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Four Schematic Design Studies Every Architect Should Do

Four Schematic Design Studies Every Architect Should Do

The right analysis at the right time can provide important insights — and can help deliver a better-performing building at lower costs to both the design team and client. Here are four studies architects can incorporate into early design to maximize their impact.

1. “White Box” Model 


Even before putting pen to paper (or mouse to screen), architects already know a lot about a project: its site, program, areas, and likely number of stories — information that can already provide valuable insights into how the building is likely to perform.

A simple “white box” model — literally a box with the correct square footage, space uses, and location — can help you understand the likely load profile of your building. Is it dominated by internal loads such as lighting and equipment, or by external loads such as solar gain or conduction losses? Is heating or cooling more important? This information begins to suggest which design strategies are likely to be the most impactful and can help to shape early design concepts.

The great thing about building a white box model is that it begins to generate questions that are perfect for follow-up analysis, such as: “What height should the windows be?” “How much of an impact does window-to-wall ratio have?” “What’s the impact of different floorplate shapes?”

Estimated time: 1hr
Deliverable: Preliminary Energy Analysis & Design Recommendations
Benefit: Informs early design thinking

White Box Model
A simple model can provide pre-design insights into probable energy use and sustainable design strategies.

2. Design Option Comparison 

Whether through massing options, design concepts, or facade variations, schematic design is about ideating, comparing, and whittling down to the best approaches. Performance comparisons — of energy, daylight, comfort, or cost — can help the team understand the advantages and liabilities of each concept, helping them to steer the design in the right direction.

The reality, of course, is that performance is only one of many factors that drive design decisions — which is why the essential follow-up to “Which option is better?” is “Why?” Does Option B perform worse because it has more west-facing glass that’s driving up cooling loads? If so, could westerly shading resolve that issue? Understanding these trade-offs is a key part of informed decision-making — and helps to avoid unfortunate surprises down the road.

Estimated time: 2-3 hrs
Deliverable: Comparison report, annotated with observations & opportunities
Benefits: Informed decision-making; clearer communication with clients

Design Option Comparison
A good comparison is not only about which option is better but also about identifying problem areas & opportunities for improvement.

3. Passive Design Study 

Is there an opportunity for a naturally ventilated building? If so, do you have sufficient operable glazing? Can the building maintain comfort with passive measures alone for all or part of the year? When asked (and answered) in early design, these types of questions can improve a building’s passive design potential.

Simple models, combined with powerful parametric analysis, are a great way to explore this question. For example, you can use parametric analysis to study various window-to-wall ratios and their impact on natural ventilation potential (see image below) or to test the impact of shading on thermal comfort. Better yet, share the analysis with the project’s mechanical engineers as a way to jump-start early collaboration.

Estimated time: 2-3 hrs
Deliverable: Passive design recommendations
Benefits: Early understanding of passive design opportunities; early alignment across the design team

Passive Design
Response curves (left) provide parametric analysis of various strategies; Free Area calculations (right) provide an early indication of whether there is sufficient operable glazing for natural ventilation.

4. Peak Load Reduction 

Reducing peak heating and/or cooling loads can reduce the size (and cost) of a project’s mechanical systems, expand the system options available on a project, or both. For example, reductions in peak cooling loads in an office could make it possible to use a more efficient chilled beam system.

In many types of buildings, envelope improvements like shading, insulation, or high-performance glazing have a small impact on overall energy use but can have a big impact on peak loads.

Feeling ambitious? Include a study of HVAC options to see how different systems interact with load reduction strategies. This type of combined analysis can lead to an optimal HVAC + envelope combination and truly sizable improvements in performance.

Estimated time: 3-4 hours
Deliverable: Peak load recommendations
Benefits: Reduce HVAC size or expand HVAC options

Peak Load Reduction
Peak load analysis can help identify the location and causes of the worst peak loads.

Bonus Study: Energy Reduction Measures

Once the big moves are nailed down, performance-related questions get more granular. What’s the most effective combination of efficiency improvements to reduce energy use or lower energy bills? More insulation? Better windows? More efficient heat recovery? Some combination of these?

By analyzing various measures alone and in combination, design teams can develop a credible, cost-effective energy reduction strategy and communicate it clearly to clients.

Estimated time: 3-4 hours
Deliverable: Possible packages of efficiency measures
Benefits: Clear articulation of options & benefits to the client

Energy Reduction Measures
A series of Energy Reduction Measures, shows a final energy reduction of 52% from the baseline design.

When analysis exercises are targeted and well-defined, they can provide great value with relatively little time investment. The analyses above can help architects and their collaborators maximize their impact on performance — a win-win-win for architects, their clients, and the environment.

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About the Author

Carl is an architect, sustainability evangelist, and an avid storyteller. He applied these skills as Product Manager, Marketer and Technology Evangelist to help build Sefaira until its acquisition by Trimble. He now serves as the Director of Design and Sustainability at a design firm.

Profile Photo of Carl Sterner