Design Activity Hits the Brakes in April
Another extended spring swoon seems unlikely, but architecture firms continue to report problems in keeping projects moving along
By Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA
Source: AIA National
|After eight straight monthly gains in design activity, revenue at architecture firms fell in April. The ABI’s seasonally adjusted reading for the month was 48.6, falling from 51.9 in March and 54.9 in February. Housing starts nationally—particularly for multifamily units—also dropped sharply in April, suggesting that the construction sector remains choppy. Spring slowdowns have been common during this uneven recovery, but the momentum of the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year pointed toward growing design activity moving through the entire year. Inquiries for new projects continued to grow at a healthy pace in April, as did the volume of new design contracts, so the expectation is for a resumption of revenue growth in the coming months.|
The recent slowdown seems to have hit firms in the Northeast and Midwest harder, as firms in both regions experienced setbacks. Firms in the Northeast had reported growth for seven straight months prior to the April downturn, while Midwest firms broke a string of six straight months of gains. Firms in the South continue to see healthy gains, while firms in the West reported only modest growth.
Kjell Anderson, AIA practices at LMN in Seattle, with a focus on sustainability. He previously worked at Callison, training employees internationally on energy simulation and modeling. His upcoming book, "Design Energy Simulation for Architects: Guide to 3D Graphics" explores energy use and modeling in architecture.
A five-question interview follows:
1) What was the impetus for starting the book?
After my Greenbuild 2011 presentation ("Making Better Decisions: Architect-Driven Early Design Energy Modeling") I was approached by a representative of Routledge, a UK-based publisher with an Architecture division. My initial thought was "There's no way I'd have time to write a book while working!" My wife supported the idea of taking time off to put it together, and so we began the adventure.
The wider impetus is that to meet the 2030 Challenge, Architects need to be more involved in the energy performance of their buildingsThe wider impetus is that to meet the 2030 Challenge, Architects need to be more involved in the energy performance of their buildings, they need to take an interest in the energy performance of their buildings, and feel responsible for the energy outcome. There really are no guidebooks out there to help us. There is a yawning gap between highly specialized texts that focus on mechanical performance, academic texts that perhaps give good ideas but are difficult to apply to specific projects, and graphic case studies that provide pictures but only cursory text.
My book, the AIA Energy Modeling Guide, and other sources are helping fill this gap. Also, the emerging subculture of architects and architecture firms that engage in the energy performance of their buildings has not been exposed to the wider audience, except in magazine articles which are necessarily not in-depth. While pools of knowledge are out there, coalescing these into a single book provides architects answers to: What can be done? How is it done? How can it be interpreted and presented to inform the design process?
Over the last 50 years, architects have distanced themselves from the energy performance of their buildings, and our tools to study energy performance are very elementary. Mechanical designers have great tools, though they can take years to properly learn. Architectural energy-related tools are now widely available.
2) Which component of early design simulation is most in reach of today’s smaller firms and individual architects? Daylighting, air flow modeling, etc.?
Daylighting and Shading analysis are the easiest for most firms to begin to experiment with and use in their practice. Whole-building energy analysis often requires specialists, though software is bringing this within reach of architects that have a solid building science background.
Daylighting and Shading analysis are the easiest for most firms to begin to experiment with and useAirflow analysis almost always requires a specialist. Daylighting and Shading require some training and understanding of theory - and this training is not generally available. Any type of simulation requires time and multiple iterations to get reasonably accurate results that can inform a building's design. When a firm begins using simulation to inform design, there will be mistakes, so allowing for extra time and flexibility is important.
3) What was the most surprising thing you learned from the case studies? Did any hypothesis change while reviewing data?
Architects and mechanical designers, even within the same firm, often don't communicate very well or often in early design phases. Architects seldom take the steps necessary to learn about energy performance, wanting quick, ballpark estimates to inform design - often in terms of hours. Mechanical designers and energy analysts generally don't want to generate early options, prefering to wait until a design is complete before they investigate, and then often require weeks to produce results. For this reasons, SOM-Chicago, HMC Architects, and many others have in-house groups that specialize in early-design simulation to bridge the gap.
