The AIA 2030 Commitment: Feedback

JimiHendrix002acliveinMontereyPopFeWhenever someone says the word “feedback” I become momentarily distracted. I mentally flip into “air guitar” mode and imagine that I’m Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock playing the Star Spangled Banner . . .

But feedback is a good word. It’s an important concept. Anyone who wants to improve the output of a system needs to recognize – or create – process feedback loops and watch them closely.

Designing buildings and spaces that are more and more energy efficient every year is one heck of a process. When you persuade your architectural firm to sign the AIA 2030 Commitment and join a leadership team to monitor the results, you have embraced process improvement in a big way.

So what kind of feedback loops could help in this quest? Sadly, the very best feedback loop that you could imagine of is one that we architects rarely use: Going back in after a project has been in operation for a year or so and comparing actual energy use with design intent.

In a phrase: post occupancy evaluations.

The fiercest criticism of “green building” is that we’re basing all our claims for energy efficiency on design intent only. It’s our Achilles heel. Fact is, we don’t know how to address a potential delta between intended and actual performance, and we certainly don’t know how to use what we might learn from this potentially valuable feedback loop to improve our design process.

And what’s more, we don’t even have a clear picture of what a thorough post-occupancy evaluation looks like. The estimable Z Smith of Tulane University and Eskew+Dumez+Ripple describes the “four horseman of building performance” as actual building energy use, building management system data, thermal performance and occupant comfort. Maybe commissioning agents are collecting this info somewhere, but it’s not getting back to the designers in a form that we can use. ASHRAE Energy Audits? Engineers do that stuff. Building diagnostics? Call a HERS Rater.

In doing my research for this post, I found no end to the studies that compare actual building energy use to codes or to CBECS or some other criteria. But comparing actual energy use to design intent? Nothing.

So I called a colleague at one of the few Boston firms I know that does POEs with any regularity. It helps that they have engineering and commissioning in-house. But their POE experience is limited to a few building types and it’s been hard for them to consistently get multi-year metrics. And in my estimation, that still puts them way ahead of the pack. Most architects I know – like us – are still trying to get our heads around how to collect energy use info and what to do with it when we get it.

Look, I’m not saying that client feedback on the quality of space and materials and how the lighting controls worked out and whether the coffee maker was in the right place isn’t good. But that kind of information isn’t going to get us to the zero-energy 2030 future.

Yeah, I know. This post is turning into a rant. I don’t have the answers. But I think I see the challenge.

It’s this: architects create analogs. REVIT models and performance specifications and energy use calculations are not buildings. Construction is a variable process, as are building operations and maintenance, as are weather and climate. We need to know more about the many variables that influence building energy use and how design can mitigate those variables. For that, we need feedback loops. We need to be prepared to hear that the gap between designed energy use and actual can be pretty substantial. And we need to be smarter – and braver – about harvesting this feedback and putting it to use to improve our design process. 2030 is only 16 years away.

Meanwhile, back at Bergmeyer, we have targeted a few clients for data collection in 2014. And we have started the conversation with our consultants about connecting this information back to our models once we get it. Every journey begins with a first step, right? I’ll post later on our progress . . .


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