Partnerships, Data, and Technology are the Future of Sustainable Cities

By Moiz Kapadia

Moiz Kapadia is a Product Manager on the Sustainability Solutions team where he developed Autodesk’s Sustainable Cities product and service offering. Prior to Autodesk, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama and was a mechanical engineer at Arup in NY. He has a Masters in Civil Engineering from Stanford University and studied entrepreneurship at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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Washington, D.C. has an ambitious goal to become the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States by 2032.

The District laid out a wide range of sustainability goals, which includes net-zero energy buildings, green infrastructure, and connected transportation to name a few, to improve the built environment and their economy. But implementing these strategies comes with high costs and move at a pace too slow to immediately benefit the climate.

Cutting through red tape

The Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE), who steward the Sustainable DC plan, have two powerful weapons at their disposal: the Downtown Business Improvement District and Open Data.

The Downtown DC Business Improvement District (BID) is “a catalyst, facilitator, and thought leader that promotes public/private partnerships to create a remarkable urban environment.” As a non-profit, the BID can move much faster than the District government and designated themselves an ecoDistrict to experiment with the latest sustainability technology.

Along with Interface Engineering consultants, the BID and DOEE wrote a smart city vision: a data-rich city model that captures all of the energy and water flows within the District. The District is looking for a “single source of truth” model that simulates the triple bottom line costs and benefits of infrastructure improvements. By measuring sustainability metrics within the model, the government can convince citizens of the value of planned green projects.

Bill Updike, Chief, Green Building & Climate Branch, DOEE explains, “We want to use the model to test multiple ‘what-if’ scenarios for policy changes, technology adoption, or behavior change. For example, how much energy will lighting retrofits save and which buildings should we target? How much stormwater runoff could we reduce if we implemented green infrastructure on the District scale?”

Because of their strong sustainability initiatives and connections to stakeholders, the BID is a great place to deploy the city model. Once the model is useful to the BID, it can scale to the rest of the District.

Technology based sustainability strategies

The BID was able to skip the bureaucratic processes that DOEE would need to go through, and partner directly with the Autodesk Sustainability Solutions team to create their city model. Autodesk’s powerful 3D visualization and simulation tools enable the bid to conduct a virtual analysis of the BID’s energy efficiency and green infrastructure potential. Autodesk’s InfraWorks 360 generated a model of the Downtown ecoDistrict that was used to:

  • Detect which buildings are ready for retrofit and which systems to upgrade, using Rapid Energy Modeling
  • Model green infrastructure at the site scale to calculate stormwater retention credits, and at the district scale to retain 100% stormwater, using Green Stormwater Infrastructure
  • Calculate triple bottom line benefits of the National Mall Underground project, using AutoCASE

Unlocking Building Energy Efficiency Potential

With only the basic building information and weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Autodesk was able to simulate the energy consumption of buildings within the BID. The simulation was informed with building energy data from DOEE’s landmark Building Benchmarking Disclosure Ordinance. This combination of simulation and open data enabled the BID to determine the energy and cost savings from upgrading lighting, windows, and HVAC systems across the entire ecoDistrict.

Implementing Green Infrastructure

When it rains in cities, stormwater washes contaminants from the streets into either the combined sewer system or directly into local water bodies. Pollution from this runoff can be dramatically reduced by green infrastructure that retains and filters stormwater on-site. To accelerate adoption of this approach, DOEE started the first market for Stormwater Retention Credits. Owners gain credits for installing green infrastructure, and can sell these credits to developers who need them to comply with regulations.

To demonstrate the benefits of on-site retention to stakeholders, engineers can use Autodesk’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure tool (GSI) to design and analyze green infrastructure. And using the built-in compliance checker, they can evaluate if the solutions meet code and calculate the dollar value of stormwater credits attained. GSI was used to calculate runoff capture, credit value, and code compliance of rain gardens and bioswales in the re-design of the ecoDistrict’s historic Franklin Park.

GSI also enables evaluation of city-wide green infrastructure implementation. First, GSI determined that the ecoDistrict must manage 2.5 million cubic feet of stormwater during a typical storm. Then it was used to find how green infrastructure could reduce the runoff. One analysis showed that runoff to rivers could be reduced 35% by converting 45% of hard surfaces to natural cover and adding green roofs to 30% of the BID’s buildings.

Making the Business Case

Washington, D.C. residents are all too familiar with flooding and congestion in the National Mall. Tour buses that idle along the streets cause traffic problems, pollute the air, and limit available parking. In 2006 a major storm flooded many prominent museums and caused damages that cost millions to repair. To solve these problems and improve the experience of the National Mall, a multipurpose infrastructure solution has been proposed by Dewberry engineering consultants.

In crafting their rather unconventional design Dewberry used AutoCASE, a triple bottom line analysis tool from Autodesk partner Impact Infrastructure, to justify a design with significant social return on investment. This entailed green space on the surface level, moving parking underground and storing stormwater in an underground irrigation cistern. AutoCASE showed how a comprehensive design with a higher upfront costs was viable once the full range of social, environmental, and economic benefits were taken into consideration.

Partnerships, Data, and Technology

Washington, D.C.’s sustainable cities story is best looked at through three lenses:

  • Partnerships that cut through red tape
  • Open Data that is used to inform consultants, the public, and track progress
  • Technology solutions that enable triple bottom line solutions

Each of these forces are continuing to grow in cities across the world, and serve as a framework for designing, building, and living in sustainable cities of the future.

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