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Article - October 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 3: DESIGN APPROACH

PART 2: DESIGN TEAM ORGANIZATION

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We've all heard the joke about the stranger asking directions, and is told after the local thinks a long while "I guess you just can't get there from here!" Unfortunately, that punch line can be too true when it comes to design team working to implement a high performing and efficient building comfort system. Many of us have seen (and at times participated in) design teams that start with seeming boundless enthusiasm for "pushing the envelope" to achieve high levels of performance and efficiency, only to end up with rather run of the mill designs that incorporate very little that is any different from cookie cutter projects. Unhappily, too many of us possess first hand knowledge of such less-than-successful efforts because our firms have participated in such projects that just couldn't seem to get off the ground with the more innovative design strategies that constituted their early flight plan.

A building design team is a very complex association. The project architect nearly always leads the team. The architect is responsible to the owner or developer who has usually worked to shape the development of the team to meet particular project goals. These efforts often have occurred during early discussions with the architect about what his or her expectations are with regard to the performance of the finished project. At times, an emphasis or focus on energy efficiency is not initiated by the developer, but could be the manifestation of concessions made to the local code or governing authority that allow the project to go forward in a configuration desired by the developer. There may also be other points of focus for the owner or developer that are quite different that the formalized goals of the project. Such differences are for many reasons not often communicated to the design team. This can result in the design team at times feeling that it is being undercut by its client.

Meanwhile hovering overhead like vultures throughout the design process are the equipment manufacturers and their local representatives who hope to sway the owner, design team, or contractor to favor their products.

At the other end, once the design is complete, it has to be implemented by a contractor who is not technically focused and will subcontract all the technical aspects of the project such that those responsible for these critical elements are often several layers down in the contracting bureaucracy. Furthermore, elements of the design may be subject to review and change by construction managers or value engineering or management firms who rarely see the importance of integrated designs. To many of these folks, a building is simply a bunch of pieces, all expendable and each with a cost. Some see the job of value engineering as picking through the pieces to select only those that provide the most value to the owner. Unfortunately, in these processes, infrastructure elements and pieces necessary for facilitating integration among components that may be critical to the overall function of the design, are often undervalued. Sometimes such components are changed or discarded at great cost to the overall performance of the project.

Meanwhile hovering overhead like vultures throughout the design process are the equipment manufacturers and their local representatives who hope to sway the owner, design team, or contractor to favor their products. These local representatives are often all too ready to provide "free" design assistance in exchange for the opportunity to have their products placed in some type of favored position. If they fail in convincing the design team in big projects, they may work on influencing the owner or contractor directly.

CatNet Systems While these external forces can play havoc on the ability of a design team to achieve it's initial target, the largest problems are often within the design team itself. Many design teams are assembled because the members looked good on paper for the architect to win a design competition. Others are the result of a "shotgun wedding" by the owner or developer who wants specific team members involved in elements of the design. Such team members may not be naturally suited to work together, and once these teams actually go to work, the differences in design philosophies, approaches, or just personalities can become serious roadblocks to their working together effectively. Added to this are the natural turf battles between disciplines that nearly always manifest themselves at some point during the design process. Mechanical and electrical team members may have strong differences over how to integrate HVAC and lighting control, and mechanical or electrical designers may have differences with the architect about what constitutes adequate space for their equipment.

Without a strongly bonded design team that can work together with confidence and that has the expertise and experience to take command of all the elements of the design, external pressures can overwhelm its activities and begin to chip away at the owner's confidence on its ability to deliver the intended level of performance. This has the potential to become a fatal flaw when a leading edge design is the goal.

Design teams need to recognize that they usually have no way to control the many external forces that invariably act counter to the goals of the team involved in a high performance design process. Instead, the team needs to recognize that the design it develops must be sufficiently strong to convince uncertain owners and easily counter the complaints of the equipment manufacturers and representatives whose products will not be incorporated in the design.

To try to improve the prospects for success, design team members need to work together to develop a more cohesive team with good communication skills. Design teams need to recognize that they usually have no way to control the many external forces that invariably act counter to the goals of the team involved in a high performance design process. Instead, the team needs to recognize that the design it develops must be sufficiently strong to convince uncertain owners and easily counter the complaints of the equipment manufacturers and representatives whose products will not be incorporated in the design. Developing such a cohesive team starts with each member bringing good communication skills along with its special expertise to the team. Fortunately, communication skills within design teams have grown enormously in the last several decades. In the early 80's it was not uncommon to hear engineers complain that the architect often acted as a bottleneck for communications among the team members and technical discussions with the owner. Such complaints are rarely heard today, and many architectural offices place a large emphasis on developing effective project communications.

The problems today more often have to do with the rapid pace of design development. When a design team has been assembled in which one or more of the members have not worked together before, it is extremely important that the team get together and discuss the various elements of the project and perspectives they hope to bring to the design before the start of the design. This can take place as a "virtual" meeting over several days via the Internet. However, to be of help to the design process, it is essential that each member has the opportunity and the duty to effectively communicate to the others the elements for which he or she is responsible and believes are the most critical to the success of the design. These discussions need also include how other members of the team may be impacted by these particular design elements and suggest ways to work together to develop the cooperation required for success with each of these elements. Such a pre-design team conference if facilitated effectively by the design team leader can start the project off with a high level of cohesiveness that if fostered throughout, can greatly enhance the potential for success. There's no guarantees in life but death and taxes, but developing a strong design team with the expertise to handle all of the design challenges, and getting the members to start talking very early on about the challenges and need for cooperation on the critical design elements, are the two most important ways I know to strengthening this critical link in achieving higher performing building designs!

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 3: DESIGN APPROACH


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