Cost-Effective Design: Strategies for the Future

When contracting for the design of commercial buildings, clients often stress they want designs that are “cost-effective.” But what are they really asking for?

The Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) from the National Institute of Building Sciences emphasizes a long-term strategy.

“Determining true cost-effectiveness requires a life-cycle perspective where all costs and benefits of a given project are evaluated and compared over its economic life.”

Architects and designers can incorporate these long-term strategies into their design. The trick is balancing the equation when one strategy competes with another.

Cost-Effective Design: Looking at Life-Cycles

The life-cycle cost of a building generally falls into the following categories:

  • Initial Costs—Purchase, Acquisition, Construction Costs

  • Fuel Costs

  • Operation, Maintenance, and Repair Costs

  • Replacement Costs

  • Residual Values—Resale or Salvage Values or Disposal Costs

  • Finance Charges—Loan Interest Payments

  • Non-Monetary Benefits or Costs

(The WBDG offers an extensive overview of analyzing a building’s life-cycle cost, to help determine the total cost of facility ownership.)

There are a few areas where architects can plan for the future, when it come to designing for cost-effectiveness.

Building to Exceed Code

Materials like walls and roofing naturally cover a lot of cost-effective ground. These materials directly contribute to the appeal of the building and its longevity, and they impact the cost of heating and cooling.

Architects can incorporate cost-effective design by choosing building products and materials that they know will not only stand up to the test of time, but that exceed local building code and regulations.

“There is nothing wrong with existing codes,” says Professor Keith Porter with CU Boulder. “Their purpose is to protect human life and they do that very well.”

But in a recent study he conducted, research showed that exceeding building code pays off bigger in the long run. The study found that “for every $1 spent to exceed building codes and make structures more hazard-resistant in the future, $4 would be saved.”

Flexible Design

Companies grow and change over time, and the buildings they occupy need to accommodate this growth. That means architects need to plan for flexibility in their building’s design.

Healthcare Design Magazine suggests that there are three aspects of design flexibility:

  • Adaptability, or the “capacity of the built environment to support multiple functions without altering the architecture.”

  • Transformability, so that “the interior or exterior space can be altered in response to external or internal stimuli without construction.”

  • Convertibility, to anticipate future needs “through a certain amount of construction”

If the client intends to expand or adapt the building later, that feature should be factored into cost-efficiency.

The Intangibles: Aesthetics, Quality of Life and Safety

In the area of creating a space that’s both safe and appealing, it’s much easier to evaluate the costs than it is to quantify the benefits. Buildings designed to enhance productivity or that preserve local history may carry a higher initial cost.

But designing for a safer, healthier workplace contributes to cost-effectiveness in ways that we don’t always expect. Research from Gensler shows that building occupants and employees who are “satisfied with the physical and performance factors of their workplace report higher energy levels when at work, and take fewer sick days than peers in underperforming environments.”

Cost Effective Solutions

As nebulous as analyzing whole-life cost effectiveness can be, it can get challenging when cost-effective strategies are in opposition to each other. When building in a historic district, how can the cost of building materials that complement the surrounding structures be balanced against the additional cost? When evaluating the cost of a new smoke containment system, how safe is safe enough?

In dealing with conflicting benefits, it’s helpful to emphasize creativity and compromise. If you are an architect or a designer, your client is counting on you to listen to them and understand their goals and values.

Whether the client knows it or not, they are also counting on you to understand the future of our industry, its challenges and possible solutions. By incorporating long-term strategies and considering the life-cycle costs of their building, you’re helping to further ensure their safety and success.