Design-Builders to the Rescue

Andrea Murray, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Our Ailing Planet

By now, we all realize our planet is ailing and our climate is extremely unstable. The evidence for global warming and related climate change is considerable. We also recognize that this new type of climate change has been human-induced and threatens our quality of life and that of all living things. This is a problem for more than environmental scientists – everyone must participate in restoring harmony and balance to the fragile ecosystems that make our planet habitable. Buildings Are Much to Blame Greenhouse gas emissions as the result of energy consumption (primarily fossil fuels), are the largest culprits of global warming. And buildings are the greatest source of energy consumption and greenhouse emissions in the world. Approximately 76 percent of all electricity generated by power plants goes toward operating buildings. Buildings also account for an estimated 48 percent of all greenhouse emissions, compared to 27 percent for transportation and 25 percent for industry. (Statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration). The materials we use to create our buildings and the energy we consume to operate them take a tremendous toll on the environment. We in the design-build world cannot afford to ignore these truths. In fact, we are uniquely positioned to address them in an effective and profitable way.

Using Design-Build Strategies to Affect Change

Design-builders are in a terrific position to deliver sustainable building solutions for a greater value than separate, highly fragmented architecture or construction firms. This is the case because we often have multiple disciplines working together on a project from the onset. We are therefore in a position to consider alternative design and building strategies and look for creative ways to include them in our projects. We are also in a position to achieve short and long-term cost savings, resource efficiency, and all-around excellent building quality. We can weigh the costs and benefits of such strategies and seek out a range of solutions that allow each component of the building to have more than one purpose and work synergistically to maximize the benefits realized. This is indeed what today’s environmental and building design professionals promote as ‘Integrated Design’. Many of us in the design-build industry have been practicing this way for years.

We’re Doing It in Vermont

This article will focus specifically on how one Vermont-based, design-builder has integrated its disciplines to deliver smart, healthy, and affordable building solutions to its clients. We consider it simply ‘good design’ and predict that it will rapidly become the only way to design. Bread Loaf Corporation in Middlebury, Vermont has been offering integrated building design and project management services for years. We call this service Integrated Project Management, or IPMtm. Our goal for IPM projects is, and has always been, to achieve high building performance where design decisions reap multiple benefits—all for a lower cost than the total of all the building components combined. Under one roof we house planners, architects, engineers, construction managers, cost estimators, sustainable design experts, and historians, all of whom bring their dedicated expertise to the table. We also invite clients, users, specialized consultants and engineers, community members and other project-relevant people to join us in establishing the project goals. We have realized that with an extensive, integrated project team and reasonable upfront project planning, we can deliver sustainable building solutions to our clients. We can achieve these solutions without the premium many firms seem to include for such strategies—as the financial impact of design changes clearly go up as a project progresses. We concentrate our energies on planning, designing, and building efficient, healthy, and productive spaces. In return, we offer our clients an opportunity to reduce maintenance, operating, and lifecycle costs while maintaining an exceptional level of environmental quality, both indoors and outdoors.

Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op checkout area – Middlebury, Vermont
Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op checkout area – Middlebury, Vermont

Here’s How We Do It

Once we have all the players around the table, we work together to identify the issues and concerns, goals, and objectives for the project. We continue to work together as a team throughout design and construction to realize them. It is important to note that a client may not come to us specifically for a ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ building. But, it is the team’s responsibility to both the client and the environment to identify achievable strategies: both passive and active with associated upfront and lifecycle costs. Honestly, it is rare that you find a client who doesn’t want to save money, especially with the added benefit of lessening their project’s impact on the natural environment. (If you do, I suggest you run the other way…fast!)


Decision-making is achieved as a team throughout the design and construction process. This does not necessarily increase fees. In fact, it may reduce them by eliminating unnecessary change orders and re-design in the future. While not entirely linear, the process requires the integrated team to:

  • Establish Client Needs – Building Program
  • Define the Project Goals: Budget, Schedule, Scope (Environmental and Social Goals, too)
  • Understand the Site – Identify Unique Macro and Micro-Climate Conditions
  • Develop Design Concepts and Design Opportunities
  • Evaluate and Optimize Building System Solutions
  • Understand Building Material Climate in terms of Market Volatility, Value, and Availability
  • Consider Construction Limitations and Opportunities
  • Facilitate Building Commissioning to Ensure the Building Functions as Designed, or Better
  • Provide or Plan for On-Going Maintenance and Monitoring

Design Strategies

Improving sustainability and energy efficiency in buildings can be achieved at many levels. This section focuses on strategies at three levels, or degrees, of building sustainability.

Fundamental Low-Cost or No-Cost Strategies

Some green building strategies easily can be, and should be, implemented within any budget, timeframe, or scope. These basic strategies, if considered properly, should not add significant, if any, cost to the project; and they will certainly make a difference.

