Research Based Design

Written by Naomi Cole, Konstrukt, Inc. for BetterBricks            

The Value of Research

A transformation began at SRG Partnership in 1999 when Principal Architect, Kent Duffy, began collaborating with the University of Oregon's Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory (ESBL) while designing the University's Lillis Business Complex for the Lundquist College of Business.

Kent Duffy, SRG. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. Little did he know that this relationship would forever change his and his firm's approach to design and professional practice. The value of ESBL's research-based approach became clear through tested scale models and the effectiveness of its director, G.Z. Charlie Brown, to demonstrate a principle. How could a designer argue with daylighting potential in the Northwest when Brown opened the blinds and turned off the lights to show sufficient footcandle measurements using a table top light meter? Brown brings a fully equipped research lab, experienced professional staff, extensive research data and a long history of project experience to prove the effectiveness of particular design innovations. 


 "When we saw what Charlie and the Lab could do, it gave us the information to make informed descisions, not guesses," - Kent Duffy, SRG Partnership

Charlie G.Z. Brown, University of Oregon's Energy Studies in Buildings Lab. "When we saw what Charlie and the Lab could do, it gave us the information to make informed decisions, not guesses," says Duffy. On the Lillis project SRG, applied a variety of passive strategies that they had used intuitively in other projects, but the application at Lillis was very different. This time the design was backed up by tested research and analyses done by the Lab.

For Duffy and others at SRG, including Design Principal Jon Schleuning and Managing Principal Dennis Cusack, this ability to distinguish between perceptions and reality was increasingly valuable to their design process. ESBL's support has allowed them to optimize building performance with concepts specific to building type and location. 

Over the last ten years the relationship between SRG and ESBL has gradually transformed the approaches of the firm's design leaders, the management and business model for a multi-office practice, and related impacts to the rapidly evolving profession of architecture. 

Transformation of the Designers

Lillis Business Complex Atrium at the University of Oregon. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. As individuals at SRG began to understand the value of ESBL analysis to verify design performance through tested models, the Lab's research took on increasing importance in their design routine. Once Lillis was built, SRG wanted their next project to perform at an even higher level. "Understanding performance changed the value system of how we judge buildings and perceive things," says Schleuning.

The most defining transformation for both design principals is that environmental responsiveness has become form generating. From project outset, they now systematically work through the analysis of daylight or natural ventilation to ensure an approach really works and is properly integrated into a concept to inform spatial and material qualities. Instead of presuming what a building will look like and then figuring out how to make it work, Duffy and Schleuning now explore what works passively and use that information to give form to a structure. As Duffy says, "What you build reflects what you believe." They consider local environmental characteristics before even developing a design concept. And for both architects, that reversal in process has been the greatest transformation.

Jon Schleuning, SRG Partnership, Inc. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. A new SRG building for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife exemplifies this transformational approach. While still negotiating the contract, and prior to any design workshops, Schleuning scheduled a meeting with Brown and mechanical engineer Paul Schwer of PAE Consulting Engineers to discuss key questions to ask during programming. He knew that effective programming would inform occupants' behavior in the space and that collocation of similar functions would help optimize the resource demands of different space types. Energy demands and comfort zones were accounted for before building diagrams were ever conceived. The first thing he asked the owner-where is the nearest weather station?

Dennis Cusack, SRG Partnership, Inc. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. Brown has worked with many architects over his long career and has found a unique give and take with Duffy and Schleuning because they take his participation as a university-based researcher very seriously. This is partly because the two principals are highly collaborative with one another and openly critical when appropriate. They have found a similar relationship with Brown. At a recent work session at ESBL, Duffy and Brown were exploring optimum configurations for a daylit classroom. When Duffy suggested what he personally knew was an unusual, and potentially unreasonable, configuration, Brown beamed in response and said, "I knew eventually you'd start listening to me."

Each design is an evolution of the one before it and SRG and ESBL are exploring new ways to shape the reflectors and deliver light to a room while also providing shade in special situations

This kind of give and take between Brown, Duffy and Schleuning is unique in the design practice because it is unlike that of architect and client or architect and consultant. As an independent, academic research institute, supported in part by BetterBricks since 2002, ESBL ensures that design explorations are idea-driven, as well as service-driven in response to a client. This facilitates a two-way free exchange of ideas and challenges in both directions.

