High expectations for high-performance buildings

High-performance buildings are intricate, complex projects that require attention—qualified, expert consulting-specifying engineers apply their knowledge on such projects.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 23, 2017


  • Dave Clute, NREL Energy Executive, BOMI-HP, VP, Intelligent Building Group Operation Director, Environmental Systems Design Inc., Chicago
  • Paul Erickson, LEED AP BD+C, Building Performance Practice Leader, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.
  • Richard Holzer, PE, NCEES, LEED AP BD+C, HBPD, Principal Engineer, Southland Industries, Garden Grove, Calif.
  • Tim Kuhlman, PE, RCDD, CDT, Associate Principal, TEECOM, Portland, Ore.
  • A. Brian Lomel, PE, LEED AP BD+C, CxA, WELL AP, Director, TLC Engineering for Architecture, Orlando, Fla.

 CSE: What’s the No. 1 trend you see today in the design of high-performance buildings?

Dave Clute: The No. 1 trend we see in our current projects is clients’ desire to deliver economic, environmental, and experiential outcomes that allow them to create a competitive advantage for their core businesses. Economic performance to satisfy long-term cost benefits is paramount. Environmental performance and energy efficiency is a given. Workspaces that provide a compelling experience to work, live, and play is also high on the list of desirable attributes.

Paul Erickson: Energy modeling seems to be the most widespread trend that I am seeing in high-performance building projects. At the rate energy codes and standards are ramping up, prescriptive compliance is becoming more challenging. This coupled with energy-savings targets for many institutions compels the need for using modeling tools to test concepts, shape design solutions, and evaluate the overall project performance.

Richard Holzer: I’m seeing a shift in emphasis from energy conservation to occupant health and wellness. Interestingly, the number of projects seeking LEED certification is trending down.

Tim Kuhlman: I see a trend to make buildings more “technology-ready.” Whether it is for smarter building systems or the interaction of the people that work in the building, there is an expectation that the new technologies for sharing data will be supported.

A. Brian Lomel: I’m seeing wellness and indoor air quality for enhanced productivity and better work environments as well as attraction and retention of employees/occupants.

CSE: What other trends should engineers be on the lookout regarding such projects in the near future (1 to 3 years)?

Erickson: Considering the energy/water nexus in buildings and on campuses, responding with holistic design solutions is a growing trend. More attention is being given to occupant experience, whether via rating systems like Living Building Challenge and WELL or via individual controllability tools like Comfy. Other trends we see are a bit more project-type-specific. Geoexchange systems (geothermal to many) have found great success in the K-12 market and are increasingly part of the puzzle for high-performance higher education and corporate buildings and campus planning.  With the confirmation of successful first applications like Cone Health’s, active chilled beams are the major trend in health care right now. With updates a few years ago to ASHRAE Standard 170: Ventilation of Health Care Facilities that opened up the opportunity to use chilled beams for reducing air-change requirements, we are consistently seeing our projects apply this solution for the same cost—or less—as traditional variable air volume (VAV) while gaining significant energy savings as well.

Kuhlman: Engineers should start getting used to working with virtual reality (VR). I expect this to appear on two different fronts. The first is in how we design systems. VR will be able to help engineers to virtually interact with a system to determine issues with access, maintenance, and construction. The second is in the design of VR interaction rooms. These rooms can be thought of as very high-end AV rooms where a client can project a virtual space to evaluate products and have interactive training with equipment and demonstrations.

Holzer: There is a greater focus on water conservation and reuse, particularly in the Western United States.

Lomel: Net zero water and energy, microgrids, and emphasis on resiliency are some other trends.

Clute: The ability to offer the end users, tenants, visitors, and operators of a building a mobile, digital experience is becoming increasingly more important. Millennials and next-generation employees want to be able to access a building using digital credentials and modify the temperature and light levels of their workspace using handheld smartphones. Communication, collaboration, coordination, and innovation is how people want to work; anywhere and anytime.

CSE: Please describe a recent high-performance building project you’ve worked on—share details about the project including location, systems engineered, team involved, etc.

Clute: The Zurich North America Headquarters project located in Schaumburg, Ill., was recently completed and opened in October 2016. Certified as LEED Platinum, the 783,800-sq-ft complex reinforces Zurich’s commitment to environmental stewardship. A network of horizontal sunshades clad the perimeter of the complex, with the sunshades varying in depth depending on orientation, while floor-to-ceiling glass offers extensive natural light for the shallow office plates. A soaring 3-story double wall faces south toward the multilevel plazas, showcasing an architecture that responds to the changing Chicago climate. The building was designed by Goettsch Partners for the base building and Cannon Design for the interiors; Clayco Construction was the design-build contractor.

Erickson: Montana State University in Bozeman has an engineering student alum that’s made a name for himself in the HVAC industry. Norm Asbjornson, founder of AAON, made a significant donation to fund a new engineering building on campus (Norm Asbjornson Hall) charged with embracing high-performance design, even reaching toward net zero energy, to create a dynamic and interactive learning environment. AEI and ZGF Architects partnered with Associated Construction Engineering and A&E Architects to design this leading-edge facility. Starting with early planning and study, we determined an energy-use intensity (EUI) target that could be supported by PV on the site, which included a new parking garage that is a part of the project. In conjunction with a vision held by the assistant director of facilities services to interconnect multiple buildings on this south part of campus, we explored and implemented a geoexchange system design. Using a mix of an AAON air handling unit and local conditioning equipment that can be selected with geoexchange heat pump options, we were able to provide a low-energy concept that can move heating and cooling energy between the spaces in the building, the building and the geofield, or even the building and the other nearby campus buildings. To help meet the heavily dominating heating loads, a transpired solar wall system was employed, harnessing the extremely sunny Bozeman climate. These and other systems allowed the EUI of the building to be reduced to a very low number, often referred to as near zero energy or net zero-ready. Once deployed, the PV and solar hot-water systems should allow for net zero operation.

Kuhlman: I am currently working on cloud-computing data centers for a confidential client. The servers are connected through a fabric network designed for high throughput and high reliability. In addition to the technology that is implemented to make the data center function, the fabric network also implements technology to assist the data center operators to interact with the building systems.

CSE: Have you designed any high-performance building projects using the integrated project delivery (IPD) method? If so, describe one.

Kuhlman: I worked on an IPD project a few years ago in Oregon for a confidential client that was renovating a manufacturing space to work as a high-tech laboratory. It was an interesting experience to have the general contractor and subcontractors involved in the early part of the design. It was a new process and learning experience for the entire team. IPD presents a definite advantage to a building owner. It minimizes changes during construction by getting all parties to agree to a solution early in the design process. I would say the most difficult issue to overcome was trust amongst the parties (architects, engineer, contractor, and subcontractors). We all had years of experience in the design-bid-build process, which places the engineer and contractor in an adversarial role. It takes a lot of trust amongst all parties to make IPD work. Overall, this project was successful because the owner believed in it and was an active participant to make it work.

Clute: The Zurich North America Headquarters project is an excellent example of how the owner, architects, and contractor teams can work very closely together from the outset to deliver a project using the IPD method. The use of BIM was a guiding principle that allowed the entire team to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate to deliver a world-class, award-winning result.

Erickson: The award-winning Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison has been in operation since 2011, but the lessons learned relative to IPD delivery of a large-scale high-performance facility remain timely. Combining the programs of two biomedical research organizations with aggressive energy efficiency and flexibility strategies in this 300,000-sq-ft building almost demanded—and certainly greatly benefited from—the collaborative practices characterizing IPD. Correctly identifying and organizing the distinct representatives who will jointly deliver specific outcomes is essential to the efficiency of such collaboration.

CSE: What are the challenges that you face when designing such facilities that you don’t normally face for other building projects?

Lomel: Working on high-performance buildings is both exciting and encouraging, as owners of such facilities tend to be more engaged in the design process. A challenge is that design team members seldom have similar levels of expertise in high-performance design. Due to the integrated nature of high-performance design, it’s crucial for the team to be in sync to deliver a high-performance building.

Erickson: What we see is that, to meet the energy- and water-savings targets set by states or the institutions themselves, we are introducing technologies and systems that are new to many of the operators. We now find ourselves spending as much or more time on stakeholder engagement and organizational change as we do on the analysis to identify the design solutions. I find this to be an informal requirement, but one that needs to be addressed so that our high-performance designs will succeed in the long run under operation.

