Sustainability & LEED – Value vs. Cost

By: John Berendzen

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LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program started by the US Green Building Council to create a process whereby a building can be certified as following a strict set of rules that follow “green” or sustainable design and construction practices.  Therefore, a “LEED” certified building should be “greener” than a non-certified building, right?

There are a lot of good reasons to follow LEED when building, but there’s also a cost to certifying a project that many owners choose not to bear.  If your project falls into this category, you may opt to follow the LEED process but not go through the work of certification.  Here’s how we suggest you start.


First, prioritize the sustainable design challenges for your project, from most important to least.  For instance, if your project is located in a hot, dry climatic zone your most important issue may be enhancing your building envelope and optimizing your cooling systems.  If your project is an office environment in a leased space, providing appropriate daylight and views for staff may top your list.  To be effective with your sustainable design, identify your biggest challenges and set goals for how you might respond.

Next, take those problems identified above and research how LEED guides you to a more sustainable solution.  Here are a few examples of projects that used the LEED process without gaining certification:

solar analysis

For our recently completed Regulator Technologies Headquarters, we determined early in the project that minimizing solar heat gain on our envelope while providing excellent daylight and views for the building population were most important.  We began where LEED points you – by utilizing an integrated design process for the envelope (leveraging the entire design/ownership/construction team) and modeling the various alternatives the team proposed.

Our process leveraged LEED Energy and Atmosphere Prequisite 2 and Credit 1.  We began by looking at the solar path on our site, and oriented the building to keep the largest glazed areas facing north and south.  Our energy modeling looked at rotating our building along all the cardinal points, and the north/south alignment was most efficient.  We then proposed multiple concepts for minimizing the solar load on the south face.  These included multiple options for high performance glass, basic insulated glass, solar shade devices, no solar shade devices, white (high albedo) roof and substituting spandrel glass for vision glass in select areas.  By using the energy model, we were able to select a high performing glass (along with spandrel glass the most effective parts of the envelope for minimizing solar heat gain) along with solar shading and a high albedo roof.  Our model indicates that this design will save 38.2% over a basic design, with no solar shading and basic insulated glass.  We also estimated that the payback for these decisions was less than 3 years.


sun screen photo

We choose not to go through the entire documentation process to see how many LEED points our final building would have gained in EA Credit 1 – this would have been nice to know but had not impact or return on investment.  By concentrating on our biggest challenge, we were able to leverage the LEED process to great effect at the lowest cost.


While we believe that LEED certification is a laudable goal, we realize that not every project can bear these costs.   As architects, we believe that all projects deserve a design process which explores a variety of design alternatives early in the project, and these alternatives should be grounded in effective, results oriented sustainable design.  So for your next project, if LEED certification is not achievable, consider using the LEED process as a guideline for creative, sustainable design.

The value of commissioning

By: John Berendzen

Have you ever heard an engineer or a contractor use the term “commissioning” and wondered what they were talking about?  Like any profession, those in the design and construction industry have their own language.  Commissioning is one of those terms we throw around often without explaining what we mean.  This is unfortunate, because the concept behind commissioning is both simple and critical to performance of our buildings.  So, what is commissioning?   To explain, it helps to consider how buildings are designed and constructed.

There’s an advertisement making the rounds today of the design magazines that asks “Still buying building envelopes this way? (1)  It features a picture of a car that’s been dismantled into it’s component parts and neatly spread across the floor – hundreds of pieces.  It’s a pretty effective ad, and it highlights a fact about the design and construction industry that most people don’t think about – buildings are made of thousands of components, and it’s the job of the designers and contractors to figure out how all these disparate parts fit and function together.  This is not an easy task.

Commissioning is the process of looking at one group of parts in any building – for example, the building’s Electrical system – and testing it to see if it is functioning in the way the designers intended.  Electrical and HVAC systems are the most common targets for commissioning, but you can commission any system – the building skin (roof, walls and floor), plumbing systems, electrical systems etc.


