Scaling Up Building Performance Modeling for Today’s Needs

Examining the Scale of the Problem

The world is projected to add 230 billion m2 (2.5 trillion sq ft) of new construction projects by 2060, effectively doubling its current building stock. Overlay this with the shifts in voluntary standards and mandatory energy codes that incrementally move the industry towards stringent zero-energy and zero-carbon targets. These challenges put firms working in the AEC in charge of transitioning to a low-carbon economy. But are AEC firms and firm cultures set up for success? How can firms leverage building performance analysis on more projects to enhance the quality of their designs? Are there enough specialists and green teams to meet such a steep demand? If not, can architects and designers play a role in bridging this gap? Are there some culture-building possibilities that firms can incorporate?

Traditional and Forward-Looking Approaches

Traditional setups are more centralized. Typically, projects are assigned to a green team or a group of sustainability specialists. While specialists bring a deeper level of expertise, they are often outsiders to projects. The breakneck speed at which project teams make decisions creates a challenge to successfully integrate specialists into the project workflow. Limited availability of specialists also means that only so-called ‘deep green’ projects can get their undivided attention.

In a hypothetical fully decentralized setup, architects and designers in touch with prescriptive energy code requirements but lacking formal training would be equipped to conduct building performance modeling and analysis. While the lack of formal training might adversely affect the quality of performance decisions early on, the level of integration would benefit, and potentially, more projects could see the benefit. The time commitment, budget constraints, training processes, and scalability of the program would vary for each firm looking to meet their sustainability goals.

So, centralized and decentralized structures come with their own advantages and pitfalls. Is there a hybrid structure that can tap into the benefits of both and minimize the drawbacks? Let’s explore.

Implementing A Hybrid Culture-Based Approach

No matter what such a hybrid approach looks like, the design team at the firm would have to integrate the new process into the culture by overseeing its rollout, implementation, and needed refinements.

Remember the modeling cycles in the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard 209-2018 that caters to ‘Energy Simulation Aided Design for Buildings?’ We touched on it in a previous post but let’s do a recap:

  • Simple box modeling

  • Conceptual design modeling

  • Load reduction modeling

  • HVAC System Selection Modeling

  • Design Refinement

  • Design Integration and Optimization

  • Energy Simulation-Aided Value Engineering

  • As-Designed Energy Performance

  • Change Orders

  • As-Built Energy Performance

  • Post-Occupancy Energy Performance Comparison

Now imagine an AEC firm that adopts this standard for their process. Literal compliance would make for a slightly longer list, but here’s what integrating the modeling cycles listed below would mean for an average project:

  • Software choices would get more attention.

  • Climate and site analysis would be performed.

  • There would be an energy charrette at the beginning of every project.

  • Architectural staff would be trained in the language and tools of energy modeling and potentially nudged to earn high level certifications.

  • Model inputs and outputs would go through a consistent quality control process, which would further mean:

  • Project teams can set their own energy performance targets and use reduced-order modeling for ‘simple box’ and ‘conceptual design’ modeling cycles to set the broad direction for projects.

  • Reduce design revisions as every analysis helps mitigate design risks.

  • Project teams would pull in specialists and dedicated green teams for other design and post-design modeling cycles (load reduction, HVAC system selection, design refinement, etc.)

Tackling Change Management

Adopting an industry-standard-based approach is a significant shift from traditional methods. Change is hard, which puts change management front and center of a firm’s culture and a baseline approach to sustainability on all projects. Industry-wide adoption poses significant challenges if the four key principles of change management are not considered:

  • Understanding the change

  • Planning for change

  • Communicating the change

  • Implementing the change

In addition, firms must also ensure longevity of change, as oversight lightens and team dynamics shift.

Before implementing changes, AEC firms must understand the fundamentals behind why the change is being made in the first place. Only then can measurable objectives be set to achieve the desired result, and firms can consider implementing industry-wide changes. Leaders must also consider how they communicate the value of new standards across the industry, as widespread adoption will continuously present challenges for changemakers. There are successful examples of other industries leveraging change management. Let’s consider an example from the healthcare industry:

In their book titled ‘Switch,’ Chip and Dan Heath share an example of how Donald Berwick and his team of 75 people saved 122,300 lives in 18 months. They did this by motivating thousands of hospitals to standardize medical processes to lower defect rates (e.g., ensuring that patients receive antibiotics on time). Don Berwick accomplished this without changing the law, offering bonuses, or firing hospital administrators. Instead, he set clear objectives: save 100,000 lives in 18 months; proposed six well-defined procedures for hospitals to follow; motivated hospital administers by asking them to save lives (rather than to overhaul medicine or streamline processes); and created a supportive environment by making it simple for hospitals to sign up and support each other.

How Does This Apply to AEC Firms?

How can the change-averse AEC industry make such a paradigm shift when it comes to building performance modeling? The first step for an AEC firm is to set a unified sustainability goal that requires a commitment to building performance and related modeling. The big takeaway from the hospital example points to a method standardization or applying an already established standard with a clear objective in mind. For the AEC industry, supporting actions to influence their baseline could include:

  • Adopting a standard like ASHRAE 209, The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Framework for Design Excellence, or something equivalent that is helpful to their workflow with actionable items and a framework to follow.

  • Signing up for Architecture 2030 Challenge, if they are not already signatories. If they are already signatories, firms must find better ways to enforce compliance with target performance for all projects meeting specific size and budget requirements (regardless of client expectations.)

  • Sufficiently accounting for building performance modeling in project budgets, billable or overhead.

  • Investing in a software subscription and general or project-specific training for project teams to leverage building performance modeling on qualifying projects.

  • Supporting staff accreditation and certifications.

According to AIA’s 2017 report titled, ‘The Habits of High-Performance Firms,’ firms whose projects have consistently earned the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten award have the following traits:

  • The unanimous signing of the AIA 2030 Commitment (an annual reporting framework for The Architecture 2030 Challenge)

  • Significantly high project performance for energy, water, and other metrics

  • Energy modeling, daylighting modeling, and post-occupancy evaluations as standard practice

  • Geographic concentration (47 percent on the West Coast)

  • Medium size (average staff number of 75)

  • A high percentage of women in staff (46 percent) and leadership positions (34 percent)

  • Low staff turnover (under 10 percent)

  • A high percentage of staff with LEED accreditation (48 percent)

To sum it up, a narrower focus on project delivery without supporting resources burdens individual projects and project teams. Instead, project delivery could benefit from a strategic vision, policy, active learning, transparency, and distributed accountability.

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