A few weeks ago at the office I saw a presentation by Carrie Strahan, Studio Director at the San Francisco office of the Architectural Energy Corporation. Through her overview of how AEC works with its clients to achieve energy efficiency, environmental responsiveness, and use of renewable energy in clients’ new and existing buildings, I learned a lot I hadn’t known about green design.

Carrie began by touching on the sustainability imperative: dramatic oil and climate change require dramatic change in how we design and operate our buildings. The construction and operation of buildings is the biggest contributor to the rising of our planet’s C02 levels (buildings account for 48% of our country’s total energy consumption; hospitals alone are responsible for a whopping 4% of this total consumption). Earth’s temperature is currently at .7°C above pre-industrial levels, and scientists warn that we must keep this difference under 2°C if we are to avoid dangerous climate change.

And so we look to energy engineering. Energy engineers (energeers?) team with architects to ensure that focus on sustainable design goals and implications is maintained throughout the design and construction process. The breadth of what can go into making a building energy-efficient is incredible: site selection, orientation of a building, shape, configuration, lighting systems, the role of daylight are only a few of the building elements that play key roles in a building’s sustainability (or lack thereof). You can’t just slap on a few solar panels once a building has been constructed for it to attain LEED status: you have to be energy-conscious from the very beginning, from pre-design to schematic design to design development to construction documentation.

To that end, AEC has developed a list of goals it pursues in each of its projects. The first of these goals is integrated energy design. Every design element affects every other: if the building site must be changed, how does the resultantly different exposure to sunlight affect approaches to fenestration? How might a adjusting a building’s shape influence which materials are used for its envelope? The second goal is to understand the climate of the building’s location, through such methods as studies of wind, sunshine and cloud cover. The third goal is Aggressive Load Deduction, the process of optimizing the energy-saving potential of those features that are “built into” a building – such as building orientation, massing and geometry, daylighting and percent of window area, shading, lighting, and envelope. Carrie presented a list of building attributes proven to reduce load, which included a slender floor plan along an east-west axis; daylight in perimeter areas; window-glazing specifications and shading according to orientation; and window glazing divided by function (for example, glazing used for “vision” glass, which is intended to be looked through, is different from glazing used for “daylight” glass, the primary function of which is to allow sunlight inside a building).

Energy engineering is cool. And it’s just one of the steps we’re going to have to take if Earth is going to keep its cool.