Transformation of the Firm

Though the Lab collaboration began as a successful dynamic primarily involving Duffy and Schleuning, under Cusack's leadership this approach to performance and research-based design now permeates the firm. Across SRG, attitudes are changing. A new sense of inquiry ensures that designers first think about environmental performance and use lessons from previous innovations, while new iterations improve on lessons learned from previous models. It even creates a healthy competition among designers who want their own projects to achieve the best performance results and use the least energy. "The end result," observes Brown, "is exemplary buildings that leverage the resources of their context, amplify the productivity and health of their occupants and demonstrate high levels of performance."

One example of this evolution is the daylit classroom concept first used at Mount Angel Abbey. Over the years, Brown and his collaborators had developed a model of a large central skylight situated above reflectors to diffuse light throughout a room. He finally found the right Skylight Relfector at Mt. Angel Abbey. application opportunity with the SRG team and the Mount Angel project. The project has now found much success along with a few challenges. SRG's enthusiasm for the design and the lessons learned from the first installation has encouraged them to keep refining the concept, which has since been used in other SRG projects like the da Vinci Middle School, Chemeketa Community College, and Spokane Falls Community College. Each design is an evolution of the one before it and SRG and ESBL are exploring new ways to shape the reflectors and deliver light to a room while also providing shade in special situations.

 Architecture schools have traditionally taught the descipline through structure and form, and designers are now being asked to understand architecture through environmental resources like light and air, which require engineering techniques to be understood at a higher level.

Through over 30 collaborative projects with ESBL the SRG staff has transformed, much like Duffy, Schleuning, and Cusack, to recognize the value of research analysis and modeling of a design providing the direct link to better building performance. The proliferation of SRG and ESBL partner projects means that there are now 24-30 people within SRG who can readily communicate with Brown and his team about integrated design to produce higher levels of building performance. This also provides ESBL an opportunity to try new things outside of the lab. The relationship goes both ways.

Charlie Brown & Jon Schleuning at an in-house workshop. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. SRG has now proven, internally, that certain design strategies will be givens for their projects, and each new project starts at a higher level, with a smaller learning curve because previous buildings have proven the value of a particular strategy. Teams now know to ask for climate data at the very beginning of a project. The level of insulation on the exterior of a building no longer requires proof on each project. There is no debate about whether to daylight a space, only the question of how. Lessons learned from one project become standard for the next. At Mount Angel, the ceiling fans were all wired on the same circuit so the retroactively installed monitors could not isolate fan energy use for a particular room. SRG now asks electrical engineers to place fans on individual circuits for more effective monitoring. Because infiltration was a challenge at Mount Angel, SRG now requires blower door tests for all their new projects. 

Out of all these lessons learned, and a desire for greater efficiency, SRG has developed a matrix to help guide new projects through the analytic process that they have learned from Brown. It takes a quantitative approach to break energy demand into lighting, fan power, and plug loads, for example, and a qualitative approach to consider comfort and visibility as an example of occupant satisfaction. This comprehensive analysis helps to drive down energy demand before a project even hits the drawing board and is just one approach to help further integrate energy analysis in a consistent manner across projects. "We're very enthusiastic about it," says Schleuning, "But it's harder than we ever thought."

Charlie Brown & Jon Schleuning at the daylighting lab in ESBL. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. This is one of many related initiatives within the firm that were inspired by the relationship with the Lab. The project level work was the catalyst, and from that Cusack was challenged to standardize the quality of analysis and performance of every new SRG project across multiple offices. A 2007 Strategic Plan for Integrated High Performance Buildings helped institutionalize this approach and formalize related intentions for 100 percent LEED Accreditation of Principals and 85 percent of design staff, as well as emerging partnerships with other leading thinkers and a new accounting model to assess the value of an existing building or site. Cusack creates the environment across the firm to share lessons learned and stimulate new initiatives so that designers like Duffy and Schleuning can remain project-focused and build the next-generation high performance building.

Transformation of the Profession

From the application of this research-based approach in SRG's own practice and firm, Cusack observes a huge challenge for the architecture profession-an increasing awareness of performance and resource consumption requires that designers essentially relearn professional practice. Architecture schools have traditionally taught the discipline through structure and form, and designers are now being asked to understand architecture through environmental resources like light and air, which require engineering techniques to be understood at a higher level.

