Sustainability is a watchword in the architectural community, one that has broader implications than just energy savings and lowering carbon emissions. According to the Framework for Design Excellence, sustainable design is more than just lowering energy use and includes considering the “triple bottom line” of social, economic, and environmental value. Sustainable buildings should contribute to a diverse, accessible, walkable, and human-scaled community; support biodiversity and connect with regional habitat restoration; conserve water and material resources; be economical, and balance first costs with long-term value; support occupants’ and the surrounding community’s physical, mental and emotional health; be adaptable over time and address future risks and vulnerabilities from social, economic and environmental change; continuously improve upon discoveries made in previous projects; and be a beautiful addition to the built world that future generations will want to keep around.
As a profession with so much responsibility for shaping the built environment, architects have always had an interest in sustainability and all that the word implies. But in the day-to-day rush to get projects in and out the door, it is difficult to incorporate all of the diverse interests, information overload, conflicting data, and demands for sustainability that eager designers encounter. What do we concentrate on first? And how do we incorporate sustainable goals in the face of occasionally indifferent owners and tight budgets?
AIA Colorado supports many committees working on subjects of importance to the architectural community, including the Sustainability Advancement Working Group. Formerly the Resiliency Knowledge Community—with a concentration on how to ensure the built environment can respond to fires, floods, climate change, and other disruptions—they are now concentrating on promoting the 2030 Commitment and assisting design firms with adapting their practices to meet it. The 2030 Commitment envisions building projects achieving Net Zero energy use by 2030. Being carbon neutral means that carbon produced through a building’s operations will be offset by the project generating as much renewable energy as the building consumes.
In 2018 alone, firms participating in the 2030 Commitment saved 17.7 million metric tons of CO2, which is equivalent to the carbon emissions that would be avoided by taking all the cars in Georgia off the road for an entire year. Signing onto the AIA 2030 Commitment involves a commitment to gather information and evaluate the impact design decisions have on your project’s energy performance, allowing you to track improvements in the energy performance of your firm’s projects over time. Design firms joining the 2030 Commitment will gain access to confidential data from leading AIA firms’ projects worldwide. They will also be provided with the support, education, tools, and analysis that can help them improve their expertise, develop new sustainable approaches to sell to clients, validate their design approach, compare their data to other firms in the region, and help combat climate change while improving the bottom line. See this link for more information:
Firms joining the 2030 Commitment must submit a Sustainability Action Plan within 6 months. The SAP guides firms in creating their approach to sustainable design and provides an opportunity to strategically and methodically translate your sustainability goals into a comprehensive approach for transforming your practices and portfolio. The Sustainability Advancement Working Group provides additional educational resources for architects who want to improve their abilities to create sustainable architecture. The committee has already waded through the massive amounts of information and resources available to provide architects with a better understanding of how they can improve their projects for their clients and communities.
Members of the Sustainability Group emphasize that sustainable architecture doesn’t have to cost more. For example, optimizing the massing and orientation of a building can have a huge impact on energy costs without requiring additional funds. Energy modeling is a lot more sophisticated and user-friendly these days—previously, practitioners had to perform the math calculations for their solutions themselves, and now the computer programs can provide these automatically. Many people use these programs to inform their design as it progresses, and daylighting analysis has also improved, giving designers and their engineers vital information before floor plans and elevations are fixed. LEED standards and building codes have also greatly improved the energy performance and indoor health of buildings. Public clients often require LEED certification, and the industry has moved further into green architecture to accommodate these requests, offering marketing opportunities for firms interested in sustainability. Designers today are much more aware of the need to control waste, lower energy use, and increase material conservation and indoor air quality, while new non-VOC building products that weren’t available even 5 years ago are ubiquitous today.
While the 2030 Commitment concentrates on reducing operational carbon, a focus on embodied carbon is trending among sustainable practitioners. Some materials naturally contain more embodied carbon than others; for example, concrete structures require more energy to produce than a wood structure. Where material comes from is increasingly important. As the 2030 Commitment begins to reduce operational carbon, interested designers predict that a continued focus on sustainability will gradually shift to reducing embodied carbon as well.
