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Article - November 2002
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Strengthening Weak Links to Higher Performing Buildings

Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

This series targets weak links in the chain of building design and construction that require strengthening for these anticipated advances to be realized. 


The dream I and many others have held for some years - of a new paradigm in building efficiency and comfort - has yet to be realized. Instead, the state of the art of building comfort systems has remained relatively static despite the avalanche of enabling technologies developed in the last decade. The question must be asked: "Why is this industry not incorporating new efficiency enhancing technologies more effectively?" This series targets weak links in the chain of building design and construction that require strengthening for these anticipated advances to be realized. The essays are intended to assist in defining issues and suggesting changes that may correct some of the weaknesses that presently impede our industry from a more efficient reality. Each essay is focused on a weak link in the building design/construction process. The goal is to help clarify the issues and develop practical and functional solutions in order to strengthen that link and achieve higher levels of building performance. For this, I look forward to comments and criticism of the material presented in this series.

PART 1: ENERGY CODES AND STANDARDS   PART 2: DESIGN TEAM ORGANIZATION

PART 3: DESIGN APPROACH

Imagine that you are charged with designing a completely new mechanical/electrical product that is expected to perform significantly better than similar products of the type now available. You are given a relatively free hand, BUT you are requested to refrain from employing the latest technologies in your design. For most product designs, including commercial building comfort systems, this requested limitation would greatly stifle your efforts and severely compromise your capacity to succeed.

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Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, such requests, either formal or implied are a continuing trend when design teams collaborate to develop building HVAC systems. The rallying cry from the Owner and Architect to the engineering team is often "Keep it simple!" For many engineers, such a request is taken to imply that they need to avoid the use of advanced technologies in their design work. However, adopting a design approach that avoids the use of advanced technologies can severely limit the project's ability to succeed in delivering a high performing and efficient commercial building. Still, such a design approach reflects concerns that are not entirely groundless. Engineers know all too well that many commercial building projects have suffered from poorly applied new technologies. The resulting buildings often fail to meet their performance expectations, and some have become nightmares for their occupants and operators alike. This failure to apply newer technologies effectively in some buildings has made the building construction industry uniquely hesitant to embrace technology driven change, and has locked many design teams into outdated design approaches that limit the potential performance and efficiency of their designs.

When complexities aimed at improving performance are embedded into a unit or system such that they make the unit or system easy to apply and/or operate and are invisible or transparent to the user, I call this "apparent simplicity." 

To break out of this time warp and offer truly effective modern designs, engineers need to proactively reconsider the idea of what kind of design approach will best satisfy the requirements of simplicity, and at the same time unapologetically incorporate appropriate technologies at levels that will meet the performance and efficiency goals of the project. To do so, engineers should start by considering the difference between "complex" and "complicated." Complex is often considered the opposite of simple, but in the technology arena, this is not a useful comparison. A modern computer chip is nearly indescribably complex, but the result of this complexity is a unit that can be easily applied, which makes it simple! When complexities aimed at improving performance are embedded into a unit or system such that they make the unit or system easy to apply and/or operate and are invisible or transparent to the user, I call this "apparent simplicity." The circuit designer usually has no idea of the complexities in the chip he or she works with. The pin configuration and instruction set may be all that is required to use the device effectively. The end user has even less of a concept of chip complexities. Embedding complexity such that it is invisible to the user makes many computer chips and their resultant end products "apparently simple" devices.

On the other hand units or systems that are unable to embed their required complexities such that the user has to sort through and deal with unfamiliar features to keep the unit or system working may not be particularly complex, but they are very often too "complicated" to operate effectively. An alarm clock is not a complex device by today's standards, but I have found some hotel room alarm clocks that are not at all easily set. In an effort to provide additional functions with a minimum number of buttons and dials, the process for setting time and alarm correctly can be quite complicated. I often find myself calling the desk for a wake up call because I am not at all sure the alarm clock will work properly.

Control Solutions, Inc Engineers need not be concerned about the complexity of their designs so long as the complexity is incorporated into properly designed systems that are not complicated for the end user to operate. This capacity to embed complexities such that they are invisible to the user and make the unit apparently simple may very well be the single most important driver in the PC technology explosion, and it will be an important driver for a similar performance growth in our industry. But getting there will take much more than recognizing its importance. Successfully embedding technologies into our industry's products and designs requires the very highest level of experience and expertise. All around us today are examples of failure. Nearly every building operator can provide an example of a new piece of equipment or control system that has to be "tricked" into operating as it should because the designer, manufacturer or installer has left it too complicated or tried to imbed and make invisible features that the operator needs to operate the unit effectively!

Many of these problems can be traced to a weakness in the original design in two broad areas. First, designers rarely have a good grasp of building operations. As a result, designs often lead manufacturers and contractors to the wrong conclusion in so far as what features are important to the operations staff. Second, designers are rarely experienced in many of the more advanced technologies that are available to be incorporated in the equipment and systems they specify and configure. Designers risk misapplying technologies because they do not adequately understand them.

Designers need to better educate themselves in building operations and work more diligently to understand the new technologies available in equipment and systems they employ in their designs. It is the designer's job to make certain elements of the building system invisible to the operator.

To become more successful in realizing high performance and efficient building systems, designers will do well to recognize that simplicity from an operator's perspective is not necessarily related to the complexity of systems or controls employed, but has much more to do with how simply the system can be reliably operated. Technologies are now available to our industry that have the potential to improve building comfort performance and operating efficiency by several orders of magnitude. The most successful design approach is for the designer to take on the role as the building operator's advocate. Designers need to better educate themselves in building operations and work more diligently to understand the new technologies available in equipment and systems they employ in their designs. It is the designer's job to make certain elements of the building system invisible to the operator. There is a growing array of tools to do so. But to be successful, the designer has to understand exactly which elements the operator needs access to in order to operate the building successfully. Once that understanding is coupled with an understanding of the technologies appropriate to deliver the desired level of performance, designers can develop designs that guarantee a high performing but simple system regardless of its level of sophistication!

Additional information on technology issues discussed in this article is available at www.hartmanco.com. Comments and questions may be addressed to Mr. Hartman at tomh@hartmanco.com

PART 1: ENERGY CODES AND STANDARDS   PART 2: DESIGN TEAM ORGANIZATION


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