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Integrated Approach Keeps Design Teams in the Green

Press engineers on "integrated approach" and you'll see beads of nervous sweat form on their foreheads. The phrase yields fear and vulnerability unlike any felt before in this industry. Engineers complain, "I'll never get enough fee to go to the various meetings" or "I'll use up all of my design fee in studies." Instead of pointing fingers of blame or ignoring the integrated approach, engineers must come up with a solution. In this case that means establishing a unique fee structure for sustainable building.

To make such a structure happen, engineers, architects, and building owners will need to open their minds to new methods, and collaborate from the start on a fair approach. It’s true that sustainable building and the integrated approach can make some building design professionals uncomfortable; it is a different approach, but it works.

Engineering firms are accustomed to "rules of thumb" when setting their fees for large projects: they may take a percentage of construction costs or an arbitrary number of dollars per sheet. However, these "rules" are based upon many years of experience doing the same types of projects under the same types of delivery systems, over and over again. Sustainable building projects are a different breed of cat. There may be too many variables, and each project is unique. It’s important that building owners and project teams take that into consideration from the word “go.”

Here’s an example: the architect, HVAC engineer, and electrical/daylighting designer work together on bringing natural daylight into the building, refining the approach until it satisfies all the needs of the space. This group approach also encourages creativity, as varying degrees of experience of the design team invigorates, educates, and challenges those involved.

Understanding the integrated approach is only half of the battle in mainstreaming sustainable construction. The other half is an agreed-upon fee structure for professional services, which will also lead us to profitability. Consider performance-based fees, in which the engineer is rewarded for each unit energy saved. This would require a reasonable goal and incentives for exceeding that goal. I recognize that providing such incentives is a challenge for young engineers, who are taught in their management classes that engineers are not contractually responsible for "means, methods, techniques, or procedures.” Translation: You can design it, but you have no control over how it is installed or operated.

Why Take Risks?

So why would engineers assume the risk of having their design fees tied to the efficiency of the system they are designing when they are unable to take responsibility for the system installation? How many engineers even want that kind of responsibility?

Let’s take a lesson from performance contracting, an industry born on the East Coast in the 1980s: Performance contracting is the only delivery system that places sole responsibility of the system's performance on the designing and installing company. These companies, sometimes called Energy Services Companies or ESCOs, gather historical information about a building or facility, such as its systems design, usage, and maintenance, and use it to verify the amount of money a building owner or operator is spends annually on utilities and capital expenditures. Armed with that knowledge, the ESCO designs and installs or retrofits the new system, guaranteeing the savings.

ESCOs can assume such risks because they are paid to. A typical fee structure for performance contracting is in two parts: the audit/development phase and the design/implementation phase. An ESCO can present a fixed fee for the research and exploration of the building or facility, which in turn is used to gather enough information to direct the design phase, if and when it occurs. Only after the audit phase will the ESCO commit to the design phase fee.

This method is tried and true, and can be applied to sustainable building design. A two-part fee system could be used to insulate the risk of exploration from the design phase:
  1. Research and conceptualization. The owner would be protected from cost overruns by being presented with a "Cost-Plus MAX" or an "Hourly Not To Exceed."
  2. The other part of the fee, which represents the effort for the actual implementation of the project, would only be determined AFTER Part 1 has taken place.
Take the Long View

It’s natural that professionals will be cautious about implementing this “new” approach. Architects and engineers will need to work together to show building owners that any increase in design fees are a small investment toward decreased operational costs, improved occupant satisfaction and performance, and conservation of materials and natural resources.

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Copyright 2001 Ameé Quiriconi. Ameé Quiriconi, L.C., S.B.A., is an associate at Abacus Engineered Systems, Inc., and is the lead of the company's lighting division. She has been working in energy conservation and architectural lighting since 1995.

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