IN² Spotlight: Helping Architects & Engineers Make Clean Energy Choices

Commercial Buildings

April 28, 2023—Ladybug Tools software aids in building design and helps architects and engineers make smarter decisions.

Co-founder Christopher Mackey explains why what his company’s software does is important with a simple example of triple-pane windows. These windows offer more insulation, keeping heating and cooling from escaping a building, ultimately lowering energy costs. However, when architects and engineers design buildings, they tend to look for ways to cut costs, and triple-pane windows are an easy target since they can quickly be replaced with double-pane to save money. This decision has other consequences.

The annual heating and cooling costs go up, but these are often not enough to justify the up-front investment in triple-pane unless the client is looking at financial returns a decade or two into the future. What most design teams fail to realize is that removing the triple-plane windows also means the building then needs larger and more complex heating and cooling equipment, which is not only more expensive, but often requires more space. That balloons costs in other ways.

Design teams don’t see these consequences early on because engineers often have a tough time quickly creating energy models that illustrate the ramifications of the design option and transferring their conclusions back to the architects and building owners before decisions are made.

“When you have a building energy model that’s quickly producible from an architectural design model, you can see right off the bat that it often doesn’t make sense to nix triple-pane windows,” Mackey said. “You need concurrent coordination between the engineer, design team, and the project managers if you ultimately want to make the best decisions. And there are countless situations like this in the design of a typical building where we fail to coordinate well. Without coordination, you will often make a decision that is less in the interests of the climate, the customer, and even the occupants.”

The software helps with a variety of building energy modeling scenarios, not just windows.

Ladybug Tools started around 10 years ago as an open-source connection between Grasshopper CAD (computer-aided design) and several building simulation engines for modeling energy use, daylight, thermal comfort, and more.

Since those early beginnings, the open-source Ladybug Tools project has been downloaded more than half a million times and, in 2018, the company began work on its Pollination software suite, which includes dedicated plug-ins for Rhinoceros CAD and Revit BIM (Building Information Modeling), the most popular architectural design software platforms in the U.S.

“Our software is the most robust connection between CAD and Building Energy Modeling (BEM), and it’s the only one I know that can extract clean-energy models directly from Revit,” Mackey said. “Our Rhino plug-in also offers the most geometric freedom of any BEM platform, thanks in large part to the robustness of Rhino’s geometry engine. Before our software, energy modelers would typically start from scratch and retrace over the entire design model. Now, you can start with that same design model and run a few commands on top of it to get to a clean analytical model that’s suitable for building simulations. Overall, the Pollination plug-ins cut down the time it takes to make a typical building energy model from over a week to under a day. We build a bridge between the architects, the engineers, and the energy modelers that allows them to better collaborate.”

In addition to its plugins, Pollination also includes a cloud computing service, which can increase the speed of simulations, and offers a platform on which project team members can share model inputs, outputs and logic. One company used the cloud platform to run more than 60,000 simulations, each of which represented a different variation of their building design. Mackey says they have something even better in the pipeline.

“We have a product that’s in beta, which enables experts to create and share applications with other project team members, enabling them to encapsulate their knowledge into tools that others can use,” Mackey said. “With this, we’re hoping to make the collaboration process even faster and easier between designers and engineers.”

Mackey believes designers have used the open-source form of their software on more than a thousand buildings.

“Our open-source project is continuing to thrive and grow beyond our wildest dreams,” he said. “Our free Grasshopper plug-in is taught in over a hundred universities around the world, and our forum gets an average of 4,000 monthly active users. Pretty much every hour someone is posting something on there.”

Participation in the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) program helped Ladybug Tools to do a complete, ground-up revision of the software. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) assisted Ladybug Tools in creating a new file type, which forms the core of Ladybug Tools’ interoperability between CAD platforms and simulation engines. They had a working version of the new file type by the end of their phase 1 with IN2, and the phase 2 work allowed them to add backwards and forwards translators from the file type to simulation engines that NREL maintains. This expansion of their ecosystem of tools allows more connections.

“Just this past year, we started selling our first products around this,” Mackey said. “We’re transitioning from grant support over to sales supported. Since we started selling in March 2022, we can see the beginnings of a growth curve, and we’re currently ~30% of the way to being completely sales-supported. By the end of 2023, we want to be completely supported by sales. The future is looking very bright for us.”

In addition to selling what they have now, development continues on the beta application platform with hopes that it could be a major game changer in the industry.

“That’s kind of the holy grail of collaboration,” Mackey said. “There’s a lot of potential to really streamline things and make the decision-making process clearer and better. It will enable people to collaborate seamlessly with one another without having to send emails and files back and forth. With our products [and] services, we can finally end this collaboration problem that has plagued the building industry for decades and produce buildings informed by the best that building simulation can offer.”

For more information about the companies in the IN2 portfolio, visit the IN2 website.

More Commercial Buildings Stories