When talk is cheaper: Integrated design and better buildings
You don’t have to be a novice to the process of constructing buildings to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the task. Even experienced architects marvel at it. Innumerable operations, adjustments and decisions — minute and gargantuan — made over months, even years, eventually result in an office, a school or a hospital where but for the intent of the owner and the hand of the banker nothing stood before.
“I’m still amazed,” says one seasoned architect, whose offices occupy a building still under construction.
Buildings happen because every profession, contractor and trade in the building business has developed over the past 150 years well-established roles in the construction process. The process is further refined by breaking up the project into manageable and understandable pieces defined by the roles played by architects, engineers and contractors, and then assembling the building. In an age of increasing specialization, there’s logic in this sequential compartmentalization.
Despite the logic in this process, the complexity of today’s buildings and the demands placed on them makes it increasingly evident that there’s much about the process that doesn’t make sense. The design and construction process that building owners and others are so familiar with amounts to a linear but fractured process that limits the potential of the owner’s design intent by restricting the opportunity for owners, architects, engineers and contractors to work collaboratively on design and construction solutions throughout the project. Organizations understand the value of collaboration and communication in creating effective, productive workplaces yet seem to ignore this in the building design process.
To a growing number of building owners and designers, this linear process needs to change. The process they prefer is called integrated design. It’s built around better communication and more planning. Through the use of integrated design, owners and designers are able to build better, less expensive buildings. The problem is that even though integrated design has been around for nearly a decade, few building owners, architects and engineers understand it.
What Is It?
A building, no matter how simple or complex, is really a system composed of systems. From the roof to security systems, the current, linear design process treats these systems as disparate entities or, at best, a few loosely integrated ones. The integrated design process, by contrast, assumes that on some level most, if not all, of these systems are affected by each other and, as a result, rely on each other to perform most effectively.
In its purest form, integrated design treats the entire building and its surroundings as a cohesive system affecting a broad environment. Green building advocates, some of the strongest proponents of integrated design, have embraced this role for integrated design, saying it’s the only way to achieve green building goals on budget. The process can also be used for more limited-scope projects, such as improving energy efficiency.
In either case, the integration of building systems needs to be considered early in the design process. Because, for instance, the web of HVAC technologies that make up that system don’t operate in a vacuum. The thermal load created by the building’s orientation to the sun, the amount of space given to windows and kind of glazing, the lighting and roof systems all affect the size of the HVAC system. But so do the placement of ducts, the use of raised floors and the amount of insulation. Take into account the impact of each of those systems, and the size and cost of the HVAC system could be reduced. The same could be said of other systems. The goal is optimizing the building while minimizing its cost.
The string that ties this integrated process together — and what sets it apart from the linear process — is the necessity to establish and maintain communication with multiple stakeholders in the project. When communication breaks down, so does the design and construction process.
One result is change orders. Design and construction changes that occur well after final documents can increase the cost of designing a building by as much as 30 percent and total project cost by 10 percent.
Under this amount of financial pressure, threats of legal action and other issues are inevitable. All these mishaps cost time and money.
On top of these problems, the building as a whole is not optimized because its systems have not been fully optimized. Therefore, short and long-term operating costs increase.
But integrated design means more than better communication. It means early communication as well. The process of sharing ideas and solutions must begin at the earliest possible moment, well before designs are drawn. The starting point should be establishing the goals of the project, such as sustainability, energy efficiency or productivity. These predesign meetings are an opportunity to get the entire design team — owners, architects, engineers, contractors and building staff — together to agree upon the goals for the project. It’s time to conceptualize the project and try creative strategies. It’s also time, according to one long-time proponent, to iron out the working relationships between participants.
These early meetings are often called design charettes. The term “charette” evolved from a pre-1900 exercise at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. Architectural students were given a design problem to solve within an allotted time. When that time was up, the students would rush their drawings from the studio to the Ecole in a cart called a charette. Students often jumped into the cart to finish drawings on the way. The term evolved to refer to the intense design exercise itself and has expanded to mean wide-open meetings concerning every aspect of a building’s design and construction.
Sometimes the charettes are mediated by a facilitator familiar with the process, but often they are run by the project architect. Unless the architect is familiar with and completely accepting of the group decisions, a third-party mediator may be better able to keep the process open to new ideas and encourage questions and participation.
Charettes should be started before any drawing or sketch of the building is created, according to several building professionals. Once something is put on paper, it begins to take on a sort of sacred aura, says one source. The meetings are really time to share ideas, say proponents.
“Owners and even their architects may not be as aware of new technologies or design strategies that could make the project cost less than they thought,” says one architect.
All this talk may not seem cheap, but it does actually save the owner money. An integrated design process for a large project could add as much as two months to the design process, says one expert. And building owners can expect to invest an additional 3 percent of the total project costs for planning and design. For some projects, this could mean increasing the design fees by as much as 50 percent. That’s the cost of pulling together the right MEP engineers, architect, owner representative, contractors and construction management team whenever necessary.
There’s a big payoff, however. The process can save 10 percent in project costs through design changes and reduced change orders. The Navy, for example, has found that integrated design has cut change orders on its projects by 90 percent. “It costs a lot less to make changes to computer programs and calculations than it does to final documents or wallboard and steel,” says one architect.
