Thoughts on construction law from Christopher G. Hill, Virginia construction lawyer, LEED AP, mediator, and member of the Virginia Legal Elite in Construction Law

Whole Systems Integrated Process: Essentials for Designing Public Construction Projects

Elaine Barnes, LEED APFor this week’s Guest Post Friday here at Musings, we welcome Elaine Barnes. Elaine (@elbarneshouse on Twitter) served as Program Manager for the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s Green Schools Initiative from 2008-2010. Under her leadership, the OSFC initiated the design and construction of over 250 schools undergoing LEED certification with the U.S. Green Building Council. To date, most of these projects are in design review and should be eligible for LEED-Silver or Gold certification, with emphasis in excellent achievement in energy performance. Elaine is now the Principal at Three: Center for Mind, Body & Earth.

In September 2007, the Ohio School Facilities Commission adopted its Green Schools Initiative, one of the most aggressive green building programs in the United States. The program was originally funded through securitization of the Tobacco Settlement money. IRS rules on the securitized funds required OSFC to spend the entire $4.1B on new buildings within three years. With local co-funding, the goal was to construct 250 new buildings (an estimated $8B in construction) in that time period. Setting LEEDÒ Silver as the benchmark, with emphasis in energy optimization, the initiative turned the school design process on its head.

In December 2007, I was approached to lead the program. In January 2008, I began some of the most challenging and rewarding work of my career in building science.

Although there were many lessons, issues and technical challenges along the way, the biggest change the designers were faced with was the process of integrated design. Our designers were used to designing a building in part before funding was awarded (to sell capital levies), working in a silo until the design was nearly done, and certainly not collaborating with engineers, commissioning authorities or construction managers — let alone teachers, students, community members, funders, government officials and school staff – at the outset of design. I will tell you that two years later, everyone finds the process invaluable.

Public projects often come with their own unique issues: bureaucracy, multiple owners, public involvement, multiple prime design and construction, competitive bidding, prevailing wage (Ohio schools are currently exempt from prevailing wage statutes)…on and on… What this results in is a rather choppy design process in which following the ideal protocol for whole system design takes patience, coordination, and finesse. Here are some essential elements for successful public green building projects:

Define your major constraints. Most public green building projects began because of some legislation, resolution or executive order. It is important to be intimately familiar with the rule as well as the politics and history driving it. In Ohio, for example, the Green Schools Initiative was adopted through agency resolution in response to a Governor’s Executive Order for all state agencies to save energy. Another constraint for Ohio’s schools are the DeRolph v State of Ohio cases where the Ohio Supreme Court determined that our school funding process was inequitable and unconstitutional. After much debate, part of the legal definition of equity in Ohio is the number of square feet of building allocated for each student of a particular grade range. Ohio also has a design manual that contains 2400 pages of guidelines for materials and systems appropriate for school construction projects that are co-funded by the State.

Begin developing your Owners’ Project Requirements (OPR) document early in design. The OPR is the living document describing what the owner expects out of the project. This document not only describes programming, but also describes environmental sustainability; materials selection; indoor environmental performance, comfort and processes; community use and connectivity; procurement procedures; and systems, processes and measurements to optimize building performance. It is a document that changes as the project matures and gets closer to construction. It is the first working document that the commissioning authority sees and is responsible for ensuring the goals are sound and deliverable, as well as delivered by the designers and contractors.

Begin to understand and proactively address policy, code or zoning that might be barriers to the project. The most surprisingly difficult thing to often happen to a sustainable construction project often comes when a construction project, moving full speed ahead, runs smack into incompatible and often antiquated rules and regulations. Whether working in site issues, energy generation, rainwater harvesting or other systems, the team needs an assigned point person willing to work with the appropriate agency to change, move through or circumvent rules that no longer have relevance to the modern building and infrastructure needs.

Involve the community along with the design-related stakeholders from planning through design. Meetings with community involvement – be they public unveiling, design eco-charrettes, virtual walk-throughs – are spaces where stakeholders should be invited to dream, express values and positive desires for the project and begin to understand the technical constraints for effecting these goals. This is often the most touchy subject in public projects. Owners often are concerned that opening the discussion up to public comment will bring every individual who has a complaint to air about anything being done in the community. In fact it may; but more importantly, with expert facilitation, this is the best opportunity to engage gifts, develop resources and funding streams, understand barriers and get community buy-in. With expert facilitation, complaints can be set aside for discussion of “what we value” as opposed to “what we don’t want.” Stakeholder meetings should identify existing assets and interests, and set a coordinated protocol for determining who else should be invited to the table, what other resources are available to the project and what research needs to be done in order to best create a project that the community will value.

Model early; model often. The hallmark of a great design is to let technical information inform the design process. This means everybody is involved early in the project with the modeling. The minute the designers know the site and size of the building, it should be placed on the property as a simple box to see how orientation, windows, daylighting techniques, roof and wall construction and shading impact the performance. The building should be built out in such a way that performance is optimized while delivering a design that supports and enhances programming. A great tool for this modeling is the US Department of Energy’s eQUEST. In this modeling, the designers should be evaluating percent change as their design goes through a variety of tweaks. This is known as iterative, parametric modeling. Ideally, the architect does the modeling with counsel from project engineers, construction manager and commissioning authority. Once the envelope is optimized, the engineers can then move forward with the typical system modeling.

Reassemble your core technical team and owners on a regular basis to discuss project progress. The intent is to share expertise and at every meeting answer the questions: Is the design in line with the mission of the owner? Are the goals and values of the stakeholders being addressed and incorporated? Is there anything we can do to further optimize this construction project for long-term operation and maintenance performances? Do we have what we need to develop bid specifications for the project that will deliver the intended design? Are there any other resources we need to answer these questions?

As your public construction moves forward, remember to engage the owner’s facility maintenance staff, the site construction superintendent, the general contractors and skilled trades people who will be responsible for bringing the design to life. Although often more intense than traditional design and construction, whole systems integration is more efficient through the design process, engages everyone’s expertise early in design, reduces the need for change orders and is a process for continual learning for everyone involved from the architect to the mason.

To quote Bill Reed, one of the leading thinkers and practitioners of the whole building design process, it is simply:

Everyone engaged. Every issue considered. Early in the project.

Both Elaine and I welcome your comments below. Also, please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Friday Musings.

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