How to Integrate Design

Living systems, including green infrastructure systems like green roofs, are infinitely complex. “They mimic nature so will grow and thrive. Designing these systems, though, requires an integrated design process,” said David Yocca, FASLA, Conservation Design Forum, at the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities conference in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Landscape architects, architects, and green roof product manufacturers discussed the challenges in making an integrated design process work and actually translate into systems-based designs. 

Integrated design breaks down silos between professions and brings multiple designers, expert consultants, contractors, and product manufacturers together to mesh design requirements together at the beginning of a project and then co-implement the project throughout the process. Integrated design processes enable “systems thinking” and create projects that hit multiple benefits at once. Think of Philadelphia’s many city agencies coming together to create the city’s ground-breaking open space and green infrastructure strategy (see earlier post) or a landscape architect and architect together designing a man-made wetland that harvests rainwater coming off a nearby building.

The Barriers to Integrated Design

Jose Alminana, FASLA, Andropogon, said there are two levels of barriers preventing more widespread use of integrated design processes: individual and external. At the individual or professional level, education is the obstacle. Designers and manufacturers have areas of expertise and some are “narrowly focused.” Others, like landscape architects, argued Alminana, have an “integrative perspective” and traits more apt to bringing together diverse experts to achieve sustainable designs. External factors include budget limitations or an unimaginative client.

Still, many forward-thinking landscape architects and architects who could be practicing this way but aren’t because “that’s doing something outside the norm.” “Delegated design is what’s practiced today, not integrated design. However, we have a moral imperative to practice this.” Steve Moddemeyer, Principal, Collins Woerman, agreed, arguing that “we need to look across silos.”

Making the Public Case

So how can landscape architects put integrated design into practice? Yocca thinks landscape architects must get at the people in power and the clients. “We have to reach bankers and policymakers. It’s about changing the views of those in leadership positions.” Pointing to the benefits of getting the benefits of integrated design into the heads of policymakers, he said Philadelphia’s “broad water-based approach to retrofitting infrastructure” prevented lots of money being thrown at wasteful “single-use solution.” 

How can designers make the public case for integrated design? Moddemeyer argued that Wall Street is “excited by things that are not relevant to the rest of the world. We don’t have a resilient economic system so look what happened. It’s taking longer and longer to recover from recessions and the recoveries are increasingly jobless.” This lack of resiliency is manifested at multiple scales. But, he believes, it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, there could be a more positive message about how cost-efficient and resilient infrastructure systems can be formed out of working and designing together in an integrated process, which could then form the basis for a more resilient economy and society.

Municipal by-laws are also holding up integrated design projects, said Ron Schwendinger, President, Architek. In many communities, rainwater harvesting, blackwater recycling, and other progressive practices are still banned, so their benefits, which are often drawn out only through systems-driven projects, are often lost. He added that his biggest obstacle integrating rainwater and building wastewater recycling systems into green roofs is the “plumbing inspector, who doesn’t understand it and so it not comfortable with it.”

Does Integrated Design Cost More?

Schwendinger thinks that there is a general lack of understanding about integrated design projects: “They cost less but the perception is that they are more expensive. The perception of cost is out of line with actual cost.” However, Aliminana thinks that integrated design processes do actually cost more. “Delegated design is about absolutely mimimal investment so being integrative does cost more.”

Alminana added that the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES), LEED, and other rating systems, which are basically “crutches,” can help though, because they expose the true costs of doing things improperly, but also the costs and benefits of doing things well. “These systems force designers to measure performance and value benefits.” SITES, in particular, lends itself to integrated design approaches and outlining the many benefits that can then be quantified, offsetting any higher costs.

There are other aspects of integrated design with cost implications: An audience member from William McDonough + Partners remarked that the ever-increasing specialization of consultants made integrated design expensive. With 20 consultants on a project, a client may not understand why so many need to be involved to make a systems-based project work. Another from KieranTimberlake added that “consultants have to be pushed a lot. There has to be someone there to make them accountable.”

Yocca also added that “there’s the time value of money.” Some clients don’t want to “start the meter” until they are almost at the construction phase, which shows how little the design process up front is valued. To remedy this kind of problem, Shwendinger called for “flattening the process” from the get-go, and bringing in the client so they can “see all the players as an integral part of the process.”

How the Process Works in Real Projects

Paul Kephart, President, Rana Creek, described a $3.1 billion hospital project he worked on for Southern Health, a healthcare provider. The client used “Toyota management methods. It was completely flat, integrated process, which meant we all had to be at the table. Sometimes this was a great opportunity.” Other times, it was pretty dull.

The client was informed by a core committee that involved the client. “The owner was there at every decision tree.” In addition, all the design professionals, consultants, and contractors pooled their risks so if there were cost over-runs, that would eat into their share of the profits. “For a project of that size, a 10 percent creep can be a lot of money so contractors had to work with each other from the beginning.” There were lots of “what if, then” conversations. Kephart also discussed how co-locating contractors on site can yield efficiencies, even though that’s not always possible.

Alminana used an integrated design process to create the sustainable landscape at the Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh. He said a “very enlightened client,” who believes “green building is cheaper” over the long-term, was critical to making that work. Using passive-solar building strategies, the client was looking at the 100 horizon for the landscape as well. “There was a significant investment in systems, integrative thinking.” As a result, the systems in the site “can’t be pulled apart.”

On another project with KieranTimberlake for Sidwell Friends, a private school in Washington, D.C., integrated design processes helped unearth the true costs and benefits of using a green roof, in discussions at the beginning of the project. “The client really wondered whether the green roof was the cheapest solution,” said Alminana. So his firm went through the calculations with the integrated design team and found that a green roof “proved to be the most cost-effective way to manage the water that fell on the roof (as opposed to additional underground basins) and channel runoff to the landscape below.” However, he said in another project that a 2-acre green roof was just too costly so instead they used a white roof to reduce the local urban heat island effect and a rooftop catchment system to collect rainwater to irrigate the site.

Integrated Design and Hard-to-Quantify Benefits

What is the economic value of habitat connectivity? Designing green roofs as a by-way for migratory birds runs counter to a “cost-driven approach,” said Kephart. These ecosystem service values, however, were important to him and his design team so habitat elements were added into one project at low cost. He added that “we won’t value these things until we don’t have them anymore.” Perhaps integrated design approaches can help here though: LEED is now adding in points for buildings that prevent bird collisions. SITES also provides lots of credits for restoring native plants and creating wildlife habitat.

On another project, Kephart put green roofs on 10 buildings near intact butterfly habitat. “We added butterfly host plants on the green roofs. Now, they are being used by endangered species.” He said E.P.A. mandates on habitat restoration can enable push designers to simulate habitat on green roofs.

Yocca saw another potential benefit of bringing biodiveristy in through integrated design processes: local eco-tourism. “Instead of traveling far away to see natural beauty, there could be biodiversity, eco-tourism in cities.” Moddemeyer pointed to examples of this in Stockholm that “are place for people, nature, or both. The areas of overlap are exciting.”

Another fantastic idea: Turn big-box store roofs into widlife habitats. “This could help some companies with marketing. We just need successful demonstrations.” Many agreed, arguing that Target could change their prototype “A,B,C,D” buildings, and instead of using “throw-away architecture,” could actually use their massive roofscapes to provide real spaces for nature.

Image credit: Sidwell Friends School Wetland / Andropogon Associates

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