Change moves at the SPEED of light. It is an intellection that no one argues but one that few have managed to employ as a business model. But much like the extraordinary innovation he has bestowed upon the world, Benjamin Welle is prodigious.
His drive to innovate “one leap beyond” began as an eager engineering undergrad and with a simple assignment to build a small energy-efficient house from cardboard. But Ben imagined something different, something more, and instead constructed a massive, elaborate house out of wood. In doing so, his passion for sustainable building design was born.
Over two decades later, Ben is now a driving force behind the implementation of new technologies at Perkins and Will, the second-largest architecture firm in the world. As the director of the Energy Lab, he leads with an energetic, inquisitive nature that harkens to the spirit of a start-up. As John Haymaker, PhD, AIA, and director of research for Perkins and Will shares, “As impressive as Ben’s résumé and work is, perhaps more impressive is the quality of Ben’s personality and the size of his heart.”
Ben and his team have developed an ecosystem for design-driven AI that allows architects to run quality energy and daylight models without specific expertise in the area or the immediate need for outside consultants. The platform is called SPEED, the Simulation Platform for Energy-Efficient Design—and it’s revolutionizing the age-old industry of building design.
In the words of Amir Roth, PhD, and technology manager for building energy modeling for the U.S. Department of Energy, “Some people have vision. Some have the knowledge and skill to execute on a vision. Some have the fortitude and resolve to will a vision into existence. Ben is the rare person to have all three. It’s hard to think of someone in this industry who has had greater real-world impact over the last several years.”
Ben’s philosophy, however, is a little simpler. “You need to be passionate about something and use that passion to contribute to the greater good,” he states. And since his earliest days, he has done just that. Throughout his contributions to the fields of building simulation and multidisciplinary design optimization (MDO), the prevailing constant has always been his love of sustainable building design—and SPEED is his pièce de resistance.
We spoke with Ben to learn more about his background and how it led to the creation and success of SPEED.
Ben, first tell us a little about yourself. Who is your hero and greatest inspiration?
My father, Henry Welle, is without a doubt my hero and greatest source of inspiration. I’m inspired by his unwavering calm, intelligent decision-making, positivity, and unworldly ability to process life’s ups and downs, extract lessons learned, and move forward as a better person because of those lessons. His ability to let go of the past and focus on the present has always provided me an idealistic yet practical roadmap to live my life to its fullest potential. It is an honor and a privilege to have a father who is also your greatest mentor and best friend, setting a bar for how to be a good person that I can always strive towards, but will never reach. Both my parents have always been stewards of the environment, in fact my father used to be a tree farmer and to able to contribute to a cause they have been passionate about their entire lives is deeply meaningful to all of us.
What was your journey to arrive at the unique industry niche you find yourself now?
I arrived at this industry niche primarily through unique diversity in the evolution of my career. In addition to my academic pursuits, I’ve worked for an energy consulting firm, KEMA; government agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Services Administration-Office of the Chief Architect; a non-profit standards organization, Open Geospatial Consortium; a high-tech AEC start-up, Aditazz; and finally, a large industry-leading architecture firm, P&W. This depth and breadth in experience provided me with a wide range of perspectives and needs for the building simulation domain, and ultimately led to where I am now.
Why do you think technologies such as the one you developed will be required in the coming decades?
I believe COVID has, and will continue to cause, a fundamental technological and economical paradigm shift in the AEC industry. Fear in the workplace and its effects on worker productivity, litigious risk mitigation, and performance accountability will force computer-based design methods farther upstream with a particular emphasis on HVAC. The result will be a rapidly evolving industry that will require data-informed design and various forms of design intelligence. Economic factors will dominate traditional sustainability objectives as the primary drivers of change.
What drives you to continue to innovate?
First is the severe lack of innovation in our industry. It is so slow to embrace technology that is commonplace in other industries and holds tightly onto antiquated cultural and process conventions. Therefore, we need as many innovators as possible to make a lasting disruption that becomes the norm and battle climate change. Second, innovation is an addiction. Once you experience it, you can’t settle for less.
What compelled you to design SPEED?
I did my PhD on work similar to SPEED, and typically one’s work for their doctorate is many years away from making its way on a large scale into practice, if ever. I knew the Earth didn’t have the luxury of time. So, I decided to expand, enhance, and scale my doctoral work within a five-year period in the most difficult yet important environment to do so—a large, distributed, purely architecture firm, where architects had little to no experience in energy modeling and would never be forced to. The knowledge of engineers and energy modelers had to be written as code and put under the hood of the platform. It had to be simple, fast, intelligent, effective, and sexy. If success could be found there, it could be found anywhere.
Can you give us a brief primer on how SPEED can be used to benefit multiple project team members and stakeholders?
Every stakeholder throughout the building lifecycle can benefit from SPEED. Architects use it to guide their decision-making process when no consultants are on board yet. This puts the design in a more efficient place once the mechanical engineer comes on board, and there’s less re-work. Engineers can also run large-scale simulations using SPEED, use the results to guide their early decision making then go to their tool of choice later. Project communication and coordination improves as a common language is established. Owners and developers receive better-performing and more resilient buildings faster and at less cost, and the occupants of the building benefit from the better indoor air quality, daylighting, thermal comfort.
How is SPEED different from other platforms?
SPEED is an example of simulation built into a technology platform rather than just a simulation tool. What I mean by that is the ecosystem of SPEED consists of many domains—knowledge management and re-use, AI, parallel cloud computing, statistical analysis, interactive visualizations, and a high degree of automated design intelligence that allows novice users to run quality energy and daylighting simulations. Most importantly, it’s built around the concept of a parametric study, running thousands of simulations in parallel and automatically post-processing the results to take the complicated interactions between all the design variables and building performance and clearly communicate it to the designer for practical design guidance on how to move forward. These capabilities are more important now than ever. P&W recently signed the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. This ambitious goal is very difficult to achieve and not possible, in my opinion, without a technology like SPEED.
While you have worked for large organizations throughout your career, you have also worked for a start-up venture and still hold a special place in your heart for them. Why is this, and does your experience with smaller companies still guide you to this day?
Innovation often struggles to evolve in large, conventional organizations. If it does, it tends to be small-scale and far from a game-changer. With start-up ventures, you find yourself surrounded by highly skilled, like-minded individuals that want to create something special. Those individuals create a team whose energy, enthusiasm, and results are far greater than the sum of the parts. Even at P&W, the research program with all its labs has essentially been a start-up. Success is not bringing an innovative product to market that is highly profitable in the traditional sense, but rather integrating and “institutionalizing” our products within the design processes in our own firm.
Benjamin completed his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering, M.S. in civil and environmental Engineering, and B.S. in energy engineering at Stanford University. He received his M.S. in mechanical engineering from UC San Diego. He is a Registered Professional Mechanical Engineer (PE) and a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional (LEED AP), USGBC. His work was featured in a Department of Energy “DOE Success Story,” was Building Design + Construction Magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 Award winner, and received the American Institute of Architects (AIA) BIM TAP Award for Sustainable Design.
Director of Energy Lab
Perkins and Will
To download the magazine, click on the cover.