You might be tempted to ask “why should I have to consider commissioning – I’ve already paid the architects and engineers to design it, and I’ve paid my contractor to build it – isn’t that enough?  Depending on the complexity of your project, the answer might require careful consideration.  For years, Data Center operators have understood that the testing and verification from commissioning is required for their business – even though they hire the best designers and contractors for this specialized work – because systems don’t typically start up as planned and the mission critical nature of a data center requires assurances that things will function as expected.  Even if everything functioned perfectly, it’s imperative a data center operator can verify to their clients that the systems work properly.  Commissioning enables them to provide that security.

In non-mission critical projects commissioning can pay dividends.  Management consultant Peter Drucker said “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.  Commissioning is a process that measures performance.  When you commission a building’s walls and roof, part of what happens is measuring the amount of air or moisture that passes through the skin.  Even though major products like windows are tested by agencies like UL for performance, that window is typically placed in a wall assembly that has multiple parts, and those parts often join with the floors or roof in ways that were not part of the standard UL test.   Commissioning your building skin might include looking at those areas with thermal imaging equipment.  Normally if air or moisture is leaking through the assembly it happens at these joints.  A small opening in these joints might be adequate to keep out the rain, but heat, cold and moisture might be traveling through and over the life of the building, the extra cost to cover this thermal load can be significant.  High performance buildings require a higher level of “fine tuning” to make them function properly.  Commissioning is “tuning” your building.

Commissioning is most commonly used in conjunction with HVAC and Electrical systems.  The complexity of these systems (especially HVAC) and the cost involved with these systems is why they often undergo commissioning.  As a building owner, you might assume that having your consulting engineer observe the system installation during construction would be enough to insure that the system is functioning as expected.  While many issues are resolved and correctly installed this way, things can be missed.  For example, Fox recently completed a 50,000 SF build out for a law firm.  We provided fully engineered mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection documents.  The building was a new high rise office tower – the law firm was the first tenant in this space.   Since this project was constructed as a LEED certified interior, commissioning was required.  The commissioning report found problems with a fan terminal unit’s control board, incorrect settings on other fan terminal units and improperly located CO2 sensors.  These problems could not be determined through a standard inspection.  They required running the system through various temperature scenario’s to detect.  Without commissioning, the tenant likely would have complained temperature swings without knowing the cause.

If you have been involved with a LEED certified project, you are most likely familiar with commissioning, but it can pay big dividends on non-LEED projects also.   Our office has recently been involved with multiple projects that were bid through a reverse auction process.  We have found that this type of bidding, or any bidding where the mechanical and electrical subcontractors can’t be pre-selected benefits immensely from commissioning.   In a low bid scenario, coordination with other trades and start-up/troubleshooting of mechanical and electrical systems is cut to the bare minimum from subcontractor bids.  High performance buildings with complex systems require more than the bare minimum to function properly.  It’s also good insurance for the owner to contract with a third party (no connection with the design team and the contractor) for commissioning.  This way you have a neutral party insuring that both the design and installation is adequate and functioning properly.

Commissioning requires a considerable amount of testing and inspection from the commissioning agent.  Prices for commissioning typically range from a dollar per square foot to $1.16 for new construction.  The return on investment from improved system efficiency typically pays back in less than 4 years, however. (2)

At Fox we believe in the value of commissioning for all our projects.  Musical instruments must be tuned before playing.  Buildings must also be tuned to get the maximum return on investment.  Commissioning is a critical step in that process!


   1. Oldcastle Building Envelope, Architecture Magazine, January 2014
   2. Lawrence Berkley National Labs, Building Commissioning 2009 Assessment

Emerson Process Management’s Global Innovation Center in the Wall Street Journal

By: John Berendzen

Friday January 30th’s online edition of the Wall Street Journal features an article on Emerson Process Management’s facility in Austin Texas.   The article highlight’s Emerson’s dedication to continued innovation and the emphasis they place on their buildings as a key part of their overall business strategy.  Fox was the architect for this work, which includes the Process Management Headquarters and the Integrated Operations Center (iOps)

Neill Scheiter, 2014 Focus Class of Emerging Leaders

By: John Berendzen

Neill Scheiter has been named to the 2014 class of Emerging Leaders for Focus St. Louis.

