How to implement high-performance design

High-performance design drives owners and designers to integrated thinking to gain a holistic perspective on how to maximize building performance outcomes

By Lyle Keck August 26, 2020


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the complexities of high-performance building design.
  • Learn more about the evolving landscape of sustainability.
  • Know the integrated solutions that assist designers and owners in maximizing building performance.

The definition of building performance has expanded beyond energy efficiency, generating a new lexicon of high-performance design that includes water efficiency, the occupant environment and resilient design. Codes and standards have evolved to promote sustainable building practices in reflection of this dialog.

Design consultants need tools to support performance standards and rating systems. Analysis tools applied during the design process ensure that goals are met and support the design of best practice solutions and technologies. Owners are looking for creative and capable teams to champion change by establishing outcome-based performance targets, effectively managing the decision-making process to maximize value and verifying performance once the building is occupied. This ensures that the full potential of their investments and commitments has been — and continues to be — realized.

Complexity in high-performance design

A truly high-performance design involves a deep understanding of synergies and it takes an integrated and collaborative approach to maximize results. Regardless of building type, complexity typically accompanies high-performance design (see Figure 1).

While it’s true that some long-standing principles of passive design and sustainability can provide elegantly simple solutions, design teams and owners are routinely faced with intricate challenges that drive complex solutions for a majority of building typologies. Owners detest buildings that are too complicated to operate and manage effectively, pushing designers to strive for the most simple set of solutions that can maximize outcomes. Deep integrated thinking is required to understand the benefits and trade-offs of energy, carbon, water, health, operations and cost.

The new era of performance standards and rating systems require a holistic view. Performance standards such as ASHRAE Standard 189.1: International Green Construction Code and green building certifications such as the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge 4.0 exemplify the philosophy that high-performance design must be demonstrated across many sustainable design tenets.

Owners and project teams are asked to consider the relationship between an abundance of metrics and targets. There is a need to balance and optimize for many things simultaneously, which can be overwhelming. For designers, this complexity manifests in the technical engineering and design of high-performance building systems. Design teams must also communicate effectively so the results of intricate performance analysis can be used to make informed decisions.

The potential outcomes on any project are expansive and it can be difficult to identify and communicate the optimal path to maximize value for the owner. The operation of high-performance buildings can be equally complex and the responsibility for addressing performance issues often falls on the owner.

Building performance looks at many scales, both macro and micro, to develop a broader contextual understanding of environmental stewardship, sustainability and well-being. One example of scale jumping, an approach that draws a bigger “box” around the problem to see if wider thinking can resolve some of the challenges of a small box, considers a building’s relationship with the greater community.

A building’s efficiency and resource requirements inform large-scale thinking about utility production, often driven by local and regional priorities or impacts. Campus and institutional clients have large portfolios of buildings that present both opportunities and challenges to meet competing and sometimes conflicting interests. District energy systems and EcoDistricts approaches seek to amplify efficiency across buildings, infrastructure and user behavior.

Project teams must also contemplate macro and micro time scales when seeking a deeper understanding of renewable energy production, thermal energy storage, load shifting strategies and campuswide solutions. Owners have the undertaking of making decisions about assets they will own for decades in a landscape of ever-changing relationships with utilities and partners. Oftentimes they are dealing with fixed budgets established years ago, possibly without a complete understanding or alignment of the costs required to meet new regulations and previous high-performance commitments.

This type of deep, holistic thinking is driving designers and owners toward inherently more complex and integrated solutions, equipment and technologies. It may no longer be good enough to have a single type of building system. Multiple types of building systems and equipment may be required to maximize efficiency across energy- and water-consuming systems while providing comfort and well-being for occupants. This demands optimization across systems and intelligent operations to maximize performance.

