Earlier this month, we announced the new Design Guidance feature within the Sefaira Architecture plugin at Greenbuild, in collaboration with Architecture 2030. On top of launching Design Guidance, and meeting passionate sustainable design enthusiasts, we also had the privilege of hosting a stellar panel of industry leaders from notable integrated design firms. They were Pablo LaRoche of Callison RTKL, Prem Sundharam of DLR Group, Rand Ekman of HKS and Greg Mella of SmithgroupJJR.

During the discussion, the panelists shared their experience and valuable insights with other practitioners about the state of sustainability in design, and where they think the industry is headed. Here’s a summary of their thoughts and some key takeaways for those who couldn’t make it to Los Angeles.

How has your firm incorporated sustainability and Performance-Based Design into your work?

Greg Mella (Director of Sustainability, SmithGroupJJR):

As part of our practice ethos and our commitment to the Architecture 2030 challenge, SmithGroupJJR keeps track of the projects across the firm that use energy modeling from year to year. The desired trend is to keep increasing this number until every single project is modeled, as well as also during the conceptual/schematic design stages where more value can be achieved.


Keep track of projects using energy modeling across the firm and work towards an upwards trend. Image courtesy of SmithGroupJJR. Copyright 2016 SmithGroupJJR.

At the start of each project, a clear EUI target is set and the project manager is responsible for ensuring that the target is kept in sight as the design progresses. This will include site analysis that takes annual heating and cooling days, annual insolation, and annual sky conditions into consideration. The firm sets minimum process goals to create key check points for the project manager.


Set minimum performance goals for each stage of your design process. Image courtesy of SmithGroupJJR. Copyright 2016 SmithGroupJJR.

Once the concept starts to develop, we use early stage analysis to understand which factors — heating, cooling, lighting and appliances to name a few — contribute to overall energy use. We then focus on the most weighty of these to figure out what passive and active strategies would help bring these down.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-12-26-33Actively analyze and understand the impact of strategies to reduce energy use. Image courtesy of SmithGroupJJR. Copyright 2016 SmithGroupJJR.

We use parametric analysis to finetune details like the glazing ratio, fabric r-values, and shading depth.  


Parametric analysis to find the optimum value for key building features. Image courtesy of SmithGroupJJR. Copyright 2016 SmithGroupJJR.

Through this iterative process that focuses on energy and carbon reductions as well as occupant comfort, we are able to arrive at a high performing, evolved design.


How the building curvature impacts its EUI. Image courtesy of SmithGroupJJR. Copyright 2016 SmithGroupJJR.


A completed interior and daylight analysis output during the design stage. Image courtesy of SmithGroupJJR. Copyright 2016 SmithGroupJJR.

Key Takeaways:

  • Don’t relegate performance to only specific projects – make it the responsibility of every project manager to answer the performance question on every single project.
  • Provide clear milestones throughout the design process that ensure the project incorporates effective improvement strategies.
  • Implement the right tools at each stage of the project – analyse performance early and often throughout the design process.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in incorporating analysis in the early stages of design?

Rand Ekman (Chief Sustainability Officer, HKS Inc.):

Challenge 1: From the professional and client service perspective, I often hear that the client doesn’t want it because they haven’t voiced it as a concern. Sustainability is not an additional effort and should not be specific to “green” projects; it is simply part of delivering good design.

Challenge 2: Collaboration & team dynamics: Some common issues we hear are “Performance takes too long and costs too much,” and “the feedback of information from engineers takes too long.” Tools like Sefaira cancel out the issue of the speed of analysis. We can harness the power of software to build our knowledge, agency and ability to deliver better performance in our designs.


Image courtesy of Sefaira

What we should ask ourselves as practitioners is “Who is responsible for getting that analysis done and should the energy question really be left to engineers?” Analysis adds value to the design process and could contribute to managing the budget better. Performance analysis at the early stage should be about guiding the project, not just focusing on validation or full blown specification, and this should be taken up by architects and designers.

Challenge 3: Analysis inhibits creativity: Another perception I encounter sometimes is that performance is somehow at odds with aesthetics. Performance analysis can be a key driver for creativity and can be used to substantiate design decisions.

Key Takeaways:

The problem we have isn’t really a technical one – we have the tools and technology we need to achieve the performance targets required. We have a people issue – it’s about agency (knowledge) and desire.” Rand Ekman (Chief Sustainability Officer at HKS Inc.)


