Whole Building Design

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6 months ago

Two of the most in vogue terms related to building design now are high-performance building design and whole building design. These two topics are intrinsically linked and are together aimed taking a more wholistic cradle to grave view of building design. We will look at what whole building design constitutes and what it means to designers and clients.

What is Whole Building Design?

We have already touched upon the cradle-to-grave view of building design in our green building article, but whole building design is more than this. This is a design approach which is not just focused on green building, structural efficiency or architectural distinction. It does not separate these elements of building design into unrelated categories.

Whole building design is driven by a desire to develop a future looking design which integrates all the components of a buildings planned performance criteria from sustainability goals to architectural pre-eminence, from human comfort to structural efficiency and robustness. Whole building design is multi-faceted and multi-layered involving many different trades/disciplines and encompasses all stages of a building’s life

Is Whole Building Design just an idea?

Whole building design is not just a vague aspirational concept that cannot be put into practice. There have been legislative moves to enforce high-performance building and whole building design. The energy policy act of 2005 defined high-performance buildings as “buildings that integrate and optimize all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity”. Further to this the Energy Independence and Security Act (2007) enforces that federal buildings achieve 100% reduction in fossil fuel consumption by 2030.

The same act relates to and underlines the importance of other aspects of the building’s life cycle including design, site location and construction. The details associated with these legislative directives is outlined on the web based Whole Building Design Guide This was developed by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NISB) and was originally created to help federal agencies define building design criteria that relate to the two biggest concerns they identified – sustainability and security.

The Whole Building Design Guide

The design guide sets as its objectives; accessibility, aesthetics, cost-effectiveness, functionality, historic preservation, safety and sustainability. The guide includes discussion around attributes and requirements of buildings based on their type. This includes information about types of spaces, important design considerations such as security and safety along with various design criteria related to structural efficiency, user experience etc. The guide is intended to help designers see the bigger wholistic picture of the building design and not just focus on distinct and singular discipline goals. It is truly a very valuable resource to building designers.

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The pillars of high-performance building underpinning Whole Building Design (courtesy of the National Institute of Building Sciences)

This guide was developed at a federal level because building performance is hugely important to society on many levels. Structural stability and performance of building, under a whole host of loading criteria and situations is paramount as it impacts the safety of all its occupants. In terms of environmental impact, data from the US energy Information administration clearly demonstrates the importance of buildings in hitting sustainability goals in that building are responsible for 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions annually.  

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CO2 Emissions by sector (Statistics Courtesy of the Global Alliance for building Construction)

In addition to these and the many other facets of design which have a huge impact on wider society, this philosophy emphasizes the fact that buildings are not built on an island but are built within communities and cities and have a huge impact upon their inhabitants.

What can designers take from this?

The whole building approach can help make us all better designers. This is being realized in the industry and in fact whole buildings design courses developed by the national institute of building sciences are made mandatory for practicing architects in certain jurisdictions.

Whole building design suggests that if you look early enough on in the design process you can hit more than one or two design objectives in a single element of the building -that can help you save money and efficiency. An example, outlined in a dailyenergyreport podcast, describes an instance where this could be implemented. If your designing a retaining wall which contains a water feature, think about using these to help meet stand-off distance/blast resistance requirements and if necessary, maybe also think about how this structural element can acts as acoustic barrier for interior spaces.

Some of the key principles that I extracted from my reading of the guide are to;

  • Employ integrated design principles – design with multiple disciplines needs in mind and functions in mind. Think cradle-to-grave not just the present/short-term future.
  • Reduce environmental impact of materials and design process – conduct a lifecycle assessment (LCA) and think more than just material cost.
  • Optimize energy performance – think renewable and follow LEED/BREAM direction regarding environmentally friendly energy solutions.
  • Enhance indoor environmental quality and Protect and conserve water.

My experience is that at each level, every designer attempts to create a design which is cost efficient and functions well within code limits. But there is not, I dare say, a bigger picture view taken by most designers. I’m not sure how this more wholistic view of design becomes a priority.

Perhaps the philosophy of whole building design builds the case for performance-based design compared with the more restrictive limits associated with the code-based design approach.  This will, in my view, require a significant deviation from where we are. That said the philosophy around whole building design is a smarter if not hugely ambitious approach to building design. Its an approach that all designers should look to take and that clients/developers will in time begin to appreciate. Thanks for reading, please comment and share.

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