The most surprising things about the case studies were the variety of firms engaging in the simulation of high-performance buildings [and the] inability of firms to share their modeling and data on their buildings due to NDAs.The most surprising things about the case studies were the variety of firms engaging in the simulation of high-performance buildings, as well as the unfortunate inability of firms to share their modeling and data on their buildings due to NDAs.
I intended to write mostly about architects engaging in energy modeling of their buildings in early design, but ended up writing the Energy Modeling chapter as a guide for architects to understand the information that mechanical designers and energy analysts deal with in hopes that they will engage more meaningfully. This can serve as a foundation for us to engage more usefully with them, as well as for architects doing some early studies themselves.
4) Given your focus on sustainability, is the profession on track for meeting the 2030 goals?
2030 is an example of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal...we don't know exactly how to get there, but we think we can.To answer the questions literally, the way the 2030 goals are set up, new tracks have to constantly be built to reach them. 2030 is an example of a Big Hairy Audacious Goal...we don't know exactly how to get there, but we think we can. The new tracks are being built, but not as fast as they need to be. I am hopeful that the continued grassroots creativity and passion will continue to evolve better methods for practice, codes, and rating systems. The first step - benchmarking and hitting the early targets - was fairly easy compared to reaching the next set of goals - 70% energy reductions and beyond. This will require much more diligence and research on the part of architecture firms. Most professions don't intentionally make themselves work harder for public benefit, but architects are leading the charge to create more rigorous energy codes and systems such as the 2030 Challenge, LEED and the Living Building Challenge that make our working lives more difficult, but also more fulfilling.
Another aspect is that a new generation of architects is coming into the profession that are comfortable with simulations. They are being taught to use them to inform their designs. Smart firms realize this and are hiring those individuals to help them transition to the new track, realizing that R&D is a relatively new thing to most firms.
5) Lastly, why do you choose to be an architect?
Architecture is grounded, creative, and spatial, a middle ground between engineering and art. It requires inspiration and thoughtfulness. While some days I wish I was a professional musician and didn't have to deal with building codes or budgets, the problem-solving opportunities inherent within each project can reward hard work with an elegant solution - when I can find a solution to a multifaceted problem it provides me with a great deal of satisfaction.
The book is written for architects to learn about energy use, and more specifically, energy modeling, in their projects. Early design simulation is now in the reach of most architectural firms, allowing the exploration of daylight, shading, airflow, and overall energy with in-house tools. The book includes 30 case studies from firms such as SOM-Chicago, Miller|Hull, LMN, Lake|Flato, and many others. It includes theory and examples of each item discussion. It begins with an introduction to simulation, then goes through metrics from comfort to climate, and then longer chapters, highlighted with case studies, are written about shading, daylighting, airflow analysis, and energy use studies. The final two chapters cover software in more detail, as well as how many firms set up and run in-house energy modeling programs. "Design Energy Simulation for Architects: Guide to 3D Graphics" will be published by Routledge on February 1, 2014: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415840668/
Last night saw the Seattle Mayor's race heat up with its first forum of the season. With one architect in the running, now's a great time to see which candidate can handle Seattle's expected growth while balancing sustainability goals.
For those interested:
For those interested:
Seattle Times Article, "Seattle mayoral contenders meet Monday in first big forum"
Like Murray, Steinbrueck enjoys great name recognition. He’s lagging the top candidates in fundraising, but as one campaign strategist for another candidate complained, “He has a park named after him!” Actually, the park is named for his father, Victor Steinbrueck, but the point is made. Steinbrueck, an architect and former City Council member, has also distinguished himself as the only candidate to oppose the Sodo location for the proposed basketball arena, earning him the support of maritime unions and manufacturing interests opposing the project. And he’s widely viewed as a champion of the neighborhoods at a time when McGinn’s Department of Planning and Development has allowed small-lot development in single-family areas and micro-apartment buildings that come with no design or environmental review.