20 Apr, 2006

In anticipation of an upcoming PBS series, Autodesk's Bernstein talks about sustainable architecture

Brad Pitt, narrating the upcoming Autodesk-sponsored PBS series "design: e2, the economies of being environmentally conscious," warns us, "More people are living on earth than ever before. The planet has never been under such stress. How can we live in harmony with our earth?"

That question will be answered when the show airs in June. For the time being, we turn to Phil Bernstein, vice-president of Autodesk's Building Solutions Division, for a glimpse of Autodesk's green philosophies and initiatives.

Note: Transcript edited for length and clarity.

What's Autodesk's interest in the show's topic?
Phil Berstein: We've been studying the problem for quite some time. We didn't just wake up one day and say, 'Hey, why don't we do green stuff?' There's actually quite a strong correspondence between the work we're interested in doing around integrating design information and providing tools that allow people to better predict the design outcome. Green strategy is about predicting the effects of construction on the environment, and the way to do that is through analysis and simulation. So it wasn't that big a conceptual jump.

Is sustainable design a priority for Autodesk customers?
Bernstein: No question about it. We are asked about it on a regular basis. We've written white papers about it. A number of our customers are deeply involved in it. We have customers who are practicing green design as part of their strategic positioning using BIM (building information modeling). We sponsored the Greenbuild Expo last year [scheduled this year for November 15-17, in Denver, Colorado]. We did it because we thought it was the right thing to do. Then when we got there, we found about 12,000 people -- a complete mob scene. If you go on the U.S. Green Building Council site, the number of projects in the sustainability review cycle is completely unbelievable.

Foundation One Bryant Park with a view of 4 Times Square, a breakthrough model of sustainable design and green skyscrapers in New York City. (Photo by Robert Humphreys)

A lot of the process discussion in the building industry right now is about trying to optimize the relationship between design fabrication and construction, about process integration, about understanding the impact of decisions -- that's consistent with sustainability.

What can we expect from the Autodesk Sustainability Center Web site scheduled to launch on May 5?
Bernstein: We hope people will interact with the information in a different way. Generally people come to us for product information. We're hoping this will make them come to us from a philosophical orientation. Initially, the site will be closely tied the PBS "design: e2" series, so the topics will mirror the different episodes of the series.

Right now, there's a perception in the industry -- in some cases, it's true -- that it's a lot harder, it's more expensive and it takes more time to incorporate sustainability into projects. If we can educate our customers across the industries we serve -- manufacturing, infrastructure, building -- on how to use technology to do sustainable design, we can help move the industry in the direction that makes a lot more sense for the community and the environment.

The number of jurisdictions and large-scale clients requiring sustainability in their projects is growing every day. I read a study recently that says about 40 of the U.S. cities will now require buildings to be certified for LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] before issuing building permits. And the GSA [U.S. General Services Administration] is demanding that future federal government buildings have sustainability. Frankly, our clients are starting to demand it. We're not quite at the tipping point, but there are lots of discussions going on about how to define a "green building" -- what is sustainability and how to measure it?

The technology is great, but what's interesting now is the redefinition of the problem we're facing. If you practice building information modeling using a platform like [Autodesk] Revit, what you're doing is creating a digital model that allows you to simulate things, like energy calculation, daylight study, water consumption study and materials waste.

Did anyone from Autodesk get to meet Brad Pitt? I never met Brad Pitt. But here's a funny story. One of my best friends teaches a green course to undergraduate engineering students. We kind of compete with each other. I teach architecture; he teaches engineering. So he sometimes has celebrities drop in. He once got Cameron Diaz to come to his class. He sent me a picture of himself, [designer and architect] William McDonough and Cameron Diaz teaching the class. If I can get Brad Pitt in my class, that'll definitely be something.

Autodesk is hosting an event to mark the world premiere of the PBS series in New York on May 31. Watch for the series on PBS beginning in June; check local listings for dates and times.

Bernstein promises to notify Cadalyst about any planned celebrity appearances in his classes at Yale. For more about sustainability, watch for "Design Turns Green, Part II," an interview with Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity -- coming soon in Cadalyst Daily.