What’s so special about office buildings?

Office buildings are complex structures containing automated features, energy-saving designs, high-tech equipment and other components as advanced as you’d find in any other state-of-the-art project

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer January 29, 2020


Jon Anderson 

DLR Group 

With 12 years of experience in HVAC design, Anderson is senior associate and Mechanical Engineering Lead for the company’s Colorado offices. He supervises the Denver mechanical team and ensures each project’s success.  


Elizabeth Slyziuk 


Serving as Associate Principal, Slyziuk first joined the firm in 2006. Her portfolio includes data centers, courthouses and other high-profile projects. 


Mark Walsh-Cooke 


As a principal in the firm’s Boston office, Walsh-Cooke brings more than 30 years of industry experience to the table. His areas of focus include sustainable, zero net energy and environmentally responsible design, enhancing the environmental performance of new and existing buildings.  


Anthony “Tony” Zaudtke 


Zaudtke joined Mortenson in 2018 as MEP Design Phase Manager, bringing extensive engineering experience. He graduated from North Dakota State University in 2001 with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Computer Engineering. 

CSE: What’s the biggest trend in office building projects? 

Jon Anderson: Offices are now being built to entice the worker, as unemployment has recently reached a 50-year low nationally. Employers are looking for ways to attract top talent and provide an enjoyable workspace for their employees. Offices are becoming more collaborative, stylish and artistic. Newer office buildings boast more glazing than in years past, enhancing views and daylighting for workers. Office spaces are increasing the amount of huddle rooms, phone rooms and conference rooms more so than private offices. More common in these spaces now are expensive coffee machines, bar taps, fitness rooms and break areas for recreational use with pingpong tables or foosball tables, providing an enjoyable atmosphere for workers and their guests. 

Elizabeth Slyziuk: One of the biggest trends we’re seeing is integrated architectural and engineering systems design. As an example, many building designs are incorporating no ceilings or decorative partial ceilings, so engineering systems are now all exposed. The engineering plans for systems such as ductwork, piping, cable tray, etc. must be methodical and strategic to ensure a clean layout is maintained, which plays into the architectural design features. Because the various engineering systems can no longer be hidden above the ceilings, they are now fully integrated, both aesthetically and functionally, with the architectural design. This can even create playful opportunities to color code or paint overhead systems to intentionally draw attention to these components that are usually hidden from occupants. 

Mark Walsh-Cooke: In Boston, there are probably two key trends: resiliency and carbon reduction. The permit process typically includes compliance with Articles 37 and 80 of the Boston Zoning CodeCompliance requires performing studies to determine how your building will be resilient to future climate change and how it will reduce carbon emissions, including strategies for carbon neutrality. Also New York City recently passed Local Law 97, which requires continuous improvement in building performance. Owners in Boston are beginning to consider what such a regulation would mean for their businesses if adopted in Massachusetts. 

Anthony “Tony” Zaudtke: Technology! This is probably the biggest opportunity that is often overlooked. We are constantly inundated with terms such as “smart building,” “internet of things,” “newest technology,” “innovative app,” “workplace experience,” etc., but there are few standards on these items. Some of these are focused on the building; some could be focused on the business and others are focused on the user experience. 

CSE: What future trends should engineers expect for such projects? 

Zaudtke: Standards or certifications around technology. With the big push for sustainability several standards and certifications were introduced to provide baselines to compare buildings to. Some were global, some were U.S.-based and others have faded away. WiredScore Certification is one early certification based around technology and setting up a building to be flexible for technology-based tenants and whatever cabling changes may be required for the latest technology. It appears to be adopted more by multitenant buildings and awards points for redundant internet service providers, resilient ISPs, capacity and quantity of raceways for future renovations and backup power to keep telecommunications operational. What will be next?  

Walsh-Cooke: In existing buildings, monitoring-based commissioning will become more prevalent. I think there will be more demand to have allelectric buildings use heat pump technologies to produce heating and cooling. Also, I expect that renewable energy generation strategies will become more common at the building level. 

Slyziuk: While we see trends that want to intentionally expose the overhead engineering systems by removing ceilings, there is also a contrasting ongoing trend to hide building systems from occupants’ views. This trend also requires creative integration with architects and interiors to provide the required functionality of the systems while concealing within the architectural, interiors and structural features.  

Anderson: Engineers should expect an increase in exterior glazing as owners look to expand views and daylighting for tenants and provide modern style high-rise buildings. Baseboard heaters are becoming less popular in new office buildings, leading engineers to find alternate ways to provide perimeter heat after-hours, such as through fan powered boxes or ceiling radiant heating systems. There is a growing trend in new office buildings to include large operable openings such as garage doors or operable walls, allowing natural ventilation and access to outdoor areas. More office spaces are now being designed without ceilings or with ceiling clouds to make spaces feel taller. Exposed ductwork and piping is a growing trend in these spaces, as it adds to the style and appeal of the space. Adjustable standing desks or sit-stands are becoming more popular, requiring specific attention to diffuser placement and air flow patterns in the space. 

