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Bryan Smith: The Disruptive Design Interview


It’s hard to believe it’s been over ten years since design started for Penn State’s Hort Woods Child Care Center.  What’s your take-away over that time period?  〉  Well, I was in my early/mid-thirties and now I’m in my early/mid-forties!  Jokes aside, those ten years have made a huge difference.  I was a newly PE’d engineer with some ideas and passion for sustainability trying to prove those idea to others…and to myself.  Since then, those concepts have held water in multiple instances.  I can present myself as experienced and the concepts as legitimized.  The apprehensions and doubts have reduced.

Did you have a specific approach to address your own apprehensions?  〉  Not intentionally!  I think maybe because of those concerns, I dotted my I’s and crossed T’s….and then did it again!  I learned that what’s needed to approach these concepts is getting back to basics – basic physics and thermodynamic fundamentals instead of just accepting industry norms that have maybe become a bit morphed or tweaked over the years for one reason or another.  The Yoda, you must unlearn what you have learned thing.

Deconstructed engineering…  Can you think of a good example?  〉  Great term and yes, I wrote an article on net zero energy in July 2010, while designing Hort Woods, when we had just a few LEED projects and energy models behind us. In it, I took design approach research and crystalized them into a “three R’s” concept to simplify and organize it.  These were, admittedly a bit clumsily, “resist” energy loads via passive means like good thermal envelope, “reduce” load with high performance energy consuming MEP systems, and then “replace” with onsite renewable energy sources – in that order.  I was reading McDonough’s “Cradle to Cradle” at the time – which you lent me and I lent away!  With Discovery Meadows now, this is exactly how we were able to maximize renewable LEED credits with just 7 parking spaces of solar panels providing 13% of annual energy use.  That approach has really put net-zero not just on the horizon, but practically inevitable really.  Turns out, I was a pretty insightful kid!

I can really see it in the application of infloor radiant heating and cooling at the Discovery Meadows Child Development Center too.  Can you explain how that was “sold” to the team and how it works?  〉  Well, I had to sell it to myself first!  I knew only first and foremost that it would be uber efficient but heard loud-and-clear everyone’s initial responses of “cold floors?” and “won’t it linger?” or “what about condensation?”. It took me first realizing that “heating” and “cooling” are really just in terms of source (boilers and chillers, or in this case heat pumps, providing hot and chilled water).  In the space, the floor temperature can only range from about 67 to 84 degrees for contact comfort.  Our internal temperature is 98.6.  So as the manufacturer explained to me, it’s really adjusting our metabolic rate of heat loss tied to whether we’re losing heat more rapidly to a cold outside or gaining a little.  This led me to recall that as a kid, after a long summer afternoon of bike riding around the neighborhood, I’d often cool down by playing with my Transformers and GI Joes on the cool garage floor.

So there’s a psychology here too?  Much like mixed-mode or “hybrid” ventilation.  〉  Absolutely.  People tend to think of infloor heating’s high quality comfort in terms of winter, when our bodies are radiating our heat out rapidly to the cold outdoors – when we want to snuggle up to something warm and cozy.  Well, the reciprocal is true in cooling – the cool floor absorbs that warmth radiating from both us and the outdoors.  Once you begin to dissect these things, then the others follow suit.  Tight envelope and dehumidified outside air keep space dewpoint a good ten degrees below minimum floor temperature, making the condensation risk almost non-existent.  Outside air delivery and exhaust methods and just warm air buoyancy off people address the lingering cold zone concern.  Once you establish the fundamentals, the toughest part is simplifying it for the folks at the table, and that takes putting it into human terms as well – like my childhood recollection.


How about the integrated design concept and process?  How do you think it’s developed and changed over that time?  〉  Ah.  Well, I think slowly and surely towards the process by which it was initially defined and envisioned.  There are realities that the kid-me ten years ago was a bit doe-eyed to:  tools like energy modeling not being so easily iterative to provide the feedback loop the process demands…and still aren’t; the design delivery process and industry norms, including typical design effort investment and time.  As we’ve all come to realize with the LEED documentation process, these things take notable effort.  For a really well integrated and thought-out building, as much as 50% more of it.  But there’s light on the horizon.  Building Information Modeling (BIM) and energy analysis are integrating better and better every year.  The visualization tools are helping accelerate good decision making, etc.

So you were knocked back down to Earth a bit.  How was this confronted as a team on each project and how did we most contribute?  〉  In the case of both child care centers, we had a green building consultant at the start of the projects in the form of the 7group guys – who we both know as renowned experts on all things green building. PA firm with strong Penn State connections who kicked the tires on LEED twenty years ago and quite literally wrote the book on Integrated Design.  On both projects they were absolutely instrumental in charting the course early on with a couple charettes and getting the team on board.  But that had largely been the extent of their contracts with a few check-ins through design development.  So once they went away, the various design professionals had to roll up our sleeves and follow through beyond the early kumbaya atmosphere.  That was way easier said than done!  As pricing develops and the true costs and compromises of individual LEED credits bear out from bottom-line to client comfort-level.  It meant that the project required a champion or champions to carry the torch.  I’d like to think we took hold of it.

