create workflows using a suite of tools, rather than one ‘silver bullet.’
  3. Identify simulation “windows,” and allow workflows to build on one another.
  4. Successful incorporation requires informed application of use.
  5. “All models are wrong. But some are useful.”
  6. Allow for ‘play’ with analysis tools to build intuition.

In his book, Design Energy Simulation for Architects, Kjell Anderson makes this powerful point: “The movement to reduce building energy use, which accounts for around 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, will not be led by governments. If we succeed in reducing our energy use, it will be due to the passion of researchers, professionals and citizens who avoid both the cynic’s easy perch and the willful ignorance of their impact.”

By incorporating strategic building analysis workflows throughout design, construction and occupancy of our projects, sustainable design opportunities can be woven into and inspire the direction of design. This verifiable data acquired during even early planning stages allow the design team and owner to move forward with greater confidence.


Evolving simulation tools are becoming invaluable in the planning process. As simulation tools become more robust, owners should consider the following:

  • Use simulation technology to provide a data-driven process to test assumptions, reduce guesswork, and establish informed decisions.
  • Define building performance questions to choose appropriate simulation tools.
  • Assemble a simulation team with the right expertise to get accurate simulation results.
  • Assess simulation results along with all other project constraints to inform design decisions holistically.

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Molly Eagen, AIA, is an architect and sustainability researcher with HGA. She leads the firm’s Conceptual Environmental Simulation Task Force and contributes to other research efforts while working in the Arts, Community and Education Practice Group.


Topics: Sustainability & Resiliency, Technology