Increasingly, I see design professionals leveraging energy modeling in the design process. This is a very good thing. We are going beyond mere design rules-of-thumb toward performance-based decision-making. However, during a recent design review at Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning, there was a discussion about the degree to which building systems optimization should dictate design decisions. This is a notion that many of my students have question about. They are concerned about their ‘design freedom,’ as one referred to it. Architecture is a creative field and designers have a right to express their point of view through their respective medium.

However, the stakes are staggeringly high related to the built environment. We have all heard the stats: buildings account for 48 percent of all energy use, 75 percent of all electricity consumption, and 45 percent of all CO2 emissions in the U.S. The design and construction industry is committed to charting a course toward a sustainable future.

Unequivocally, we should constantly pursue building performance optimization. On the other hand, if empirical evidence is being leveraged in design decisions, then perhaps we are approaching the slippery slope toward strictly engineered outcomes. If so, then what is to stop engineering from supplanting design and taking priority over architectural outcomes? Where should adherence to optimized system strategies and energy initiatives be curtailed so that architectural design can still occur? Is there a place for design freedom in performance-driven design?

Since I focus on energy and environmental issues in both architectural teaching and practice, I am asked these types questions with increasing frequency.

Think about the issue in more conceptual terms. Whether it is with regard to structural integrity, space heating/cooling, ventilation, illumination, sound transmission, or the like, engineers provide services to help meet specified, quantifiable outcomes. In short, they can clearly convey the value of their services because they must produce optimized solutions geared toward measurable results.

Nobody becomes an architect because of a love for spreadsheets. However, the recession has left a residual financial strain on the design and construction industry. Architects have always appraised their work based on its artistic, social, or environmental merits, but now they are becoming savvy business people as well. Architects are looking for quantitative ways to prove to clients that an investment in design is worthwhile and I believe building science holds a key opportunity.

How do architects communicate the value of their services today? This is something the profession has done quite miserably in the recent past. This is why design fees keep getting pinched and firms struggle to make profits. Building forms, envelopes, sites, and daylighting systems—things that are within the architect’s control—can be optimized with performance metrics. However, the successful integration of high-performance building systems and strategies also require a judicious balance of design considerations that are often at odds with each other—e.g., even with triple-glazing, a window for daylight and views is still the weakest spot in your wall’s thermal barrier. Thus, the architect must embrace the role of the maestro—the creative hand that strives for balance and coherence.

Ultimately, we cannot improve what we do not measure. In energy and environmental design, this amounts to performance-driven decision-making—with outcomes that will impact operations, maintenance, and utility costs. Optimized building design is a clear opportunity for the building design professionals to strengthen their value proposition in an increasingly complicated and competitive building design and construction industry.