The Building-Design Revolution

Feb. 1, 2009
Green building is revolutionizing the practice of architecture and engineering, forcing all design professions to look at the broader effects of their

Green building is revolutionizing the practice of architecture and engineering, forcing all design professions to look at the broader effects of their project work. Just as the green-building revolution has spurred designers and builders to incorporate sustainable design into many types of buildings, it also has affected the professional practices of architects, interior designers, engineers, and contractors. For example, by the end of 2006, more than 35,000 design and construction professionals, along with thousands of building officials, financiers, brokers, and other industry participants, had become recognized as LEED Accredited Professionals (LEED APs) by taking a national exam in the LEED system. This number exceeded 50,000 in 2008. By mid-2007, several large architectural firms had more than 400 LEED APs.1


By learning to use the LEED system for building evaluation, these professionals are committing themselves to a new approach to building design and construction. Yet, it is a painful process for many because the skill sets for participating in an integrated design process and actually designing green buildings still are not widespread in the architecture and engineering fields.

In my experience, engineers particularly are reluctant to be full participants in the early stages of project design for several reasons. Many have told me, “We only get paid to design the building once,” yet architects go through many iterations to arrive at a final design concept. For this reason, engineers typically wait until the architect's design is established firmly before beginning serious design efforts. Yet, integrated design requires their involvement from the earliest stages. Building engineers also have become narrowly focused on heating, cooling, and lighting buildings using mechanical and electrical systems rather than approaching projects with full consideration of building-envelope (glazing and insulation) measures, renewable-energy systems, natural ventilation, and other techniques that do not rely on equipment alone.

Professional education is also a factor. Mechanical and electrical engineers tend to know far less about architecture than architects know about engineering design for two reasons. First, architects have to take courses in building engineering, and many architecture schools have been teaching passive solar design and bioclimatic design for decades. Second, architects have complete responsibility for project budget and construction, so they have to integrate every aspect of building design into a final product, whereas engineers tend to focus on their own narrow specialties.

These are broad generalizations, of course; even as more experienced engineers struggle to learn sustainable design approaches, there is a new generation coming out of school that knows how to integrate considerations of health, comfort, and productivity into engineered systems while fully appreciating architectural concerns.

For example, proper daylighting design requires electrical engineers and lighting designers to integrate electric lighting controls with daylighting. This may mean that less electric lighting is required, which in turn reduces the need for air-conditioning (the province of the mechanical engineer), because all electric light eventually becomes heat that must be removed from a building. Reducing the size of an air-conditioning system reduces costs; these savings then can be applied to exterior shading devices, skylights, rooftop monitors, and other means to create effective daylighting. Yet, most engineers design buildings using handbooks and “rules of thumb” and are reluctant to reduce HVAC-system sizes from established norms. In design-build projects, mechanical contractors typically design HVAC systems, and they are even more risk-averse; moreover, they have little incentive to downsize HVAC systems because the more money the project spends on HVAC, the more they make.

Green buildings present other professional challenges. For example, plumbing designers traditionally have taken water into a building from a municipal utility and sent out wastewater to the public sewer. One pass through the building has been all they were required to think about. Now, many projects want not only to conserve water via efficient fixtures, but also to capture and reuse rainwater, which requires a dual piping system, on-site water treatment, and use of “less-than-potable” water in toilets. (Some projects even want water-free urinals in public restrooms.) So plumbing engineers have had to add all these systems to their repertory and have had to learn how to deal with local plumbing officials not well-versed in these new systems and technologies.

Electrical engineers traditionally have brought power into a building from the local electrical utility; now they are being asked to design on-site power systems using solar power, microturbines, or cogeneration systems on a scale and with an importance to the client that they previously have not experienced. The 40,000-sq-ft Chicago Center for Green Technology, which supplies 72 kw from photovoltaics in three different configurations, produces 136,000 kwh of electricity per year. The center was completed in 2003 at a building cost of $5.4 million and certified as a LEED for New Construction pilot Platinum project.2

“From what I can tell, the architectural profession and our standard design process is behind the times,” Mary Ann Lazarus director of sustainable design for HOK, the largest architectural and engineering firm in the United States, said.3 “Integrated design is not something that naturally happens — because of the way that contracts work, because of traditional relationships between contractors, engineering consultants, design teams, and the architects. We need to be willing to work at making integration happen and adjust contract, schedule, and fees appropriately. In five years, I think that things that we now consider sustainable design, such as basic LEED certification, will be considered fundamental requirements for buildings. They will become expected components, and if you don't do them, you're going to be behind in the market, and you're not going to design buildings that have long-term value.”4


  1. 25,000 LEED professionals and counting. (2006, July). Building Design+Construction, p. S5.

  2. The American Institute of Architects. Chicago center for green technology. (n.d.) Retrieved from

  3. A beacon of hope: Giants 300. (2006, July). Building Design+Construction, p. 61.

  4. (M.A. Lazarus, personal interview, March 2007).

From The Green Building Revolution by Jerry Yudelson. Copyright © 2008 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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Jerry Yudelson, PE, MBA, LEED AP, is principal of Yudelson Associates. Chair of the 2008 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, he has trained more than 3,300 building-industry professionals on the LEED rating system. He is the author of six books and many research studies, white papers, and articles on green buildings. He can be contacted through his Website,