Kent Duffy & Charlie Brown at an in-house workshop. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. "We may understand the intuitive aspects, like the fact that it's easier to heat water than air, but what do we do about it?" asks Schleuning. ESBL helps bridge this knowledge gap with practical, hands-on application and models that connect form to performance and allow designers to optimize the two. Duffy explains that passive systems require more engineering because they must respond to small nuances to achieve performance targets. "It takes the most refined level of engineering imaginable to get a building to breathe and stay warm without turning on fans or boilers," he says.

Schleuning adds that it is not only the buildings, but also the behavior of their occupants, that must change. He characterizes Brown as a behavioralist because he considers the power of people to impact building energy use. If occupants fail to open the blinds in the morning to let in sunlight, then the electric lights become the default and an entire daylighting scheme has no impact. Similarly, Schleuning is adamant that designers must learn not to design for extremes, which he refers to as the "5 percent solution," where an entire HVAC system is oversized to respond to five days of above average weather annually, rather than letting occupants respond to the variation through clothing, open windows, or individual fans.

SRG Lab Symposium. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. While this increasing awareness challenges architects, it can be even more challenging for building owners who are not trained to think about performance of their facilities. And because some design decisions require new flexibility to allow greater comfort ranges or different operating routines, the significance of conveying these opportunities to clients cannot be underestimated. By working with decision makers at all levels, SRG may explain opportunities in a different way to administrators, facilities managers, and the users because each interest group brings a different set of priorities that directly affect building performance. While many of these client groups are still evolving in their thinking about energy demand and occupant behavior in their buildings, SRG brings trust and added value with a portfolio of research analysis and tested building performance.

Over their careers, Duffy, Schleuning, and Cusack have seen trends come and go. In this era of increasing awareness of resource consumption and the impact of buildings worldwide, they feel a burden and responsibility to see that the evolving responsiveness to climate assets and building performance has endurance. "We're back in a phase when we're trying to have an impact, and if we can cement values that have lasting merit, then we are in fact successful and of value," says Schleuning. "We're in a position now to change the world."

The Impact of Innovation

Lillis Business Complex Rotunda. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. The implications of this innovation process are not underestimated by SRG. It is very serious work. "When you're doing innovation, if it doesn't work, then it jeopardizes a whole series of very, very positive acts that other people are doing," explains Schleuning. If, in fact, the daylighting approach at Mount Angel had not worked, then all its visitors and observers would have spread the word that this particular approach to a daylit classroom was a bad idea. Fortunately, it did work. There is an awareness within the firm that each act of innovation creates a precedent, making the testing and modeling process during design even more important.

Yet Duffy looks forward to a future of architectural practice with continued experimentation and exploration of the possibilities that he has valued so greatly in his relationship with ESBL.

Considering this and the seriousness of their experimentation, SRG felt that the missing piece of their research was a comprehensive approach to monitoring the performance of their buildings. They were concerned about making unsubstantiated claims and also wanted to reciprocate the benefits they received from ESBL. At Cusack's suggestion, SRG is sponsoring a two-year research fellowship at Brown's lab for a position fully dedicated to monitoring, testing, and verifying building performance.

Jon Schleuning & Charlie Brown at ODFW Marine Resource Building Workshop. Photo credit: SRG Partnership, Inc. Beyond the lab position, Duffy, Schleuning, and others in their office are committed to spreading their approach to collaboration and lessons learned throughout the design community. With the assistance of BetterBricks, the commercial building initiative of the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, they have worked to expand and share ESBL's lessons learned and expertise. For a project in Montana that includes designers from SRG's Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco offices, Brown was recruited as the lead design researcher, but the workshops brought together all the academic labs that are part of the BetterBricks Integrated Design Lab Network to help others embrace this kind of collaboration.

While this has been largely personal for SRG and its design leaders, they recognize that the relationship with ESBL must have a legacy and are looking to expand ESBL's reach to partner with similar labs around the country and expand the network around the world. Duffy, Schleuning, and Cusack hope to see a similar network of research labs pop up in Frankfurt, Paris, and Sydney to support local architects.

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