Clute: The complexity of the contractual relationships required to define, design, and deliver a high-performance building requires a more sophisticated understanding of the details involved across the entire lifecycle of the project. The roles and responsibilities of each party need to be clearly communicated and understood at all levels of the owner, architect, and contractor entities delivering the project.

Kuhlman: High-performance buildings tend to have more utilities and require a higher level of integration between the systems. For example, in a large data center, the fabric network consists of multiple networks connected in parallel that require each to have separate cable routes to reduce the risk of network failure. This results in needing to do more space coordination. In a high-performance building for manufacturing facilities, control systems are more sophisticated to provide the correct environment control for the manufacturing area.

CSE: What are some unique elements/considerations to designing/retrofitting high-performance buildings?

Holzer: With the increasing interest in low-energy, zero net energy buildings, there is increasing need to drive down electrical consumption from equipment and appliances, which requires a change to occupant expectations and behaviors. The change in expectations revolves around interior temperature/occupant comfort. Behavioral change is necessary to alter how and when occupants use and turn off equipment and appliances.

Lomel: Glazing (orientation, amount, quality), the early energy model, ventilation, lighting, and how they all interact.

Clute: Perhaps the most important element to consider throughout the design and construction process is the importance of the Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) Division 25 – , Integrated Automation. This is where all the individual building subsystems come together in one place to provide cross-functional coordination and system integration. This division provides these important functions:

  • Share data directly between various systems and components
  • Collect data from various systems into a central database server
  • Automatically control various systems from a central database server
  • Display data from various systems to users through a graphical web server interface
  • Allow user control of various systems through a graphical web server interface
  • Time-schedule operation functionality for all controlled systems
  • Reporting for all current and stored data
  • Automatic alarm display and annunciation with operator acknowledgement
  • Audit trail recording of operator actions, alarm acceptance, and report functions
  • Secure the building subsystems from unauthorized users
  • Display real-time graphics of subsystem status and metrics
  • Fault detection and diagnostics with prioritization by user-defined ranking criteria.

Kuhlman: The assumptions on how we would approach lighting systems, access control, and network distribution are different now then what they were 10 years ago. For example, it is now possible to do a complete lighting system with LED-based lights using Class 2 power-limited cabling. For some LED lighting systems, this is the same type of cabling used for data networks. I see a similar trend for security systems and control systems that are moving toward Ethernet networks and POE (power over Ethernet) devices. All of this adds up to placing more of a burden on the telecom-network infrastructure in a building. This implies larger telecom rooms that need more power, cooling, and cabling than what they required in the past.

Erickson: The building envelope and floor-to-floor height often drive many of our design solutions when retrofitting high-performance buildings. The two can directly relate. As we move toward hydronic, decoupled cooling strategies (i.e., chilled beams, chilled sails, radiant cooling panels, etc.), cooling capacity for each varies, to the extent that an envelope with poor solar-load control will reduce the system types that can be used or even preclude their use. High infiltration rates can also limit or preclude use of these cooling systems, as moisture levels in the space can get too high and lead to condensation issues. Considering an envelope retrofit that addresses one or both in addition to improving overall insulation value is highly recommended.

CSE: Is your team using BIM in conjunction with the architects, trades, and owners to design a high-performance building? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM model to the owner for long-term operations and maintenance.

Kuhlman: Often, what we call BIM on a project is not what BIM is being sold as in the market. Every project I have worked on for the past several years has had a BIM execution plan to communicate between the owner, architect, engineer, and contractor on how to develop and organize the building CAD model. Most of this relates to the level of detail that will be represented in the 3-D CAD building model. What BIM is still lacking is the rich amount of detailed information of each component in the model. The issue has to do with the size of the model for a large, high-performance building that has a lot of building elements. During the design and construction process where the model is being constantly manipulated, very large BIM models can be detrimental to CAD production. Adding in all the rich equipment data can explode the size of the model so that it becomes too big to work with. Often, each engineering discipline works on their own model and then connects with the others on the team to coordinate the design. If the models are too big to work with, it can negatively affect the design coordination.

Clute: The Zurich North America Headquarters project is also an example of where BIM was used to design, build, and deliver a high-performance building. BIM was used from the beginning of the project in the early design stages to visualize the project, and Clayco delivered a completed BIM model to the Zurich Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Management team upon completion for ongoing operations and maintenance functions.