Critical Issues

March 1, 2008

Eight buildings professionals share their priorities in a roundtable discussion

By Maureen Patterson

Last September, eight professionals discussed critical issues facing the non-residential buildings industry at ArchiTechXchange in Park City, UT. The event pairs manufacturers and industry professionals in high-level, one-on-one, strategic meetings. Four of the roundtable participants were from architecture firms; the others, attending a co-located event from sister publication Buildings magazine, represented building development, ownership, and management. Here's an excerpt from the discussion:

Integrated Information
What we need is an integrated system in managing buildings. I want an integrated system that allows me to locally access all the information about the water treatment systems that we're using in all the different buildings, and who the people are that are doing it, and how they're doing it, and are we using the same system, and how to go about getting the same system.

Hu Richardson
Director of Engineering Services
Holladay Properties
Nashville, TN

... I want a database for the air-conditioning and HVAC equipment that's in all of these facilities. I want to know what the condition is of all the equipment. I want a fact sheet on all the equipment. I want to know the capabilities of the people that are servicing the equipment. I want all that information in a database so that as time goes on not only can I improve our capabilities to keep the equipment working well, but I can also get better equipped when we go to getting more equipment.

The third part of that is the energy management, [which] is much more integrated. Energy management is about starting with using skylights in the buildings to reduce the amount of lights you need, controlling the kind of air-conditioning, variable-speed motors you're using and how they're running, controlling the kinds of lights you use and how often you use them. Having a system that maintains all those that goes - ultimately, it's got to be wireless.

The biggest cost in integrated systems is the transducer and the wires that connect it together, so the sooner we get those to where they're wireless, the better off we'll be. All of that information is what comes together to give you the truly optimum building. By the way, it's not in conflict with the green concept. It's not in conflict with saving money. They're the same thing. If you do all that well, you get a better building, at a better cost, and you make more money.

Follow-up: In February Richardson gave this update: One of our top priorities at Holladay Properties this year is a three-pronged attack of energy management and energy conservation: internal survey of our buildings for energy savings opportunities; have the utility companies audit our buildings to identify energy-saving opportunities; use energy management consults to evaluate running time energy-consumption-saving opportunities. These evaluations will lead to an automated energy management/conservation system for each building we are managing for the owner.

Measurement is the thing transforming the design and construction industry today. There's a whole change from[when] you could field assemble anything to now; it is factory assembled and co-located in a field site. Creating a clean construction site even is probably an ultimate reach of this.

Dave Dimond
Design Principal
Perkins + Will

But measurement meaning that you know what something is before you do it. You know how it's going to perform before you act on it. Perhaps another manifestation of this is the creation of BIM and REVIT. With BIM, we are creating a whole systems-integrated approach to building in a digital world before we reassemble it out of real materials in the physical world. This allows us to target performance expectations at the front end of a project and drive those through design, construction, and post-occupancy. Great buildings will leverage research, technology, and performance metrics to create even more beautiful, humane, soft, and accessible environments.

As I interpret some of your thoughts, I'm at the other end of how do these things perform, how do I know how to measure them, how do I know what's going on. We need to develop an equal amount of knowledge on the front end of what are our expectations for performance and how are we going to drive that through a project. It becomes almost a hyper-rationalization of projects.

So then I put on my hat as a human being and so on and I want to occupy these spaces. How do we keep this all beautiful, and human, and soft, and accessible? It isn't just technology and performance metrics, but we create beautiful places like this and know what they're going to do and what they're gonna be like before and after.

Donald Sparks
Director Plant Engineering and Facilities Services
Alcon Laboratories Inc.
Ft. Worth, TX

Energy, Minimizing Disruptions

Two things. The question of how are we doing. We have a 2,300,000-square-foot campus. We've added 20 percent to our floor space and 10 percent to our population since 2003. Our energy use hasn't gone up. It's stayed flat. I think that's decent, but I'm not sure that it is. I'd like to know. ... I think we can probably get the curve going downward a little bit.