Landmark College 'Bridge' residences at dusk – Putney, Vermont
Landmark College ‘Bridge’ residences at dusk – Putney, Vermont

Siting a Building – Carefully Consider Building Site, Location on that Site, and Solar Orientation

If possible, the integrated team should be involved in the site selection for any building project. It is always worthwhile to consider adapting or reusing an existing building before investigating natural or un-built sites for a project. If you are looking at a natural site, however, be careful to avoid development on prime farmland, parkland, habitat for endangered species, or within 100 feet of a wetland. Infill properties, vacant lots, and brownfields should always be considered and are often well-situated and rewarding properties to develop. Locate your building on the site in such a way to maximize exposure and natural light while minimizing impact on that site. Align the building along an east-west axis so most windows face either north or south. In northern climates, as we have in Vermont, we design smaller, better insulated windows for the north façade, while the south façade glazing may be expansive to maximize solar heat gain. The reverse is true for hot, southern climates. Use building overhangs and/or sunscreens to help regulate natural light and heat gain.

Minimize Square Footage

More space isn’t always better. Focus on quality of space, not quantity. Share functions wherever possible. Design an open layout where users feel a more expansive space, but their dedicated work area can be smaller. (Open planning also allows for improved daylighting and natural ventilation while minimizing material use.)

Save Mature Trees and Plantings

Protect and design around mature trees and plantings wherever possible. Let such trees help shade areas of your building and protect it from sound, smell, and visual distractions. Aesthetically this approach will enhance your project, save money, and conserve energy required to transport and replant trees and shrubs.

Minimize Paving

A little bit of site planning goes a long way. Paved areas are often expensive to install and maintain. They create heat islands and also require significant infrastructure to deal with stormwater run-off. Where paving cannot be avoided, consider a pervious pavement solution and/or bio-retention for storm water treatment.

Use Water and Energy-Efficient Fixtures

Rarely are efficient plumbing fixtures more expensive, and efficient lighting and appliances are also competitively priced. On large commercial projects, consider using waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, and sensors for lavatory faucets.

Landmark College 'Bridge' residences breezeway – Putney, Vermont
Landmark College ‘Bridge’ residences breezeway – Putney, Vermont

Maximize Daylighting Opportunities

Coordinate project program and well-daylit spaces. Locate habitable spaces at building perimeters and storage or mechanical spaces at the core or in basements. Where this is not possible, use skylights, light tubes, and light shelves to bring light deeper into the building.

Consider Materials

When considering building materials, specify standard or stock sizes to minimize waste. Whenever possible, use local products to help stimulate the local economy and reduce transportation. Reuse whatever you can, or specify materials with a high post-consumer or post-industrial recycled content. And don’t forget to think about the embodied energy of a product—it may be friendly in some respects but take a whole lot of energy to manufacture and transport to your jobsite. And finally, use low or no-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) content products to minimize indoor air contaminants.

Eliminate Unnecessary Finishes

Consider a stained concrete floor before you cover a slab with carpet or linoleum. Think about whether ceilings are really required in a space—would it be acceptable to expose structure, ductwork?

Natural versus Mechanical Ventilation

Design buildings to promote good cross-ventilation and ‘stack effect’ air circulation. This means using operable windows and making sure your clients have the ability to coordinate opening such windows at appropriate times.

Quick Payback Strategies

Many green building strategies require an upfront cost. Here are some strategies that seem to be very worthwhile and are easily measured in terms of their return on investment:

Building Envelope

The most important energy-saving measure for a building is to design a tight, well-insulated building envelope, especially in climates that experience extreme cold or heat. The use of SIPs (structural insulated panels) to enclose building walls and roof and triple-glazed, insulated windows might be an example. All gaps and penetrations should be air sealed and air infiltration, if any, should be negligible. This allows for a reduction in the size and capacity of the mechanical equipment necessary to maintain a comfortable interior climate. It will also minimize the amount of fuel needed to operate such systems.

Efficient Mechanical Systems

Do your modeling. Consider a variety of systems and approaches. What worked well on a previous project may not be appropriate for your next endeavor. Carefully consider upfront, lifecycle, operating, and maintenance costs for each system. Also, don’t over-design building mechanical systems, or they will not function efficiently. Use heat or energy recovery units wherever possible to minimize energy required to heat or cool air being brought into the building from outside. Mechanical engineering is a tricky specialty when in comes to integrated design, especially in the design-build arena. Going forward, we should encourage engineers to un-couple their design fees from equipment and installation costs as our ultimate goal may be a ‘non-equipment’ (or minimal equipment) system. Be prepared and be willing to pay upfront for such design services.

Use of Effective Building Controls and Zoning

When designed appropriately, mechanical systems, lighting controls, and well-thought-out zoning can save a bundle. Think carefully about how and when a building is occupied. Use lighting controls and occupancy sensors to turn off lights when daylight levels are sufficient or spaces are unoccupied. Use direct digital controls to regulate HVAC systems according to occupancy and program. Introduce multiple zones for heating, ventilating, and cooling based on type of space and solar orientation. Also, involve the facility manager in the design of systems and review of controls as even the most automated system will require some supervision.

