Article - January 2003
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Taking Responsibility for Success Part 5

Strengthening The Weak Links to Higher Performing Buildings
Part 5

Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

This series targets weak links in the chain of building design and construction that require strengthening for these anticipated advances to be realized. 

The dream I and many others have held for some years - of a new paradigm in building efficiency and comfort - has yet to be realized. Instead, the state of the art of building comfort systems has remained relatively static despite the avalanche of enabling technologies developed in the last decade. The question must be asked: "Why is this industry not incorporating new efficiency enhancing technologies more effectively?" This series targets weak links in the chain of building design and construction that require strengthening for these anticipated advances to be realized. The essays are intended to assist in defining issues and suggesting changes that may correct some of the weaknesses that presently impede our industry from a more efficient reality. Each essay is focused on a weak link in the building design/construction process. The goal is to help clarify the issues and develop practical and functional solutions in order to strengthen that link and achieve higher levels of building performance. For this, I look forward to comments and criticism of the material presented in this series.




One of the most substantial problems that plagues building construction is the disconnect between the design of the building systems and their installation. This disconnect is all the more troublesome for ambitious projects that reach for higher levels of building comfort, energy efficiency, or resource sustainability. In last month's article, I stressed the need to keep the design team involved in the procurement of the technology components to be sure the design intent does not become compromised by the contractor's focus on price during procurement. But keeping the design team involved in these processes is not a solution in itself. Rather, the design team needs to be involved in the construction effort because it needs take the responsibility that the project meets the design intent and goals. This issue of responsibility is one that few in our industry are willing discuss candidly and openly in today's litigious business environment. But to be candid, there is no other way to ensure success with an ambitious building construction project that incorporates out-of-the-ordinary components and/or systems.

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A great number of ambitious building construction projects fail to meet their original performance goals, specifically because of the building construction process. Design teams are organized primarily to develop drawings and specifications and the focus their activities is not on the construction phase. So, involving design teams in construction oversight to ensure the design intent reflected by the construction documents is a achieved can be difficult, time consuming and costly. And it can be less than effective unless the design team keeps its eye squarely on the ball and adds value by bringing the eyes of others involved in the construction phase to focus on that ball.

To achieve this focus, the design team needs to understand that it has responsibility in the construction process to ensure the levels of operational performance incorporated into the design are actually achieved in the build-out. Such a focus can have a substantial impact on the interaction between the design team and the contractors involved in the construction process. In the construction process of an ambitious project, the submittal / review process is usually inadequate to guarantee the ultimate performance of the project. With advanced technologies, fundamental and crucial questions cannot easily be answered by the traditional submittal / review process because some of the really important issues have much more to do with how components work together than with each individual component itself which is the focus of submittals. For example, imagine you are the team has specified a particularly highly efficient window system, but because of its unusual dimensions, it is subject to a high rate of heat transfer or infiltration at the connection point to the window frame system that is intended to be supplied by another manufacturer. Such issues may not reveal themselves clearly in a submittal process. Similar issues may arise when equipment has been specified whose operating efficiencies are only available for operating points that are different than those of this application. Other like issues are common for control and communication systems in which the equipment of various manufacturers must work together on a common network and share information at a minimum rate in order to obtain the desired system performance level.

contemporary Because projects aimed at achieving above average performance must apply equipment and systems in configurations that are somewhat atypical, one or more of the above types of issues is not unusual for such projects. Success depends on resolving all such issues satisfactorily. To do so, the designer needs to work with the vendors and contractors in order to make certain the technical issues are fully understood by all. Simply demanding that the specifications be adhered to may not solve the problem because some of the performance issues may be new, created by a unique configuration of equipment or systems the contractor has chosen for the project, and therefore may be beyond the scope of the specifications.

To be sure that these issues are resolved to the best interests of the project owner, the design team needs to be clear that its primary responsibility throughout the construction phase is not to defend the clarity or completeness of the specifications, but to take responsibility for, and ensure, the integrity of the original design intent. To do so, a certain degree of flexibility is required in order that manufacturers and contractors can apply products and configurations that are optimally suited for the integrated design application. To take on this responsibility design team members need to see their role in the construction phase in a somewhat different light than some do now. Instead of an adversarial role many designers develop with contractors, it very important that a cooperative or "team" approach is taken. This approach must be incorporated into the project design documents. Once a project is in the design stage, the differences between design-build and plan-spec approaches fades. What was the design team before construction began should be expanded to incorporate the contractor(s) such that all work together diligently in the owner's best interests. This is not an easy step, but it can be accomplished when the design team understands what its role in the project will be and how it may change as the project changes phases. The key to this understanding is the knowledge that the team is responsible for the success of the design they develop. With this key ingredient, the even the most ambitious building performance goals can be attained!

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