“You’re not only looking at potential designs and systems,” says one expert, “but you’re also bringing up all the problems that might pop up because of those choices.”
“There are no surprises and tighter specifications,” says another.
All the efforts to communicate can’t be just on the front end. It is essential that meetings involving key members of the team are held regularly. And while weekly construction meetings are the norm in the linear process, these periodic meetings have to be more than project and schedule updates and have to involve more than the construction manager, an engineer and a few trades.
Says one expert: “These meetings, like the charettes, look forward as well as backward. They’re times to reinforce the commitment to project goals and weigh the goals against what has been done and what needs to be done. Of course the cost and schedule are all important, and these meeting are all about merging those with project goals.”
It makes good sense to engage the cumulative knowledge and experience of an expert design team, which is what integrated design is about. To not do this means an owner is relying on the expertise of a few individuals to design and construct a building. The result may be an adequate building but not an optimal one.
Making Integrated Design Happen
The increasing interest in integrated design comes at a time when it’s really needed, because the building process has not kept pace with changes in technology and society, according to several experts.
“We just have to compare the costs of consumer products and services over the past 25 to 30 years,” a source says. “Product and service quality increased while the cost of delivering them went down. The design and construction of buildings, however, went in the opposite direction.”
There are a number of challenges, however, to successfully implementing an integrated design process. The largest hurdle has more to do with people than technology or design. Because of the high level of communication and the necessity of working together closely, everyone, from the owner down to contractors and building staff, has to want to work out issues and compromise. Egos and attitudes can do more to derail the process than budgets or design challenges. Enthusiasm for the process is at least as important as experience.
And the owner plays two big roles in this. The building owner’s first challenge is to choose people who want to work together and who are committed to the process. Second, the owner has to drive the process by being equal parts dictator and diplomat.
“Building owners have to own the process and, if not manage it, see that it’s managed well,” says one owner. “It’s time consuming and takes a certain level of knowledge about the process, but it’s critical.”
There are programs that are helping the integrated process gain a foothold.
The Collaboration for High Performance Schools (CHPS) in California has put out guidelines for designing and building schools that are energy efficient, provide good indoor environmental quality, reduce environmental impacts and are productive and healthy. The guidelines also rely on the integrated design process and offer steps for implementing it. CHPS’s guidelines have been adopted by a number of schools districts, including Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country. The CHPS guidelines are being used by many more districts that haven’t formally adopted them. California has not yet made the guidelines mandatory.
“It’s possible to achieve a LEED rating by not using a true integrated design process and it happens a lot more than we would like to think, but the project isn’t as green and it probably costs more,” says one proponent familiar with LEED.
But unlearning 150 years of experience is a cultural change for people and not easily accomplished. Plus, there are professional walls built around responsibilities in the design process that have to be broken down.
“It’s like nudging the Nimitz to get the industry to change, but it is slowly changing,” says one government expert.
The federal government and, in particular, the U.S. General Services Administration, which is on a sustainable growth path, has been pushing integrated design or whole building design, as GSA refers to it. Charettes are recommended before any final decisions are made on GSA projects.
Defining the Thing
The early adopting owners and architects, along with the federal government and federal programs such as Energy Star Buildings, have been the leaders in integrated design. Still, they have been making inroads into the building industry only slowly. Integrated design lacks a number of hand-holds to help push it forward.
For one thing, the lack of solid definitions and recommendations can leave interested parties fumbling when attempting to implement the process, leaving people scratching their heads more than bringing them together. Convincing owners to pay now but save later is also a challenge. And the fact that integrated design lacks a standard protocol makes it difficult to require in programs such as LEED or Energy Star.
Finally, the confluence of tight budgets, tight deadlines and increasingly complex building systems seem to be limiting the time that can be spent on design at a time when it should be increased.
“We’ve value engineered the process and tightened the screws on design too tight,” says one expert. “We need to give owners, architects and engineers more time to make decisions. I am not saying the whole old paradigm is bad. We’ve seen a lot of good efficiency measures come out of it. But we’ve gone too far and have tried to squeeze too much out of the design time.”
With the growing importance society is attaching to buildings in terms of their influence on an organization’s mission, it seems counterintuitive to use the linear design process.
It is more attuned to the replication of a model A or model B building than it is to the design of a building that meets the specific intent of a given owner, enhances the space for occupants, fits into the community and reduces the facility’s impact on the environment. Buildings are becoming too important to be “manufactured” in a process that more closely resembles an assembly line, unless a manufactured building is just what the owner wants. For the most part, the practice of passing the building on from expert to expert no longer suits today’s owners’ and occupants’ needs.
“The age of specialization is over,” says one expert consultant. “Integration in the design and construction of buildings should be understood as a fundamental principle of good design.”
Stephan Castellanos Division of State Architect, California • David Eakins Office of Chief Architect, U.S. General Services Administration • David Goldman Collaboration for High Performance Schools • Don Horn Sustainable Design Program, U.S. General Services Administration • Jean LupinacciWilliam Reed Natural Logic • Jonathan Rose Jonathan Rose Companies • Lynn Simon Simon and Associates • Geof Syphers XEMA Energy Energy Star, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency •