As an architect or building designer who is interested in designing sustainable buildings, you’ve probably faced challenges in incorporating more sustainable design measures on your projects because of any (or all!) of the following: 

  1. Clients do not typically ask you for energy use information and you do not know how to introduce the subject.
  2. Sustainable design measures are budgeted out of the project.
  3. Project schedules do not allow for sustainable design studies.   

Many firms, big and small, that we’ve worked with at Sefaira have cited at least one of the above reasons to explain why incorporating energy and building performance studies in their everyday project workflows has been challenging. Those who have successfully taken on this challenge have credited three tactics. Read on below…

1. Lead the conversation


Leverage analysis to inform clients of your available services. 

While some clients do request energy and sustainability studies, most clients are not going to ask the question “How much energy will my building use?”  If you are waiting for a client to ask that question, you will most likely be waiting a while!

As the architect and trusted advisor that your client has hired, you can help your client better understand how their building uses energy and educate them on sustainable design strategies that do not come at a huge price tag.

  • Develop a firm-wide sustainable design framework for your project delivery process. Assign a sustainability champion or committee to spearhead this process who can be responsible for upholding the framework throughout the duration of the project.
  • Identify clients who understand the importance of environmental responsibility and those that share your values for sustainable design. Work with these clients to start building out a portfolio of high-performance buildings, which can then be leveraged to sell new clients on the idea of thinking sustainably.
  • Stand on the shoulder of giants. Leverage studies that have already been done in the past to communicate the value proposition of owning and operating a high-performance project. Showcase the benefits of green buildings and make the business case for them.
  • Include the necessary hours dedicated to early stage performance analysis in your basic architectural services. By setting up and including initial fee estimates for this type of analysis in your contract, you set the stage for your clients to expect performance analysis services on future projects. For you and the owner, it not only affects your base design fees but also presents opportunities for enhanced and additional services.

You might be wondering how to effectively communicate that your design recommendations will truly result in lowered operating costs and improved building performance, which leads to the next point.

2. Conduct quick energy/cost studies at concept design 


In the earliest days of a project, you have the largest opportunity to have an impact on the building performance of the final product. Think Boyd Paulson curve, AKA MacLeamy curve! The further in design you conduct performance analysis, the more cost prohibitive it becomes.  

It is more difficult to make changes in an architectural project as it progresses further in design. 

Using Sefaira and a simple box model in SketchUp, you can run performance studies in under an hour to identify the largest impact opportunities for improving building performance. 

  • Use a box model of approx. square footage and space use details to conduct sensitivity analyses. Focus on not only the EUI but also the quality and level of daylight.
  • Focus on passive strategies like insulation properties, shading depths, window-to-wall ratios, floor-to-floor heights and on the potential energy cost savings and reduced HVAC systems needs associated with those strategies.
  • Two heads are better than one! Involve your consultants and engineers early and often in these conversations. Net Zero is not a zero sums game; therefore, collaborating with your consultants early in design helps the project team identify synergies and/or tradeoffs among design options that can lead to compound efficiency savings in the project. A good template to look at is the early-stage Architect-Engineer collaboration blog post.

3. Support your recommendations with data


An early stage comparative study performed in Sefaira.

While it is hard to sell a client on the idea of spending more on better performing building strategies (high-performance windows, added insulation, shading, etc.) simply based on rules of thumb, today you have easy-to-use building performance analysis tools like Sefaira for SketchUp and Revit to support your design recommendations with data during the earliest stages of design.  

Some building performance metrics that could persuade the building owner to consider your building design recommendations are:

  1. Energy cost savings: What relative utility bill cost savings can a client expect to see from your recommended design compared to a baseline design? Here the caveat is not to explicitly say, “This design option will save you X amount of dollars” but to talk in percentages. For example, “Having X level of insulation will reduce the annual heating or cooling bill by X percentage for you.”
  2. Reductions in cooling and heating capacity needs: What upfront potential savings can be realized from needing a smaller cooling and/or heating system?
  3. Daylighting: How much of the space is comfortably lit?  Are there any areas at risk of being overlit?
  4. Thermal comfort: Is the building comfortable at times without mechanical cooling or heating?

The below image shows one way of how Sheppard Robson used data to support a recommended design option compared to previous design iterations. They compared overall energy use, cooling, and the potential well-lit area to show how they finalized their recommended design.

 Combining Aesthetics and Performance by Sheppard Robson.

Incorporating sustainability into your design culture can be a tall order. It will take time (and effort!) so it is crucial to strategize your approach and lead the way. With the tried and tested strategies outlined above, you can help transform how your firm approaches sustainable design.