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Sustainable AIA: 2031—Is a Good Building a Cheap Building?

By William J. Worthen, AIA, Director Resource Architect for Sustainability

I was recently in a meeting here at AIA headquarters about sustainable architecture where one well-meaning member of the audience expressed their opinion about the value of sustainable design: “A good building is a cheap building.”

This statement spurred the renewal of an ongoing discussion I have had in several sustainable design professional circles over the last few years about the emphasis the building industry places on the first cost of construction. In my experience, most building owners and too many of my prior clients were very happy to ‘go green’ or build sustainably, and even meet LEED requirements, as long as it did not cost any more, as if first-cost construction was the only way to measure building quality. The consideration of how expensive their building would be to operate for the next 10 to 50 years was a far lower priority. Best-value does not yet seem to have found a meaningful a place in the pro forma’s used to establish most construction budgets. It needs to.

The value of a building

In the public sector, federal state and sometimes local Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS) laws are at least implicitly intended to ensure (in most cases) that designs aren’t chosen on the basis of first cost. However, these regulations haven’t stopped building owners in all sectors from assuming the initial construction cost of their building is by far the most important expense and metric of value, while downplaying maintenance and operational performance expenses. As I have stated in previous Sustainable AIA: 2031 columns, such a simple, seemingly innocent statement like the one I heard at this recent meeting at AIA headquarters exposed a gross misperception.

The process for bidding and the awarding of work to contractors based on the lowest first cost of their bid is a cornerstone of how the AEC industry has worked for quite some time. While I can’t speak to the origins of the low-bid construction process, the notion that competition in a free market controls costs and helps to ensure fair play is fundamental to American capitalism. But this time tested approach, from my experience, needs to reflect what happens when high performance and best-value sustainable construction is requested by the client, as well as what takes place when it is required under the forthcoming green building codes.

One effect of the competitive bidding process is the common belief that when a building is to be built or remodeled, the work is valued solely by its first cost. Similarly, setting a fixed construction budget before the client, contractor and architect ever have chance to meet and talk about what the client’s design priorities are seriously runs the risk that the allocated square-foot cost may not be adequate to meet all programmatic needs, design goals, construction schedules and high-performance building design permitting requirements. Under first-cost-centric bidding scenarios, higher performing materials and equipment are often reduced to meet projects’ first-cost budgets at the time of the bid. But what happens when, as they soon will, new sustainable building codes require these features? There’s another consequence to only placing value on first cost: It blots out any progressive aspiration to build better than the current code. When a set of construction documents are bid, it is assumed the project will comply with local building and energy code requirements, but just barely. I refer to this as “code-minimum design.”

The only building quality metric most people understand is first construction cost. How much per square foot? And can you build it for a buck less per square foot? Are those really the questions we should be asking? It’s time for architects to start educating the public with this message: The value of design comes from how a building performs, not just how big it is for the money spent.

What first-cost doesn’t do. . .

The challenge for high performance, best-value designs that use the lowest first-cost bidding process is that often the contractors and sub-contractors have not been privy to design team discussions and haven’t been part of the design process of the building they are being asked to bid and build. This creates a knowledge gap and a lack of continuity between the project team and the bidder. In many cases, this means that contractors have no context or understanding of why a specific material or piece of equipment was included by the design team. For the design team, high performance, Low-E glass might be the cornerstone to a building’s entire energy performance portfolio, but to a bidder seeking the cheapest first-cost to win the bid, it might seem like an unnecessary expense, and they may say so to the client. The builder might also call for a cheaper substitution, even if such windows can’t regulate solar heat gain as well, add more square footage to the building, need to be replaced more frequently, are made of more depleted resources, and are manufactured in a location and in a way that has more negative impacts on the environment than the windows originally included in the construction documents. And then, how does the client know they will get what they want?

The separation between designer and builder isn’t the only wedge in the process that an over emphasis on first cost creates. Using a first-cost-centric construction process places no value on the costs or work hours needed for building operation and maintenance, the durability of the materials being specified and the energy and water consumed. It’s also been my experience that in general, the entity in charge of the funds for a capital building project is in no way related to the operations staff whose budget is used to operate and maintain the project when it’s complete. This separation of construction and operational budgets further institutionalizes the first-cost priority, as it prevents demonstrable operational savings from being communicated to those that hold the capital budget purse strings. As currently structured, first-cost construction processes make it harder for operations staff to communicate to owners that, for example, a slightly more expensive material will help a building pay for itself in five years instead of eight. Despite the upfront cost, that’s good news everyone should know about.

Based on past experience, we’ve all placed a lot of trust in the basic premise that open competition in construction costs drives down prices and pushes up quality. Having worked on many projects that have used the lowest bid process combined with a variety of standard contract delivery methods, I can say that despite its best intentions, first-cost competitive bidding processes have, in many instances, unnecessarily devolved into a system that creates adversarial relationships between the project’s design team, contractor and owner. These issues are only exacerbated when a building is being designed and built to meet a high-performance, green design metric, with requirements like using LEED or another third party rating system. Even in code-minimum design, inherent problems arise. The competitive bidding system can and should take all these factors into account, and not only continue but even strengthen its purpose in providing the best products and services on terms that fully protect the interests of consumers in our competitive, free market economy.

First-cost and sustainability

Client requests to achieve third party green building certifications like LEED have exposed many of the challenges described above. Good sustainable design and construction places value on many more complex variables than first-cost-based design and construction. And these issues take on even greater significance when the world of high performance, sustainable design moves from third party certified aspirations to mandatory, legally enforceable building and energy code requirements under CALGreen and the forthcoming International Green Construction Code. What additional metrics and revisions to competitively bid projects should be used to measure the value of design? This is the dialog going on right now at the AIA between many of or professional colleagues. I encourage you to join the conversation.

Three free business and networking sessions being offered at the AIA National Convention this May will give members the chance to do just that. They are:

EV101 Energy Modeling: What You Need To Know—9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., May 11

EV 226 Green Codes Q&A: Bring Your IGCC Questions—10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., May 12

EV300 AIA Sustainability Update--10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., May 13

But even before the convention, here’s what I can say for sure: High performance building codes will certainly change standard practice as we know it, and will change the skills and training architects and our design team colleagues will need to bring to the table on every project seeking a building permit, not just those projects seeking third party green building certifications. I encourage you to take the time to discuss these ideas in your own firms and come to the AIA National Convention to continue the dialog, as high performance building codes represent perhaps the biggest game changer to our profession since we started using CAD.

Please send me your comments at


Recent Related:

At the Convention: Learn About the New Green Codes Era

At the Convention: Explore the Final Frontier of Sustainability with Net-Zero Building

Sustainable AIA: 2031–Why Energy Models Don’t Predict Actual Energy Use

Sustainable AIA: 2031—IGCC Education Opportunities

Sustainable AIA: 2031--Integrating Sustainability and Design for the Future (and Today)

Sustainability and Design–Can We Evolve?

Ready or Not: A new green code is about to change the way we build


Register for the AIA 2011 National Convention.

Rocky Mountain Institute—Inside the Building Energy Innovation Modeling Summit

Building a Future Vision Starts with Common Language

Is Predicting Energy Efficiency Performance a Gamble?

A Universe of (Good) Data At Your Fingertips


Back to AIArchitect April 15, 2011

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