Did you feel pressure to champion sustainable measures on the projects, or was it driven by personal passion or professional goals?  〉  All of the above? When you’re in a seat that is arguably responsible for the largest share of LEED credits, certainly the most contributing single credit in energy performance, you really don’t want to tell the team that points are peeling away as design progresses – even if it’s because of something not resulting from your own decision that was shaved for cost or comfort level.  So you get creative AND persuasive.

There have got to be some good stories in there?  〉  Yes, yes there are.  It’s hard to pick a favorite actually!  At Hort Woods, we were advanced in design enough to have pricing and alternates developed.  We had gone through the options of what PSU facility folks were comfortable with for mechanical systems and it gave us a few energy boosts, such as highly efficient condensing boilers maximized by infloor heating – but this was somewhat offset by traditional VAV cooling.  For this reason, the hybrid ventilation was key in reducing cooling energy use by over 40% in our energy model to maximize that big credit given the P word (platinum) was being kicked around. Yet, it was one of those pesky alternates – as it was part of the landscaping scope.  Outdoor play space was central to the center’s program and the landscape architect, Pashek+MTR, much like 7group, has a national reputation and they’re excellent.  When the hybrid ventilation was questioned during a value engineering meeting, I had to explain to the group that it would help meld the indoor and out and that the two were combined at the hip.  I also had to sell its meager energy saving return-on-investment, emphasizing its potential comfort and really, early childhood development value, out-weighting payback.

So it required some pot-stirring and confrontation?  〉  It did, but that just meant taking a deep breath and developing a new skillset – The Jedi Mind Trick!  No, really it meant honing communication skills and guiding folks to your viewpoint, all while recognizing AND respecting theirs.  This is why I just love that our AIA presentation we take on the road to current and prospective clients is titled Disruptive Design.  It sort of demystifies and humbles the integrated design process and admits to the getting dirty aspect of it – and the importance of it. I often look back to Hort Woods when I identified the hybrid ventilation potential before confronting the realities of applying it effectively and safely in an early childhood environment.  It started with a green flagpole signal idea that morphed into confronting the desire for incoming air at occupant level by working out a way to involve the children instead of designing them safely out.  This took a very open-minded architect, and though we both kind of clumsily stumbled through figuring it out, Bill and I did it.

Do you have any concerns as the sustainable design world continues to develop towards net zero?  〉  Absolutely.  My concern is primarily that beyond airtight, well-insulated envelope, such as prescribed in a program such as Passive House, other passive endeavors may be forgone.  Beyond this, as on-site renewable system costs continue to drop, there’s more tendency to get good results numerically but without true integration. The infloor heating and cooling at Discovery Meadows is a great example.  Since the floor IS the heating/cooling coil, so to speak, it doesn’t require the maintenance and the need to be cleaned like a conventional airside coil.  Since it’s not an airside conditioning solution, we’re only providing filtered 100% outside air for the required ventilation.  There’s no recirculated air, only exhaust at bathrooms, etc.  This means the dirt in the space is not continually being sent back to a coil, filter and ductwork that would otherwise need cleaning and maintenance.  So there’s a maintenance cost reduction, a system life component AND an air quality benefit – and that’s not all.  Since the required ducted air amount was about 70% less than conventional airside heating/cooling, we didn’t need as much space for it.  This meant open butterfly exposed ceilings with daylighting monitors.  The mechanical system selection maximized daylighting.  That’s integration.  My concern is missing out on these synergies, installing a highly efficient mechanical system and making up the rest in onsite renewables.


We’ve talked in the past about some of the take-aways you’ve realized going through the process and insights you’ve made about what it’s meant and what it could mean going forward as a profession.  Could you review those again?  〉  I’ve come to really put all this in an almost philosophical framework that essentially looks at the development of humankind and how buildings have aided and prohibited it.  Carnegie Melon architecture professor Vivian Loftness, another renowned green building mind, said something brilliant that grabbed me at the GreenBuild convention in Boston in late 2008.  She said there should be no such thing as a glass skyscraper in Phoenix, Arizona. Of course not!  So it dawned on me that what progress and industrialization have done for the built environment is to allow us to engineer ourselves completely out of the external local environment regardless of where a building is – from the equator to the poles.  This at first was a luxury and is now a norm – and up until this point, we haven’t really considered whether it was the right thing to do.  Not just for energy use and environmental impact, but for us – the occupants.  In the Southwest US, the Native Americans there used earthen adobe structural thermal mass effectively for millennia.  These Pueblos became so synonymous with them that they even share this name with their villages and homes; mythologized to hold within a degree over 24 hours – absorbing the pounding sun during the hot day just to release it over the cool cloudless night.  I think that we’re just beginning to realize that we need to revalue these ancient practices and do so with the calculative tools we now have available.

