Synergies: Site assessment (USGBC New York Upstate) | U.S. Green Building Council
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Published on
Posted in Industry
Published on
Posted in Industry

USGBC New York Upstate's Jodi Smits Anderson shares her thoughts on our responsibility to creatively use site assessment data.

In a recent series of blogs using the metaphors of Pokémon characters, I’ve written about buildings systems (Mystic), including the building enclosure working with mechanical HVAC and power systems for optimal effect. I’ve also addressed how building users (Instinct) are one of the systems that can be integrated into our performance goals, with commitment, clarity of design, feedback loops and education. Now, I turn to the simplest piece, which is also the item we frequently forget: our synergies with nature (Valor).

Valor (site assessment)

Each building is a different product and provides a different experience, due to the micro-climate conditions of the site, as well as to the users of the building and the operational choices. Even the same exact building design with materials bought at the same time will be built by different laborers, in different weather, on different sites. 

Let’s focus on the interplay with the environment. In the LEED v4 system, there is an optional credit for  because it reminds LEED professionals of their professional responsibilities. We are the translators, not just of the client desires into reality, but of nature’s gifts and needs into the project we are designing and building. We need to know the site if we are to design and build and operate properly.

Here is what the site assessment requires teams to know (for more, see the LEED v4 credit library):

  • Contour mapping, unique topographic features, slope stability risks.
  • Flood hazard areas, delineated wetlands, lakes, streams, shorelines, rainwater collection and reuse opportunities, TR-55 initial water storage capacity of the site (or local equivalent for projects outside the U.S.).
  • Solar exposure, heat island effect potential, seasonal sun angles, prevailing winds, monthly precipitation and temperature ranges.
  • Primary vegetation types, greenfield area, significant tree mapping, threatened or endangered species, unique habitat, invasive plant species.
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service soils delineation, U.S. Department of Agriculture prime farmland, healthy soils, previous development, disturbed soils (local equivalent standards may be used for projects outside the U.S.).
  • Human use. Views, adjacent transportation infrastructure, adjacent properties, construction materials with existing recycle or reuse potential.
  • Human health effects. Proximity of vulnerable populations, adjacent physical activity opportunities, proximity to major sources of air pollution.

Loads of work, right? Work that comes with loads of payoff. Every single piece of information listed above can contribute to a project design that better supports the users and the energy optimization of the building. This is real value.

The value of assessment

Some of it is commonly done; for example, soils assessment is pretty normal in new construction, but the information is not always used for all that it can inform. We need the data on soil types and bearing weight, and not only for structural choices. We can also use it to inform access roadway planning and what vegetation will be best to use on site. It even affects resiliency regarding water infiltration and toxins leaching.


Window selections - It's about MUCH MORE than this.

Window selections are about much more than the numbers above.

There is a great example of a net zero-ready residence hall at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. Perkins + Will designed and built this residence hall as a pilot project to see how far they could go toward net zero energy. It awaits only funding of the PV array to potentially achieve ZNE performance.

One of the most significant aspects of the design was the on-site wind direction assessment and the influence that information had on the window choices, placement and operations. Based on the wind study, the team selected casement windows, which, like awnings and hoppers, close tighter than sliders and double-hung windows when wind presses up against a building. They also support the ability to design the opening face to either increase wind scoop into the building or protect the space from strong wind movement. 

Responsibility for a better world

Let’s also remember that the buildings we create affect nature’s systems. We need to accept that responsibility. In the new world of resiliency, we see this effect at its most dominant as we begin to actually design to manage rainwater. It’s not just about dealing with the rainwater that comes to the site, but understanding what our building water systems use and potentially dump into combined storm/sewer systems. It’s also about how the hardscapes we create, such as roadways, sidewalks and parking, exacerbate the effect of runoff and add unfiltered toxins into the waterways.

And then there is the sun. We’ve pushed reliance on PV and other active ways to harvest and benefit from the sun’s rays, and we are just re-learning how to passively reap energy benefits through better design, as well as how to control the burdens of heat gain and glare when they are not wanted or too strong. Designers must not only assess the site conditions, but learn to model quickly, in a sketch-level mode, to identify where attention will benefit the project and where there is little to gain; where the building can adversely affect nature’s system and where it can align with them for even greater value. 

Nature gives us many gifts. We need to figure out ways to access those gifts, such as through properly placed windows that make use of airflow on site. In some cases, we need to find funding to access the benefits, such as creating electricity from sunlight. Here is the truth, though: We will not benefit if we don’t pay attention. We will not optimize unless we find the knowledge we need. This is where the valor comes in—to not only seek information, but to recognize that we must make the effort to use such vital information to make an impact. 

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