Canadian Consulting Engineer

Project delivery: Achieving optimal building performance

May 5, 2020
By Jeremiah Vanderlaan, P.Eng

It is time to embrace some change.

Integrated project delivery

Photo credit: Newton Group.

I am that annoying person on your team who wants to understand as much as they can about a current process or procedure, then may suggest a better way to do it. I want to know the ‘why’ behind everything … and if the answer is, “because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” I am not satisfied.

Now, understandably, you cannot consistently reinvent the wheel—and sometimes the reason behind a certain procedure can get lost or forgotten. However, when a seemingly better way to do things is brought to the table, it may be time to re-evaluate and embrace a little change.

‘Change’ may be the only true curse word in the construction industry! Just like all other curse words, however, the more you use it, the less impact it will begin to have.

Today, it seems this industry, which in the past has been notoriously slow to adapt to changes, is finally starting to see major shifts in terms of thinking, methodology and technology. A new perspective is opportunely timed for the construction industry, given the rise of several trends and driving factors that demand buildings with optimal performance, in such areas as energy consumption, long-term maintenance, the building envelope and futureproofing.


Sustainability guidelines

Two of the most relevant trends are net-zero carbon and passive-house buildings.

The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) is committed to promoting 100% implementation of net-zero carbon buildings—which are highly efficient and fully powered by renewable energy sources, either on- or off-site—by 2050, as required to achieve global emissions reductions outlined by the Paris Agreement within the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), for its part, has launched a Zero Carbon Building Standard, which uses carbon emissions as its key performance metrics.

The passive house standard, meanwhile, is an internationally recognized, voluntary set of principles for energy efficiency that can be applied to commercial, institutional and residential buildings. The science-based concept is so rigorous in its quantitative technical criteria, the standard leads to buildings consuming up to 90% less heating and cooling energy than conventional buildings.


Building better

While these two trends largely address the environmental factors involved in optimal building performance, with regard to energy consumption and the building envelope, other factors are also driving the demand for long-term, full-life-cycle design, including the need for more affordable and durable buildings. What they have in common is the noble notion of ‘building better buildings.’

In reality, however, other factors make it difficult for the construction industry to complete such projects on schedule. Even as many new products and systems enter the marketplace, the challenge of ensuring optimal building performance through net-zero carbon and passive-house principles may prove intimidating.

This issue points to the need to optimize the entire process with a more highly integrated project design and delivery model.


Integrated design and delivery

Such a model involves taking a step back from the construction industry’s traditional methods and looking for new opportunities to combine the functions of various building elements.

One example of integrated design would be to use a precast concrete slab as a structural floor element and include in-floor hydronic lines for overall heating and cooling through core activation, along with electrical conduits and sprinkler lines for the level below. This way, one main part of the building can serve multiple purposes in the overall design, spanning structural, mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines.

Integrating all of these functional elements on-site is not simple. However, advances in off-site construction, prefabrication and modular design can facilitate such a shift in thinking. And as higher levels of prefabrication bring challenges for the traditional project delivery model, this is where integrated design must be complemented by integrated delivery. For a structural element like a floor slab to also provide climate control, electricity and fire suppression, all team members must be involved in the overall project from the beginning.

With an integrated design and delivery model, all parties come together to address the needs and specifications set out by the project owner. This way, they can support each other in producing a set of designs to ensure efficient, optimal building performance.


Lessons from the automotive industry

While this concept suggests a level of risk-sharing and collaboration that is rare or non-existent in the construction industry, it is similar to how the automotive industry already designs and manufactures cars. If today’s cars were delivered like today’s buildings are, they would be much more expensive and their production schedules would take much longer—but automotive manufactures have instead vertically integrated themselves, such that teams work directly with each other to manage the design, engineering, manufacturing and delivery of their products, ensuring optimal efficiency in both cost and function.

There is some precedent for the crossover. The American Institute of Architects (AIA), for example, has advocated for integrated project delivery (IPD), which it defines as “a project delivery approach that integrates people, systems, business structures and practices into a process that collaboratively harnesses the talents and insights of all participants to optimize project results, increase value to the owner, reduce waste and maximize efficiency through all phases of design fabrication and construction.”

IPD was conceived with heavy influence from the automotive industry—specifically, the Toyota Production System (TPS), also known as ‘just-in-time production’ and the precursor to today’s ‘lean manufacturing.’

Now, the integrated design and delivery concept is positioned to take the IPD model another step closer to the streamlined nature of automotive manufacturing. If the construction industry is ready for such changes and to achieve the same degree of productivity gains seen over the past few decades in other industries, then as its methods evolve with higher acceptance of prefabrication and modular elements, I believe we will start to see more vertical integration.

And just as today’s automotive industry includes many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), so too can engineering firms and other companies in the construction industry evolve into original building manufacturers (OBMs).


Jeremiah Vanderlaan, P.Eng, is manager of business development for Newton Group, a vertically integrated general contractor based in Guelph, Ont. For more information, contact him via email at


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