by Chad Wisler
As we close out 2015 and open up ourselves to a fresh start for 2016, it’s a great time to reflect on where we are as A/E/C professionals in the context of sustainability. Clearly, we’re well past the freshness and learning curve on LEED checklists and the use of colorful rosettes to support a project’s sustainability goals; but at the same time, are we honestly making the progress that is needed?
We’ve all seen the impressive graphs on how much we’ve reduced carbon emissions, EUI, water consumption, etc. over the past 10 years, but I guarantee most of these analyses are too simplistic and the sensitivities of key variables used in their generation render them often misleading.
So where are we making meaningful progress?
One could easily make the argument that the construction side of our industry has made the greatest strides in areas of sustainability over the past decade. There has always been a strong bottom-line-driven focus with construction managers and contractors, but with the advances in BIM and LEED tracking/submission requirements, their impact on the sustainability of projects has been strong. BIM and its intrinsic use of virtual design, optimized fabrication, pre-fab, and the standardization of spools has resulted in a significant reduction in construction waste and the overall embodied energy of buildings. LEED has further supported this effort by the compliance requirements of committed material sourcing, tracking of waste streams, and indoor air quality management during the construction phase.
Conversely, there is an argument to be made that the design of our buildings are lagging from where we need to be. We need a stronger focus and collective strategy to reduce energy and water loads in our buildings. Historically, and even still today, the focus on reducing energy is put on the MEP engineer under the shallow idea of getting the energy and atmosphere points specific to the energy model. Having been a strong proponent of sustainability (well before LEED), I see this approach and attitude even today with the industry’s leading design firms. Part of the fault does lie with the checklist points scheme that rewards points to designs with particular reduction in energy compared with a code minimum. One of my favorite quotes at the outset of a project that has a specific LEED certification goal is: “Chad, how are you going to get us the 12 points we’re targeting?”
Remember, the building’s mechanical systems primarily respond to the load required to maintain a design condition. So, as an industry, we need to focus on first reducing the building loads and optimizing the design criteria before we start to apply the most energy-efficient systems and equipment.
Take a look at the current building construction in our region. Are there any specific attributes that you see on these buildings that reduce the envelope/environmental loads? Are there aspects of the buildings that acknowledge and respect the sun’s movement and exposure in their design? Was the building designed for its occupants when the shades are always down? Do the occupants put the shades down constantly because the glare is too uncomfortable, thereby reducing the potential of daylighting the space?
So how do we improve?
Well, the beginning is a very good place to start; focus on rigorous integrated design and respecting the design process with your team and then learning from our results. The building programming, massing, block and stack, form, and materials selection is where we reduce the loads before we start to apply solutions to maintain space environmental conditions. View the building and its supporting engineering infrastructure as a system and set energy use criteria irrespective of whether the project is also pursing a LEED certification level. (Use the LEED checklist as a ruler after major decisions are made. Remember that checklists, by definition, do not inspire innovation.) As a design team that includes the owner, architect, construction manager, and engineer, collaborate on developing the energy use goals that might include intensity by square foot (EUI). Remember that the geographical and programmatic have a dramatic influence on EUI values. Lastly, make a commitment to review your projects for their actual performance. This is the only way we, as an industry, can learn and improve our future designs.
As an optimist, 2016 is looking to be a great year for all of us. Let’s keep pushing forward. Cheers.
Chad Wisler, PE, LEED AP BD+C is a managing principal at Vanderweil Engineers in Boston.