written by E. Mitchell Swann, PE, MDCSystems®

mdcsystems.com construction project analysis, claims and forensic engineer company-Mr. E. Mitchell Swann, P.E., FCIBSE, LEED AP PE, is an MDCSystems® Consulting Engineer
Mitch Swann, PE

There are (at least) two patterns or trends rippling through the design and construction industry and they will leave indelible footprints or a busy superhighway to the place that projects will want to be.  One of these trends involves the ‘product’ – the ‘what’ that we build. The other involves the ‘process’ – the ‘how’ that we build.  Neither is truly ‘new’ but then, we’ve seen skinny ties and lapels and short hair before too.  They are like old wine in new bottles sparkling the taste buds because the menu has changed.

Each is self-sufficient and can stand on their own merit, but there seems to be a convergence happening that is pulling (driving?) the two together and newly illuminating each driven by a confluence of events.

That ‘what’ is the answer to what shall we build? We shall build ‘green.’  Green has become an organizing force around which almost all vertical construction projects in the developed, developing or emerging world are focused.  And some horizontal projects too!  You would be hard pressed to find any significant project being done today that does not tout some aspect of its sustainability or ‘green-ness.’  Some see this as a bad thing, a fad, hype.  I disagree.  Irrespective of your opinions about the quantitative rigor or analytical accuracy of the numerous and varied ‘green building’ rating, measuring or verifying tools or systems, “green” has returned a consideration and discussion about performance and quality to projects in the built environment.  Project teams have now regularly included discussions about energy and water resource efficiency; Indoor Air Quality; local sourcing and construction waste management and recycling.  Green buildings aim to be better buildings. These are good things. The objective of having a better building requires that participants to the process – the designer, the contractor and the owner – work together so that everyone understands what better means and how it will be obtained, maintained and measured.  There has to be agreement on the nuances of the objective so everyone will know what they need to do to get there and what it looks like when they arrive.

The how is focused on the way in which we actually do projects.  A rapidly expanding delivery methodology is that of design-build.  Design-build has been around a long, long time but in recent years, it has come to be more popular on smaller, commercial projects, complex facility projects and even public sector projects.  Part of the driver is the expectation of faster project delivery; part is the expectation of improved coordination and cooperation between design and construction; and part – but little discussed – of the driver is that the anticipated coordination advantages of design-build lessen the pressures on an owner’s often thinner internal team to manage as many outside entities.  That is a key element.  Design-build, with its single point of responsibility construct, moves much of the coordination effort between design and construction out of the owner’s and into the design build team’s hands.  This externalized coordination also reduces the owner’s need to have prepared as detailed a set of “instruments of service” (drawings and specifications) which must be “suitable for the intended purpose” (building a building). This moves liability for the ‘design’ outside of the owner’s tent.  That is a risk transfer with seemingly little “premium” in its cost.

So, green buildings bring with them the inherent expectation, or need, for greater communication and understanding amongst all of the key project players to adequately meet the objective.  Design-build brings with it the inherent separation or diminution of owner engagement or interface with design and construction in order to satisfy its ‘process’ objectives.  So while seeming to be somewhat at odds, the marketplace is driving these two trends into convergence.

A key to a successful design-build project is a good RFP.  How well the owner sets out the initial scope is always crucial, however, in design-build projects, it can take on an even more pivotal role.  In as much as in a design-build project, there are fewer drawings or specifications to define the scope, the general framework and terms of the RFP must provide a clear definition of the scope of services and the project intent.  And it has to do it succinctly.  But if green buildings require a more collaborative approach to defining performance, there would seem to be the potential for a pretty big disconnect between the collaborative path to green building objectives and the process of executing design-build.   How do you manage these two without it looking like a tractor-trailer merged with a motorcycle?

Green buildings have their focus on performance.  Therefore, the RFP for a green building project should address performance as well – or some similar set of metrics that ‘get you there’.  Otherwise the bid responses may end up giving an owner “apples and kumquats” to compare or, and this is the tendency in the marketplace, a proposal that focuses solely on the budget goals but long term does not meet the performance objectives.  How can an owner incorporate performance objectives into a project’s RFP? How can a design-build team clarify the ‘performance intent’ of their proposed project solution?

Owners can include in their RFP information on target energy performance benchmarks for their project.  Owners can include in their RFP a requirement for a Life Cycle Cost Analysis which includes some reasonable time horizon (i.e. 7 years, 10 years) and assumed escalation rates which encourages more energy and resource efficient design and construction solutions.  In order to do this effectively, it may take some early analysis to ascertain what are appropriate targets for your type of building with your type of weather conditions.  In addition, owners can require that the successful bidder provide an extended warranty period for the project (i.e. 2 – 3 years) to disincentivize going for the cheapest solution – which often is not the best performance over time.

Alternatively, design-build teams can include a Life Cycle Cost analysis in their proposals showing the long term performance benefits and value of the systems they are proposing comparing lowest first cost to more expensive, but more efficient alternatives.  This way the owner can get a better sense of the ‘value added’ aspects of the more expensive solution.  Where appropriate, a design-build team could also summarize the categories where the team believes that it will submit for the desired green rating certification points and the associated rating level of the proposed project.  This will offer some qualitative reference point for the proposed project.

A growing component of most green building rating systems today is the need to measure and verify performance and, in some manner, record and report on that performance for some period of time after completion of the project.  To that end, I recommend that you take advantage of the technology that is often on the project.  Most building projects today include some sort of digital Building Automation System used to control and/or monitor HVAC, critical electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems. These can also include lighting and security systems as well.  Larger installations have been looking at Demand Side Management (DSM) and similar Load Reduction strategies which can be integrated into BAS programming. These types of strategies and tools can help a building operator keep track of energy and water usage in real time.  That monitor, control and manage functionality can also be used to track and archive performance over time.  The BAS is your friend when it comes to high performance operations.  The BAS data archives can also be instrumental in troubleshooting and optimizing system performance as well as collating and organizing data for reporting and recording.  IN addition, the BAS can be used to help audit an operation should there be gaps between the expected performance and the actual performance.  If such an audit approach is utilized, it should be included in the original contract for that purpose and it might be useful to mandate that in any dispute that arises over performance, that all data be stored on non-re-writable digital media and that a third-party auditor be retained to evaluate the materials.

These are just a few of the strategies that can be employed to address some of the gaps that might occur in the development of a green, or high performance, design-build project.  Owners need to be mindful that high performance buildings only achieve high performance if the metrics for measurement are clearly understood by all at the start and that provisions for measurement, verification and optimization are included in the project.  Design-build teams need to be clear about what they intend to ‘deliver’ and what is outside of their understood scope of work.  Clarity in expectation and intent is a crucial first step on the way to a successful project.

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