A few fun facts about Neill: 

  • He’s a member of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators.
  • He lives in downtown St. Louis, 2 blocks from our office (so if I’m locked out I know who to call).
  • He’s a proud graduate of Drury University, class of 2009.
  • His study abroad program at Drury included interning for a firm in Beijing.
  • Last year, he took a watercolor seminar in Italy taught by Tom Schaller.
  • Neill worked on the design of the recently completed Emerson Regulator Technologies Headquarters, and St. Louis University’s Center for Global Citizenship.

Neill 2

Congratulations Neill!

The Value of Discovery – Dialogue before Drawing

By: Michael Fox

When asked – “what do architects do”, the most common answer is, “they design / draw plans for buildings”. However, that answer diminishes the more complete and impactful role of architecture. Well before any drawing, sketching or concepting takes place, creating the opportunity to ask fundamental questions, exchange information and listen always pays significant dividends. If drawings are the first communications that a client sees, there is no going back to recapture this critical information.

Whenever possible (and it always isn’t) we aggressively encourage clients to invest a small portion of the overall project schedule in the Discovery Phase. Initially some clients balk at this request. In most cases, they haven’t worked with an architectural firm that offered this level of support. After some limited opposition, we are often asked – “why are you doing this?” In one word – Connection! To identify issues that an organization is facing beyond the need for physical changes. To ask questions that can inform the design phases that follow. In short, to provide connective thinking beyond the metrics of operational requirements and aesthetic of physical appearance will provide significant value. And, the value is not project specific. Healthcare, corporate or retail projects can all profit uniformly form the Discovery process.

For a hypothetical client, here are some typical Fox Architects Discovery questions –

1. Describe your organizations unique characteristics and competitive differentiators.

2. How will you measure the success of this project?

3. What physical messages should the new facility communicate to employees and visitors?

4. Have you visited a facility that is similar to your expectations for this facility?

5. Provide five adjectives that best describe your organization.

Notice that we have not asked about how many people, how much storage, what are the conferencing requirements and working adjacency. Not yet. It is critical and necessary information but it is a bit out of sequence. During the Programming phase all of that information will be captured and presented.

Discovery inquiries identify topics that provide unique information about an organization’s “DNA”. And, in most cases one answer comfortably leads to additional conversation that can be of equal value. As an example – asking a select group to respond to question #5 always produces great dialogue, exchanges of opinions and high value messaging (brand) direction.  For instance, those adjectives might be “passionate, flexible, focused, visionary and disciplined“. These five are powerful and impressive descriptive adjectives. Given that answer, more organizationally revealing questions will surface. For example, do you see these characteristics represented in your current work environment?


To be honest, in most cases there is very little if any connection between these characteristics and the client’s existing environment. If we do our job properly, we can use the wealth of self- described to begin to inform the design programming and design phases that follow.

As the design activity progresses with information gained from our Discovery Phase the real value of architecture is apparent. And, it is a logically extension of this information to develop criteria that can create the foundation for evidence based design.  The end product – a more relevant, connected and measurable environment directly linked to our client’s performance and brand identity.


The Discovery Phase just might be the most valuable phase of every project. Try it out, I guarantee a positive outcome!


LEED for Data Centers V4 – Voicing some Concerns

By: John Berendzen

This office is a big fan of LEED.  Whether you go through the entire LEED certification process, or you use the process as a guideline without seeking certification, the philosophy behind the program results in a high(er) performance building.  However, there are some aspects of LEED that I leave me puzzled.

Case in point – the USGBC has finally come out with a “LEED for Data Centers” in their Version 4 Rating System.  This is great news, however I strongly disagree with their approach to the development density and quality transportation credits found in the “Location and Transportation” category (LT.  These credits are similar to the credits found in previous versions of LEED.  Their goal is to encourage development in dense, developed areas with access to multiple mass transit systems, housing nearby and neighborhood shops and services nearby.  There are 10 credits possible with these two points, meaning that the USGBC is weighting them to make them more desirable to developers who want to achieve the higher levels of LEED (Gold/Platinum).