In functionally intensive buildings such as hospitals, laboratories or manufacturing facilities, equipment and process demands are significant, making the potential scale of renewables required for ultralow energy cost and space prohibitive. Water storage and treatment requirements for reuse are magnified. Increased environmental design and operating criteria support heighten needs for the occupant environment, and may also increase utility and resource consumption, at odds with efficiency targets.

Understandably, owners are forced to prioritize the mission of their facility and delivery of business above building performance when tough decisions about cost or operations arise. The same performance metrics can be used on each facility, but even within an organization, the goals related to those metrics may be different.

For the design team, this complexity affects the technical design and controllability of building systems as well as the way consultants communicate effectively with clients. For building owners, there’s often a learning curve from prioritizing performance objectives and making informed decisions during design to successfully managing operations for the life of the building.

High-performance design process, tools

The complexity that often accompanies high-performance design projects is pushing designers to advance their analytical workflows and elevate the way they communicate results to stakeholders. The design team must design and control building systems optimally, an intricate technical component. There’s also the challenge of how to collaborate effectively with a multidisciplinary team and a diverse group of decision makers.

To help analyze technical information and provide succinct communication, designers use simulation, analysis and visualization tools. Simulation and analysis tools provide the technical data and multidimensional information to communicate findings and drive outcomes.

Metrics and goal-setting

The first step in any design project is to clarify the owner’s understanding of high-performance goals, establishing a foundation for options evaluation and decision-making approaches. The definition and goal setting process is much different than “blue-sky” sustainability charrettes of years past. Owners are compelled, if not required, to score higher marks that demonstrate their organization’s commitment to sustainability.

Benchmarking exercises establish energy use intensity and water use intensity goals for the project team to design toward and verify energy and water performance post-occupancy. Prioritization of credits and targets leads to customized scorecards and comprehensive objectives that reflect an owner’s core values. These commitments evolve and deepen over time leading organizations to carefully consider how to present their message of achievements to the current market. Sustainability professionals and performance consultants facilitate this effort to provide a unifying basis for options evaluation, design approaches and project outcomes.

Metric-based decision-making is used to evaluate concepts against compliance with project targets or rating system credits. These metrics are often presented as key performance indicators, which become a holistic set of evaluation criteria that allows for options comparison.

KPIs are often used in conjunction with different value based decision-making approaches such as the “choose by advantage” methodology. These methods provide a framework for quantifying the relative value of both qualitative and quantitative information as it relates to a specific design decision. With this value-based scoring in hand, the owner is then asked to consider how much purchasing power they have to maximize that value.

Design and analysis tools

Analysis and visualization tools use project metrics to support the design and decision-making processes as well as demonstrate compliance with performance standards, rating system certification and outcome-based performance goals. These tools and workflows continuously evolve to support the complexity and growing breadth of high-performance design and analysis tools are increasingly coupled with traditional design tools and methods.

Integrated tools such as EnergyPlus (a free software funded by the U.S. Department of Energy) are being applied for both heating, ventilation and air conditioning load calculation and detailed energy simulation. With additional input, EnergyPlus has the ability to report metrics for comfort and daylighting, as well as output a handful of mechanical and domestic water consuming end-uses in the project such as cooling tower evaporation, humidification and domestic fixtures.

Tool suites and custom workflows continue to evolve, further enhancing this integrated design and analysis approach across disciplines, quantifying the holistic metrics of high-performance design.

Ladybug Tools is a collection of applications that support an integrated design and analysis approach by connecting traditional 3D architectural design tools (Rhino) with environmental and climate analysis tools, energy and loads simulation software (OpenStudio/EnergyPlus), daylighting analysis tools (Radiance) and 2D heat transfer software (THERM).

Autodesk Revit continues to advance with the industry by enabling plug-ins for performance analysis. Early attempts with Autodesk Green Building Studio and Sefaira provide streamlined analysis with simplified feature sets. New versions of Revit harness the power of OpenStudio/EnergyPlus for integrated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems analysis, which open the door for more detailed and customizable analysis workflows.

