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Four on design

Architects and engineers discuss trends in building design that are affecting how they do their jobs

March 01, 2001 |

Issues such as sustainability, changes in project delivery methods and technological advancements are impacting the way designers are approaching building projects today. Building Design & Construction queried a panel of four architects and engineers representing varied disciplines for their thoughts relating to these and other design trends. The distinguished panel includes a principal of a major architectural firm, a director of mission-critical facilities for a large A/E entity, a director of design for a prominent A/E firm and a project manager of a respected structural engineering company.

BD & C: A renewed interest in the environment has led to increased emphasis on sustainability in building design. How do you see sustainable design evolving?

Dordai: We see interest in sustainable design increasing as a result of three basic trends.

The first is caused by the strong economy and the need for business to focus on recruiting and retaining employees. That has caused companies to look at their work environment in a new light and focus on creating healthy and productive workplaces: hence, sustainable design. The second trend is a drive to reduce overall building energy costs, especially in light of the recent increases in price for oil and natural gas. The third cause is a quantum leap in the amount and quality of information available in both the general and design-focused media about sustainable design issues.

In addition, and most important, I think that sustainability connects design and building to larger social issues which all of us can play a part in solving. It puts the "act locally, think globally" paradigm into practice in a very real way.

Husser: Interest in sustainability will continue to increase as we put increasing pressure on the environment, as resources become scarce and our open space and natural habitats are displaced. The building and construction industries are tremendous consumers of land and energy and generators of waste. Nonetheless, for the current market to transform to a more environmentally responsible system, building owners and developers must believe that sustainable design makes financial sense.

This is beginning to happen. One reason is that sustainable design is becoming less elusive to building owners because the benefits are becoming more predictable with technological advances in design and measurement tools like computational fluid dynamic (CFD) analysis and the U.S. Department of Energy's DOE-2 energy modeling. In addition, there are compelling studies that measure worker productivity as it relates to the work environment, particularly to daylighting, air quality and personal environmental control. These factors add up to real savings for a building's owner/operator and the businesses that occupy them.

Further, these trends go beyond buildings. In addition to completing green projects for a variety of clients and building types, HOK's planning, landscape design, lighting and interiors groups are incorporating environmentally responsible practices into their projects.

BD & C: What are some of the obstacles to wider acceptance of sustainable design?

Dordai: I think that the biggest hurdle is to come up with a clear and comprehensive way to present sustainable design issues from an economic point of view. This means finding independently verifiable links between sustainable design practices and productivity increases and measurable health benefits for occupants. There are many good case studies out there. The potential economic benefit of the productivity increases being claimed in these studies dwarfs most of the first-cost increases for specific sustainable design systems.

Dueck: Sustainability is still a relatively new formulation of old ideas in the marketplace. The notion of responsible design is not new. What constitutes responsible design today is different than it was a generation ago, and will continue to evolve over time.

If by sustainable design one means the selective use of renewable materials and low embodied energy, then the industry has a long way to go. We have participated in-and will continue to promote-the research and study of the elements of design that create the best value for the customer. Understanding the costs associated with the various aspects of sustainability is essential in collaborating with clients to achieve true sustainability.

Husser: The key is to dispel the myth of excessive first cost. There are many shades of "green" and there are many simple and low-cost techniques that can greatly improve a building's environmental impact without busting the budget.

Pappas: Public and private funding for the development of products is essential and should be commonplace since these entities have the resources to fund continued production and development of sustainable building products. Government and large institutions should be willing to purchase sustainable end products as an example to the consumer industry. For example, precast-concrete panels can be considered sustainable because of their ingredient make-up and ease of maintenance. By advancing precast design to incorporate more imaginative visual appeal-plus integral alternative energy or shade control-clients who may need such solid construction will benefit.

BD & C: What new energy-related building techniques are poised to come on the scene?

Dordai: We think that we will soon see mechanical systems in workstations that give users control over their individual environment, much like you find in cars.

If there is a paradigm for the future, I think that it comes from nature and the ability of organisms to quickly and precisely adapt to their environment. Think of a building wall as a permeable membrane that can filter light, air and noise in a very precise and dynamic way. Some of the new buildings being designed in Europe are good examples of where we are going.

Husser: As energy experts have no single solution to the world's increasing energy demands, we will see multiple technologies explored and developed for the building industry. While none are currently capable of replacing the electrical grid, building-integrated photovoltaics, fuel cells and wind energy are becoming increasingly efficient and cost effective and may help to curb our dependence on energy from fossil fuels.

Popular in Europe, double-skin, ventilated facades are gaining interest in the United States. Operable windows that allow occupants access to fresh air and connection to the outdoor environment without compromising the thermal and moisture envelope of a building are appealing aspects of this type of exterior wall design.

