Honeybees and Grasshoppers
Centerbrook cut our teeth designing passive solar houses during the OPEC oil crisis in the mid-1970s. We promoted energy conservation without bells and whistles. In the days before computer analysis, passive design principles like orienting buildings to harvest the sun’s heat and light, recapturing and storing waste heat, using thermal mass walls, and improving building insulation made for buildings that walked softer on Mother Earth.
Today, energized by a new generation of design professionals, we’re using energy modeling software to instantly put numbers on time-tested passive strategies and innovative new technologies. These computer programs –such as Grasshopper and Honeybee, plugins into Rhino 3D, or cove.tool, a plugin for Revit—allow us to change elements of our designs and, in real time, see how those changes impact the building’s performance.
For example, we know that healthy buildings are infused with natural light. Not only do they use less energy, they also contribute to the wellbeing of building occupants. Our team designing a new library in New Canaan, Connecticut is testing ways to bring that light deep into its grand central gathering space. Our initial design for a room ringed with high clerestory windows turned out to be too costly. Rather than sacrifice this important design element, we used Honeybee to test skylight and folded ceiling configurations to arrive at a design with the lighting levels and the aesthetics we sought. These tools allowed us to measure the quantity and the quality of natural light, ensuring that glare will not obviate benefits of sunlight. This results in a truly optimized and balanced daylighting design.
What excites us is how the skilled application of this software can help us both push the envelope of our designs and explain their benefits to our clients in terms of “bang for the buck.” For instance, using cove.tool and our mechanical engineers’ models, we chart potential energy savings per dollar spent on specific sustainable features, such as solar panels, high performance glass, and advanced HVAC systems. This allows us to explore both broad aesthetic directions and targeted systems, materials, and assemblies with concrete data and make better informed, and quantifiable, design decisions. It lets us see what “sweet spot” interventions make a big difference (for example, in the case of New Canaan, a change in glass type could lead to substantial energy savings) and which ones offer diminishing returns (for example, past a certain point increased insulation in walls and roofs often yields only insignificant savings).
And we’re finding that solutions in one area allows us to explore innovation in another. Concerned about birds who perish when they hit large expanses of clear glass, our client in New Canaan asked us to study mitigation strategies. With advice from the American Bird Conservancy, we’re designing a custom fritted glass pattern that the birds will see and avoid. Its stylized pattern recalls both birds in flight and the pages of an open book. The frit saves birds as it reduces unwanted glare and heat gain. And it looks pretty.