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Whole Building Design Approach

Picture of a Spanish-style building with xeriscape, including palm trees.
Camp Pendleton's temporary lodging facility was
constructed from 20% recycled materials and will be 100%
recyclable upon its distant demolition. The four-story South
Mesa Lodge also received one of the U.S. Green Building
Council's highest energy efficiency ratings, saving more
than 30% percent of water, lighting, and overall utility

As defined by the Whole Building Design Guide, the goal of whole building design is to create a successful high-performance building by applying an integrated design and team approach to the project during the planning and programming phases. Whole building design has proven to help:

  • Reduce project costs
  • Increase the probability that project timelines are met
  • Ensure systems operate at maximum efficiency

Whether building a new facility or conducting a major renovation on an existing building, the project team must always work with an eye toward planning, designing, constructing, and ultimately operating and maintaining the facility efficiently and cost effectively. The importance of engaging the right people with the required expertise into all phases of the project cannot be overstated. The project should be treated as a collaborative effort, which ensures that systems are designed, sized, installed, and operated, and maintained correctly.

Because renewable energy systems are technically and economically complex and integration of renewable technology in buildings is a relatively new application, it is important to understand the principles, concepts, and proper application of the whole building design method. This section helps agencies understand and use the whole building design process with a specific focus on renewable energy technologies.

Buildings: Functions and Impacts

Buildings use very large amounts of energy, water, and materials. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show that buildings account for nearly half of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and consume more than two-thirds of the electricity produced in the U.S. The vast majority of this electricity is produced from nonrenewable fossil fuel resources, which are the primary source of GHG emissions.

Buildings are not only required to be sound and secure, they also need to provide a safe and comfortable place for occupants to live and work. Reliable, secure energy supply is critical to the success of most buildings. Occupants are entitled to a healthy environment that fosters productivity. Building owners/operators expect reliable and cost-effective operations for the life of the building. Facilities of all types can meet these goals by reducing energy loads, increasing space and energy efficiency, and using renewable resources.

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Whole Building Design

Using the whole building design approach enables a building to meet high-performance goals quickly and cost effectively. It opposes conventional design methods in which project representatives are consulted individually according to phases of a project. It is an innovative practice used for planning and programming through the design, construction, and operations phases of a construction project. Whole building design is a process comprised of two components: the integrated design approach, and the integrated team process.

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Role of Renewables

As part of the design and development process, renewable energy technologies should be considered as part of the integrated whole building design. To ensure the most appropriate and economic application of renewable technologies, energy efficiency products and passive renewable designs should be implemented first. They produce significant energy savings, are frequently the most cost-effective measures, and must be incorporated at the earliest stages of design to be effective. Adding active renewable technologies provide further benefits and are needed to achieve net-zero goals, fossil fuel reductions, and reduced GHG emissions. Further information is available on effective design strategies

When planning to integrate renewable energy technologies into a Federal new construction or major renovation project, the whole building design approach and the Guiding Principles for Sustainable New Construction and Major Renovations are the roadmap for all project phase activities from planning to design to construction to commissioning to operations and maintenance (O&M).

Because buildings are highly complex and specific renewable energy mandates have been established for Federal agencies, the whole building design approach is an essential application for building projects. Using the whole building design approach when developing a new construction or major renovation project ensures that the most appropriate renewable technologies are considered early in the planning process, selected based on specific needs and goals of the project, and sized and sited correctly to suit the building design.

Renewable technologies can serve as multi-purpose components. For example, installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on parking structures provides shading to cars and comfort to their occupants, while providing clean electricity. A PV system can reduce fossil fuel use and GHG emissions, and therefore improve environmental quality, human comfort and health, building energy security and supply, and help meet Federal energy requirements.

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Photo of the underside of a ceiling PV shade structure. Sunlight is visible through the transparent spaces between the PV panels.
The Denver Federal Courthouse is the
first Federal courthouse to implement
PV glazing. The General Services
Administration (GSA) worked with the
project design team, the PV supplier,
and FEMP to design and monitor the PV

Integrated Design

Integrated design asks all building stakeholders and the technical planning, design, and construction teams to examine the project objectives, building materials, systems, and assemblies from many different perspectives. This approach differs from the typical planning and design process, which relies on the expertise of specialists who work in a degree of isolation from each other in their respective specialties. An agency should stipulate that its selected design team conduct an integrated design process. Energy efficiency and renewable energy goals need to be included upfront as a key element that the facility design must meet.

