A Digital Tool to Calculate the Low Carbon Possibilities for Buildings

The University of Lethbridge Science Commons in Lethbridge, Alberta. (Architect: Stantec/KPMB)

Written by Esra Abumounshar

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as “A digital tool to calculate the low carbon possibilities for buildings” in Stantec Design Quarterly (Issue 16), a showcase of thoughtful, forward-looking approaches to design that build community

A version of this blog first appeared as “Calculating the possibilities” in Design Quarterly, Issue 16.

When it comes to carbon impact, sooner is better. What do I mean? The earlier in the process we can evaluate our designs for their carbon impact, the greater the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings.

From a design perspective, calculating a project’s potential carbon impact in the early phases can be costly and time-consuming. This is especially true if these projections are not well integrated within the standard design process. Because the design industry doesn’t have a standard tool that can usefully and efficiently predict carbon impact during the early design phases, the calculations currently require a major and sometimes costly – design effort.

What if we could generate multiple design options and quickly evaluate them for their carbon impact at the early stages of the design process? What would that mean for our designs and their carbon impact? These are some questions that led to the research and development of E-NIGMA, a new technology we’re developing. It combines carbon analysis with a customized generative design tool.

E-NIGMA is our working name for the digital tool we’re developing with five primary functions: massing, space planning, structure, façade, and carbon calculator. Our current prototype supports rapid massing with carbon calculation and space planning analysis.

In phase two of E-NIGMA, we will devise a logic for space planning that can automatically inform the building’s shape. Parallel to this effort, we’re building out the structural materials aspect of E-NIGMA so that it can calculate embodied carbon, based on structural material choices. The final phase of our research will focus on integrating those existing capabilities with generative function for structure and façade and the ability to calculate carbon for the entire design. When finished, E-NIGMA will combine the creative benefits of generative design with the data-crunching power of a carbon calculator.

The E-NIGMA design tool has five primary functions: massing, space planning, structure, façade, and carbon calculator

Carbon calculator and generative 3D design

With as little as a site and a preliminary program, our designers will use E-NIGMA to consider options within the project parameters. And they will calculate carbon emissions (including embodied carbon) based on size and shape and how much site can be preserved. For example, what’s the carbon cost for using 70 per cent of the site versus 100 per cent?

When complete, E-NIGMA will be more than a carbon tool, it will be a 3D modeling automation tool. With it, the designer never has to manually model multiple design options. Instead, the designer outlines the site, and E-NIGMA provides options, molding building siting possibilities. In five minutes, it can generate 400 building options. What does the designer do? Their job is to validate and prioritize those options, spending more focused time adding value to the design by assessing its carbon impact.

Without such a tool, there often isn’t time and budget available to model, evaluate, and refine more than a few options. This leaves potentially game-changing options undiscovered. E-NIGMA will empower designers to focus on the human experience – wellness, community, and productivity – in the spaces they create.

Design efficiency and data overview

Design is an iterative process. And it often requires rework when project parameters, market conditions, or end use directive changes. Today, speed to market is critical.

The true power of E-NIGMA will be its ability to automate 3D modeling and track any changes or refinements as the design evolves. As a result, there is no lost work. No rework. No remodeling. And we have better-informed decision making.

Alongside the 3D design options, E-NIGMA will display associated data such as the building’s height, the total area, and carbon appetite. The designer can control parameters such as the floor-to-floor height within the tool. So, it’s easy for the designer to flip back between the design platform and the assessment platform. This gives designers and clients a sense of how program, design features, energy use, and carbon footprint are related.

Giving clients the opportunity to make informed decisions early in the design process is important. It helps us achieve desired outcomes for design, flexibility, and building performance.

Personalized to project and client

E-NIGMA will transfer information related to either carbon or the building form into 3D. This provides the client a visual representation of their project alongside its specific parameters. With this tool, designers can have focused conversations unique to the client’s specific site, project location, and program requirements. The program will also include some of the zoning aspects of the project, such as setbacks and height restrictions, so that the resulting options conform to site requirements.

Developer clients, for example, could see what kind of density and revenue is possible on a site before they’ve even purchased it. It would help them to make better-informed acquisitions to meet their goals. From the start, the design is site and client specific.

From the client perspective, E-NIGMA will drive project efficiency. From the designer perspective, it drives productivity.

Because we’re able to provide more options in a shorter span of time, we can help projects stay on track by speeding the workflow during early design. In markets like healthcare, where there are strict schedule requirements, this means we can evaluate preliminary design options quickly. This allows the design team to focus on the most viable option, which we can then spend more time refining without disrupting an often-rigid timeline.

Real time collaboration to see the planning possibilities

The beauty of a tool like E-NIGMA is that it empowers real-time collaboration. From our studio, we can run through distinct options that it generates, vet them, and get sign off from decision makers as we’re modifying the options in real time. 

In this example, E-NIGMA helps us see that layout “Option 5” accommodates 24 exam rooms while layout “Option 2” only allows for 16.

Clients can quickly see multiple relevant options and decide on a building form with us. It helps them see what’s possible within the parameters of the project and site. For example, layout “Option 5” ac
commodates 24 exam rooms while layout “Option 2” only has 16. By using the tool as part of our process, we will help align the full project team’s efforts while cutting down on time-consuming, back-and-forth reviews and lengthy decision making.

Anticipate new carbon legislation and restrictions

Many authorities are adopting incentives for carbon reduction in new construction and existing buildings. Likewise, clients—sometimes driven by their shareholders or environmental, social, and governance criteria—are making big moves toward responsible carbon practices.

Those subscribing to the new standards must take carbon seriously and need guidance on how to meet emerging carbon goals. A tool like E-NIGMA is part of the solution. It provides a pathway for clients to meet new laws, regulations, or corporate and organizational targets by enabling them to see the carbon impact of their building or real estate choices before they commit. The tool provides the designer and client with clear insight into how a proposed building will impact an organization’s carbon metrics.

E-NIGMA will help us to extract carbon information from the digital 3D models we have generated and analyzed. We’re building a library of approaches and elements that minimize carbon. And we continue to analyze patterns and best practices to develop a robust toolkit of carbon reduction options.

Areas of application

We’re still developing E-NIGMA. We’re coordinating our efforts so that it fits alongside our efforts in carbon modeling for masterplans and generative design for multifamily housing. We hope to apply it on healthcare and education projects, too. We’re excited for the future of the tool, and the opportunity it creates to share more options and identify new paths to a low carbon future for our client partners.

A Digital Tool to Calculate the Low Carbon Possibilities for Buildings

About the Author

As an architectural designer and generative and computational design research lead, Esra develops custom digital tools to tackle complex project scope and project cost issues.