Synergies: Site Savvy

In recent blogs I’ve talked about the buildings systems and synergies, including the building enclosure working together with itself and with mechanical HVAC and power systems for optimal effect. I’ve also talked about how the building users are one of the systems that can be integrated into our performance goals, with commitment, clarity of design, feedback loops, and education. Now we must talk about the simplest piece which is also the item we’ve forgotten most: our synergies with nature.

What we have to remember, out of the gate, is that each building is a different product and experience. This is primarily due to the micro-climate conditions of the site as well as due to the users within the building and the operational choices. Even the same exact building design with materials bought at the same time will not only be built by different labor, on days with different weather, but will reside on a different site. Some mildly different, some wildly different. And an office is similar to any other office, but never with exactly the same operating parameters or user pool or work list for those users.

Let’s focus on the interplay with the environment. In the LEED v4 system, there is an optional credit for Site Assessment. I love this credit and feel we should quickly move to making it a prerequisite because it reminds us professionals of our 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 (taken directly from the LEED v4 credit library on

  • 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 lend to a design of the project that better supports the users and the energy optimization of the building. This is real value. Some of it is commonly done – soils assessment is pretty normal in new construction, but that info 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, what vegetation will be best to use on site, and even how we affect our resiliency regarding water infiltration and toxins leaching.

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

Window selections – It’s about MUCH MORE than this.

There is a great example of a net zero-ready residence hall in Massachusetts. Check out this article (unfortunately I could not direct link it).

Perkins + Will designed and built this residence hall as a pilot project to see how far they could go toward zero net energy and 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. They selected casement windows based on that wind study. Casement windows, as well as awnings and hoppers, close tighter than sliders and double hung windows when wind presses up against the 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. Windows go so far beyond visible light and access to views, if we let them.

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. “Let’s be independent together”.

Nature gives us a ton of stuff for free. A lot of our brain power can be employed to figure out ways to access that free stuff, such as the example of properly placed windows making use of airflow on the site.  In some cases, we need to have funding to access the benefits, such as creating electricity from sunlight. Here is the real truth of the day, 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 recognize that we must employ the effort to use the information.

Wishing you valor,


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