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A Group Effort

Architects, designers, and clients embrace an integrated design process.


By Nadav Nalin

When the architect sheds the "visionary leader" image and instead chooses to facilitate and nurture a collaborative, creative process, unexpected possibilities emerge and the design solutions evolve with full endorsement of the owner. nadav malin

As a leading sustainable design research institution, the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems at Syracuse University wanted a building that reflected its mission. To achieve that goal, they hired architect Toshiko Mori and a team of internationally recognized consultants. The team held a series of day-long charrettes throughout the predesign and design processes, each with about 20 designers and consultants and up to 30 people representing the client. The resulting design includes a suite of features that cross traditional boundaries, including stack-effect natural ventilation, a double-curtain wall, a green roof, ground-source heat pumps, and graywater irrigation. These solutions were developed amid tight constraints, including building on the foundation of a former factory, minimizing excavation to avoid disturbing contaminated soil, and managing adjacent highway noise. John Boecker, of 7group, who managed LEED certification and facilitated the meetings, said, “There’s no way we could have done all those things without everyone working closely together.”

Photo: Busby Perkins & Will

A rendering of the Syracuse Center of Excellence, Syracuse, N.Y.
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DESIGN ARCHITECT: Toshiko Mori Architect
EXECUTIVE ARCHITECT: Ashley McGraw Architects
CIVIL ENGINEER: Stearns & Wheler
GEOTECHNICAL ENGINEER: John P. Stopen Engineering

1. WHOLE-SYSTEMS THINKING: taking interactions between elements and systems into account, and designing to exploit their synergies.

2. FRONT- LOADED DESIGN: thinking through a design early in the process, before too many decisions are locked in and opportunities for low-cost, high-value changes to major aspects of the design have dwindled.

3. END-USE, LEAST-COST PLANNING: considering the needs of a project in terms of the services (comfort, light, access) the end user will need, rather than in terms of the equipment required to meet those needs. For example, it’s typically assumed that perimeter heating is essential to provide comfort at the edges of a building on cold mornings, but many green designers are now proving that high-performance facades work just as well, and without the energy use, noise, and maintenance demands.

4. TEAMWORK: Coming up with solutions as a group and collaborating closely on implementing those solutions aren’t things that happen without strong facilitation and commitment. Judith Heerwagon, of J.H. Heerwagon & Associates in Seattle, has identified several important components of good teamwork on design projects, including strong support from the client, mutual respect, effective communication, and an ability to deal constructively with conflict.

Bunting Coady Architects’ 8-step Approach to integration
1: Shape and shadow: Massing and orientation decisions that involve function, daylight, and structural considerations. 5: How the building breathes: Natural ventilation and passive heating and cooling.
2: SITE Opportunities: Where to locate the building on the property, and how it will relate to its immediate context. 6: Comfort system: With heating and cooling loads largely determined, the team can get into systems design.
3: Envelope: Types of walls and location of windows, 7: Materials: What will the various surfaces be made of?
4: Lighting design: Look at both daylighting and electrical lighting throughout. 8: Quality Assurance: Review the building as a system.

Forthcoming resources on integrated design

1: A Guideline Standard entitled The Whole System—Integrated Design Process is being developed by a committee chaired by Bill Reed, with John Boecker as vice chair, under the auspices of the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability.

2: The Roadmap for the Integrated Design Process is a guide being written for a coalition of British Columbia agencies and local governments by Stantec and Busby Perkins Will. It will be available from the Greater Vancouver Regional District and other sources, and will be accompanied by a series of workshops.

Integrated design is diferent from conventional design in its focus on tight collaboration within a multidisciplinary team. Dozens of successful projects now attest to the fact that integrated design is an effective approach—perhaps the only effective approach—for creating comprehensive green buildings on reasonable budgets.

Isn’t all design integrated design? Not really. Typically, design solutions are developed separately within each area of expertise: The architect works out the massing, layout, and facades of the building, then a structural engineer figures out how to keep it standing, a mechanical engineer develops strategies for making it comfortable, and so on. A project’s various designers meet occasionally to ensure their solutions don’t clash, but for the most part their aim is to stay out of one another’s way.

In an integrated process, on the other hand, the team works as a collective to understand and develop all aspects of the design, which can then emerge organically, with the full benefit of each expert’s input. So while each expert plays an essential role, in effective integrated design exercises the best ideas often emerge when participants cross the usual boundaries. An engaged focused group thinking together can create solutions that no individual could produce alone.

The Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit think tank and consultancy that pioneered many of the practices now known as green building, has identified four key elements of the integrated design process (see box on right).

Certain aspects of green design demand an integrated process because they affect so many different elements of a building, such as daylighting, which in turn concerns siting, orientation, building form, facade design, floor-to-floor heights, interior finishes, electric lighting controls, and cooling loads, among other things. Green or vegetated roofs, with their impact on stormwater runoff, building structure, building form, thermal insulation, and plantings, are another example of integrated design at work. While daylighting and green roofs can be (and often are) done through processes that are not well-integrated, in such situations costs inevitably escalate and many potential benefits they offer are lost. One such missed opportunity was with the fuel cells that were installed on the fourth floor of the Condé Nast high-rise at 4 Times Square in New York City. While this early green office tower, completed in 1999, was successful overall, the designers have bemoaned the fact that fuel cells were added too late in the process for them to be properly integrated, so the heat they produce when generating electricity is wasted.

Does integrated design cost more?

Because the integrated design process involves more time spent in charrettes and other face-to-face meetings early on, people often assume that it costs more. In a well-run integrated design process, however, the additional time that a team spends developing a schematic design is offset by a reduction in the number of meetings needed later to work out conflicts among systems that were not integrated from the start. In fact, an internal study at the large A/E firm HOK found that sustainable design projects were, on average, 25 percent more profitable for the firm than its conventional projects. Principal Sandra Mendler credits the integrated process that the firm uses for its sustainable projects. “That is my top hunch for why the projects are more profitable, as integrated design streamlines both documentation and construction administration,” she says.

To be fair, any increase in design costs early in a project’s life can be problematic, even if they can be recouped later. This is especially the case for speculative developer-led projects, for which financing is rarely solid until after a schematic design is completed. In addition, design fees that are calculated as a percentage of the cost of certain systems are an obstacle because they reduce the incentive for designers to support integrated solutions that might reduce the size and cost of their own systems. “The most difficult thing is not cost, but schedule—scheduling that many people on the same day at the same time,” says 7group’s Boecker.

Setting goals

The checklist of LEED credits and points can be helpful in identifying measures to pursue, many of which benefit from an integrated approach. But focusing on individual credits too early in the design process can also get in the way of design integration. “If you bring the checklist out too early, you get into this point-chasing mentality,” says Vancouver-based developer Joe Van Belleghem. “Then it gets expensive because people miss how the points work together.” During initial meetings, it is more useful for a team to focus on sustainable design goals and opportunities on a broader level.

Some consultants who champion the integrated design process argue that the goal-setting process is key to a project’s long-term success and deserves far more time and attention than it usually gets. In the experience of Bill Reed, a principal of the Arlington, Mass.–based Integrative Design Collaborative, an effective goal-setting exercise can expand the vision of both the client and the design team, helping them to recognize a project’s full potential rather than making them feel constrained by the immediate pressures and apparent limitations. The point at which construction is completed and a building is occupied represents the end of one phase but merely the beginning of a much larger process. Ultimately, Reed suggests, the design process should result not only in a great building, but in a community that understands and values its ecological context and can nurture sustainable connections over time.

Teresa Coady, of Bunting Coady Architects in Vancouver, helped create the Canadian government’s Commercial Buildings Incentive Program, set up specifically to promote integrated design. Over time, she has come to rely on a eight-step structure (shown earlier in this article). “If we don’t lay out the whole plan at the beginning, people are only half-listening and waiting to get to their disciplines,” says Coady. Unlike many other integrated design aficionados, she doesn’t focus on goal-setting as a separate task, preferring instead to let the goals emerge spontaneously. “It’s not as much about goal-setting as it is about realizing the potential of the project,” she says.

Getting all members of a design team on board with the process, especially if they have never done it before, can be a challenge. “Often when we get people together, there is a lot of cynicism,” notes Coady, “but by the third meeting, you see people change.” Among the strategies that leaders have used to get buy-in from consultants and client groups are team-building exercises, tours of existing green buildings, and collective visioning sessions. Bill Reed’s preferred approach is to explore the underlying aspirations, both of the client and the designers, behind the urge to build. By doing so, the team may come to see that the real goal is not the building per se, but the services and benefits it can offer, to both the client and to the community at large. Designing from that broader perspective can expand the realm of possibilities dramatically.

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This article appeared in the November 2006 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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