Architects and engineers have long understood the performance benefits of a collaborative, integrative design process. When the whole design team — especially the architect and mechanical engineer — work closely in early design, the result is often big reductions in energy use, better daylight performance, and improved thermal comfort — often without increasing capital cost.
How is this possible? Simply by identifying opportunities and possible synergies while the design is still flexible enough to take full advantage of them. The process is partially documented in the LEED Integrative Process credit, which awards points for early exploration of energy- and water-savings measures.
Less discussed, however, are the financial benefits of this process. Here are four financial outcomes from an integrative design process, and how they can improve the bottom line for the design team.
1. Capital cost savings
This one is not new, but it remains one of the most significant. The general approach is to reduce the size (and therefore cost) of heating and cooling systems using good design: passive measures, envelope improvements, internal load reductions, or strategic location of system elements. The savings accrue from smaller (or fewer) systems, smaller distribution systems, and reduced system weight.
Investing in the building envelope can result in overall cost savings from decreased costs of systems.
An early example is a building for the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection, in which improved windows enabled the team to eliminate the perimeter heating system and reduce the size of the remaining HVAC systems, resulting in significantly better performance at lower capital cost.¹ Many other examples are described in this report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which includes both new buildings and retrofits, and this research report, which looks at the success of the integrated approach in Federal buildings.
Early collaboration also helps teams avoid measures that don’t provide such benefits. Avoiding unnecessary insulation or expensive fritted glass that doesn’t deliver expected benefits can also save the owner money. (See, for example, our case study with Brinjac Engineers, who found analysis helpful in identifying what strategies not to pursue.)
While capital cost savings usually accrue to the owner, innovative design contracts — like the one used to design the ultra-low energy Innovation Center for Rocky Mountain Institute — allow design teams to take a share of these savings.
Performance contracts allow both the owner and design team to share in cost savings identified during design.
And of course there is the indirect benefit of happy clients — an important consideration given that a good portion of architects’ work comes from referrals and repeat clients.
2. Improved project delivery
Architects know that it is always less expensive to change the design early in the process than later. As the design moves forward, the amount of documentation increases, and every change means more time spent updating drawings and coordinating with consultants. The problem is that the conventional process has significant design decisions and coordination happening when the project should be focused on documentation. For example, mechanical systems are often integrated during Design Development, well after the architect has “finalized” the space layout, building facade, and the like.
An Integrated Process allocates more time in early design, allowing later stages to progress more quickly. Image adapted from An Architect’s Guide to Integrating Energy Modeling in the Design Process, by the AIA.
The integrative process allocates more time to early design, meaning that systems are better-coordinated and most decisions ironed out before the team focuses on documentation. The result is typically less time spent on documentation — as well as fewer unpleasant surprises, less rework, and fewer change orders once construction begins. In short, it means fewer headaches for both the design team and the client.
For example, SERA Architects reported that an integrative process resulted in an 85% reduction in Requests for Information from the contractor for the Wendell-Wyatt Building in Portland, Oregon.²
Multiplied across a firm’s entire portfolio, this means a more predictable — and more profitable — project delivery process.
3. Improved architect-engineer workflow
Another aspect to project delivery is the working relationship between the architect and engineers. In interviews with architects and engineers who have engaged in early collaboration via Sefaira’s Web Application, participants reported positive impacts on communication, speed, and the overall relationship.
“We were able to study multiple options within a short period of time, which allowed the team to arrive at a design direction that we all felt comfortable with much faster,” said Leonard Sciarra, Senior Associate at Gensler.
Said one engineer: “The process helped us become more comfortable working together. Our relationship was definitely improved as a result of working this way.”
Sefaira’s analysis platform has increasingly focused on collaboration, and specifically on improving the early-stage analysis workflow. The result is not only more analysis, but better communication and a better working relationship — which ultimately means a more efficient process and more profitable projects.
4. Improved occupant well-being
Improvements in daylighting and thermal comfort yield improvements in interior environmental quality and occupant well-being. “Not financial!” you say? Owners and tenants would beg to differ. Unlike operational energy use, personnel costs make up the lion’s share of the operating budget for most companies — which means that even small improvements in productivity or reductions in sick time can make a big difference in their bottom line.
Building vs. Personnel Costs. Source: International WELL Building Institute
The question, then, is how architects can be appropriately compensated for occupant-focused designs. Unfortunately that topic is too big to cover here, but precedents include the performance contracts (similar to the ones discussed above) and current work around the WELL Building Standard.
And finally, a bonus, non-financial benefit:
More control over design.
Another common refrain from architects we interviewed was that they felt more involved in major design decisions, had better access to information, and were better able to craft a compelling narrative for their clients.
Rather than constraining the architect with additional requirements, a collaborative process enables the architect to engage more proactively with the engineer and the performance simulations — studying elements that matter to them such as building layout, facade designs, and shading strategies.
The result is not only better performance and better financials, but also better design — a building that is conceptually stronger than one cobbled together by a siloed team.
- Example is from The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building, by 7group and Bill Reed. Wiley, 2009.
- Guide to Integrated Design and Delivery, by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (2015). http://www3.cec.org/islandora/en/item/11661-improving-green-building-construction-in-north-america-guide-integrated-design-en.pdf