Computing power has grown 100 times over last 10 years, helping to create rapid and profound changes in the tools of building design and construction. But as sophisticated building- information-modeling tools help create ever more complex buildings, why aren't they doing more to design buildings that have greater energy efficiency?

These were some of the key points—and challenges—that building experts outlined during Architectural Record's "Innovation Conference 2012" in New York City this month. (AR and ENR are both owned by McGraw-Hill.) "Buildings are [still] the single-largest [user[ of energy on the planet," noted Stephen Selkowitz, who heads the building-technologies department at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Although he lauded the extensive research to improve the energy efficiency of buildings, including rapid analysis of the reams of data that buildings produce, Selkowitz urged experts to accelerate the pace of adopting new practices in the commercial world.

After all, if Moore's Law is used to explain that computer processing power doubles every 18 months, how is that capability working for energy design? "We ought to be able to design buildings and guarantee how they will perform after they are built," Selkowitz said. Such a movement is taking hold in the U.S. For example, he and his team are working with six cities to come up with their own standard energy-efficiency data (SEED) platforms for establishing building benchmarks. Plus, the Dept. of Energy is compiling a database of real performance measures. But "the adoption curve is really critically important," Selkowitz added, especially as tools for designing buildings grow more powerful.

Citing research from consulting firm McKinsey, Kent Larson, principal research scientist with the MIT Media Lab, said 300 million rural Chinese will be moving to a city in the next 15 years and will need the equivalent of the entire built infrastructure of the U.S. in that same time. He said 75% of the world's energy is consumed in cities. If we don't get the design right, "we'll all go off the cliff."