Canadian Consulting Engineer

Emerging from the comfort zone

March 1, 2010
By Bronwen Parsons

Most building engineers have heard about the "integrated design process," the subject of this issue's cover feature. Integrated design means that the entire team of consultants puts a building design ...

Most building engineers have heard about the “integrated design process,” the subject of this issue’s cover feature. Integrated design means that the entire team of consultants puts a building design together from the start of the project, rather than one consultant (usually the architect) doing the design and then handing it over to the other consultants to fill in their parts. The integrated design approach allows the building to be designed holistically. It started being advocated by green building designers about a decade ago.

So far, however, the approach has caught on in only a limited way. Which is a shame since the integrated approach promises to give engineers a much bigger say in how buildings are put together. It could empower engineers and allow them to wield an influence among the design team that they’ve never had before.

The question is, however, do building engineers want this responsibility? Being on the design team requires joining in the creative process, which by definition means that engineers will be expected to suggest and grapple with new technologies. Apparently many engineers are reluctant to do this. They prefer to stay with conventional mechanical-electrical systems, rather than venturing up the green road. Too often, it has to be said, they’re more comfortable taking a back seat in the design process.

In a former life when I was an editor for an architectural magazine we heard architects complain about engineers being too conservative. Some architects felt engineers tended to err too much on the side of caution. They grumbled that the engineers had insisted that the columns be thicker than the elegant supports the architect wanted, for example. Or the chiller was way too big and was eating up too much of the budget.

Engineers are bound to protect the public interest, so if they are conservative, it is understandable and justified. But engineers must find ways to make buildings a lot more energy efficient than they are now. Currently residential, commercial and institutional buildings account for approximately 34% of energy consumed in Canada (40% of greenhouse gas emissions).

So engineers who want to do what’s best for the environment (and to not be left behind in the green movement) have to take the time to research the many new emerging technologies to find those which are most reliable. Then they must have the confidence to step up to the plate and take an active part in design meetings, being willing to recommend technologies that have not yet become mainstream.

There’s another important factor that’s worth remembering. A study of over 450 buildings by the Building Owners and Property Managers Association (BOMA) reported on page 26 found that a building’s design and equipment is often not what sets it apart for energy efficiency. Just as important are the owner’s management policies and how the building is operated.

It’s a sobering thought for building designers of every stripe. Architects and engineers can work as closely as they like to come up with the perfect, integrated building design. What’s vital is that the building operator is trained how to orchestrate all those systems as an integrated whole.


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