What does 2017 hold for sustainable design? In this landscape of political tumult and shifting policies, here is a look at three major trends that promise to shape our thinking about performance in the year ahead.

Cities will lead on building performance.

Cities are signing on to aggressive targets for greenhouse gas reductions via organizations like the Compact of Mayors. For most cities, dramatic reductions in building energy use are a centerpiece of their plans. As these efforts accelerate, watch for expansion of policies such as:

  • Municipal energy codes that exceed state and federal requirements. Look for more aggressive targeting of existing buildings.
  • Benchmarking & disclosure of energy use. Twenty-two U.S. cities now have energy reporting policies in place, and the number continues to grow. Buildings that are benchmarked against others in their category tend to reduce their energy use over time.
  • Incentives for energy efficiency. Incentive programs are expanding, even in places not known for a green focus, such Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois.
  • Designation of green districts designed to spur further innovation. Whether via programs like 2030 Districts or EcoDistricts, cities are increasingly using district designations to push the boundary further.

These policies will make cities leaders in building performance, and will raise expectations across the board for what is considered standard practice.


Source: Institute for Market Transformation, 2017, http://www.imt.org/resources/detail/map-u.s.-building-benchmarking-policies

Passive design will receive increasing focus.

A convergence of several other trends has set the stage for a renewed focus on passive design, but with a stronger analytical bent than in the past. Those trends include:

  • The WELL Building Standard, which focuses on human health and wellbeing, focuses on issues such as thermal comfort, natural ventilation, and access to daylight, because of their benefits to occupants. These credits come with clear criteria that must be met, often via upfront analysis.
  • The continued focus on reducing building energy use will lead to a focus on passive design measures. Achieving aggressive standards will require more than efficient mechanical systems or revised window specifications — it will require an integrated focus that begins with making the right fundamental design moves.
  • The growing focus on resilient design has spurred interest in “passive survivability” — the ability for a building to maintain habitable conditions without power. This will further emphasize the passive performance of buildings.
  • The Passive House standard is expanding beyond its single-family residential origins, showing that passive design principles can have significant benefits for other building types and sizes.
  • In the UK, summertime overheating of well-insulated buildings is a growing concern, leading to a focus on modeling and designing for thermal comfort.

The common thread is a renewed focus on passive design principles — among them, efficient envelopes, daylighting, and natural ventilation — paired with rigorous analytics to identify the most effective strategies and ensure human comfort as well as low energy use.

Source: Passive House Institute U.S., http://www.phius.org/phius-certification-for-buildings-and-products/phius-2015-project-certification/phius-certification-overview

Firms will push to implement integrative design.

The benefits of integrative design have been well-known to the AEC industry for years: big performance improvements with little to no increase in upfront cost, thanks to synergies identified during early collaboration among the design team. An increasing number of built projects, such as Rocky Mountain Institute’s Innovation Center, prove that this is possible. However, the process is still the exception rather than the norm in most A/E firms.

A net-zero, LEED Platinum, PHIUS+ certified office in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Institute Innovation Centre is one of the most energy efficient buildings in North America’s coldest climate zone. Image courtesy of the RMI. Source: Rocky Mountain Institute, http://www.rmi.org/innovationcenter

Watch for this to change, as leaders in these firms work to roll out integrative design practices across the board. Some focus areas for this work will be:

  • Design process standards that provide clear guidance to design teams, in an effort to make the process streamlined and efficient.
  • Working out the mechanics of early-stage collaboration between architects, specialists, and engineers — clarifying roles, responsibilities, and procedural steps.
  • Training for Project Managers and designers to help them bring the lessons learned from the flagship projects into their work.

While much of this is “behind the scenes” work for those outside of the AEC industry, the result will be increased capacity for delivering high-performance buildings.

SmithGroupJJR’s Process Standards. Source: SmithGroupJJR

Taken together, these trends point toward a mainstreaming of high-performance building, and a continued focus on data and analytics as driving forces in the design process.