In addition to these two credits, there’s a new credit called “LEED for Neighborhood Development Location” that has a potential for 16 points.  They list the intent as

“To avoid development on inappropriate sites. To reduce vehicles miles traveled (vehicles kilometers traveled). To enhance livability and improve human health by encouraging daily physical activity.”

If you dig into this one you realize they are encouraging the development of Data Centers in areas that earned the “LEED for Neighborhood Development” rating.  These developments would be similar to the areas noted above: densely populated, mixed use, access to mass transit.

The problem I have with this is a Data Center isn’t always the best neighbor for these areas.  Consider this:

They have very low human populations relative to building size.

They require security requirements that make them “pedestrian unfriendly”.

They typically have few to no window.  Not something that enhances a dense urban neighborhood.

They have utility needs that aren’t often aesthetically pleasing in an urban core.

Many require monthly startup of diesel generators: not something that fits in well with an urban population due to smoke and noise.

You can make the argument that our urban cores are filled with empty buildings that have lost their appeal to the office population, and use as a data center is one way to repurpose these buildings.  While it’s true that many downtown office or warehouse buildings have been converted to Data Center use, it’s also true that often retrofitting these buildings as data centers doesn’t bring large numbers of workers to the area relative to other prospective uses for the buildings, and they are often difficult to retrofit.

Sometimes it seems like if there’s an existing building that no one can use, no one wants – some person will suggest it’s use as a data center.  Why not – the equipment inside won’t complain, right?  It reminds me of a lecture I went to some years back given by a very well published architect.  Every time she encountered some odd angled space left over inside the building due to the twists and turns of the exterior skin, she’d say “this can be artists or student housing”.  As if these two groups wouldn’t complain (toss those artists in there, they’ll take anything).

If LEED really understood the Data Center world, they would have provided more points in the energy category and deleted these points.  LEED certification isn’t about meeting the code’s minimum requirements – it’s about going beyond to achieve the highest and best use for your project.  Data Centers in urban areas, while certainly possible, aren’t the highest and best use.

Lunch with Leslie Laskey

By: John Berendzen

Frank Rosario and I had the pleasure of lunch with Leslie Laskey today.   We both left saying “That was the best discussion I’ve had in a long time”!  All these years later, after having “Professor Laskey” at Washington University School of Architecture for our 2nd year studios, he’s still teaching and making us think.  Sooner or later the topic always gravitates to the school, what’s happening over there, are we still connected with them (and if not, why not).    I’m paraphrasing now, but he gave us homework:

“We have a responsibility as practicing architects. We need to get involved with the schools, and let them know that good design is more than just a seductive drawing – it’s being involved with the community.  As Architects, our job is to get out of our shells, ask questions, listen to what people have to say.  Architecture isn’t a singular event that comes out of your head, gets built and takes a nice photograph.  It’s about the process of design, drawing in others and building something memorable.”

Time to finish my homework…..

Wyly Theater Visit

By: John Berendzen

I recently had the good fortune to attend a behind the scenes tour of the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, given by the Artistic Director.  Designed by REX/OMA, this is a building I’ve wanted to visit since it’s opening in late 2009.  While the exterior is striking (designed to mimic the flowing nature of a stage curtain) it’s the interior that gets most of the attention.  Unlike most theaters, which are limited by their stage/seating design (proscenium, thrust, round) the Wyly is designed something like an inside-out transformer.  The stage floor, seating and components can all be manipulated, moved up, down, rotated etc to suite the particular needs of the play.

The comment I most take out of the tour came from the artistic director.  He told the group that the experimental nature of the building has changed the way they act and produce plays – not just in this space, but everywhere they act.  The building has changed them – made them open themselves to new ways of performing.

exterior 3

Theatre Exterior

interior 1

Costume Shop with concrete structure visible

Performance Space

Performance Space

Buildings have effect on us – good or bad, rarely indifferent.  The Wyly theater isnt’ just a great building: it’s made the troupe better artists!