Active & Experimental Strategies

Once you’ve done everything else, the following, more active approaches to sustainable, energy-efficient buildings should be considered:

  • Photovoltaics: building-mounted, stand-alone, and building integrated
  • Wind Power
  • Water collection, retention, and reuse
  • Solar hot water heating systems
  • Geothermal heating systems

Basically, these active strategies require more significant upfront investment and are often limited in their efficacy, depending on the project location and site. That said, the technologies, their popularity, and the incentives being offered to promote them are increasing significantly every day. It isn’t unrealistic for us to think of buildings as machines that power themselves. These rapidly-advancing technologies are going to make that happen more and more. Taking it one step further, radical and innovative sustainable design encourages the collective team to be creative and resourceful, and to pioneer new ways of thinking about buildings. We need to design and build buildings that anticipate a sustainable future. Most of these strategies integrate and take cues from local ecosystems to create a synergistic relationship between both human and natural environments. We call this ‘biomimicry’—the simulation of natural materials and processes in buildings.

Construction Strategies

It is important not to forget environmental conditions on-site during construction as well as once the building is fully occupied. Some strategies include:

Middlebury Police Station view of fron corner sunshade – Middlebury, Vermont
Middlebury Police Station view of fron corner sunshade – Middlebury, Vermont

Construction Waste Management Plan

As part of a project design and construction management, the integrated team should work together—prior to the start of construction—to establish a Construction Waste Management Plan. When this happens, the team is in a great position to emphasize recycling, reuse, and the reduction of construction waste. Such efforts should be maintained throughout the construction process. As a result, the relatively small amount of waste generated should be separated and disposed of appropriately.

Have a Construction Indoor Air Quality Plan

Maintaining good indoor air quality both during construction and when the buildings are occupied is always a challenge. The purpose of such a plan is to minimize air pollutants and their impact during construction. Try to eliminate or at the very least limit the off-gassing of materials and processes into the spaces. Seal off any air vents so particles and dust do not get into the mechanical systems. Maintain good natural ventilation to protect workers on site.

Protect Building Materials

Stockpiling or staging building materials on site may be convenient, but we must be very careful to keep them dry and mold-free. Don’t ever install wet or moldy materials as the resulting effect could be disastrous, environmentally and legally.

Use Local Subcontractors/Suppliers Whenever Possible

As mentioned earlier, continue to stimulate the local economy. By reducing trucking and shipping distances for materials, we lessen emissions and often see a price decrease.

Monitor Site Energy and Water Use

Set limits and question overages. Use lighting during construction only in active areas.

Beyond Construction

Building commissioning and future consultation are ways to ensure clients that their buildings are functioning as expected. Schedule commissioning at regular intervals and monitor efficiency carefully. A summary of implemented design strategies and their effectiveness puts upfront costs and returns on investment in perspective. These are invaluable services to your clients and provide useful information for the design and construction of future projects.

Why LEED™ is Important

This article wouldn’t be complete without addressing LEED and its importance to our industry and our clients. LEED™ (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Building Rating System. It is a voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings. Members of the U.S. Green Building Council representing all segments of the building industry developed LEED™ and continue to contribute to its evolution. “LEED™ provides a complete framework for assessing building performance and meeting sustainability goals. Based on well-founded scientific standards, LEED™ emphasizes state of the art strategies for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. LEED™ recognizes achievements and promotes expertise in green building through a comprehensive system offering project certification, professional accreditation, training and practical resources.” - USGBC Note that LEED™ certification can be achieved for the following project types: new commercial construction and major renovation, commercial interiors, existing building operation, core and shell projects, homes, and neighborhood developments. There are many aspects of green buildings that depend on perceptions in the marketplace. These can only be realized if we can demonstrate that buildings have been designed and constructed to meet accepted green building standards. Certification under the LEED™ rating system is the only way to ensure this. Some benefits of LEED™ are:

  • Third party validation of sustainable design features
  • Third party rating of the degree of sustainability
  • Benefit of the LEED™ ‘brand’
  • High visibility of a ‘leadership building’ – a model of sustainability
  • Enforcement and assurance of the implementation of designed ‘green’ systems
  • Documentation and information about the efficiency, operating costs and cost savings for various building systems
  • Financial incentives from Public Agencies
  • Various grant and funding opportunities
  • Applied LEED™ Certification standards are excellent, working educational tools/models

Looking to the Future

By designing and constructing sustainable buildings, we are redefining the quality of buildings in general and the value of our profession. An integrated approach to these projects makes it easier to lessen our impact and increase our contribution to the overall global system. Remember, we are not mere inhabitants of this planet, we are its shapers—especially those of us in the building design and construction world—we define its future. We can no longer afford to test the earth’s limits and ignore the consequences.

Landmark College Middle Dining Hall – Putney, Vermont Landmark College Middle Dining Hall – Putney, Vermont Landmark College Middle Dining Hall – Putney, Vermont
Landmark College Middle Dining Hall – Putney, Vermont Landmark College Middle Dining Hall – Putney, Vermont Landmark College Middle Dining Hall – Putney, Vermont
Green/Sustainable Article