So it’s the larger values beyond cost and energy savings – occupant benefits that improve quality of environment.  Could you provide some examples?  〉  I’d love to.  These are the Maslow’s self-actualization kind-of experiences that yield the greatest professional payoff for me.  The warm-and-fuzzies from all the blood, sweat, and tears.  First, related to the Penn State Intramural Building Phase 2 project, comes from a Friday evening house party when a friend related having played volleyball in the basketball court addition.  Having no idea I worked on it, she related that it was the most amazing thing – perimeter windows opened, ceiling fans started, and it suddenly felt like it dropped ten degrees.  It didn’t – but that’s the intended perception.  She automatically understood what had happened.  I said, “I can tell you a thing or two about that!”  This also happened to be opening weekend, Memorial Day with a tournament on site – one heck of a way to kick the tires!

More examples?  〉  I have two others that pertain to Hort Woods and are just precious for me.  I’ve given quite a number of presentation tours for architecture and architectural engineering classes over the years there and most recently just this fall.  We coordinate them with the facility of course and their program director, Jill.  Most recently Jill joined us along with Jenn, the teacher who heads up their sustainability efforts – both to just vouch for the hybrid ventilation mode and identify how it has become so integral to their learning and development program.  Both having been there since the center first opened, Jenn related that they still have this mini-celebration every spring on the first day the lights turn green – the first hybrid day of the year.  It reminded me when Linda Duerr, then facility director who was instrumental in the location and design, first called me on that day in early March 2012 ecstatic the very first time the green lights ever turned on.  This is a call an HVAC engineer never gets!  Now it’s just intrinsically part of the center and the children’s development.  Engaging children with the building to the outdoors.  Put a price on that?  My last example is tied to this, but in even more personal terms.  Katie Rountree ran the construction part of the project for Penn State.  I recall Katie at every other on-site job conference around the time doubling back on how exactly this would all work – wait, so it’s nice outside, then green lights come on, then what?  She certainly was not alone in trying to make sense of it.  Two years later, and it’s Katie quoted in the University’s LEED Platinum announcement describing the system step-by-step.  As it turned out, Katie’s daughter wound up taking classes there, and her grandson enrolled in the center.  When you know the people who have been positively affected by your work, in your own backyard….there’s just no better payoff.

So what hurdles do you see moving forward and applying these kind of results on other projects?  〉  I think we just need to hammer home this case – it’s more than energy, it’s more than efficiency, it’s also about quality of environment.  Much like interior design and architecture, we too can up the ante in spaces and in new, unfamiliar, and exciting ways.  We’re creatures too that need the outdoors as much as we need protection from them.  And I think we’re going to turn that corner culturally soon. Being the music superfan I am, I’m reminded when Lou Reed passed away in 2012.  Lou Reed was lead singer/songwriter of the avant-garde 60’s NYC rock band, the Velvet Underground, associated with pop-artist Andy Warhol.  Lou essentially defined city-rock – the grit, the harsh realities, the pavement.  Well, when he was in hospice care, he spent his last moments alive in the outdoors at his Long Island home practicing yoga.  So, I think, how can we apply this reciprocally from child care development to the end-of-life facilities we design as well?  My sister worked as a nurse at a skilled nursing facility years ago, and she’s told me it was common practice to take residents outside whenever they could.

This means designing to maximize outdoor potential.  That’s a bit of redirection of profession isn’t it?  〉  Potentially, yes…and there’s the rub.  Our industry is set-up with a project delivery method that doesn’t typically allot the time for this analysis and iteration.  Our fees are often based on percent of construction of the systems we design.  So what if we design out all mechanical cooling?  That’s entirely possible in certain climates. It’s something I always say to the Penn State architecture summer camp students each year about the changing industry and our role in it.  The hopeful transition from mechanical, electrical, and plumbing system specifiers and designers to the more holistic “architectural engineer”, where we become the “architect’s calculator” of sorts.  At Discovery Meadows, we had one day care room where load calcs identified the infloor cooling would not keep up.  I was able to pinpoint that this was due to morning eastern solar heat gain and recommended reducing window area on one exposure, improving window performance, and providing tinting.  The alternative was to clog up that great open bilateral daylighting with ductwork.  I won that arm-wrestling.  We have the tools and the expertise.  What we need is just a bit more time and commitment.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure kind of thing.

Any last thoughts on all this?  〉  Just one really.  I think overall what this really takes at the end of the day is an open-mind, hearing everyone out, and resisting doubts.  Looking forward.  Leaving the ego at the door.  Going back to music, anyone who knows me knows how huge a Beatles and David Bowie fan I am.  There’s reason.  They both pushed the envelope fearlessly and broke new ground doing so.  Influencing culture in very open-minded ways along the way.  Being inclusive while being fiercely independent.  Bowie had a slogan in the late 70’s of “tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”.  Same is true for us, we just have to manage more senses when designing buildings!  Thanks for giving me the legroom to take a stab at it over the last ten years, John.  It’s been fun, and here’s to more to come.  Cheers!

– Bryan C. Smith, PE, LEED AP

Bryan is a Licensed Professional Engineer, LEED Accredited Professional, and Senior Mechanical Engineer for Reese Hackman.