CSE: What types of challenges do you encounter for these types of projects that you might not face on other types of structures? 

Slyziuk: Because the life of an office building usually includes multiple tenants and renovations throughout the years, the initial design of the engineering systems must provide flexibility for various tenants with their specific requirements and for several rounds of potential future modifications. The challenge is to provide these flexible designs without adding significant cost to the project. 

Anderson: With the rise of garage doors or operable exterior openings, there is a risk of negatively affecting the pressurization of a building if not designed properly and isolated from other heating, ventilation and air conditioning zones. The increase in sit-stand workstations along with the shrinking building floor-to-floor heights, can cause occupants to be nearer to the air distribution systems in some office buildings. As ceilings trend away from the traditional lay-in systems in favor of ceiling clouds or exposed structure, air distribution becomes more critical. Traditional ceilingmounted diffusers allow more flexibility in occupant seating locations, as the airflow tends to follow the ceiling line.  

When ceilings are removed in favor of exposed ductwork and round cone diffusers, there is an increased likelihood of blowing air on workers at sit-stand desks, especially as office furniture layouts change. Exposed ductwork and equipment also provide acoustical challenges in an open structure environment where equipment is mounted closer to occupants and without an acoustical ceiling separation. Lined sound boots or attenuators are ideal for air distribution equipment such as fan powered boxes, when exposed near occupants. Any fans located in an open office environment should be selected carefully for noise considerations. 

Zaudtke: There are a lot of challenges that can be boiled down to two major items: scope and budget. This is sort of like the “chicken or the egg” conversation. If the scope is developed first without an understanding of budget, it’s easy to want everything. If the budget is developed first without an understanding of the technology scope, the bar can be set too high or too low. How do you properly understand the scope and budget for a smart building if it is not defined or fully understood? Understanding the balance of scope and budget while also understanding the technology goals: building energy use, business productivity and user experience is a great opportunity and challenge.  

CSE: What are engineers doing to ensure such projects meet challenges associated with emerging technologies? 

Anderson: As emerging technologies become increasingly popular, engineers should be designing buildings to be flexible and nonproprietary. Open data communication protocols, such as BACnet, should be used in buildings, to allow integration between the building automation system and lighting controls, security systems, fire and life safety systems, energy management, elevator monitoring systems and more. The BACnet standard was initially developed and is now maintained by ASHRAE. Engineers should review ASHRAE Standard 135-2016: BACnet  A Data Communication Protocol for Building Automation and Control Networks. The BACnet protocol is becoming increasingly popular among owners and engineers. 

Zaudtke: There are so many emerging technologies within the various mechanical, electrical, technology, security, etc. scopes. Staying up on the latest technologies within a specific scope is hard enough on its own, but now the technologies are crossing boundaries and systems are communicating with each other more and more. Open-protocol systems are being specified to accommodate all the emerging technologies and communication between systems. Open-protocol systems creates limitless possibilities for integration and operations between systems.  

Walsh-Cooke: At Arup, we do two specific things: we invest in our staff to ensure they have the training to understand issues around designing buildings to be zero net energy and carbon neutral. And we also invest in digital tools to parametrically model and optimize the building systems and structure. 

Slyziuk: Emerging technologies usually are driven by two main goals: energy efficiency and cost efficiency. One example of this is the redistribution of infrastructure, specifically on one of our projects, power over Ethernet lights relocated the electrical distribution and heat loss to information technology closets instead of within the space. 

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.  

Slyziuk: We recently implemented a PoE lighting design for an office building in Austin, Texas. The lighting and controls for more than 90% of the building are powered by low-voltage category cable versus the more traditional line voltage solution. With a PoEenabled building, the user has the opportunity to further expand the building’s intelligence and controls to remain current with the growing IoT market. A challenge with using PoE is the limitations that comes with using category cable over long distances and providing the necessary coverage for more than 35,000 square feet. Category cable is currently limited to 51 watts at the point of device connection. This inherently creates the issue of possibly having large numerous runs of category cable for the network switch to the end devices. To mitigate this challenge, a decentralized method of control and power was used. Network nodes were spaced throughout the building to provide control and low voltage power limiting the amount of category cable needed. 

