Green Building's Open-Source Push

Green building geeks now have a more powerful tool for developing next-gen building designs with minimal environmental impact. Software engineers at the Energy Dept.'s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) launched this week an update of their plug-in for SketchUp, Google's open-source 3D building modeling tool. With a growing list of features, the latest version of the free OpenStudio plug-in will enable architects to create more detailed simulations of their designs' energy efficiency, and marks another step in the effort to make advanced green building design tools widely available at low or no cost.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke earlier this year about the need to provide this kind of technology via open source. "We should be inventing a new way of designing buildings," he said at an event in San Francisco, describing an idea for a program that would pinpoint things like the most efficient window orientation for a particular site, and help architects tweak their designs to maximize a building's energy performance. Google SketchUp, with NREL's continuing work on the OpenStudio plug-in, is a step in that direction.

Google (GOOG) has been quick to promote the potential for SketchUp (which the search giant acquired along with startup @Last back in 2006) to help bring environmental factors into the building design process early on. As Celeste LeCompte has explained over on GigaOM, smooth integration with Google Earth means SketchUp users can punch in the actual latitude and longitude of their project site to visualize buildings in their real-world setting, and thus accurately model how landscape features and structures will cast shadows over the building.

Compatible with Windows 7, Linux, Snow Leopard That can be useful for fine-tuning a building's site orientation or window placement to cut energy use, or for positioning solar panels, but NREL's OpenStudio plug-in, first launched in April 2008 and downloaded by 700 users per month, could go much further. It relies on integration with an energy modeling program from NREL called EnergyPlus, which simulates building heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation, and other energy flows.

The OpenStudio update released this week is designed to work with version 4.0 of EnergyPlus, just launched Oct. 12 with a host of new features (such as the ability to define a window glazing system) and compatibility with Windows 7, Linux, and Snow Leopard.

At this point, developers at the national labs are working to increase speed and offer additional functions for OpenStudio—linking up with a construction-cost database to compute building costs, for example, or with standards for the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. The hope, NREL engineer Nick Long said in a release from the agency, is that designers will "start throwing away designs at the very beginning of a project, saying: 'This is not a good design because we're going to use too much energy.'"

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