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Credit: Larry Goode

by Ben Ikenson

When future historians write about the current transformation of the building sector—when the phrase “green building” has long become a quaint redundancy—they will likely recognize next year’s debut of the International Green Construction Code (IGCC) as a historic green-building landmark moment. Some U.S. states already require compliance with stringent energy codes and sustainable-building practices. To that end, technologies are on their way to becoming standardized. As a result, industry analysts say that governments will be better poised to raise the bar on building performance.

Already, though, many top architecture firms have begun tracking performance data against predictions. And some major cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., are expected to require commercial buildings to report their energy usage as a way of providing prospective tenants with data.

But with the wide-scale codification of practices in support of performance- and outcome-based design come a number of concerns for architects that the AIA is trying to address.

“We are working with industry partners to address the topic of sustainability and risk, particularly in educating our members and the industry on the content and impact of mandatory minimum green codes and the evolving regulatory environment,” says Jessyca Henderson, AIA, director of sustainability advocacy at the AIA. “The more our members understand how to apply the code, both from a sustainable-design and a business perspective, the better equipped they will be to serve as resources in their communities, and continue to provide value to their clients.”

With the IGCC, architects would be required to seek additional consultation in relatively new areas.

“Because of the element of vicarious liability for the work of an architect’s consultants, owners always look to architects if issues arise,” explains Kenneth Cobleigh, managing director and counsel for AIA Contract Documents. “Since an architect’s consultants will presumably be hired to provide expertise in cutting-edge sustainability areas, including new performance-based energy [designs] and resource-conservation designs, the risk associated with their work might also be viewed as perhaps somewhat heightened, compared to more established elements of practice.”

There are ways to mitigate risk, though. Careful vetting of consultants, solid contractual agreements, and adequate consultant insurance are all wise practices, Cobleigh says.

In the meantime, the information and technology available to designers and architects is rapidly improving. “With simulation-modeling software tools, the time it takes to generate calculations is getting faster by the year and is moving towards real time,” says Edward Mazria, AIA, founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, a nonprofit established in 2002 that advocates for greenhouse-gas emission reductions in the building industry.

Still, anxieties may linger over the question of whether building science is tested enough to prescribe specific outcomes. For these fears, the New Buildings Institute’s (NBI) database of commercial buildings is an encouraging beacon (buildings.newbuildings.org). All of the data set’s 128 case studies perform at least 30 percent better than comparable buildings, and 70 use about half of the energy that their counterparts require. The database details the efficacy of measures and strategies such as daylighting, automated lighting controls, and HVAC, and the use of high-R-value glazing on the building shells.

“There are design teams that understand how to produce a high-performance building time after time,” says Sean Denniston, a project analyst for NBI.

No wonder the NBI, among others, supports inclusion in the IGCC of a proposed outcome-based compliance path in addition to existing prescriptive and modeled performance-based approaches. For several months, starting last spring, NBI joined the AIA, the U.S. Department of Energy, Building Owners and Managers Association International, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in developing language for the proposed addition that voting members of IGCC will consider this month. If passed, the option would allow compliance with the green code by providing performance data on a building’s post-occupancy energy use, which could complement, and ultimately enhance, the prospective energy-benchmarking efforts of cities.

“Still, the idea of outcome-based codes is relatively new and there are challenges,” Denniston says. “Successfully meeting energy-use targets requires a learning curve, and not all designers have this capability—which is why we’re proposing outcome-based compliance as an option [in IGCC], not a mandate.”

Such an option would enable jurisdictions to allow confident professionals to work creatively—without prescriptive constraints—toward specific energy-performance objectives.

“After all, architecture is built on innovation, and accountability is nothing new,” Denniston says. “Roman architects stood under the arches of structures they designed just before a final stone was set and the wooden framing removed. If their work stood, so did they.”

To learn more, visit aia.org/sustainableprojectsguide.