Defining High Performance Architecture

High Performance ArchitectureActivate’s tagline is ‘High Performance Architecture’ and we are often asked what this means. Here, Activate’s founding partner, Michael Magner, shares his thoughts.
"I often sense that people imagine that our tagline applies only to designing expensive buildings. If one were to use the analogy of cars, the equivalent would be an F1 racing car. And sometimes this is the case – but it is the exception rather than the rule.

There are many high performance criteria that drive decisions around car design that result in very different vehicles. If the priority for the car is for it to be affordable and reliable, then the Volkswagen Beetle comes to mind. If the requirement is to traverse unruly mountain roads, then the Land Cruiser would be one of my first choices. If fuel economy is the main priority, then the performance of a smart car wins. There are many examples of high performance vehicles where the measurement of performance is not a single-seat, super-fast racing machine.

Like cars, buildings need to meet all sorts of criteria ranging from how the building fits into its urban context, its visual appearance and structural integrity through to floor area density, internal spatial efficiencies, weather protection, indoor environment control and energy efficiency. Other criteria include the efficient design of services (such as water reticulation, sewage and stormwater management), and the intricate small-scale details such as floor coverings, wall finishes, shadow lines and lighting features.

The requirements are varied and vast and the resulting performance of buildings changes accordingly. So how do we create high performance architecture?

High Performance ArchitectureThe starting point is creating an inclusive and exhaustive list of all the requirements that the building should meet. This is an essential task and forms the basis of a comprehensive brief. The list should take into account a number of different disciplines. For example, if the architect makes a list for the project it is likely to be very different to the developer’s financial director’s list, which may vary significantly from the lists of the tenants, engineers and landscapers.

All these criteria are very important starting points for design, and all need to be considered from the outset. Though a process of assessment and collaboration, these criteria can be prioritised to allow a very focussed set of performance principles to emerge. This process is essential in order to be in a position to make clear, co-ordinated design choices and to be able to test these choices against the identified performance principles and criteria. Testing design decisions is a critical part of the process and may result in seemingly contradictory items being resolved.

High Performance ArchitectureFor example, a building design wish list often includes commendable criteria like ‘low energy lighting’ and ‘natural light and ventilation’. The desire for natural light may logically lead to a decision to incorporate larger windows and possibly a skylight, but this could lead to poor thermal performance and glare. One possible solution may be the addition of shading devices, provided there is sufficient budget allocated and the design of the shading devices is in line with the overall aesthetic language of the building. Otherwise the shading devices may be small and patchy, affecting the main façade in ways that deter from the initial design ideas.

High Performance Architecture In all cases, the final list of performance principles will reflect the client’s brand and ethos in terms of how the organisation positions itself in response to its social, cultural and environmental context. These principles are therefore crucial entry points to the design that give the design team and stakeholders much more substance to work with in coming up with ideas and evaluating design performance. This is why, in all the legendary products ever designed – from cars to buildings – the success of the final product depends on the delivery of these key, high performance principles".

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