COTE Top Ten undergoes an extreme makeover

The Edith Green – Wendell Wyatt Federal Building

In 2016, the COTE Top Ten Plus award went to the renovation of the Edith Green – Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland; in future years, it will be a designation available for all Top Ten projects.

The award program's updated 10 measures of sustainable design emphasize wellness, cost-effectiveness, and resilience

There are many awards recognizing excellence in design. Others awards and certification programs recognize environmental performance. Only one program recognizes both: the COTE Top Ten. Now in its twenty-first year, the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten award recognizes 10 projects that integrate great design with great performance. Keeping with the “ten” theme, the COTE Top Ten application breaks the description of a project into 10 measures, such as water and energy, and asks for a narrative and metrics for each.

As we enter 2017, the COTE Top Ten is undergoing big changes. The 10 measures that comprise the award have been revamped, an update that was informed by an in-depth analysis of the characteristics of previous award recipients summarized in Lessons from the Leading Edge, a retrospective report on 19 years of the COTE Top Ten from Lance Hosey, FAIA.

Some elements of previous measures have been merged together, and issues that have gained prominence in recent years—health, comfort, resilience, and economy—have been brought to the forefront. Metrics have been updated to reflect what current tools enable designers to track, with carbon emissions associated with construction, building operation, and occupant transportation earning special attention. Most measures now list two types of metrics: ‘required’ and ‘encouraged,’ which will allow teams pushing the boundaries to share how they are measuring performance. Performance data after at least one year of occupancy is strongly encouraged—whether on energy and water use, occupant comfort, or air quality. The COTE Top Ten Plus award—which previously recognized a single project from the pool of previous COTE Top Ten award recipients—will now become a designation among the Top Ten projects that demonstrates exceptional post-occupancy performance and lessons learned.

The new measures, and how they weigh key themes

In 2014, AIA's Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan identified energy, materials, health, and resilience as important themes impacting practice. The updated COTE Top Ten measures align with these themes:

  • Design for Energy carries over from previous versions of the measures, but now asks for energy use intensity to also be expressed in terms of equivalent carbon emissions. Based on data indicating that many projects are submitted more than a year after initial occupancy, this measure invites applicants to specify not just predicted energy use but energy use measured post-occupancy. In 2016, 40 percent of award recipients were already supplying this post-occupancy data.
  • The topic of materials shows up in two measures: Design for Resources, where the carbon emissions impact of construction materials choices is quantified, and Design for Wellness, where the health impacts of materials choices are captured.
  • Design for Wellness captures a broad range of issues, from designing for occupant thermal and acoustic comfort and the provision of natural light and views to the promotion of activity for health and the selection of materials that promote rather than harm human health. This measure takes the place of one that used to be called Light and Air.
  • Design for Change builds on the measure that used to be called Long Life Loose Fit while more explicitly recognizing issues around resilience, design that anticipates climate change, and design that anticipates adaptive re-use.

Some elements in the previous version of the Top Ten program have now been shifted around:

  • Bioclimatic Design, once a separate measure, is now a theme that shows up in Design for Integration, Design for Ecology, Design for Energy, and Design for Wellness.
  • The connection to ‘place’ and ‘place-making’ can be addressed in either Design for Ecology or Design for Community, as appropriate.

There is one completely new measure: Design for Economy allows projects that achieve both beauty and performance on a budget to gain added prominence. The required metric is simply cost per square foot, but encouraged metrics allow teams to provide data that put the project cost in perspective (regional building costs, costs typical for the building type).

The Dixon Water Foundation Josey Pavilion exemplifies the new Design for Water measure through its management and treatment of rainwater and waste.

The Design for Ecology and Design for Water measures are familiar from the previous version of the Top Ten program, with metrics updated to reflect current best practices. Design for Community reframes the previous Regional/Community Design measure, quantifying the environmental impact of how people get to and from the project in terms of carbon emissions impact, and asks how the location of the project benefits the project and how the project benefits the community.

Required vs encouraged metrics

In its earliest years, the Top Ten program asked for projects to be described simply through a combination of images and narratives. More recently, a few simple metrics (often modeled on metrics project teams might have already acquired as part of LEED certification) were requested to augment the narratives. Recent advances in modeling and measurement techniques now allow for a broad range of potential metrics.

Under the new Top Ten framework, submissions will provide required metrics, and then teams can choose to provide additional encouraged metrics as appropriate. The required metrics will provide a baseline to compare across years, while the encouraged metrics can evolve over time based on what is learned.

Emphasis on actual performance: the new Top Ten Plus

Formerly, the Top Ten program compared projects based on their predicted performance, as determined through tools like computer simulations of anticipated energy or water use. In recent years, the Top Ten Plus award was created to recognize a single previous Top Ten award recipient resubmitted with additional post-occupancy data and narratives. However, under the new Top Ten framework the Top Ten Plus award is being merged into the overall Top Ten: New projects (not previous Top Ten award recipients) can submit actual performance data for most measures, typically as an encouraged metric. They can summarize what lessons have been learned during design, construction, and the post-occupancy period in the final Design for Discovery measure. Among the 10 projects selected by the jury each year as COTE Top Ten, those projects with especially strong post-occupancy stories can be designated as Top Ten Plus.

In addition, the COTE Top Ten for Students program for university students will track the new COTE Top Ten framework beginning in 2018.

These changes ensure our profession remains on the leading edge of performance and design in our built environment. But the new COTE Top Ten isn’t just for recognizing exceptional performers. Instead, design teams throughout AIA are encouraged to use the short-form version of the Top Ten criteria as a set of questions that can be asked about any project as design proceeds. Try asking these questions in a design review of your next project.

Submissions for COTE Top Ten open the week of November 14; interested parties should begin gathering their materials, using this detailed overview of the new measures to prepare their submissions. The deadline is January 18 at 5pm ET; additional information can be found on the COTE Top Ten submission page.

Z Smith, AIA, is a principal at Eskew+Dumez+Ripple and a member of AIA's COTE Advisory Group.

Image credits

The Edith Green – Wendell Wyatt Federal Building

Jeremy Bittermann

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