Iceberg! Is Your Architecture Portfolio on a Collision Course with Sustainable Design?

thumb_icebergBy Connor Jansen PE, LEED AP BD+C, Performance Consultant and Senior Project Manager, Seventhwave
Dave Vigliotta, Director of Marketing and Strategic Partnerships, Seventhwave

Viewing sustainability within a timeline of the last 20 years, it’s clear that the idea has spread from individual idealism to a worldwide social movement. As shapers of the built environment, architects and designers have the ability to turn this momentum into something more systematic that can be integrated into workflows and become the new norm. Many, if not most, design firms feature leading-edge sustainable buildings within their portfolio.

However, aside from a handful of publicized buildings, much of the remainder of projects are designed at or near baseline building energy codes. In other words, most projects are equivalent to the minimum energy standards allowed by law. This “iceberg” phenomenon of unseen reality represents a major threat to a sustainable built environment. There are countless projects that aren’t front and center, and highly marketed. It’s difficult to quantify these projects in our portfolio that lie beneath the surface.

A significant number of large and small firms in Chicago have pledged to the AIA 2030 Commitment. The reality is that as an industry we’ve stagnated and are falling short in meeting these important climate and energy reduction goals. This insight provided by the AIA gives us the dialogue for a call to action.

Are designers more reactive when they should be proactive when it comes to sustainable design? At the end of the day, whose responsibility is it to drive the market—the owner or the design team? This is a delicate balance with which our industry continually grapples. We’ve shown that we can achieve high performing buildings (even net zero) with even our tip of the iceberg projects, but how do designers come together to move beyond incremental change for the majority of our work?

Through a recent webinar sponsored by the ComEd Energy Efficiency New Construction Program, we attempted to get to the root of these questions by sitting down with three local Chicago architects and sustainability champions—Duane Carter, Director of Sustainable Design and Building Performance at Solomon Cordwell Buenz, Jamie Meyers, independent consultant (formerly with Walgreens and VOA) and Jeff Sanner, Project Architect at Perkins+Will.

The Past and Future of Sustainable Design

The industry has generally moved from a “wouldn’t that be nice” situation to something that is absolutely essential. Partly this is driven by regulation: cities in particular have led the way with ordinances or policies that require green building, aggressive energy performance and/or public energy benchmarking. Private equity is also seeking out more building certifications as these are sometimes seen as markers of quality.

“Clients are much more knowledgeable of green building practices,” Meyers said. “Ten years ago, the dialogue revolved around doing something that is green on a project. Now, more and more clients are initiating conversations about pursuing LEED certification, setting performance targets or reducing carbon footprint.”

Regardless of where the political situation is headed at the moment, the medium- to long-term trend will be towards carbon neutrality and net zero building operations. “The jury is out on distributed power, but the costs for renewables are already very competitive with other energy sources in some areas, even without subsidies,” said Carter. “Eventually, when carbon is priced appropriately it will be a no-brainer.”

Once building performance becomes universally integrated into the design process, the conversation will turn to how much a building can contribute back to its environment or its community. This conversation has already started in the form of resilient design, which basically asks how a building performs in adverse and emergency conditions.

With this will come a more human-centric approach and an increase in measurable results. During design, there will be demands for creating a healthier interior environment through better material selections, better indoor air quality standards, increased daylighting and other measures. At the same time, the increased city ordinances for benchmarking energy use in buildings will eventually transfer to demanding measurable savings at the design table as clients feel more pressure to track energy usage.

Depending on who the client is, these demands are already being made. Almost every university has adopted some sort of carbon reduction plan or target. Some commercial clients are interested, but they often aren’t able to spend more because of split incentives.

Regardless of client perspective, they are much more involved in the process than years ago. More and more contracts are drawn up with energy use intensity targets baked in. “Some institutions have extremely high aspirations for having an environmentally friendly building, but may not know how to get there,” said Sanner. “It’s the role of the design team to guide them through that.”

Sustainability Hurdles

The biggest deterrent to expanding sustainability across a portfolio is budget. Building green can increase the design team fees and add to the upfront cost for the owner. There’s added value to be had in those design team fees by having an energy consultant on the project during concept design; a consultant can both run the energy model and offer deep technical knowledge to the client’s facilities groups.