Image courtesy of Sefaira

To quote my colleague Ross Perry, we don’t ask our clients if they’d like a beautiful building. Why are we asking our clients why they want a high performing building?” Greg Mella, SmithgroupJJR

How can practitioners begin and further their pursuit of high-performing designs?

Prem Sundharam (Global Sustainability Lead, DLR Group):

Clarify & Implement your Sustainability Ethos:

The term sustainability is a lot of things to a lot of people, so it is important to define what it means to you and your firm. Does it mean designing performance into your concept, or resource management, or something else? Once you define and crystallize this, you’re empowered to make it happen. Stretch your goals to ensure that your outcomes go far beyond the norm of what “sustainability” suggests at a surface level.


DLR’s Sustainability Ethos. Image courtesy of DLR Group. Copyright 2016 DLR Group.

Track your current and aspirational outcomes: By doing this, you’re able to find the gaps in your practice’s workflow. At DLR Group, we split projects into three buckets:

  • Bucket 1: Projects with sustainability mandates – these will take care of themselves.
  • Bucket 2: The high performance bucket – an internal list where we push to exceed minimum performance.
  • Bucket 3: The “minimum requirement bucket” which means you’re building the worst legally-allowable design.


DLR’s project goal buckets. Image courtesy of DLR Group. Copyright 2016 DLR Group.

The latter is not where we want to be but it typically houses a high percentage of most firm’s projects. In order to move projects from the minimum to the high performance bucket, you have to tackle your process, technology and people. We found that by signing up to the 2030 Challenge, we were able to set a high goal, affect all three factors, and hold ourselves accountable.

Demystify the process:

Approach performance design not as rocket science but as a goal that has and can be accomplished. Gather and apply basic performance principles to your projects, at the right point in your project.

Process not project:

Project metrics change all the time. Therefore, set your key metrics on your process. At DLR Group, one of our metrics is participation, where we map out an incremental path to increasing the number of projects that carry out performance analysis.


DLR’s KPIs and goals from 2016 to 2020. Image courtesy of DLR Group. Copyright 2016 DLR Group.

Key Takeaways:

“As a firm, ask yourselves: Are we truly sustainable in our designs? Or do we depend on the client to push for it or make excuses for why not to do it?”

Where do you feel the industry is headed with regards to high-performance design?

Pablo La Roche (Associate Vice President, RTKL)

Design & Performance: One and the same?

No one knows what the buildings of the future will look like, but we do know that aesthetics and performance will be more intertwined. Understanding the principles of performance frees you up to generate creative, sustainable designs.


Competition proposal – Pablo La Roche et all. Image courtesy of Pablo La Roche.


We need to think about how we educate future designers and invest more in teaching a balanced curriculum. Three out of a hundred students might leave the courses wanting to be ‘starchitects’. But the higher percentage will work on less high-budget, high-profile projects, which make up a majority of firm workloads. They need to care and be armed to create high performing designs.


Design studio. Image courtesy of Pablo La Roche.

Simplicity & Collaboration

Simple, passive strategies, technologies, and aesthetics do not rely on much to deliver beautiful high performing designs. They also tend to stand the test of time. To refine ideas and get the best of all worlds, closer collaboration between the project team means that we can merge our knowledge and achieve the highest impact.

Restorative Design

Do less harm to the environment is where we are at the moment. My thinking is that the future built environment will do no harm, and even do more good for the natural environment. The industry’s aspiration should be that “environment” connotes both the natural and built environments, with no delineation between them.


Xylem thermal comfort solution designed by Callison RTKL. Image courtesy of Pablo La Roche.

Key Takeaways:

Performance today tries to encompass performance during and after the design process. Although it is not yet embedded in all design workflows, it will become more mainstream with a holistic approach established in the coming decades.

Looking ahead

The overarching message from the panel was one of optimism, and a strong push for wider education on performance in the industry, as well as higher performance aspirations amongst practitioners.

Our collective vision for a more sustainable AEC industry will come closer to reality as we continue to fine-tune the integration of performance analysis into every designer’s workflow, and as every design practice crystallizes and implements a performance ethos. To help make this possible, Sefaira will continue to focus on developing the tools that enable Performance-Based Design and strive to increase the collective knowledge of the industry.