Integrated design employs whole systems thinking. It is always collaborative in assessing how one system affects all others. An example is to consider how a passive solar heating system can affect an HVAC system with the goal of minimizing energy consumption. If a building has a good passive high performance envelop with good glazing and passive controls, the energy provided by the sun and saved by the envelope design can reduce heating and cooling requirements for the facility. Accordingly, the facility would require a smaller HVAC system with reduced costs resulting from smaller ducts, fans, pipes, and pumps. Therefore, savings accrued through the smaller HVAC system can be reallocated to the envelope. The entire team needs to participate in the process to understand how one system affects all others to achieve the benefits of integrated design. This process requires more time up front, but brings a payoff by allowing a faster process once the project gets to the construction document phases because problems and solutions were identified in the earlier design phases.

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Integrated Design Team

When using the whole building design process, it is important to bring all parties together early in the process to receive as much input as possible from all perspectives. The parties include architects, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, design lighting engineers, daylighting experts, renewable technology experts, other building system designers, and experts in commissioning and O&M.

The design team and all affected stakeholders work together throughout the project phases and evaluate the design for cost, quality-of-life, future flexibility, efficiency, overall environmental impact, productivity, creativity, and how the occupants will be affected. It is critical that the team have an expert, or a sub-team of experts, that are well trained on the complexities of renewable technologies. Although including such experts can increase upfront costs, it also ensures that the most cost-effective and high performing systems are appropriately selected, designed, and installed.

A key point to remember when working within an integrated team environment is that no one person knows as much as the team of experts combined. It is important to get all of the right people together early so that each can provide valuable input that will benefit the project as a whole. Working together early in the planning and design can facilitate knowledge sharing in an integrated approach that enables decisions that change the basic concepts of the building. Collaborative design changes the equation from "either/or" to one of "achieving both, and more."

Renewable energy systems are complex and it is critical to engage people that understand the correct application, limitations, sizing, design, and installation of systems to ensure they are life-cycle cost effective and operate at optimal efficiency. When acquiring contract services for the project's architecture and engineering firm, be sure to specify that the design team demonstrate specific renewable energy technology expertise.

It is ideal to identify someone to serve the role of project energy lead. This person should understand the Federal agency's needs, renewable energy technologies and sustainable building design, and advocate the whole building design system, and be able to build support for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the project. Although adding an additional role to the project can increase costs, the project lead will not only build support for energy efficiency and renewable energy in the project but also ensure appropriate renewable energy and efficiency goals are defined and met along with building requirements.

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Overcoming Cost Barriers

The use of renewable energy technologies is often viewed as more expensive when compared to conventional technologies. This has historically been the case, particularly when only initial capital costs are considered. The higher upfront costs are primarily driven by equipment and systems and include additional design expertise. Because most renewable energy technologies do not include any fuel costs and have limited O&M costs, their primary expense will always be in upfront capital costs. As such, decisions made solely on the basis of initial capital costs will not favor renewable energy technologies, which is why life-cycle cost analysis is often stipulated for these decisions.

However, it is also widely recognized that renewable energy technologies offer benefits that conventional energy technologies do not. Economic comparisons may fail to recognize all of the economic benefits of renewable energy. Examples include mitigating potential volatility in cost and availability of conventional fuels as well as operating cost savings and design and capital cost savings that can accrue if an integrated whole building design process is utilized in an effective manner.

Two underlying principles should be observed to ensure that economic analyses provide the best possible comparisons between renewable and conventional energy systems and different renewable energy alternatives.

First, all cost comparisons should be made based on life-cycle costs rather than capital costs alone. This is in line with guidance from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) (OMB Circular No. A-11, Appendix 9, Capital Programming Guide), which applies to all Federal agencies.

Second, cost comparisons should consider all cost impacts associated with the use of renewable and energy technologies, which are not necessarily limited to the obvious impacts on a particular building system. An integrated building design process may result in design alternatives that provide fundamentally different buildings with dissimilar construction materials, configurations, etc. In such instances, comparisons should focus on the total estimated building costs for each design alternative as opposed to simply the comparative costs of the renewable and conventional energy systems.

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Video Resource

The Rocky Mountain Institute developed the Performance by Design video showcasing projects based on integrated design and team principles. The video includes interviews with architects, engineers, project managers, and others with roles and responsibilities relevant to project design, construction, and operations. This video is an excellent resource for explaining and illustrating the whole building design approach.

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