In-house engineers make sustainable design work better
The traditional way in which architecture and engineering firms partner may be transforming. It is becoming widely understood that interdisciplinary collaboration is critical early in the design process if maximum sustainability is to be achieved. To encourage such novel relationships among owners, architects, consultants, and constructors, the AIA has been promoting “integrated project delivery” and has developed legal documents to support it.
Some architecture firms are responding by shedding traditional relationships with consultants and hiring their own in-house engineers. Some existing AE firms are changing the way they practice by promoting interdisciplinary collaboration earlier in the design process.
Southern California—based architecture firm LPA began hiring engineers in 2005. They now make up about one eighth of LPA’s professional staff. According to firm president Dan Heinfeld, FAIA, the resulting cultural shift was made easier by the fact that the firm has done landscape and interiors in-house for many years. “Our whole practice is based on the idea of collaboration as a design mode,” he explains, “so we know the benefits of having a multidiscipline firm. They make us look at the world a little differently.”
When architects and engineers work together, schematic design can benefit from better energy-related data. For example, LPA recently designed an atrium ventilated by entirely natural means. This would not have been possible without the engineers proving from the outset that it was possible. Heinfeld calls this “informed design,” replacing intuition or guesswork. Another example is LPA’s design of a building that was required, by social function and site configuration, to be transparent and elongated in the north—south dimension. Early solar-shading studies by the engineers informed the architects in their design of louvers that shaded the east-facing glass most efficiently, with the least amount of material. Such collaboration differs from the conventional practice of handing the engineers a completed design idea and asking them to come up with an HVAC system to compensate for the overheated air. Optimizing sustainable design demands passive solutions first, systems later.
Having engineers in the office full-time also benefits the firm through insights that emerge from impromptu meetings and casual conversations. These are less likely to occur if, as with outside consultants, meetings are infrequent and tightly scheduled. Heinfeld reports that LPA engineers experience a different comfort level when the architects are their peers. Engineers working as consultants may be less than candid in their opinions because they don’t want to jeopardize their chances for being rehired.
Understandably, there is always some degree of resistance when people are asked to approach their work in unaccustomed ways. Though Heinfeld acknowledges that LPA has felt some of this, it is less than it might have been without the firm’s long history of in-house collaboration with other disciplines. Also, he says, sustainability is integral with the firm’s design philosophy, and 75 percent of the staff is LEED-accredited; they are highly motivated to make the engineering collaborations work effectively.
The symbiotic advantages also show up in structural collaborations. For the California State University Northridge Student Center, due for completion in June 2011, the structural engineers suggested a V-shaped structural frame to efficiently reduce the spans in a gym. The exposed structure became an important part of the design aesthetic. “Between the angled columns, I was able to put a running track on the second floor,” Heinfeld recalls. “So now, I’m not only reducing the roof span, but literally getting that balcony space for nothing. That kind of design integration makes you design and practice differently, and the work shows it.”
The large, multi-office firm HOK has employed both architects and engineers since its early years. In the beginning, the professional relationships between architects and engineers were similar to conventional silos of expertise: One team creates a design; then the other engineers it. This relationship has evolved as, over the past 15 years, HOK has worked proactively to bring sustainability into mainstream practice. Mary Ann Lazarus, AIA, is HOK’s firmwide sustainable design director, promoting integrated design among the firm’s project teams. She is also coauthor of the second edition of The HOK Guidebook to Sustainable Design. She recalls that when the firm first committed to green design, multidisciplinary teams were formed to research the various topic areas, such as indoor environment, energy, and materials. This multidisciplinary approach then continued as ordinary design practice.
Although only a few of HOK’s offices have in-house engineers, the firm prioritizes early-design collaboration when hiring engineering consultants. “There’s a unique kind of engineer who we love to bring to the table,” Lazarus explains, “who is really able to do conceptual thinking when we have our initial sustainability charrette and goal setting, to identify passive solutions.” The idea is to do passive design first, “without a switch or a duct,” fully exploiting climate, building form, and orientation. Then they look for opportunities for integrated systems, taking into account structure, site, and so on. Only then do they look for the most efficient HVAC systems. In-house or not, Lazarus says, when you work with the same people repeatedly, the benefits appear in design efficiency and quality. But having engineering in-house, she adds, does enable that relationship to be more integrated. And the increased diversity of the firm’s capabilities also makes it more resilient during economic down times.
Now that m/e/p engineers are recognized as key to sustainable architectural design, HOK president Bill Hellmuth, FAIA, likens their importance and creativity to that of structural engineers in tall-building design after World War II. Structure was integral to the beauty of the postwar high-rises, not a system added after the architectural design was fixed. Lazarus says, “This is what’s happening now with m/e/p. Our 21st-century partnership is reaching better performance outcomes, just as the mid-20th-century partnership did.”
She cautions that when transforming an “A” firm into an “AE,” it is critical to find the right people — engineers who can both take on a broad design role and partner effectively with the more traditional engineers. “You’re not going to get everyone to change the way they’ve been doing things, but you’ll find some people who will be that bridge,” she predicts. “Energy modeling is extremely important as part of this role, but look for m/e/p engineers who have the capacity to do conjectural, comparative modeling early in design.”
Having just gone through the transformation process, Heinfeld also has advice for other architecture firms. “Number one is to quit looking for the reasons it’s not a good idea,” he says. “You can always find financial reasons, from the point of view of a business model. But for us, the rewards of how it has affected the practice far outweigh them.” Like Lazarus, Heinfeld emphasizes that it’s essential to find the right professionals. “You’ve got to find people willing to go off on this experimentation,” he says, “and that’s not everybody. Someone might challenge something you’ve done for 20 years and suggest that’s not the best way to do it. You have to be willing to take that kind of criticism.” Heinfeld believes this new practice has profoundly changed the firm. He concludes, “We believe the engineers are making us better architects, and architects are making engineers better, too.”
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