Leading design firms are investing in design technology and development professionals to create custom processes, workflows and capabilities. They often use a combination of existing tools and platforms in conjunction with custom developed software and procedures. More often these applications are used to support the firm’s internal design practice and consulting capabilities. Less often these applications go to market as a standalone product or software as a service. Many of these tools are open source and a new industry of cloud-based analytical tools is emerging.

Some elements of the tools and workflows are trending in the same direction for the industry as a whole. New industry standards such as ASHRAE Standard 209: Energy Simulation Aided Design for Buildings except Low Rise Residential Buildings create a common framework for providing energy design assistance using simulation and analysis with a goal of having jurisdictions adopt these methodologies to make performance analysis a requirement for design. However, any given firm or consulting team will have different expertise and capabilities in their choice of tools, level of analysis depth and means of communicating findings.

Analysts are applying the same tools at both macro and micro scales and the implementation can change for different phases in a project. The analysis on a single design project might scale jump between program area based or simplified geometry, single zone optimization, whole building or campus scale analysis to inform a complete perspective of performance implications.

Design concepts may be analyzed with respect to many time scales as well. Hourly or sub-hourly timesteps influence the accuracy of results and application of real-world control strategies. Daily and weekly data influence passive design strategies and thermal energy or water storage. Monthly or seasonal data may be used to gain a deeper understanding of geothermal heating and cooling system performance or rainwater harvesting potential. Long-term annual projections are considered for climate change, campus or utility scale systems, resilience planning and rate of change for costs. These components all provide highly valuable data and analysts use their expertise to determine how components fit together optimally.

Tool interoperability combined with metric based design and evaluation processes have driven a data model-based approach for design and analysis tools. As an example, EnergyPlus is changing its file format to JavaScript Object Notation, which is a lightweight data-interchange format. Open-source tools like OpenStudio Software Development Kit, Eppy scripting language or Modelkit/Params effectively create an enhanced data model structure and application programming interface functionality for EnergyPlus. This allows for rapid development and manipulation of models, reusable scripts for parametric design evaluations and containers for transferring data in and out of multiple tools.

Leading design firms are also beginning to develop and manage their own internal data models to support their design and consulting practice, archive project and system data for benchmarking and facilitate interoperability. Industry efforts such as the International Building Performance Simulation Association’s Building Data Exchange Committee and ASHRAE SPC 205: Standard Representation of Performance Simulation Data for HVAC&R and Other Facility Equipment seek to further standardize building data and equipment models.

Continuous improvement and development of workflow tools arises in response to the complexity of high-performance design. At the same time, designers and consultants are compelled to simplify communication.

Visualization and decision-making tools

Analysis informs design through the use of graphic tools, focused communication and organized work sessions that allow stakeholders to make decisions with confidence. Owners and integrated project teams need a way to effectively interpret analysis results and information. A data-driven and metric-based approach supports owners’ performance goals, demonstrates compliance with performance standards and measures the level of achievement for rating systems or outcome-based targets.

The early days of modeling often looked at a small handful of design scenarios. Now, the new standard of parametric modeling looks at a large-scale set of options and potential outcomes. The market demands parametric analysis that reflects a deep, integrated view of building performance and the necessity for project teams to optimize across a range of systems, project objectives and KPIs. These data sets are often multidimensional to balance many metrics and goals while allowing owners to make holistic decisions to maximize value.

As an example, a “parallel coordinates” chart is becoming an increasingly common visualization tool to help analyze multivariable data sets (see Figure 2). The user can select specific design combinations in a bundle and understand the impacts on multiple outputs simultaneously. The user can also select ranges within multiple outputs to optimize outcomes and better understand which design strategies are or aren’t on the critical path to achieving their objectives.