My focus professionally has been on using Lean methods to integrate cross-functional teams in the design and construction of buildings. Lean dovetails perfectly with sustainable building—both practices acknowledge that having integrated teams early in the design process is key. It has often been stated that in the first 10% of design, almost 70% of all costs and environmental impacts have already been determined. Primary materials, the structural system, fenestration and massing and orientation are often determined at this point before engineers even start their work. Having a set floor plan that engineers must then “fit” mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems into creates a piecemeal approach to design, ensuring that the project will ultimately perform as less than the sum of its parts. Contractors brought in late in the design process—even by the Design Development phase under a CMGC contract—have very little room to make recommendations that will greatly improve the project, and on most traditional projects do not provide specific trade knowledge from those “Last Planners” who will ultimately install these systems. Bringing engineers and even major subcontractors on early gives architects the knowledge to create the optimal project for their clients using a whole systems approach.
Intimate knowledge of how a building will be built is key to providing true sustainability that can actually be measured. A design/build firm specializing in bringing Passive House principles to their projects described one commission from a prominent learning institution that required them to design and build the mirror image of an existing college dorm building across a quad. Using Lean and sustainable principles, they managed to create a mirror image of the building—only the new structure met Passive House standards while costing $5 per square foot less than the building built 5 years before. Passive House concentrates on designing and building a façade that controls the passage of air and moisture. The HVAC system is sized to accommodate the façade. Hence, the new dorm only required a 20-ton mechanical system, which was much easier and more economical to build and operate than the previous dorm’s 70-ton system.
Holistic thinking is central to sustainable architecture. Yet in current practice, many engineers design for a “type” of building (not the actual building being designed), using rules of thumb that grossly over design the system, especially the mechanical and electrical systems. For example, when designing a school, interior designers who choose paint colors with a high light reflectance value can reduce the number of light fixtures required to light the room, which also reduces the need for cooling. Expensive, efficient windows can provide occupants with a comfortable environment while also eliminating the need for a perimeter heating system. Unfortunately, sustainable projects still usually calculate payback on line-items and not on systems as a whole, leading to poorly considered decisions that eliminate those “expensive” windows without calculating the additional cost for the mechanical system.
Hence, if the mechanical engineer is designing for a building “type,” he/she will design for the worst-case scenario without collaborating with others: The month is July, the building is at full capacity, the weather is the hottest on record, all the lights are on at noon, and his mechanical system can still cool the building—then they add a safety factor! By bringing in everyone early to discuss the actual building being designed, using multi-disciplinary teams that include MEP engineers and contractors and the architect working together, you can create a whole that is better and cheaper than the sum of its parts. The team should make decisions together, then design to those decisions. Contractors keep a check on costs, and ensure that constructability is an input to the design and not an outcome inevitably leading to weeks of scope cuts and “value engineering.”
One obstacle to adopting this process is that a typical architect’s traditional fee structure—with design fees peaking in the Construction Documentation phase—does not easily allow project teams to bring important people in early. Owner expectations are an issue; designers must show that there is great benefit in spending more time and money early in the design process when the most value can be created cheaply. Trade partners early in the process can work together with designers to deliver the building earlier than is possible when contractors are brought in too late. The team can compress submittal and RFI review times, or perhaps even eliminate submittals altogether with the cooperation of trades and owner groups in the design phase. All while delivering a sustainable building that costs less to operate and is better integrated into its environment.
One book that combines a Lean approach to a new vision of sustainability (where building designers aren’t just satisfied that their buildings have a “lesser” impact on their environment, but actually enhance the environment they stand within), is “The Integrative Design Guide for Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability.” If an architect would like to jumpstart a sustainable culture in their firm, read the book, sign up for the 2030 Commitment, and then contact the Sustainability Advancement Working Group for more educational opportunities and assistance. With a little commitment, we can all do our part to decrease the impact the built environment has on climate change and pollution!