Selected Highlights of the Labs21 2010 Annual Conference


People, Presence, Place:
Co-Creating High-Performance Buildings

Kathleen Kelly, AIA, LEED AP, and Andy Snyder, NBBJ


High-performance buildings hit on all cylinders: from environment to context and program. Globally, achieving sustainable performance and significant energy reduction is hindered by a multitude of issues driven by unique climate conditions, varying code requirements, cultural pressures, natural resource limitations, and soft governmental policies. Delivering high-performance buildings across international borders requires many powerful resources working in concert, with the team at the epicenter.

Analyzing our design experience in three world regions—Asia, the Middle East, and Europe/United Kingdom (UK)—reveals the considerations and unique solutions required to deliver energy reduction around the world. Note the following observations:


  • Emissions and Energy Use Intensity > Scale and impact of development.
  • Continent of climate extremes > Deep understanding of "place."
  • Speed of development > Consistency and continuity of team.

Middle East

  • "Plentiful" fossil fuels > Life after oil: planning for alternative futures.
  • Extreme climate > Embracing cultural building traditions; renewable resources.
  • Young society > Look to the designer as expert.

Europe and the UK

  • Must import fossil fuels > Need to leverage renewable resources.
  • High energy costs > Focus on energy reduction.
  • Rigorous regulations and codes > Aggressive design criteria.

The learnings gleaned from working in these regions point to the following themes: the power of the team, the power of policy, and the power of knowledge. 

The Power of the Team

A high-performance team is one configured specifically for the unique criteria of each project. As experienced in the case study of the Koo Foundation Research Pavilion, located in Taipei, Taiwan, delivering an energy reduction of 58 percent required building a network of knowledge and expertise, spanning geographies, cultures, and value systems. For the Koo Foundation, collaboration is the bridge between theory and clinical practice. Building a flexible, sustainable framework to support collaboration was fundamental to the success of their enterprise. Collaboration across multiple disciplines, global locations, and areas of expertise is also the basis of delivering greater energy performance and a holistic, sustainable building. Efforts included pushing policy makers for change. Collaborators must remain in place for the duration of construction to ensure project goals and objectives are not lost. In addition, contractors included in the process ensure a holistic system integration and balances supply and demand.

The Power of Policy

Rigorous policy driven by political leaders committed to change and backed by evidence gathers the support of its citizens. For countries like China, policy has become a survival issue; growth cannot continue without controlled emissions. Policy's real impact lies with massive developments such as residential communities, schools, and high-rises, not the one-off office building. For the Life Sciences building at the University of Southampton, the UK's 2019 drive for zero carbon emissions, combined with the 10 percent renewably sourced site energy requirement, results in a largely different approach for a laboratory building: raised floors with natural ventilation, night cooling combined with thermal mass, exposed concrete surfaces, and photovoltaics. Mandated pressure testing of the envelope ensures performance.

The Power of Knowledge

For countries in the Middle East, specifically those with relatively new oil dollars, there is a clear desire for guidance. The architect assumes the role of "expert," carrying significant influence in lowering energy consumption. Along with historically based ideas, such as building orientation, shading, and air chimneys, new ideas such as earth ducts and double roofs to generate shaded horizontal surfaces were incorporated in Kuwait University College of Sciences building. Teams properly schooled in energy principals have the perfect arena to greatly reduce energy consumption.

There are a number of lessons learned from the international experience to refocus the design and policy process in the United States: 

  • Focus on energy reduction specifically.
  • Advocacy and accountability for building performance, at a high level, is key in affecting policy change.
  • Building monitoring: Accountability for performance over the building's lifetime.
  • Architect as expert:  Returning to the idea of Master Builder.
  • Collective Design Approach: Collaborative team approach is proven globally.
  • Use of thermal mass and radiation.
  • Profound energy savings will not be realized without impacting the actions of the building tenants (plug loads).


Kathleen Kelly, a principal at NBBJ, has spent her 19-year career designing science buildings. With 30 research buildings in her portfolio, Ms. Kelly is a key proponent of sustainable and regenerative design at NBBJ. Throughout her years as an architect, her experience has spanned a variety of project types, but always with a view to environmental sensitivity. As a part of NBBJ's science and education practice, Ms. Kelly is focused on devising sustainable research environments for the future and the environmental performance of buildings. She takes a holistic approach, looking for opportunities to push each project towards a positive outcome for both the human experience and the ecosystem we inhabit. Ms. Kelly is a member of the American Institute of Architects and a LEED Accredited Professional.

An advocate of integrated and value-added design, Andy Snyder is a senior associate and project designer in NBBJ's Science and Education practice. His experience across geography, project size, and complexity makes him a highly versatile designer. Mr. Snyder believes that great design improves the human condition and is significant of its place and time. His interests in sustainability extend from environmental responsibility and energy reduction to improving the human experience and adding value.