Q&A: Autocase and the next generation of triple bottom line analysis | U.S. Green Building Council
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Posted in LEED
Published on
Written by
Posted in LEED

USGBC, along with Autodesk and Impact Infrastructure, has unveiled a new platform to identify the triple bottom-line impacts of design alternatives.

This past Greenbuild, USGBC joined Autodesk and Impact Infrastructure to unveil a new platform called Autocase for Sustainable Buildings, which provides real insights by identifying the triple bottom-line impacts of design alternatives, measured in both quantities and dollars. USGBC recently introduced a new pilot credit called “Informing Design Using Triple Bottom Line Analysis” that rewards projects one point toward certification for conducting a triple bottom-line benefit-cost analysis on at least six LEED credits. Project teams can use Autocase to determine solutions that create optimal returns.

We caught up with Emma Stewart, head of sustainability solutions at Autodesk, John Williams, CEO of Impact Infrastructure and creator of Autocase, and Theresa Backhus, Sites Technical Specialist at USGBC, to get their insight on how the pilot credit will enhance the certification process and the role of data within design strategy at large.

Tell us about this pilot credit. What went into the decision behind its creation?

Emma: The biggest obstacle to scaling green buildings is the hard dollar cost of investing in greater levels of sustainability. Is it worth the risk? What’s in it for me? Who gains the most? What are the social and environmental impacts to these up-front investments?

Consider that 82 percent of facility executives say “reducing costs” was the top reason they’re bothering to upgrade their buildings to be more energy-efficient (according to the 2016 Johnson Controls Energy Efficiency Indictor Survey). Every single one of those executives needs a life cycle cost analysis to ensure those upgrades are the right ones to do and collectively pay them back many times over.

We know that LEED-certified buildings have been shown to increase rental and resale rates and boost worker productivity. Greener buildings can also have spin-off benefits to neighbors and the global community by prioritizing locations close to transit, capturing and storing rainwater and sourcing materials regionally. But decision makers also need to understand how these benefits can apply to their buildings in a particular location, and just how much those benefits are worth in dollars.

Autocase for Sustainable Buildings aims to answer those questions, automatically and as part of the design process. Once these analyses became democratized (i.e., feasible at 1 percent of the cost of a custom study and by non-experts) we were happy to hear that USGBC wanted to encourage this type of analysis through a LEED pilot credit.

Theresa: The new pilot credit is open to all rating systems (under BD+C, ID+C, O+M, ND and Homes) for both LEED 2009 and v4. Thus, almost all current and future LEED projects can take advantage of it, which is very exciting. This has the potential to impact a lot of buildings.

The latest version of LEED places emphasis on understanding the life cycle impacts, benefits and tradeoffs of different design decisions. How can integrated analysis tools like Autocase benefit LEED users?

John: By using Autocase, LEED project teams can conduct a benefit cost analysis in advance of project completion to determine what design solutions will create optimal returns and produce a business case on the overall design while earning a point toward LEED certification. This allows project teams and buildings owners to cost-justify green design, communicate the value of enhanced designs to stakeholders and fine-tune designs to build more cost-effective and impactful buildings.

Theresa: One key component of the pilot credit is that the analysis must use empirical evidence, so that the costs associated with social and environmental benefits can be more accurately estimated. As more analyses are conducted by projects for the pilot credit, the pool of data and resources that went into creating the credit baselines will grow.

How do you think this will impact the design process for LEED-certified buildings?

John: Now, design teams can see real-time changes on a social and environmental value “counter” as LEED credits are scored (think Turbotax refund meter) during building development. When the assessment is complete, users will have the results needed to make an objective business case—defending the greener building on basis of value, not just cost—as well as access to more LEED credits.

Theresa: Incorporating the triple bottom-line analysis early in the project will help building owners, designers and operators support high-performance, cost-effective project outcomes. This closely aligns with the goals of many LEED v4 credits, specifically the intent of IP credit Integrative Process.

Data sharing in any capacity is complex, but also necessary for any functioning benchmarking system. In your mind, what will be the role of big data within sustainable design in the near to long-term future?

John: Conventional cost-benefit analyses typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, because they require teams of highly specialized economists, professionals uniquely unlikely to discount their services.

We can now take advantage of very affordable cloud computing power to scour the literature for new valuation studies or run hundreds of parallel statistical simulations in a matter of seconds. Technology allows default data for specific buildings types to be more accurate, as well more contextually relevant assessments that leverage site-specific characteristics.

Effectively, we turn instead to an "economist-in-a-box." As in the early days of computer-aided design, some specialists may fear for their jobs, but a more likely outcome is that the software will democratize cost-benefit analyses, creating a larger overall market through accessible, cost-effective automated tools.