Pappas: Alternative energy sources are making tremendous headway into the modern building market. As solar-powered systems and photovoltaic energy modules become less expensive and more off-the-shelf to lower installed cost, these two types of modern technology will be seen much more often on commercial and residential construction sites.

BD & C: Can you give examples of recent projects that are representative of design trends?

Dueck: The E*Trade Regional Operations Center in Alpharetta, Ga., is a showcase of modern materials and a fun articulation of form and function that combines the stability and reliability of a financial institution with an environment that supports and encourages a more intense work style.

The facility is supported by an automated cooling and power plant designed to operate full time forever with no downtime. System and component redundancies are optimized to mitigate risk of failure and to provide alternatives while under maintenance and repair.

Husser: The U.S. District Courthouse in Denver is a good example of an environmentally friendly building. It's a demonstration project of the General Service Administration's new "Green Courthouse Design Guidelines." The GSA required that the building be designed to achieve a minimum "silver rating" under the United States Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green-building rating system.

The building incorporates many sustainable design techniques aimed at addressing a number of energy and environmental design issues concerning site planning, building envelope, daylighting, electric lighting, HVAC, materials, indoor air quality, water utilization, occupant productivity, facility operations and construction practices.

The green design features had to meet a 25-year payback criterion. Underfloor displacement ventilation, natural daylighting strategies with clear glazing and light shelves, high-performance low-e triple glazing, building-integrated photovoltaics, evaporative cooling, energy-efficient electric lighting and control systems are some of the elements of the design.

The courthouse design anticipates an overall energy savings of approximately 40 percent to 50 percent compared to a building meeting the mandatory Federal Energy Standard, which is 10 CFR 435.

Pappas: The Atlantis Hotel on Paradise Island in the Bahamas used fiberglass-reinforced plastic decorative statues and precast-concrete panels for the exterior skin. The Bard College Arts Center in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., was designed using standard drawings and detailing practices, but the dimensional control for the complex curving surfaces is "paperless." The structural steel was defined and produced using only computer data.

BD & C: How are changing project delivery methods affecting the business of designing and constructing buildings at your firms?

Dordai: Most of the advances we have seen in project delivery over the last 10 years have resulted in our ability to tighten up schedules and control budgets. I feel we haven't seen the same level of impact on design and document quality, but we will see that happen in earnest over the next 10 years.

Dueck: The integration of design and construction is primarily a response to the demand for higher value in an environment that is recognizing the need for higher design aspirations. "Mission-critical" facilities are no less immune to this trend than other facilities, and more often than not, our clients' customers are their own employees and the built environment is the main attraction. Attention to design in a design-led integrated-delivery process delivers high value and high design and contrasts with the typical plain-vanilla approach of a construction-led design/build process.

Husser: Workplace environmental quality and amenities are becoming a critical part of the corporate building program. The effect is that designers and builders alike are finding new ways to streamline their work practices to deliver higher quality with less time and cost. This is one reason for the renewed interest in the design/build approach.

Pappas: As fast-track construction continues its popularity, contractors and suppliers now find themselves involved in projects at an earlier time as compared to the more traditional design/bid/build approach to project delivery. As clients demand quick turnaround, technology gives society the tools to deliver quality projects in a timely fashion. All parties, from specialty suppliers to the end-user, may find themselves at project meetings coordinating their efforts.

Dordai: We are currently working on a number of projects using project Web sites. We are also testing the next generation of computer design tools: parametric 3-D models that contain all of the information on a building design in a single database. These tools will drive the next big shift in how we work in that they will push the collaborative model a step further.

BD & C: How have technological advancements affected the ability of the designer and engineer to perform their job?

Dordai: Generally for the good. Technology has evolved into a much more comprehensive tool for designers and builders from the days of computer-aided design (CAD) systems and spreadsheets. We haven't yet seen the productivity increases in the profession that other industries have seen because we need to learn and master more applications to do our work.

Dueck: There are two main technical advances that affect our processes. First, the Internet and the advent of online project information systems, after some early hiccups, has streamlined our communication and eliminated the overhead that clogs the flow of information and impedes decision-making. The effect on our project delivery has resulted in reduced design time, faster construction schedules, and lower costs to the owner. Second, we have developed the 3-D technology that is being used on more and more projects to better communicate design elements and concepts with the client.

Pappas: CAD systems are giving us the opportunity to view interactive representations of aesthetic and structural conditions affecting a project. As design parameters are revised, these modifications can come to life, giving the design team the best possible tools to make accurate decisions based upon qualified data.

Husser: The integrated design approach-along with sophisticated modeling tools-are affecting the way we practice today. CFD analysis, DOE-2 energy modeling, Lumen Micro daylight modeling and other technologies are being utilized. These tools give us better insight into building performance much earlier in the design phase and allow the design team to holistically tailor a building to a client's program, site and aesthetic objectives while minimizing its impact on the environment.

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