Canadian Consulting Engineer

Finding out what works best

December 1, 2006
By Bronwen Parsons

Every consulting engineer is aware of the mechanisms in place to ensure they do their work right. For one thing, you'll be hit with a lawsuit if something goes badly wrong. Then there's the prospect o...

Every consulting engineer is aware of the mechanisms in place to ensure they do their work right. For one thing, you’ll be hit with a lawsuit if something goes badly wrong. Then there’s the prospect of losing your licence if someone complains that your work is under par. And of course your designs must comply with the building codes.

At present, however, very little is being done to measure the quality of buildings in terms of how well their environmental systems perform and are meeting the needs of the occupants. There is usually some kind of commissioning process just before or after the building opens, but then the designers walk away. Very few go back on a systematic basis to determine how the building is functioning.

Which is why Dr. Rosie Hyde, P.Eng. of Stantec in Vancouver and other environmental experts have set about formulating a method for doing post-occupancy building evaluations (see p. 32). So far they’ve tested the protocol on green buildings, but ultimately Dr. Hyde would like to see evaluations done on all buildings, whether green or “brown.”

If a piece of the structure falls off a building or rain starts seeping through the walls, then it’s pretty clear that there is a problem (though not who is responsible). However, what happens if the acoustic distractions in the building are so bad people can’t work effectively? What if the air quality has driven employees to take sick leave? What if it’s draughty or too hot? And a more measurable question: what if the utility bills are coming in and the building is consuming much more energy than the computer models predicted?

Asking such questions about buildings that are five years old is like opening Pandora’s box. People love to find fault with the places where they work. For engineers, though, a big question is whether building evaluations might lead to more litigation. At what point is the engineer to be held responsible for systems not working, when many factors affecting those systems are beyond their control?

Too often, and in many areas, we let the fear of legal action overrule the need to expose fact and truth. Such apprehensions shouldn’t be allowed to stifle Hyde’s initiative, as it would prevent engineers from learning what different design approaches have the best results. The education value of doing performance evaluations on buildings after they have been occupied is self-evident. Reviewing and learning from past experience is vital if building design is to advance. And advance is necessary to make buildings sustainable.

A way must be found, then, to go back and evaluate the building performance without compromising the legal standing of the designers and consulting engineers. Devising legal instruments to protect the consultants is one way, but it is not ideal. A better plan is for the consultants to undertake to do their own post-occupancy evaluations, using the protocol developed in Vancouver. Consultants or the building owners could post the results on-line anonymously, with EcoSmart or a similar organization to administer the site. That way, we’d soon have a database of evidence of good and not-so-good design practices, providing a resource of inestimable value.


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