Walsh-Cooke: Arup is providing engineering and consulting services for the design of a new headquarters building for Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank (Hyannis, Mass.). The two-story building with basement will be 78,000 gross square feet. The program includes private and open offices, multiple conference and training rooms, fullservice cafeteria and fitness center with locker rooms. The project is targeting U.S. Green Building Council LEED Gold Certification with an ultimate goal of net zero energy. Strategies to enhance the indoor environmental quality are also being implemented. For example, the design of the interior spaces will use environmentally preferable products and materials with high recycled content, environmental product declarationand health product declarations. 

Zaudtke: Two Discovery Square is a multitenant office and lab building currently in the design phase. The project is in Rochester, Minn., as part of the 16-block Discovery Square masterplan, which is part of the Destination Medical Center. Discovery Square focuses on science and technology and innovation is a goal, both in design and construction phases. Innovation as a goal for a core and shell multitenant project may seem atypical, but innovation does not always need to be the latest widget. Innovation can also be the small ideas or adjustments from the norm that make things better. As part of that process, the project is exploring WiredScore certification. Multiple design changes to the traditional core and shell project are being implemented to pursue additional credits. Many of the changes are based on conduitProviding additional conduits, redundant conduits and routing them separately helps set the project up for a more flexible, redundant and resilient infrastructure for technology systems.  

Anderson: We designed the Pete Mirelez Human Services Center for Adams County, in Westminster, Colo. When the county purchased the existing 315,000-square-foot building, it was a colddark shell that was previously part of the demolished Western Electric campus. The interior of the three-story building was demolished in its entirety, a 5,000-square-foot lobby addition was designed and the building skin was updated to a more modern style. All new utilities and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems were provided to serve the building, which included a full kitchen, fitness area, lockers, data center and equipment rooms. Our in-house team of architects, planners, interiors and engineers designed the full refresh of the 50-yearold building. A new water-cooled chiller plant and boiler plant was provided to serve the building’s needs, along with a solar-thermal domestic water heating system and custom air handling units with direct/indirect evaporative cooling systems, chilled water coils, hot water coils and energy recovery.  

CSE: How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs? 

Slyziuk: One of the greatest challenges is to provide innovative systems that include advances in latest technologies while keeping project costs down. As consulting engineers, we perform life cycle cost analysis for systems to determine if the technology is the best fit for the clients’ goals, both short and longterm. One dynamic to keep in mind is that typically developers have a different set of priorities than owners who will be occupying the building in terms of acceptable return on investment and payback periods.  

Walsh-Cooke: From the earliest stages of design, we work with the client and architect to parametrically model the systems with tools that incorporate genetic algorithms. These techniques can rapidly cycle through multiple options of form, façade and systems to come to a solution that is optimized for both cost and performance. 

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project deliveryvirtual reality or virtual design and construction into a project?  

Anderson: We are finding it increasingly common to turn over aAutodesk Revit building information modeling model to an owner or contractor for coordination purposes between trades. Many contractors now have a BIM team that uses the design model as a starting point for contractor coordination and shop drawing creation. We also have a VR setup where engineers and architects can gather around the display and “fly through a project model to view coordination items and major systems. Finding and resolving coordination items and clashes during design help prevent requests for information and change orders during construction. 

Zaudtke: VDC is an evolving topic and is dependent on the delivery method. In a design-bid-build project, a design model is developed to a certain level of design based on a contract or owner requirement. For example, a rooftop unit in the design model may be somewhere between a rectangular object on the roof to a fully detailed roof-top unit with specific screws, a manufacturer’s logo and model number. After a project is issued for construction and bid out, the awarded construction team would use VDC to provide modeling of what the construction team will physically build including hangers, supports, etc. In design-build projects, the process of including the constructed modeling is occurring earlier and earlier. With tools like BIM360, designers, contractors and owners can be in constant coordination and working to the physically constructed model during the design phase. In both scenarios, the desire from owners to have a precise model of as built conditions with part numbers turned over at the end of construction for their use is rising. 

CSE: What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing high-rise office projects?  

Walsh-Cooke: When designing an all-electric building, limited vertical lift capacity of variable refrigerant flow systems require condensers to be located on interim plant floors, which take up rentable space. 

Slyziuk: Minimizing the building core area to maximize occupiable square footage is a consistent challenge. High-rises require significant area for the vertical pathways of building systems, so it is important to work with architects at the onset of a project to plan strategic shafts and stacking of electrical, telecom and restrooms. 

CSE: What is the typical project delivery method your firm uses when designing these a facility?  

Anderson: Lately we have seen more design-assist projects where a general contractor is involved at the beginning of the project and subcontractors are brought onboard near the end of the design development phase. The design-assist approach helps with project cost reconciliation between the design team and the contractor, along with live cost updates to different systems or alternate options.