Every building is an experiment

Scientists always replicate their experiments. No journal would publish their work if they didn’t.  Field ecologists agonize over finding comparable niches, hoping that statistical analysis will tease truth from the daunting variability of the natural environment. Chefs try a recipe repeatedly, adjusting ingredients minutely, to find the perfect taste. Athletes and musicians practice moves and passages over and over, striving for the subtle nuances that will make all the difference in the final performance.

But in architecture, every building is its own experiment. With rare exception, it is an experiment of one. No controls, no replicates, just one glorious culmination of years of hopes and ideas and struggles to get the thing built. And what of its performance?? Spatial performance is rewarded with glossy features in Architectural Record or Dwell. But “Star-chitects” like Peter Eisenman notwithstanding, energy performance is also a very real concern among designers! Buildings use enormous amounts of energy, and as a result, enormous effort has gone into programs to promote green building design: LEED, SEED, Architecture 2030, International Living Building Challenge, to name just a few. Buildings routinely win awards, gain certifications, and advertise themselves as “green” on the basis of design alone. Think of how astonishing this is: would a recipe, a music composition, a dance, a space, win awards without ever being experienced?

To be sure, building performance can be predicted to some extent from digital models. I build DOE2 and EnergyPlus models for a living, for example. They are valuable, even essential, tools. But they are not the whole story. Each model is only as good as the information that goes into it, and information is always incomplete in schematic design, which is when most building energy models are built. Elements get changed in design development without re-analysis. Decisions are re-visited during construction, materials are substituted, mistakes are made, budgets are cut, timelines are quickened, and occupants use the building in unexpected ways.

But what about that performance? Isn’t the final performance important enough that we actually go check, to see if the experiment worked? Actually – no! Tragically, most buildings never receive any greater performance assessment than the owner’s monthly glance at the utility bill. This is tragic because vast resources are invested in buildings, because thousands of green buildings have been built in the last decade and thousands more are on the boards, and because the lessons available from those we’ve built are not even being listened to, with a few laudable exceptions (such as those published here and here), so that new ones can benefit.

This blog exists for the green building agents who are out there listening, for public agencies that need persuasion to fund green building research, for new green buildings with valuable messages, and for designers who urgently need these messages.

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One response to “Every building is an experiment

  1. Pingback: What does building performance “research” mean, exactly? (part 2) « Green Building Agents

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