What is building performance? Who measures it and why?

by Siobhan Rockcastle | siobhan.rockcastle@epfl.ch

Appeared online: May 14, 2014


While the practice of Architecture – as defined by the design and construction of spaces for habitation – can be traced back to the origins of human civilization, the profession of Architecture is a relatively recent institution, brought about by a growing separation between design, engineering, and construction practices. This delineation between areas of expertise within the building industry has been further strengthened by a rift in professional culture, legal liability, and contract deliverables. As a result (or perhaps a cause), we see limited collaboration between architects and engineers in the academic realm, which has perpetuated a separation in pedagogical values between the two disciplines. While this rift is important to understand on a practical and professional level, it is also essential to the development of research and academic inquiry within the design, engineering, and construction industries. Advanced degree programs in architecture, including post-professional master and doctoral level programs are still relatively recent to the academic realm, – while equivalent programs in engineering have existed for some time. This historical context is especially important in assessing current research topics in architecture, especially those interdisciplinary topics that fall between the engineering and architecture disciplines. In recent years, we have seen a rise in research subjects addressing building performance and its influence on the pedagogy and practice of architecture. While there is a clear interest in research at the intersection of design and technology, we may ask ourselves, what is building performance? How is it measured? Who determines the criteria for assessment and how is it implemented into the design environment?

In the field of architecture, the last several decades have seen a dramatic shift in focus, from issues of post-war urbanization and housing to the energy crisis of the 1970s and a growing concern for carbon-neutral and environmentally responsible building design. The term environmental has been used to define a broad range of social and economic initiatives, which – in the field of architecture – has translated most pervasively to the pursuit of energy autonomy and carbon-neutral building practices. Although the relationship between building and environment dates back to the very foundations of architectural practice, the advent of new technologies mark a dramatic transition in the history of building technology. Up until the turn of the 18th century, there was very little change in our heating, cooling and ventilation practices; which were entirely passive and relied on low-grade sources of fuel . With the introduction of the Edison lamp in 1880 and the AC motor in 1888, the industry of artificial lighting was born. By 1910, it is estimated that 1 in every 10 houses in America had electricity and by 1930, 7 out of 10 homes were wired . With the invention of indoor Air Conditioning and its widespread distribution throughout the 1930s, architecture developed a more autonomous relationship from the external environment, relying on electric light deep within the building core and artificial ‘coolth’ where un-filtered sunlight was emitted through fully-glazed façade systems . Parallel advances in Modern Architecture of the 1930s and 40s show a gross misunderstanding of the ecological impacts of unrestricted energy consumption. In his book titled, Precisions, originally published in 1930, Le Corbusier introduces a mechanically-driven air system referred to as ‘respiration exacte:’

“Every nation builds houses for its own climate. At this time of international interpretation of scientific techniques, I propose: one single building for all nations and climates, the house with respiration exacte.”

The move toward an international style coincided with advances in electricity and artificial cooling which occurred throughout the 1930s and 40s and precipitated some rather fantastical ideas about the potential for unlimited energy use and artificial climate within buildings. In the New York World Fair of 1939, the Carrier Corporation installed an exhibition they called the ‘igloo of tomorrow,’ complete with artificial snow to showcase the power of air-conditioning . This fantasy of unlimited energy for artificial indoor environments continued its rapid expansion into the early 1970s, as evidenced by the high-tech architecture of the 1960s and and may have continued were it not for the U.S. oil crisis of 1973 . With a sudden peak in energy costs, the age of environmentally conscious design was born, and with it the building industry quickly, if not rather clumsily, was forced to follow suit.

As the building sciences continue their rapid expansion into a field of critical importance for contemporary architecture, it is important now, more than ever, that we re-examine our methods and criteria for measuring performance. We are conditioned to think that zero net-energy is the ultimate target in environmental design and while no one denies the importance of building energy use, it has become almost pervasive in our current discourse. This obsession with energy has taken precedent over seemingly less urgent, but equally important human-centered topics such as comfort, perception, health, and spatial experience.

In the field of civil engineering, there is a rich history of collaboration between architect and structural engineer, dating from the master builders of the 16th century, who transcended the professional silos of disciplinary boundary, to contemporary practice, where there are numerous examples of positive collaboration. In mechanical and environmental engineering, however, which are relatively new areas of research and application in architectural design, there often exists a tenuous relationship between architect and engineer. Most of the criteria for evaluating contemporary building performance in this field has been developed by technical engineers, computational scientists, or physicists working on the periphery of the discipline through groups that specialize in energy modelling and simulation. This creates a pedagogical disconnect between the role of the architect, who guides the design process, and the role of the engineer, who applies methods of analysis to verify, improve, and optimize performance targets.

To further complicate this relationship, the established metrics for thermal and comfort performance are often non-spatial in their data outputs, creating a block between the visual language of schematic design and the quantitative language of analysis methods. In the field of daylight analysis, there has been a focus on climate-driven task-based illumination metrics to offset the demand for electric lighting and reduce building energy use . These metrics have dominated the field of contemporary research, re-defined environmental performance to be driven primarily by energy-related concerns and marginalized other, equally important design criteria such as visual comfort, human health, perceptual experience, and aesthetic performance. Our perception and appreciation of daylit space is largely defined by human-centered, localized, and ephemeral conditions of our surrounding environment, so we may ask ourselves – why are existing metrics focused on non-spatial, threshold-driven and surface-based metrics? Rather than grasp blindly to existing analysis methods, developed by engineers and imposed onto the architectural profession, perhaps we should stop and ask ourselves – what characteristics (beside energy use) really defines building performance? How can we measure these characteristics and what kinds of tools and methods can be developed to integrate within the design process to result in higher performing architecture?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *