The methods of integrated project delivery can put sustainability on even footing with other project goals when weighing budget factors.

The story may be familiar by now. A project has been proposed with grand sustainability goals, green certifications, possibly even net zero energy use. But cost overruns steadily whittle away the goals, with each design phase cutting back on the savings and certification targets, ending in the dreaded “value engineering” (VE) process. The final product scrapes across the finish line with something along the lines of “designed and built with sustainability in mind.”

The initial aggressive sustainability and energy conservation goals for proposed commercial projects are to be expected, given steadily growing interest in sustainable building practices. The 2015 GRESB Report found that 88 percent of the property companies and private equity real estate funds surveyed in North America have some type of sustainability policy. High-performance buildings frequently receive higher rental incomes, occupancy rates and reduced financing costs. So why the frequent disconnect between the owner’s vision and the reality?

This is a common outcome with a conventional design-bid-build process. Sustainability is added on as a poorly defined goal that is only partially integrated into the building design, leaving it vulnerable to cost-cutting if the project is over budget. For example, in a typical process, a team may assess whether to buy a cheap chiller or a premium chiller at the end of the design process, asking the energy consultant whether energy savings goals can be met without the more expensive piece of equipment. The premium chiller then stands out as a nice but unnecessary line item, ready to be cut if the project goes over budget.

The VE process can be the worst offender, because teams typically do not have time to fully assess the impacts of a cost-cutting measure on the rest of the design. Does eliminating window shades mean the cooling system needs to be resized? Does the alternate lighting control package actually meet code? Is the substituted mechanical equipment actually capable of performing the mechanical engineer’s design sequence? Did the alternate manufacturer even see the sequence? Any commissioning agent can tell you that last-minute substitutions cause endless headaches and missed opportunities.

Integrated project delivery, or, in keeping with industry obsession with acronyms, IPD, offers an alternate approach to maintaining project goals within the initial budget. The process brings all participants, including the owner, operators, designers and contractors, together early in the process to work out a vision and a budget as a single team, rather than the more typical linear handoff from owner to design team to contractor and then back to the owner. The benefits of the IPD method is that energy conservation, water conservation or indoor air quality measures can be fully integrated into the building design and formed early on, rather than simply added as alternates. Sustainability goals that are not cost-effective or feasible within the project budget are eliminated right away, preventing time wasted assessing measures and design features that were never going to happen.

To revisit the example of choosing a chiller, with an integrated process, early discussions could center on whether a chilled water plant is really the best system in the first place. If cooling loads can be significantly reduced through other measures, maybe packaged rooftop units will suffice and the money saved on the central plant can be better spent on other conservation measures. This approach prevents a single energy conservation measure (a costly chiller) from becoming an easy target for cost-cutting.

The best part about IPD for sustainability consultants is that you get invited to the party early. Really early. Before there is even a schematic design. Facilities operators, energy modelers and commissioning agents can discuss big ideas and past experiences with the owner and architect before anything gets designed, to clarify everyone’s vision and prevent costly design changes. When the owner insists on floor-to-ceiling glass throughout, does that really need to mean floor-to-ceiling glass everywhere, or could it mean just in key locations? Could we reconfigure the parking so that we can purchase a smaller site, and put those savings toward a PV system?

IPD had been hyped before, but for various reasons, it is only slowly being adopted. IPD methods can put sustainability on even footing with other project goals, allowing it to be weighed fairly against other measures when the budget is worked out. It is a process worth keeping in mind the next time someone has a vision for a “possibly net zero” project. 

David Heinicke, PE, LEED AP, Building Performance Engineer and Commissioning Agent, has worked with Group14 for seven years. He has extensive experience in the building energy field focused on sustainability consulting with an emphasis on Energy Optimization and Commissioning using the USGBC LEED rating system. Dave performs energy analysis using DOE2 and develops custom models of renewable energy systems, mechanical systems, and energy efficiency measures. Dave has a B.S. in Engineering, concentration in Mechanical Engineering and Environmental Engineering, from Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College and a B.A. in Engineering Sciences from Dartmouth College.