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Featured Author - George Baird, Sustainable Buildings in Practice


George Baird is a professor of Building Science at the University of Victoria, Wellington (New Zealand) and the author of our recent volume, Sustainable Buildings in Practice. He began his work as a coal mining engineer, and moved upward through the profession to his current position -- allowing him to see "all sides" of sustainable engineering and architecture. In a quick interview, George gives us his opinion on what works, and what's needed for the future of sustainable building.

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You have visited all the case studies mentioned in the book. What was your favorite and briefly explain why?

Now that’s a bit of a poser for someone who has to devoutly try and maintain academic detachment and professional neutrality. I could of course simply name the building with the best average user-perception scores, but as I have tried throughout the book to avoid any suggestion of a league table, I’m not going to start now. But if I fall back on my own perceptions of each building, based on first time impressions two or three stand out that I felt (knew) right away would be good performers. (Oh no, he’s using intuition now! Where’s the academic detachment? Has he no shame?)
NRG Systems Facility in Hynesburg, Vermont, USA was a notable example of this. On arrival there, PA Kathy Magnus introduced me to everyone in the offices, the workshops, and the warehouse where without exception I was greeted warmly by every staff member. Clearly this was going to be a great performer from the users’ point of view - and so it proved.
The Staff Towers of the MSCS Building in Christchurch, New Zealand evoked a similar response from me. This time I was allowed to roam at will and introduce myself and also take continuous temperature measurements. Personally, I just loved the staff study set up, this was a place I personally could work productively and staff perception scores bore our my initial gut feeling - oh, and it was the only building which had a retrievable user’s handbook.
I could relate similar experiences at most of the other building but I know “I loved them all” is not the answer you wanted. That said, my two picks were by no means perfect in every respect - that building is yet to be found and assessed - but they had plenty of the ‘right stuff’.

What would the key piece of advice be to an architect looking to design a useable sustainable building for the first time?

As with any building, first find yourself a client with a genuine commitment to sustainability (not just a ‘tick-the-box for a good rating’ type motivation).
Involve the other key design disciplines right from the start - no pre-conceptions - a genuine tabula rasa.
You (the architect) should have all the skills you need to produce a successful design - you are already trained and experienced at juggling and balancing a multiplicity of apparently conflicting requirements - just remember to include careful consideration of the building’s acoustic requirements - a particular issue that seems to get forgotten but is clearly of vital importance to building users - and probably much more difficult to remedy after the event than almost any other feature.
And while you have probably tried to make the operation of the building as intuitive as possible, please prepare and disseminate a simple attractive, acceptable user manual for the building users that will ‘live on’ after you have finished the project.

What was the most important factor users wanted and why?

That’s an easy one if I may be permitted to borrow from page 20 - Noise and Storage issues were by far the commonest source of complaint. In the case of the former, juxtaposing offices with other activities such as auditoria, meeting rooms, showrooms, visitor areas, even corridors with hard surfaces and wooden floors is probably a planning issue. Noise and disturbance within the open plan offices themselves could probably be alleviated by the establishment of appropriate etiquette and some education of the staff on the implications of moving from cellular to open-plan offices, as well as appropriate layout and acoustical design. In the case of storage, the high ratio of negative to positive comments indicates that this is an issue for many people - it would appear that the paperless office is still some way off.


Who do you find most influential and why?

Without a doubt a motivated client.
In many cases the clients were in the sustainability ‘business’ and it might have been anticipated they would want to demonstrate this via their buildings.
Some, particularly academic institutions and national/local government organisations, were clearly motivated to take a long-term view of their facilities and/or lead by example.
Others were simply open to the clearly stated and convincingly presented arguments of their (invariably highly motivated) design teams, just as long as the financial arguments were equally convincing to the members of their Boards.
Building Sustainability Rating Tools undoubtedly have some influence too but it takes more than a ‘tick-the-boxes’ approach on the part of the design team to achieve a building that works well from the users’ point of view.

Related Products

  1. Sustainable Buildings in Practice

    What the Users Think

    By George Baird

    Current assessment methods of sustainable buildings do not adequately account for the users’ needs. Given that over the life of a building, total salary costs far outweigh both operating costs and combined capital and rental costs, the occupants’ needs are not something which should be sensibly...

    Published January 26th 2010 by Routledge