How Moseley Architects Uses Analysis to Leverage Design Creativity

 

Moseley Architects, a full-service architectural and engineering firm with offices throughout the mid-Atlantic US, has been working since 2000 to continually improve the sustainability of its design portfolio. Over the past four years, the firm has placed a particular emphasis on integrating performance analysis into its early design process. John Nichols, Moseley’s Director of Energy Analytics and Informed Design, has led this effort since its inception and recently sat down with us to share his insights. From massings to metrics and envelope to fenestration, here is an overview of Moseley’s modeling approach along with four important lessons the firm has learned along the way.

Moseley’s “Informed Design” Initiative

The intent of the Informed Design initiative is to combine the power of analysis with the creativity of design teams to improve building performance across Moseley’s diverse project portfolio. According to John, the name Informed Design “speaks to our goal of making decisions in response to modeling data in a way that leverages our designers’ inherent creativity, without being limited or boxed in by numbers alone.”

A secondary goal of the initiative was to improve the firm’s AIA 2030 Commitment performance. “We were struggling with the 2030 Commitment in the sense that it’s like a GPS signal without navigation,” says John. “It shows us where we are versus where we want to be, but it lacks any turn-by-turn guidance to help get us from A to B. We needed a process that could help bridge that gap.”

The result was a lightweight, collaborative workflow for schematic analysis that capitalizes on performance data from Sefaira’s analysis plugin and web application. After an initial pilot phase that involved an architect from each of Moseley’s offices and market sectors, John worked to expand the process firm-wide.

To date, Moseley Architects has implemented Sefaira analysis on over 50 projects and 20 interviews across five different market sectors. Here are four key takeaways from the firm’s experience thus far.

1. Massing-Stage Analysis is Key to Informing Design

Moseley’s experience reaffirms the importance of massing decisions, particularly on daylighting and HVAC loads. John’s experience has also been that the visibility of data at this stage focuses priorities and helps to stimulate discussion about performance between the client and design team (Image 1).

Massing-Stage Analysis is Key to Informing Design
Image 1: Massing analysis showing a breakdown of energy end uses and annual daylight metrics. Image copyright Moseley Architects, used with permission.

Even a simple massing comparison inevitably raises questions. “Why is the cooling load in the Plaza option so high? Why is the daylight performance of the Courtyard scheme worse than the L option?” These types of questions lead to conversation, follow-up analyses, and often to design changes. For example, reworking the “Plaza” massing in this example significantly improved its performance, while a daylight visualization of the “Courtyard” and “L” schemes clarified the advantages of the latter (Images 2 & 3).  

Image 2: Reworking the “Plaza”
Image 2: Reworking the “Plaza” option in response to the original analysis data greatly improved its energy and daylight performance. Image copyright Moseley Architects, used with permission.
 Image 3
Image 3: A daylight study shows the advantages of an L scheme over the option with a small courtyard. Image copyright Moseley Architects, used with permission.

“Just having this type of discussion before the floor plan and massing have been ‘nailed down’ is a big step forward,” says John — and often leads to improvements that would not have otherwise materialized.

2. EUI Isn’t Always the Best Metric

Many design teams and clients are readily familiar with Energy Use Intensity (EUI), and projects may even have specific EUI targets. But while EUI is an important point of comparison, it doesn’t tell the whole story. In particular, John’s experience is that:

  • EUI doesn’t always align with energy cost, or with carbon emissions (Image 4), which may be more important goals on many projects;
  • EUI can mask differences in total energy use and cost, which are often caused by differences in square footage between options (Images 5 & 6);
  • EUI doesn’t reveal potential thermal comfort or peak load issues, particularly in perimeter spaces. (More on this below.)
Image 4
Image 4: Project B has a slightly lower EUI than Project A, but significantly higher energy costs & carbon emissions. Such discrepancies are often due to the different costs and carbon intensities of on-site natural gas vs. electric heating in areas with
Image 5
Image 5: Different floor plan layouts can have significant differences in the percentage of floor area devoted to circulation (as shown by the values above), causing some options to have much higher square footages for the same building program. Image cop
Image 6
Image 6: A more efficient layout with less circulation and support space (i.e. higher Building Efficiency Ratio) can result in real savings in upfront capital costs and ongoing energy costs, even if the resulting EUI is slightly higher. Image copyright Mo

The key takeaway from these analyses, according to John, is that looking at cost, carbon, comfort, and peak loads can reveal problems or opportunities that may otherwise go unnoticed when EUI is used as the sole metric.

3. The Envelope Matters — Even on Large, Internally-Loaded Buildings

Conventional wisdom holds that big buildings are “internally loaded” — dominated by loads like lighting, appliances, and ventilation — and therefore the envelope is less important than on small buildings (Image 7).

Image 7
Image 7: Energy consumption tends to be dominated by external loads in small buildings, and by internal loads in large buildings. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Image copyright Moseley Architects, used with permission.

While Moseley’s modeling experience bears this out when looking at overall energy use, John has also seen that the envelope still matters when viewed on a space-by-space level.  Visual comfort, thermal comfort (particularly in spaces with lots of glazing), and peak heating and cooling loads can all be significantly impacted by the envelope (Image 8), which may not be apparent if the analysis focuses only on the building’s energy use. According to John, early decisions that reduce peak loads can result in smaller, less expensive HVAC system, which is a valuable addition to their ongoing annual energy savings.

Image 8
Image 8: Glazing orientation has a big impact on daylight quality and solar heat gain, as seen here for a pair of classrooms with a shared corridor. Even on projects where the overall building orientation is driven by site or other constraints, the orient

4. Glazing Decisions Are Too Complex To Be Made By Rules of Thumb

Glazing size, glass properties, and shading devices need to be studied together in order to make optimal glazing decisions. In one example, a study of clerestory windows in a gymnasium demonstrated that glass with higher visible light transmittance allows the glazed area to be significantly smaller, enabling the project to achieve the same daylight levels with less construction cost and better energy performance (Image 9) — a finding that would have been missed if the glazing was selected primarily based on its Solar Heat Gain Coefficient. Similarly, a comparison of different toplighting options for a fire station revealed that several small unit skylights were the most effective solution for both energy and daylight — which ran contrary to the team’s initial expectation (Image 10).

Image 9
Image 9: Glass with higher Visible Light Transmittance (VLT) can sometimes achieve the same daylighting results with a smaller glazed area, as proved to be the case for the gymnasium clerestory windows shown here. Image copyright Moseley Architects, used
Image 10
Image 10: Several small unit skylights (right) may result in better daylighting and energy performance than a single centralized clerestory (left). Image copyright Moseley Architects, used with permission.

Conclusion

In addition to these and many other lessons-learned, Moseley Architects has seen early-phase analysis lead to a number of improvements to the firm’s design process and project outcomes. Since launching the Informed Design workflow, Moseley Architects’ use of energy modeling as a design tool has increased from less than 40% of projects to now more than 60%. While less quantifiable, John also sees positive impacts on team collaboration, client relationships, and internal knowledge around performance. Moseley Architects’ experience shows that fast, lightweight analysis can be deployed effectively across a firm, can have a meaningful impact on performance outcomes, and can add real value to projects.

About Moseley Architects

Moseley Architects provides comprehensive architecture, engineering, interior design, high-performance design, and construction administration services to clients worldwide. In a multi-disciplinary studio setting, they strive to enrich communities by collaborating with local governments, public schools, colleges and universities, correctional institutions, and private sector clients. Founded in 1969 in Richmond, Virginia, Moseley Architects’ footprint includes offices in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina. More information can be found at www.moseleyarchitects.com.

About the Author

Carl Sterner

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.

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