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Why should I care about Performance-Based Design?

Design and performance collage. Image courtesy of author -  Sumele Aruofor

Four years ago I transitioned from designing million-pound residential architecture projects in London to the world of sustainable design. I can assure you I didn’t quite grasp what I was signing up for -- I should have known right from my first interview at Sefaira.

When asked by an in-house engineer, “How does your thesis project perform?”, I was taken aback. I had just excitedly explained how my building program functioned like a well-oiled machine. Did he want me to go into more detail? Because I could! It turns out what he actually meant was, “How  - in energy, daylight and cost terms - did my building perform?” Now that, I truly couldn’t explain.

Why didn’t I care?

Sectional elevation and SketchUp rendering of author’s thesis project.  Image courtesy of author -  Sumele Aruofor

You see, it wasn’t in my remit as a sixth-year postgraduate architecture student to investigate that deeply. In addition to resolving the building function and interpreting my spaces poetically, I had specified some photovoltaics and rainwater collection systems. I described my low-embodied carbon fly-ash reinforced concrete within a construction section. I had been taught to care about sustainability and the impact of my design choices, but I wasn’t compelled to weigh building performance as a distinct criteria of good design.Actual analysed data was not part of the project brief, and quite honestly, I didn't have the wildest clue as to how to gather the information my interviewer was asking for.

Little did I know that joining the Sefaira team was going to transform and enrich my approach to architecture. My four-year ongoing journey with using Sefaira in SketchUp has made me a more well-rounded designer, and I want to share some reasons why you should also tangibly care about performance.

Why should we care?

1. It is your responsibility as a designer. 

Global climate change is real -- A dramatic increase in CO2 emissions since the 1950s has escalated the Greenhouse Effect1; average surface temperatures and precipitation are rising; and dramatically changing climatic patterns are impacting lives across the globe.2

Graph showing Global average surface temperature change and Global mean sea level rise. Source: Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC)

 As a designer, you have a duty to understand your building’s performance and its impact on its occupants and the world as a whole.

The International Energy Agency in 2013 reported that the built environment consumes about 40% of all global energy and is responsible for nearly 24% of CO2 emissions.3 As a designer, you have a duty to understand your building’s performance and its impact on its occupants and the world as a whole. With every design proposal and every material choice, we have to ask ourselves the question “What does this take out of the world and what does it put back?”If we, as architects and engineers, don’t ask the question, who will?

Chart showing the percentage contribution of the building sector to energy consumption (left) and CO2 (right) emissions. Source: Architecture 2030

2. The tools to influence building performance now exist - and they’re fast, robust, and easy to learn. 

Once upon a time, I could say that I didn’t have the right tools or knowledge to track performance during the design process. This is no longer the case. A plethora of tools covering computational fluid dynamics, energy, and daylight analysis (to mention a few), are now available to practitioners. It is not enough to rely on intuition over evidence-based results. Rules of thumb don’t quite cut it as the final stop for predicting as-built performance.

Images showing Computational Fluid Dynamics outputs from SimScale and Energy and Daylight Analysis Outputs from Sefaira Architecture. Sources: SimScale and Sefaira

3. We can collectively raise our abilities and achieve better design outcomes. 

Throughout our professional (and personal) lives, we constantly hone our skills and abilities because continuing education and development is how we stay relevant and remain true professionals.  In my humble opinion, using our skills to positively impact the buildings and spaces we live in and the earth we occupy is a privilege we should exercise.

Wouldn’t it be great if we prioritized great designs that translate from paper to reality as buildings that are beautiful, fit-for-use, high performing, resource efficient, and resilient? It’s an ambitious mandate but one that we as problem solvers are well equipped to embrace and execute over time.

Image courtesy of 10Design

To explore and develop this conversation further, I’ll be publicly practicing Performance-Based Design throughout this year. I’ll be publishing projects on the Sefaira and SketchUp blogs so that my peers and the wider AEC industry can learn and teach this design approach with me. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

About the Author

Sumele contributes architecture and performance-focused content to the SketchUp blogs. When she's not writing or practicing architecture, she can be found singing, cooking up a storm, or with her head stuck in a book.

Profile Photo of Sumele Adelana