These types of interactive visualization tools, often combined into dashboards, provide a lot of versatility and insight. They are an effective way to share the results of large scale parametric modeling through the lens of multiple metrics and KPIs. With accurate results and information, they allow project teams to design at the speed of conversation and understand the impacts of what-if scenarios in real time. Owners and stakeholders are better equipped to make informed decisions and understand the synergies and relationships inherent to high-performance design.

Even with the correct data, it can still be difficult to successfully use graphics and storytelling to navigate the decision-making process during design. One attempt to better formalize this communication is Project Stasio, a crowd-sourced graphics library to support the presentation of results for typical high-performance design analysis. Common metrics and graphics used across the industry allow stakeholders to better comprehend the information needed to make optimal choices. Visualization and decision-making tools like these are key elements to effectively communicate the results of complex analysis that often accompany high-performance design projects.

High-performance design technologies, solutions

A broadened definition of sustainability and a deeper understanding of high-performance design interactions has led designers and owners to seek integrated solutions that provide many benefits. The tools and processes described previously assist designers and owners with applying these technologies in a way that maximizes performance value while meeting owners’ financial constraints and realities.

These integrated design and analysis tools provide the data necessary to better understand the synergies and relationships between design concepts as they relate to many performance objectives. The whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. A high-performance building envelope coupled with passive design strategies unlocks more energy- and water-efficient HVAC systems that also improve occupant comfort. Thermal and electrical storage systems increase energy efficiency at the building and can also help decrease greenhouse gas emissions at the grid scale and provide tangible resilience design benefits to the owner.

Some of the technologies are new, but much of the equipment has been around for decades and is just now beginning to see broader application in new markets and locales as a response to high-performance goals and standards. Large scale air-to-water heat pumps, as an example, are not a new technology but are seeing a sharp increase in use within large commercial buildings in the United States.

The energy efficiency benefits of heat pumps have been known for many years. The industry is beginning to apply this technology more regularly as the push for zero energy buildings becomes increasingly mainstream and the long-term conversation around decarbonization has progressed to make electric heat pump heating desirable in lieu of natural gas or fuel oil. In some cases, it’s simply a matter of making the equipment available in new territories or changing market perception through education and training. In other cases, the equipment is being applied in new ways that is pushing the product offerings to advance.

As an example, BuildingGreen’s Sustainable MEP Leaders peer network is a group of leading MEP design firms in North America that recently posted a wish list of electrification product needs for the MEP industry. This document, written by sustainability directors from leading MEP design firms, details industry needs for product manufacturers to advance their offerings in support of the industry’s desire to deliver all-electric buildings to decarbonize and maximize performance.

Comprehension of the complexities within high-performance design is what analysis tools provide to support design and integration of new technologies, solutions and applications.

The link between energy use and fossil fuels, renewable energy production and storage, and even the water consumption inherent to electricity production, has led to both thermal and electrical energy storage solutions for high-performance design projects. The application of analysis tools at different time scales and project scales helps to right-size these systems and quantify the carbon accounting benefits as the market’s awareness extends beyond simplified, annualized utility grid emissions factors toward an hourly or real-time understanding of grid operations and greenhouse gas emissions.

The reality is much of the United States’ power grid is still relatively dirty, particularly at peak demand times and all-electric buildings may actually increase operational cost for owners in the short term. However, the climate crisis is driving measurable change and the industry is pushing for all-electric capable buildings now under the assumption that the power grid will continue to decarbonize over a building’s life span. Owners are beginning to consider the cost of current or future carbon taxes when making financial decisions about infrastructure investments.

Water treatment, storage and reuse systems are also growing in commonality. New industry standards such as ASHRAE SPC 191: Standard for the Efficient Use of Water in Building Mechanical Systems provide baseline requirements for water performance. Analysis tools and whole project water modeling workflows analyze the quantity, quality and time-of-use for water consuming end-uses on a project.

This data provides a more complete understanding of how different water sources and demands can be matched on a project with integrated solutions that minimize the amount of potable water consumed on-site. Project teams must also have a keen awareness of the local regulatory environment surrounding water reuse as it may necessitate enhanced treatment, lengthy or elaborate permitting or ongoing monitoring and reporting requirements.

