Measuring Our Ambition

By Susie See, PE, Principal

Dating back to the 1920s, the building community has been in perpetual competition for the title of tallest building. A new tallest building in any given region can barely emerge without the building that will replace it beginning construction. This is not surprising; human nature thrives on competition and strives to continually progress. Our survival has been dependent on our ability to continually adapt, improve and innovate. Thus, while lofty roof heights will never fail to be impressive, one can’t help but wonder: how can we harness our competitive spirit and irrational exuberance to build taller and taller and leverage it to simultaneously build smarter and smarter? Will we one day boast about how much energy the building generates and how little water is used in the same way we speak about height? Will exceptional well-being, vitality and happiness of the people inside tall buildings win design awards? How will we measure such things?

We’ve made significant strides in developing better buildings and creating the measuring sticks to take advantage of our competitive nature. LEED, The Living Building Challenge and WELL Building Standard have given us some yardsticks to measure our success.  While we’ve made progress, tall buildings still consume significant amounts of energy and contribute to the urgent problem of global warming.  Many in our community have signed onto the 2030 Challenge – the audacious goal of designing all new buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030. Designing for carbon neutrality is a monumental undertaking for most buildings and a seemingly impossible task for very tall ones.  One thing is certain, owners and design teams must continue to innovate and collaborate.  

At MEYERS+ our approach is to continue to make significant strides on every building and particularly with the design of tall towers.  Our approach is multi-faceted and includes significant focus and careful design in the following areas:

  • Economic Viability 

  • Envelope Performance and Design

  • Reducing the overall energy consumption of all systems

  • Reducing the amount of potable water and optimizing reuse

  • Maximizing renewable energy generation

  • Maximizing views, natural daylighting, use of outside (fresh) air

  • Enhancing life safety

Economic Viability 

MEYERS+ ENGINEERS work closely with the building team to optimize the building core; to maximize the real estate and allow for optimum lease depths while providing flexibility and access to the environmental systems. Solving the core puzzle is a full team effort to ideally locate core components to create logical vertical transportation means, fire safety and fire-fighting provisions, as well as organized, optimized and flexible risers for air, water, electrical and data.  

Envelope Performance and Design

Façade design and performance creates opportunities for developing iconic tall building architecture and is another area where our team collaborates to improve views, maximize internal day-lighting, and enhance occupant thermal comfort. MEYERS+ provides performance-based analysis using a variety of tools to analyze the effects of shading strategies, glass performance, thermal properties and BIPV energy production. Our tools not only provide answers but help to optimize the overall tall building façade performance.

Reducing Energy Consumption

Vertically zoning tall buildings is important for proper systems design to limit working pressures, static pressure and voltage drop in piping, ductwork and electrical systems.  We work closely with architects and structural engineers to locate MEP zones to correspond to out-rigger, belt-truss or other unique floors where the additional structure and MEP equipment coexist while minimizing the real estate impact. System zoning helps to reduce wasted pumping and fan energy and keeps equipment sizing optimal for tall buildings. Zoning the building properly mitigates stack-effect and maintains proper building pressurization.

MEYERS+ works with the design team to develop HVAC systems that reduce the overall energy use (as well as the space needed at the building core) by separating the ventilation systems from the cooling and heating systems.  Using water-based cooling and heating systems such as chilled/radiant ceilings, chilled beams or fan power terminal units reduces the overall fan energy, reduces shaft space and delivers greater amounts of fresh air to the tenant spaces.

Design of this nature – providing high rates of ventilation, daylight access to all occupants, and otherwise high performing indoor environments – is becoming increasingly imperative. In recent years, the steady prevalence of work-related illness, including repetitive stress injuries, asthma, and cardio-vascular disease, suggests that the stressors in our artificial environments are exceeding the flexibility of our biological systems. Further, recent studies have revealed that a significant percentage of sick leave can be linked to complaints about the quality of the workplace. Conversely, healthy indoor environments were linked to a 5% drop in absenteeism.

And it’s not only about improved health. A Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory study showed that less than optimum air had a significant impact on employee performance, particularly on decision-making and taking initiative. Speed and accuracy of work improves with increased ventilation rates. Similarly, a 2003 study by the California Energy Commission found that exposure to daylight was consistently linked with a higher level of concentration and better short-term memory recall. The same study found that performance improved with better access to a window view; workers with better views also reported better health conditions and sense of well-being, versus those with no view. Reports of increased fatigue were most strongly associated with those with no view.

Maximizing Renewable Energy Generation 

Onsite renewable energy is a significant design challenge for tall towers given the current limitations on available products. Designing photovoltaics into tall buildings requires creativity, innovative solutions and advances in technology. MEYERS+ ENGINEERS is working with architects and PV manufactures to develop schemes with photovoltaic spandrel glass and fins at the façade that produce up to 15% of the energy consumed by a tall building in an urban environment.  

More and more people are living and working in tall towers than ever before and this trend will continue. Our ambition (and responsibility) is to continually improve these towers – to create homes and offices that enhance our health, performance and sense of well-being and to generate the resources consumed. We must build smarter, not just taller. The strongest buildings of the future will be those that seek to be the leader of the pack inclusive of performance, and not just height.