To piggyback on what Dave was saying, the second item I would mention is that we operate two production plants, a large research facility there at our campus. We're charged with the task of maintaining the place and then also doing renovations and doing addition projects without disrupting what's going on. That's really a key. How do you get in there and do the work and make the changes without bothering the people that are already there doing their business? ... What kinds of things can you do to avoid disruption of people who are there, have their job to do, and they don't want to be disrupted? So we have to be very careful about that.

My comments pretty much follow suit. Ours is an industry that is woefully under-researched. It has always troubled me that our profession doesn't seem to seek good metrics, systematically undertake performance studies, and so forth. Much of this is due, of course, to issues of funding, are we dealing with proprietary knowledge, etc. It seems to me that studies such as post-occupancy evaluations, for example, could tell us a good deal about how well do our buildings do - or do not - work. Interestingly, we don't have a New England Journal of Medicine for the building professions - a widely disseminated collection of research findings that is of great value to the medical profession. I say this without wishing to advocate proscriptive norms, nor would I be in favor of quantitative expectations for all that we produce. Rather, such studies might well assist us in creating better-functioning designs and buildings that achieve higher performance.

Gregory K. Hunt
Vice Chairman and Director of Design
Leo A Daly
Washington, D.C.

I think it's important to be aware of - and to share - product research that's been conducted. As design professionals, do we really understand how exterior glazing systems perform? Do we really understand how vapor barriers are working? Inquiry through probing, well-funded research that is effectively distributed could significantly contribute to our professional knowledge base and be an important asset for the advancement of design and the building sciences.

In the healthcare industry, "evidence-based design" studies have tested certain design assumptions and have resulted in a number of conclusions about functional adjacencies, optimal patient care, etc. Such studies are often done by faculty and students at our universities through funded research. When such studies, for example, determine that surgical patients typically recover more quickly if they have exposure to natural surroundings (even if only a view of nature through a window), they may appropriately form the basis for improved hospital design.

I would certainly like to see our profession somehow engage in such research in a larger, collective way.

Bryan Irwin
Sasaki Associates Inc.
Watertown, MA

Antiquated Construction Processes

I come at the same issue from a slightly different angle, but it's something that I think about a lot. It's just how antiquated the construction industry is. When you think about how a building gets assembled, it's a shockingly primitive process. It always sticks in my mind that there was a study done several years ago. ... They were coming to the conclusion that 50 percent of all labor expenditures on a construction project are wasted. Time and money go down the drain in terms of idle workers waiting for product delivery or because work gets torn out due to poor coordination, because different fields are overlapping each other. ... There's a distinct dichotomy between the sophistication of what can be imagined using computer technology in design and the primitive tools and processes we're still using to build our structures. It's a situation that's even more complicated because architects, by and large, are somewhat sidelined from the actual process of construction.

The BIM Solution
We can say we're doing "design-build" all we want, but it's not happening in many instances. Many architects are still divorced from the construction process. What everyone said is absolutely true, and these issues are exacerbated by one thing: the speed at which we need to perform these days.

Will Jensen
Vice President of Architecture and Engineering
Ryan Cos. U.S. Inc.

Twenty years ago, back when we were drawing in ink on Mylar, we had the time to design, be thoughtful, to fully coordinate and really collaborate on a project. Today, what does real-time or just-in-time real estate do to your design process? It squeezes the timeline.

So if everything here we talked about is either exacerbated by speed and the fact that we don't have the time to fully collaborate because of speed, BIM provides a solution. It's "our" solution. It's for us. It's a way for us to get back to being master builders. We are much more in control of the final product. The reason for using an integrated design-build delivery method, in my mind, is that the client can benefit from a side-by-side working process involving the design and construction teams, engineers, property management, energy-analysis folks, and subcontractors. BIM allows us to take the construction document phase and, essentially, shorten it while increasing coordination and quality. We must all understand that we need to make decisions earlier in the process, and three-dimensional visualization tools can help make that happen. BIM is a great opportunity for us to get back in front of the delivery process and, ultimately, to provide real value.