Building system controls are another technology with increased awareness as a tenet of complex high-performance design projects. Sophisticated controls can support energy efficiency, optimization across systems and enhanced levels of user control and comfort. Integrated environmental control systems that bring together lighting, temperature, ventilation and even shading or plug equipment controls are becoming increasingly common.

These solutions can be applied in a variety of ways that are automated or manual: active occupancy-based demand control, building automation system timeclock scheduled with local sensor overrides or manual user control of modes. Integrating the control of many different building systems and elevating their functionality as a whole brings a new project challenge: to identify the best platform for integration. The market has a wide variety of both packaged and stick-built solutions and inconsistent marketing from vendors makes it difficult for designers and owners to fully grasp the limits of compatibility and interoperability among building systems and equipment.

Smart buildings

With a broader understanding of high-performance design synergies and an increased focus on metric-based performance goals and objectives, the emergence of outcome-based performance targets is pushing project teams to demonstrate their accomplishments with metered data. Owners are also keenly interested in this level of verifiable performance to ensure their investments and commitments to high-performance design are realized.

Smart buildings, for this purpose defined as the use of integrative technology systems and processes that leverage data to facilitate operations and optimize efficiency, is a burgeoning services and products market, as well as a desirable capability for new and existing buildings. Smart building features are a key component to operate a building and its systems as efficiently as possible, including more effectively communicating to operators, while also providing documentation of a building’s operational costs and performance achievements.

Smart buildings, also referred to as intelligent buildings, can include a mix of both predictive and responsive systems with multiple goals of maximizing the system’s efficiency and performance, providing control and operations stability and allowing for real-time fault detection and diagnostics. A combination of historical metered data and real-time feedback, combined with logic and KPI metrics, is used to decide how the building operates in real time while also recording and archiving data to be used at a later date.

There’s both a technology component and a people component to smart buildings. The technology component includes monitoring devices, systems integration and control sequences. Equally, if not more important, is the people component which relates to how owners, operators and occupants engage with the building and its data, in an actionable way, to impact decisions for building operations and drive business outcomes. Building operations user manuals are a tool to more effectively engage users and familiarize them with the systems, as well as user requirements and expectations, for achieving high levels of performance. The people component also suggests how design and operations professionals, builders and commissioning agents work together effectively during all phases to maximize the reality of project objectives.

There’s a compelling connection between the metrics, logic and reporting formats used for both smart buildings operations and smart buildings design. Designers are harnessing the same data and metrics from advanced modeling and simulation tools and using it to compare design alternatives, right-size storage systems and optimize control sequences. This information is reported and presented with visualization tools to better understand the interactive effects of systems and make value-based decisions around multiple criteria during design.

This same type of data-gathering and decision-making occurs during operations as well. Owners are beginning to invest in digital twins, which couple the building’s design and operation information into a single, living model that can mimic and predict the building’s performance and operational needs over time. The tools and process for both designing and operating smart buildings are emerging in tandem, largely as a response to the changing complex needs as they relate to the definition of building performance.

The complexity that often accompanies high-performance design is driving designers and owners to think in a deep, integrated way to gain a holistic perspective on how to maximize building performance outcomes. Design and analysis tools are evolving to support the design and decision-making process as well as demonstrate compliance with performance standards and rating systems. These analytical tools deliver profound insight that’s driving the application of new technologies and solutions.

Effective communication with owners and integrated project teams allows performance analysis to impact design in a meaningful capacity. Owners are seeking verification of performance once the building is occupied and leveraging building intelligence to realize the full potential of their investments and commitments to building performance.

Author Bio: Lyle Keck manages and leads the building performance group in Affiliated Engineers Inc.’s Seattle office. He has project experience in the areas of building performance simulation, building systems engineering and high-performance building design.