Learning to live with "Value Engineering" to build better, cheaper Passivhaus buildings

Nick Grant
CC BY 2.0 Nick Grant explaining Value Engineering/ Lloyd Alter

"Value Engineering" and "Design-Build" are every architect's nightmare. Nick Grant makes them almost cuddly.

Few words strike horror into the hearts of architects like "value engineering" where the so-called experts roll into your office and strip the life out of your building looking for cost savings. As Klaus Philipsen of Community Architect described VE:

...a guillotine used to kill design, therefore, dreaded by most architects. VE, as experienced by architects, is usually not a step in the design process but the moment when their completely designed project will be dragged to the altar of the "budget" where its design will be sacrificed, stripped down and cheapened. Under the guise of value engineering contractors and engineers often go after a building's design like the Taliban after fashion.

Radical Simplicty© Nick Grant

Or is it? When Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions started talking about VE in his presentation at the International Passivhaus Conference in Munich I thought I might have to leave the room, but by the end, I realized that I might be able to share a beer with him someday. Because he made a convincing case that a) what I thought was Value Engineering really wasn't, and b) It can be really useful and effective. Nick notes that Passivhaus buildings cost more than conventional ones because they have more stuff- better windows, more insulation, membranes for air tightness and fancy heat recovery ventilators. If this is all tacked on to a conventional design that might have jogs and bumps like many conventional buildings do, then there is definitely going to be significant extra costs. Nick proposes that this can be controlled with Value Engineering, but notes in his paper:

As a design engineer who studied VE in the 1980s it was a shock to discover that genuine VE is rarely practiced in building. Instead, the term is used in a derogatory way to describe cost cutting once the completed project has been found to be over budget. Cost cutting is the antithesis of VE and usually results in reduced value. Thus, most architects despise the term with passion.

Nick Grant explainingLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But what Nick then describes is a different process. He suggests that if one brings the team together early, the trail of tears can be avoided. It takes a big table; he's talking about the architect, energy consultant, structural engineer, builder, services engineer, builder, and maybe even the window and ventilation supplier. Then everyone works together from first principles. And in Passivhaus design, those principles are pretty basic, and revolve around the idea of Radical Simplicity.

Embrace the Box. Keep the design simple. "Passivhaus advocates are keen to point out that Passivhaus doesn't need to be a box but we are serious about delivering Passivhaus for all, we need to think inside the box and stop apologizing for houses that look like houses."

Watch the Windows. Windows are much more expensive than walls and are lovely things, but truly a case of where you can have too much of a good thing, causing "overheating in summer, heat loss in winter, reduced privacy, less space for storage and furniture and more glass to clean." It is really hard for architects to control windows, especially when you are starting with a box; it takes a good eye to pull it off. But instead of treating a window as a wall, as so many modernists do, think of it a as a picture frame around a carefully chosen view. Or as Nick suggests, "size and position are dictated by views and daylight."

Nick goes on to demand structural simplicity and straightforward simple details to achieve air tightness. "There is a cost to achieve an air tight building rather than a leaky one, but using twice as much tape doesn't halve the leakage."

Nick concludes that "VE is a creative process" and even breathes the other two words that are even worse, Design-Build. He suggests that "the marriage of these could be rebranded as Integrated Design, if that helps us move on, Something needs to change fast if sustainability is to become normal, which is part of the very definition."

Alan Clarke, Bronwyn Barry, Nick GrantAlan Clarke, Bronwyn Barry, Nick Grant in HofbrÀuhaus/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It is all about working together from the start, keeping it simple, remembering Bronwyn Barry's dictum that it should be "Boxy But Beautiful" and remembering that the goal is to deliver Passivhaus for all. And Bronwyn, Nick and architect engineer Alan Clarke and I had a lovely beer together.

Kiwi architect Elrond Burell coined the phrase Radical Building Efficiency as the target we need to reduce our carbon footprints; now Nick Grant proposes Radical Simplicity as the way to get there. They are both really on to something here.

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