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High Performance Building Design: Sustainable or Just Smart Design?

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Sustainability can sometimes be a dirty word in the built environment. For some, it elicits negativity with thoughts of over-budget projects and difficult checklist requirements. However, high performance building design (HPBD) can maximize every dollar of a capital budget and help an organization better compete. The business case for HPBD is compelling. It offers organizations a competitive advantage: a human-centered and outcome-based approach to design which can maximize financial investment, attract, and retain talent, and accomplish organizational mission. How? It examines ALL resources to develop, design, operate and maintain a capital asset. This includes budget, system performance, maintenance staff input, and mission capability to name a few. HPBD is not just sustainable, it is simply smart design. A correctly positioned asset will positively elevate everyone who touches or is touched by the place. 

Our team recently shared a webinar which revealed an integrated approach to HPBD. The process begins well in advance of any specific project, especially in a campus environment. The following are a few key takeaways : 

Two employees working in front of mechanical systems.

Start with Why + Storytelling

The foundation of HPBD begins with identifying your “why,” or the compelling reason why this approach and philosophy matters to you and your organization. What does high performance mean to you and why is it important? This is the story that inspires, that speaks to the mind AND appeals to the heart. Words are powerful. It might sound simplistic but writing out your narrative on why the built environment and this HPBD approach matters, is critical. Note: this storytelling happens before data collection. Compelling stories engage advocates and drive action, and can be reinforced by adding data that has context. In summary, HPBD begins with storytelling. Your first job is to inspire people about why the built environment matters and how it links to your campus mission and philosophy. Then share your narrative to identify champions.

Identify Clear Goals + Financial Impact

Once you create and share your vision (made memorable via story), identify clear goals and how you can assess their financial impact. This helps build the “table of contents” for your business case. The first consideration in creating goals is making sure they move beyond “table stake” requirements. A performance mindset (unlike conventional check-the-box) is more holistic. It takes a broader view and evaluates each campus, building and space to see if its use and performance metrics align with your vision (drivers). Second, the process of creating goals should be collaborative. Co-creating goals with a diverse group of individuals, including the people maintaining a campus and facilities, is important. It helps generate early buy-in, engages advocates, and ensures you are not missing critical elements.

Align the Right Tools – Smart Data Collection

A clear data picture demonstrates the short and long-term financial impact of your goals and how they impact your “why” narrative and story. Data collection should begin with the end in mind by answering the question: which data is most helpful in uncovering current state and achieving these goals? Often, where people get stuck is identifying and aligning the right tools and how to best use align them to capture a clear picture. There are a few critical methods for data collection that help with planning, analysis, and decision-making (all tasks which occur well before design) to deliver a triple bottom line-result. These include campus and space planning, lifecycle cost analysis, energy auditing and retro commissioning.


Diagram of Design Impact

In summary, aligning the right tools helps create the “data picture” to support your story and helps you influence decisions and dollars. It is the foundation for educated planning and successful budget requests.  

Position Budget Requests for Success

Plant and Facility Managers can create strong budget requests by reserving dollars to define target projects; this includes examining and gathering data on how buildings and physical plants are currently performing. With this understanding, managers can defend spending for the upcoming calendar year and carve out operational dollars for other buckets. A multi-year runway of iterative planning, active stakeholder involvement and budgeting helps prepare for:

Additional consideration: early knowledge of budget surpluses is highly valuable as those surpluses can be put towards planning goals.

Focus on Original HBPD Goals – throughout Design + Construction

Your original “why” narrative and data story need to remain front and center throughout design and construction. One way to do this is finding architectural, engineering, contractor and other partners that advocate for you. Integrate them in early assessments, and they can help you make informed decisions based on what was uncovered. HBPD is no different than any other project. Using your original “why” and project goals as decision-making drivers throughout the lifecycle of design and construction projects is vitally important to ensure you are meeting your original goals. For instance, project drivers help insulate from value engineering “slashing.” It also ensures project integrity: as project managers or design partners change – purpose and goals do not. Keep storytelling and sharing your HPBD narrative. The projects you are leading are reframing your organization’s future.

If you'd like to learn more about delivering a truly high performance building and ensuring that your project team and consultants are spending your money wisely, check out our recent webinar on High Performance Design as part of the APPA webinar series on behalf of EUA


Ryan Bakke, AIA, NCARB
Senior Design Architect

Ryan Bakke is a Senior Design Architect working out of the Green Bay office. He is passionate about creating spaces that are positive, memorable and deeply impactful to owners, the environment and the community in which the building sits.