Reaching Higher: Sustainability - Hitting the Mark on a Moving Target

Molly Eagen and d'Andre Willis, AIA, LEED AP


Sustainable Design is a rapidly evolving discipline of architectural work. While some sustainable design solutions conceived as far back as 50 years ago are still relevant, projected and unforeseen circumstances demand true innovation. Today - despite progressively more focused efforts - the building industry remains accountable for the same percentage (47%) of energy consumed and subsequent carbon emitted as we did over a decade ago. Consequently, we recognize our professional obligation to advance more effective solutions in order to 'move the needle' for the industry as a whole. Following are three important developments in sustainable design that HGA is exploring to best address the distinct environmental challenges our clients face.

Advocating For Clients With Resilient Design

One of the most significant shifts in sustainable design thinking is the movement to build resiliency into environments and structures, expanding the traditional considerations of design to include demographic and social change, shifting economic power, rapid urbanization, technology advancements, climate change, and resource scarcity. Recent climate research tells us that even if we stopped extracting and using fossil fuels tomorrow, many effects of climate change can no longer be reversed, such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and extensive and long-lasting droughts. For this reason, Resilient Design focuses on responding to our changing world in addition to mitigating the effects of future change; therefore adaptation is critical to our clients' projects, moving beyond mitigation alone.

Resilient Design guides clients through a risk assessment, analyzing future threats like flooding, sea level rise, power outages, temperature changes, and super-storms, and suggests design improvements as safeguards. A recent civic project in the far northern climes of New England required protection from the effects of higher precipitation levels and dramatically increased annual snowfall; this led to designing a roof that could accommodate increased loads and integrating a forward-looking storm water management plan. These seemingly simple, yet critical adjustments enable us to be advocates for a client's future. It allows us to use architecture to connect to our rapidly changing world within their project and protect their livelihood, their building, and its occupants from his new climate reality.

(For more information, check out HGA's Climate Reality Leader Ariane Laxo's recent article.)

Conceptual Simulation

New software tools are assisting us in understanding building performance much earlier in the design process than has previously been possible. Early Design Phase Simulation tools - which perform climate analysis, daylight/natural ventilation simulation, and energy modeling - are often designed to plug into existing architectural 3D modeling software, giving our teams constant feedback as they move through rapid, early design iterations. While these tools cannot replace a complete energy model in later phases, they provide a good foundation and support architects taking more ownership in optimizing passive systems (i.e. massing, form, and orientation) in order to achieve today's increasingly rigorous energy reduction goals such as Architecture 2030 and Net Zero Energy Buildings. In this way, these tools are an integral advancement in process, allowing for sustainable design to be woven into and inspire architectural solutions.

Taking advantage of these new tools requires an understanding of what can be done with simulation, how to perform this analysis, and how to interpret the results. We are testing a range of new simulation tools to identify the most beneficial ones for our design process, one of which is being used for the Theodore Wirth Welcome Center, a recreational visitor facility providing ticketing, rental, and support for year-round park activities in Minneapolis. Early modeling enables us to evaluate different orientations and building forms from the beginning, helping to determine which option provides the greatest energy savings before introducing mechanical systems. By addressing energy reductions in the architectural form itself, we can decrease the number of later-stage costly solutions (added insulation, photo-voltaic panels, and advanced mechanical systems). As early adopters using these tools and sharing our experiences with software developers, we can help advance these much-needed applications.

Raising the Building Certification Bar

A third evolution in sustainable design is the diversification of building certification programs, which are creating more opportunity to connect each unique design story with a fitting sustainability strategy. While the most well-known standard, LEED certification, continues to evolve, other emerging programs are focusing on more targeted or rigorous goals. The Living Building Challenge, which encourages design of a regenerative building using only the water and energy available on-site and complying with stringent material sourcing and site selection standards, is perhaps the most difficult to attain. Other certifications target very specific issues. For example, the WELL Building certification concentrates on human health and wellbeing in buildings. Others address regional environmental issues, such as the Buildings, Benchmarks and Beyond (B3) program here in Minnesota. Specific efforts like these offer greater opportunity for a client's values to influence the framework of their sustainability efforts, moving away from a 'one-standard-fits-all' approach.

The American Swedish Institute's (ASI) Nelson Cultural Center is a great example of using alternative standards to inform our client's narrative. While this project achieved LEED Gold certification, the design team also drew inspiration from sixteen Swedish National Environmental Quality Objectives put forth by the Swedish Parliament. The resulting design reflects a Nordic aesthetic - a light-filled space with a palette of traditional, natural materials - as well as embraces responsible sourcing, use of renewable energy resources, and rainwater harvesting. Using these standards allowed us to more meaningfully accomplish our architectural objective, which was to design a building that reflects ASI's core values of community gathering, craft, arts and a connection to and stewardship of the earth.