A New Standard of Care

Jamie Qualk, LEED® AP BD+C, is vice president of SSRCx, a division of Smith Seckman Reid engineering design and facility consulting firm. He lectures in the Civil Engineering department of Vanderbilt University regarding sustainability and construction and also at Lipscomb University in the Institute for Sustainable Practice.  Jamie is an editorial advisor and contributor to EDC magazine.  He was recently named to Building Design + Construction magazine’s 40 UNDER 40 class of 2012.  You can follow him on Twitter @Jamie_Qualk.

If you’ve been working in the design, construction and operation of buildings in the last five to ten years, you have likely noticed a great deal of change in the standards and codes that are regularly applied, the definition of leadership and a heightened focus on performance. You also have probably seen new tools and strategic processes emerge to help foster this transformation, not to mention new roles and professionals represented at the table.  These changes have given rise to new a set of challenges and some risk to our industry, but also they have increased our ability to achieve success in the pursuit of high performance buildings and communities. 

Undoubtedly the industry is going to change even more as we turn our focus further up the road and pursue regenerative and more resilient solutions.  Between here and there still lies a necessary step, which can be simply described as net zero, lower impact or healthy design.  In order to achieve this next step on our way to loftier goals, it is necessary for the typical standard of care in work to become elevated and more complete in regard to process and strategy.

This enhanced standard of care requires us to ask different questions in order to arrive at new and better results.  Some of the following are already being integrated into standard practice, but for the most part we are a long way from seeing the average project include these standards:

  1. Holistic and integrated approach to design and communication among team members at the initiation of the project. This includes all members of the entire design team being present on day one, plus the staff who will operate the building.  This allows input from all stakeholders in order to inform early decisions, rather than having. various consultants making decisions in isolation and without the benefit of the insights, experience and expertise of their team members. Communication must be open, with no idea or approach being too small to discuss or vet.
  2. Comprehensive modeling including climate analysis, orientation and massing of a building, and comparison of design elements and systems utilizing Life Cycle Cost Analysis and the use of net present value to drive the decision-making process.  Without the use of these tools it is difficult, if not impossible, to know if the very “best” choice has been made to balance first cost and the total cost of ownership. If high performance, net zero or regenerative design and operation is the goal, modeling and analysis are critically important.
  3. Commissioning, measurement and verification and an ongoing commitment to energy and comfort, thereby linking design and construction to the operations phase. To overcome the challenges we face between the end of design and construction and the beginning of operations and performance decay, these elements must be strengthened in standard practice.  Without them, the functionality of building systems is at risk, and high performance (if achieved) can quickly disappear.
  4. The use of onsite amenities, such as renewable energy and water capture and use. Taking advantage of natural energy and other resource flows helps to dramatically reduce the impact of the built environment and is also a key to net zero or positive lifetime impacts.

Putting these methods into practice is far easier said than done, and there are many obstacles to overcome before any of these approaches become standard practice.  Overall understanding, expertise and experience in the marketplace will need to continue to evolve in the right direction. As acceptance of these standards remains small, they will be priced as risk in fees and construction costs. However, acceptance will grow as owners experience how these costs can quickly dissipate, as we’ve seen with the inclusion of LEED in so much of standard design and construction practice.  We may also want to consider updating our contract model with inclusions that tie the design team to operational performance.    Or simply lengthen the engagement of some key design and construction consultants many years into the operations phase.   It might be helpful to think of these approaches, tools and strategies not as new or added scope, but new ones entirely.

The industry will soon experience a tipping point at which the opportunities of regenerative strategies and resiliency will outweigh their perceived risk and cost objections, and the sooner we incorporate even small steps toward a new standard of care, the sooner we will realize a built environment that returns as many resources as it consumes – or in some cases, even more.


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