SLU-Stainability Expo

By: John Berendzen

Yesterday, Brett, Jacob and I had the privilege of presenting our work at the SLUstainability Expo, held in the Center for Global Citizenship. It featured information and booths from many organizations, including Chartwells, Laclede Gas, Big Shark Bicycles, Shoeman Water Projects, Electronics Recyclers, McCarthy and others.


Jacob and Brett manning our booth at the CGC

We had many conversations with students and staff concerning the sustainable aspects of the CGC, specifically the daylighting concepts and the preservation of the existing building (preserving the embodied energy).

We presented examples of sustainable products we often incorporate into our work, and printed material describing our  philosophy for sustainable design.

1.    Start simple: exhaust all passive strategies before moving to active ones.  Maintenance costs for intensive energy saving systems can often lead to  those systems being disabled before their intended lifespan is up.

2.    Explore Alternatives: Sustainable design requires a full exploration of the alternatives, with ROI included.  Working through alternatives early in a project is a critical part of the sustainable design process.

3.    Support cities:  Density makes sense.  Cities are by their nature sustainable, in that they minimize energy use per person compared to suburban or rural areas.  Cities have shorter travel distances, more mass transit and require less infrastructure per person.  But for cities to remain vibrant, they need care and constant renewal.

4.    Aesthetics matter:  The most sustainable buildings are the ones that people love, and no one loves an ugly building.  Sustainable design is composed, well crafted and intriguing.

5.    Old is New:  Renovation and Adaptive Reuse are key sustainable strategies.  Often the most sustainable solution is to re-purpose the building that is already built.

6.    Be Productive:  Human productivity is as important as energy efficiency.  Flexibility is key.  To be successful a building must become a resource for it’s occupants.  As Churchill said “We shape our buildings: thereafter, they shape us.”

7.    Invest in your Envelope:  it makes sense to invest in the best, most robust building envelope you can.  It’s important to invest in MEP systems too, but often it’s more feasible to upgrade your system than your building’s skin.  Remember, a building’s envelope is part of the mechanical system.

8.    LEED Works: LEED is a great way to engage everyone in a proven sustainable design process.  LEED is prescriptive, and it has it’s limitations, but when applied with a collaborative spirit, LEED ultimately results in a better project.

It was a great event and we look forward to SLUstainability 2014!

New Harmony then and now

By: John Berendzen

The year was 1983, spring break.  Three of us (Marc, David and me) from Wash U School of Architecture decided to get out of town for the week.   Everyone else was headed to Florida but we were flat broke.  The best we could do was hop in Marc’s Olds Cutlass and head to David’s parents house in Berea Kentucky.  This was to be an architectural trip though – besides Berea, we would visit Columbus and New Harmony.  We made the drive in to New Harmony to see Richard Meier’s recently completed (1979) Atheneum.  We drove all the way into town, went into the building and were told it would cost $5.00 to go through it.   Being broke college students, we walked around the exterior (free), visited Phillip Johnson’s Open Air Church, and left town.

The Atheneum was the progenitor of about half the projects my friends and I completed at Wash U as undergrads.  Meier, Graves and  Eisenman had a huge effect on the profession then – we devoured their work – pre-internet – through magazines and books like “5 Architects”.

Almost 30 years later, I finally made it back to see the entire building.  Now you can tour for free (the movie on New Harmony cost $3.00).  I was amazed with how well this building is aging.   The metal panels and glass look great.  The exterior steel stairways and handrails need some painting but seem to be doing OK.  The interior is holding up well.  This is a great building.  One of Meier’s best.

The woman who was in charge told us that “a lot of people wonder why we have such a modern building as the visitor center for what’s essentially a historic town.  The people who planned this building believed that the original settlers of New Harmony were looking to the future.  We wanted our visitor center to look to the future too.”

Today, 30+ years later this building still “looks to the future”.  I really loved going back and touring the building and the town.

The Atheneum

The Atheneum


Detail, Open Air Church

Detail, Open Air Church