Upfront costs can be allayed by selecting items that have an ROI within the owner’s tolerance. A well-balanced consulting team—including a cost estimator who can provide prices as well as life cycle estimates—will be able to determine the energy savings of a concept. “We have great examples of first cost decreasing as a result of doing something that increased energy performance,” Sanner said. “Some items may have a huge first cost, but also have a huge return.”

Owner disinterest can also torpedo a greener portfolio. When properly handled by the design team, energy and water savings can result as side effects of drawing up something close to the owner’s core mission. But Carter argued that it doesn’t matter whether the owner is explicitly interested as good, basic sustainable design within the constraints of the project should always be the minimum for responsible design. “Architects are given a monopoly to practice architecture by the public and in return are expected to consider the impact of their work on society and the environment,” he said. “If there are measures that the design team propose that go beyond usual practice or budget, it is their responsibility to understand the client’s needs and perspective, and prove how the measures proposed are complementary.”

The Role of Consultants

The biggest effect a consultant can have is with energy modeling. Whether for a rating system or code requirement, energy models are requisite for good design validation. Usually built by a mechanical engineer, they can be very detailed and time-consuming to construct. Since the project’s engineers might not be under contract early enough in the design phase, many architects are turning to an energy consultant to develop a basic model and help answer questions.

They also offer an edge with technical expertise. “We had a project when [Connor Jansen of Sevethwave] successfully defended a fairly exotic passive ventilation system,” Sanner said. “There was a room full of engineers who wanted something more traditional. Any architect in that scenario would have had no idea how to respond to their questions.”

Sanner went on to explain an acronym that he and his colleagues at Perkins+Will have begun to use: TRAC—target, research, analysis, concept. “What we’ve done—and continue to develop—is to invite one of our building performance leaders to attend early design meetings and have a conversation about the most critical aspects,” he said. “We’ve found it’s a great way to get exposure to these topics and concepts.”

Cost is certainly a concern when adding a consultant to the team, but buyer beware. “Be suspicious of low fees. We’ve seen that saving money with consultants is usually because they have a smaller scope, respond with boiler plate or because they load up their teams with projects,” Carter said. “These low fees are almost always a false economy because we end up spending more time to get the results we are looking for.”

A good consultant should obviously have good technical skill, be able to offer good alternatives to traditional design and be ready to defend his or her ideas. “I believe that passion about decreasing the environmental impact of a project helps push the leading edge of sustainable design,” Meyers said.

Realizing Hidden Benefits

Whether or not a consultant is on board, design teams should follow a number of strategies to broaden the prevalence of sustainability in their portfolio. They should set targets, research ideas that may work, measure the options with models and iterate until they’ve met their goals.

The easiest starting point is to go after the low-hanging fruit. Low-VOC materials, low-flow water fixtures, smart irrigation systems and other technologies are some low cost items that should be included on every project. “Put them in and tell your client what you did for them,” said Meyers. “Clients like to know that because they will talk about it with peers [and] employees.”

Rebate programs and utility incentives like the ComEd New Construction Program also make it easier to go green. “It can be a great conversation starter and an indirect way to bring up sustainability. Sometimes you have to come at it from multiple angles,” Carter said. “As an architect, it puts us in a great position to provide an added benefit to our client.”

The team and owner may not have experience working with integrated ideas. The ComEd technical assistance takes the risk out of the equation and allows the design team to see how the project changes based on data. Energy modeling is key to not only setting a realistic performance target, but an excellent way to teach owners the impact of design decisions on the energy budget for a project. The ComEd New Construction Program can facilitate that energy model with no cost to the client while also providing financial incentives.

Sustainability is not optional anymore. It is absolutely imperative that architects address the need for energy, water and resource efficiency and also consider human health and productivity. Not confronting these issues head on is bad business. Understanding a client’s view on sustainability will help set realistic goals. To move beyond incremental change in a client’s portfolio, make building performance truly integrated into the owner’s focus. This opens up opportunities to try some really innovative ideas and taps into the benefits beneath the surface that they may not have known were there.

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