... We (the fully integrated design team) need to be the leaders. I think that BIM allows us to be the educator for construction and take back the master builder role that we gave away years ago.

I'm very interested in innovation in the actual product we produce, in buildings being much better than they are right now, and particularly buildings in America being better than they are right now. In 5 of the last 6 years I've made trips to Germany to really try to educate myself in terms of what they're doing in terms of energy conservation and energy performance in their buildings, and what they're doing in terms of wall sections and materials usage, and what they're doing in terms of lighting, and even plumbing and things like that. I just got back from 2 weeks in Japan and looking a lot there as well at what they're doing in all those areas.

Lawrence Speck
PageSoutherlandPage Architects
Austin, TX

I don't think we're in the leadership role we used to be in. I'm blown away at their use of alternative energy sources in buildings and the degree to which it's ramped up quickly. Just as in the auto industry they beat us to the hybrid, in the building industry they're beating us to some of these other sources of energy and integrating them into the buildings. I'm blown away at their innovation at wall sections and actual just construction of walls and how they deal with thermal issues, and moisture, and those kind of things. I'm blown away by their new materials. That's where I'm a kid in a candy shop - give me those cool materials any time. The BIM's cool, but the building materials are fantastic. Just the opportunity to use those innovative materials made out of recycled industrial waste and made out of low-energy embodied materials - just amazing kinds of innovations.

I think that's where we need to be focusing. We need to be focused upon the product we produce, and that it needs to be a much better built, better performing, high delivery kind of product.

Doing What's Right
I was just thinking, as I listened to everybody, what we're trying to do at Wal-Mart, and I think what everybody is trying to do, is to figure out what's right. What can we do that's right? How, for Wal-Mart, for example, can I reduce the costs of my building but improve its durability, in order that I can reduce the cost for my customers? How can I reduce the operating costs of it through innovative energy techniques? Daylighting, for example, we have a lot of examples of what we've done, but there's a whole lot more to do. There's a lot more potential, and we are aggressively going after it.

Bill Correll
Director of Architecture Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Bentonville, AR

I think all of us here at this table are thinking constantly what we can do. But what can we do that's right? How can we balance the return on investment of the initial cost? How can we incorporate those much better, more durable high-performance building products that you see in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere? How can we get those product costs down so that they're more democratized? So that it's not just for one high-end project someplace, but it's something that really can be applied reasonably to all of our products that our people, our clients, our customers ... can afford. We must encourage the building product industry to become more innovative with those high-performance materials so that they can be mass produced and implemented.

You have mentioned how primitive we all are in construction techniques. There's still a long way to go in that. One method is through monitoring of tests to make sure that what we're doing is right. Validating is, as you point out, very new to our industry in a way. Certainly in the mechanical industry some have been validating performance. But to truly test all building systems over time and to test and test well, and then modify those systems in accordance with those findings. Our industry hasn't gotten anywhere near where it needs to be.

One of the luxuries of having a multiple-store single-building type is that we get to do something that's pretty much the same every day. It gives us the opportunity to pull off a few of them, test against sister stores, sister buildings, and to really monitor the heck out of things to see if we can find ideas that truly are getting us value that we can take forward. That helps.

Ultimately for us and everybody else in this room, the question is: How are we doing things that are right for today, tomorrow, over time? How, for example, am I, with the buildings that we're turning out, addressing the cultural need, the specific opportunities and characteristics of each site? How can we continuously improve our prototypes to become most sustainable? Being in a great hurry, as you had mentioned before, how are we able to do that? How can we do what's right? That's basically what we're all after: finding ways to maximize the right things, every day and on every project.

Maureen Patterson ([email protected]) is managing editor at ARCHI-TECH.

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