Ask a Modeler: What Possibilities are Unlocked by Doing Energy and Environmental Simulation on the Cloud?

What possibilities are unlocked by doing energy and environmental simulation on the cloud, and where do we stand today?
– Head in the Clouds

Dear Head in the Clouds,

Simulation on the cloud introduces two major opportunities: The first is scalability, which means that simulations can be run much faster, and the second is that simulation becomes much more accessible, which opens the gateway to better collaboration. 

It used to be simply too hard to access cloud computing or to build a cloud service, but with recent improvements in web technologies and the cloud computing toolchain, it is now much easier for us to build a cloud-based solution or access an existing one. Several large and small companies are using this opportunity to offer a better version of what used to be available in desktop applications for different types of building simulation. The common theme has been making things more accessible, easier, and faster. But not every company has managed to make simulations more accessible as widening the audience comes with several new questions and challenges.

Using the “browser” as the common interface was a response to a continuous challenge to find a cross-platform, easy-to-use interface. Browser-based interfaces made the proliferation of cloud services possible. We now have more automated solutions and more platforms to collaborate with one another. We can run more simulations in a shorter amount of time. We can deploy our solutions to a wider range of applications and audience, all thanks to the magic of the cloud. Using some of the available web-based platforms, we can collaborate on preparing simulation inputs, quality check inputs and outputs, and discuss results. But a key question remains: How do scaling and collaboration affect the outcome of our projects? And how will they change the way we work together in the long term?

As different web-based solutions emerge, I recognize two distinct themes that we will see in the near future:

  • Mass automation of the common denominator (aka “single-click” solution)
  • “Mass customization” of expertise

The single-click automated solution comes with the promise of making building simulation very easy and widely accessible by using automation and assigning default inputs to your model. Most recently you will see an “AI” tag next to these solutions too. The promise is to bring the power of the simulation to non-simulation-experts, who are usually architects. These solutions promise that, when architects use simulation early on, they will be able to make better design decisions sooner in the process. The main criticisms for single-click applications are the reliability of their results and their limited ability to model the complexity of real world problems. Most single-click applications limit input flexibility so they can deliver high quality results for a very limited range of possibilities. Because these platforms rely on simplified inputs and interfaces, they usually fail to reflect the real complexity of design problems. This is, of course, not a new phenomenon and not limited to the web-based solutions, but because of the wider reach of the web-based solutions, it affects a larger audience than was ever possible before.

The “Mass customization” of expertise tries to build a platform for bringing professionals together in order to amplify the wisdom of the crowd. Here, the role of automation is to deal with the real complexities of the problem at hand rather than creating a one-for-all automated solution. There have been several successful examples of such platforms in other industries, but I think we have yet to see such a platform for building simulation. Software developers use GitHub and graphic designers use Figma to collaborate on projects and build custom solutions that can be deployed at scale. The main challenge for these platforms is appealing to non-experts while keeping the experts satisfied. Depending on how well they keep the non-experts involved in the process, they can become expert-only platforms. This means that they build reliable solutions but are used only too late during the design process. Again, this is not a new phenomenon, but web-based interfaces provide a new level of flexibility that has not been available before. The right interface might become the key parameter for success of these platforms.

Of course, I have my own preference on this matter, but I would like to ask you, the reader who has your head in the clouds, to think how our choices as individuals will determine the future of cloud solutions for the building industry. I personally think we are still climbing up a hype cycle, and we need some more time before the hype goes away and we will be able to think straight. I would like to imagine that we will build platforms that can bring people with different backgrounds together without compromising the complexity of real world problems. Are we going to be one of the industries who will use this opportunity to provide a higher level of services to a larger audience? Are we going to take the responsibility to do the right thing and build platforms that educate users even if it is harder to do? Or are we just going to focus on market adoption by making tools simpler? Is there a mature solution to do both? This will be up to our choices, and only time will tell.

Mostapha Sadeghipour Roudsari, MEBD, MSc Arch
Co-founder, Ladybug Tools LLC

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