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Building Design Principals Hierarchy

Building Design Principals Hierarchy


Quality, Consequences and the Construction Industrial Complex (part 59) – All IMHO:

Is there a hierarchy in building design principals? To put this another way, what matters most, in what order when designing a building? 

I have had some interesting discussions with clients this week in a country with water stress and power shortages about design issues and priorities. My personal views have been crystallized because of these discussions and going forwards my position on hierarchy in building design principals is as follows:

1- Life Safety
This one is self explanatory. Nobody should be in danger when using a building and there is legislation in most countries, to a greater or lesser degree, to deal with this. The number one priority, enough said!

2 – Purpose in Use
Clearly hospital, office, airport, university, data centre or residential buildings have specific use and requirements. Again this is a no brainer. The only thing to say here is that some of these buildings are specialized and require design teams with specific, specialized knowledge. If you are building a hospital you need a hospital design team. Sounds obvious I know but I have been on recent hospital project where one of the design firms had very little hospital design experience and the project suffered with cost over runs due to change orders caused by design errors. A classic cost Vs value issue in design fees. 

3 – Mission Critical Factors
Depending on building use and client, there are two factors that must be addressed:

  1. Redundancy
  2. Resilience


The obvious example is a data centre, which should have redundancy on cooling and power systems to N+1 or N+2 plus diverse connections and routing for main data and power cables. Resilience is an emergent property of the various systems redundancy. You should always be looking for the single point of failure. All building types need to address these two design issues. Office and residential buildings are mission critical to some degree for their owners and users. Consider the requirement for a generator to ensure safe egress in emergencies. This is a redundancy designed in for life safety purposes. 

In countries with water stress and power shortages, systems need to be omitted or added to provide resilience in use. This is more of an issue then many acknowledge. In Lebanon and Jordan many HVAC designs I see have energy and water intensive systems mainly because this is what has always been done before. Why install a cooling tower that uses large amounts of water and chemicals if a dry air cooler can do the job? Water stress and power shortages are real design issues and should be explicitly addressed with mitigation strategies. 

4 – Sustainability
The Green Taliban out there will consider this a very high priority but on reflection I think this is number 4 on the list. To keep it simple, I think there are 3 sustainability design principals;

  1. Reduce – energy and environmental foot print of the building (influenced by building location, orientation, massing, insulation, glazing, wall to window ratios and low exergy systems)
  2. Recycle / Reclaim – energy and water
  3. Regenerate / Renew – deploy, where feasible, “renewable” technologies such as solar thermal collectors, PV, solar wall and even wind turbines. 


With item 3 above, Redundancy and Resilience must be addressed. “Renewable” technologies often need back up systems. 

However, the most under rated sustainability design principal IMHO is “persistence of performance”. This speaks in part to redundancy and resilience but, it mostly speaks to the overall performance of the building. The reality is that the non-sexy stuff really makes a difference to building performance. For example, a triple glazed window has a very predictable performance over its life span with no controls or maintenance (other than window cleaning). Whereas a VAV system is very complex, rarely designed and set up correctly, requires high maintenance and is very unpredictable in its performance. Bottom line; passive or low complexity elements such as insulation, shading, sun screens, glazing really mater and make a difference over the building lifespan. 

5 – Legacy
What legacy will the building provide? This is a personal question I ask myself when looking at projects. The Romans left a legacy. To quote Monty Python, “what did the Romans ever do for us?”. They left us buildings that are still standing today and technologies that we still use such as radiant heating & cooling (YES, radiant is not a new technology!). How many of our buildings will be standing in 500 years? Buildings that last, have less impact on the environment.  

For me going forwards, I will review design briefs, owners project requirements and design drawings based on the principals above. Design outcomes have long term consequences!

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