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5 Reasons Why Building Design Is More Important Than Ever

People sometimes ask me whether building design still is important for building performance – and in particular for energy efficiency and sustainability. Our insight into the benefits of high-performance design shows that this is overwhelmingly the case. Even so, I still come across people who question the importance of design in creating high performing buildings. In justifying the question, people often refer to two slightly related drivers:

  1. It is difficult or impossible to control for many of the variables that affect building performance, and one could, therefore, argue that an “optimal design” doesn’t exist. Consider e.g. the variations in building usage, occupant behaviour and also external changes in weather patterns. Given the many parameters that influence a building’s operations, how can we possibly create designs that anticipate all likely scenarios to deliver optimum performance?
  2. In parallel, we have had tremendous advances in high performing materials and systems over the past decade. Rather than trying to design the perfect building, how about we simply equip our buildings with the most advanced technologies, so that buildings respond dynamically and adapt to the requirements of users (and the external environment) over time?

While we can get the impression that the importance of architects lessens as building systems and technologies grow more powerful, my view is that role of the architect as lead designer of a building project has never been more important. Let me share some of the reasons.

1. We have more levers than ever before.

We have an incredible array of new technologies to help us deliver high performance. It is precisely because of this that design has become not just more complex, but also more important. Better building technologies will simply fail if they are not well designed & integrated from the get go, so great design which puts all the elements together in the right way is the only way to ensure that we get to good results.

2. We have an urgent need to deliver performance, now

Buildings are responsible for as much as 40% of global carbon emissions. Retrofitting existing buildings offers a great opportunity, but we can only reduce our global emissions if we also tackle the issue of performance in new buildings. The UN expects global urbanisation to increase by nearly 2.5bn people between now and 2050, increasing the concentration of people in our cities by almost 2/3. All of these people need new homes and new buildings in which to study and work etc. With such a phenomenal amount of building activity ahead of us, we need to get to very high-performance standards, very quickly. Incrementalism is not good enough – we need a step-change in design. Only when everything fits together perfectly can we deliver buildings and building performance that is not just good, but truly great and sensitive to our environment.

3. Fundamental building design still plays a big role in overall building performance

On a typical building project, building shape/form alone can influence energy use by 10 to 15%. Combine that with the influence of glazing, which can often influence building performance in the 15-25% range. When you also take daylight performance into account, we can create buildings that deliver a much better occupant experience, without any additional capital cost. There is a compelling value proposition if ever I saw one.

4. We do not have unlimited capital at our disposal

In a futuristic nirvana, we can easily put the very best technology to work in every part of a building. But in the real world, we constantly have to make choices around tradeoffs, and in particular, we have to be cognisant that the vast majority of the worlds’ buildings will not instantaneously have budgets for installing the highest performing technology. We need to be very smart at deploying capital on building projects, by crafting designs that carefully balance all the conflicting priorities using the least possible capital.

5. We have the tools we need to do things right

Importantly, we today have the software we need to help our designers make good decisions from the earliest stages. By combing advances in cloud computing, building physics, and user interaction design, we are now able to make software that can analyse design performance in real-time, so that it can be embedded directly into the design process itself.

Based on these 5 reasons, I see high-performance building design being more important than it has ever been.

So, what are some examples of how to leverage the latest modeling tools to meet today’s needs for high performance, adaptable, future-friendly buildings? And how do we make the building “smart” before any high-tech systems are even installed?

About the Author

Mads was the CEO and founder of Sefaira, a start-up that is now part of the Trimble SketchUp family. He now uses his passion for technology, entrepreneurship and business development to invest in and mentor other tech startups.

Profile Photo of Mads Jensen