The 5 Objectives of Great Building Design

Everyone wants to design a cost-effective building (especially if you are the owner). But buildings are more than just the space they take up. They can house our lives and be our homes, surround us when we are sick and in the hospital, or be the place where we (or our children) sit and listen to a teacher drone on and on.


1. Economical

How can you estimate the true cost of a building when you are designing it? Well, there are many parameters that can determine cost-effectiveness, and so it requires a life-cycle perspective. This perspective considers the costs and benefits of the project over the building’s economic life. A building design is cost-effective if its benefits are equal to alternative designs, but have a lower whole life cost. A whole life cost of a building can include the initial design and construction cost, and the operations and maintenance over the life of the building.

It can depend on an individual’s goals and interests in the project and the future of the building. In many respects, the question of a design being cost-effective is determined by his or her interpretation. Questions include whether the design represents a building with the lowest operating and maintenance costs, longest life span, most productive users, and the best return on investment.

Finally, it’s important not to compromise the goals and performance of the building when managing the costs. It is much easier to quantify costs than non-monetary benefits, such as the benefits of aesthetics, historic preservation, and safety. Sometimes, non-monetary issues can be tiebreakers to quantitative analysis, or override quantitative cost comparisons, like when renewable energy application overrides alternatives.

2. Functional

When the design of a building meets the needs of the people who use it and the technical requirements of the programs it is used for, then the design is functionally successful. And so a building’s function, whether it be the function served by a library, health care facility, or residence, will of course influence its design. If a building doesn’t meet its intended function, then it may be hard to correct.

An important part of the planning process is to translate the owner’s spatial and service requirements for a building. But it can go beyond just designing for proposed space requirements–sometimes there is a need to design for the flexibility of programmed space. Especially for the ever-changing, always-connected workplace, the design must incorporate some measure of flexibility. Flexible spaces can support multiple configurations and densities and allow for rapid change if needed. For a workplace, designing to enable informal social interaction, to accommodate a variety of meeting sizes and types, and to support individual concentration and stress reduction can be important to keep in mind.

A successfully designed building will function as an integrated system. This can involve understanding the relationship between form and function. Form, which refers to shape or configuration, serves to meet the functional characteristics of building systems. Ultimately, the building will be composed of building systems, materials, and technology that support each other to meet functional goals.

3. Performance

What does it mean to design a building that is productive or “performs” well? Well the Energy Policy Act of 2005 tells us that a “high performance building” means

“a building that integrates and optimizes all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity.”

If that definition seems too daunting, do not worry–it will help to establish design objectives to achieve a high performance building. This involves setting performance goals (and defining them as qualitative and quantitative performance measures) for the various building systems and the building envelope. It can also mean reconciling conflicting priorities such as physical security vs. fire safety.

Meeting performance objectives also means that the owner’s functional requirements for the building are met, as well as the psychological needs of those who occupy the space. Unless your project is meant for non-human members, a measure of “productivity” of a building can be the productivity of the people inside who use the space. Therefore, productive building designs promote health and comfortable environments. They also allow for seamless integration of technological tools and ensure the reliability of the building systems because this directly affects an occupant’s safety and health.

4. Sustainable

Sustainable design is characterized by an increased commitment to environmental responsibility, and also balances cost and people’s needs while meeting the function of the building. The goals of sustainable design include avoiding unnecessary resource/energy depletion and creating places that are comfortable and secure. This can involve using “greener” materials, optimizing energy use, and enhancing indoor environmental quality (see our post on “The top three ways to building green”).

Building resiliency, or the ability of the building to survive and maintain operations under extreme conditions such as natural disasters is also important. Another characteristic of sustainable design is building adaptability, or the capacity of the building for multiple uses and ways.

A sustainable building not only considers the environment, but is sensitive to the needs of the user. This means that it should be accessible to the greatest number of people. Such a design can partly be achieved by following regulatory accessibility requirements, planning for access into the facility, and planning for access to spaces within the building.

5. Safety

Designing a secure and safe building is critical to any project, and requires a proactive approach that foresees risk and protects against it. The first step is to look at the potential risks involved. Based on risk assessment and analysis, building owners and others on the team can choose the right safety and security measures to implement. This selection of appropriate measures depends on security and regulatory requirements, analysis of life cycle cost, and the impact these measures have on the design, construction, and use of the building.

There are many ways to apply risk reduction strategies, so it is useful to categorize them as either structural or non-structural. Structural mitigation will focus on building components, such as columns, beams, and foundations, that carry gravity, wind, seismic, and other loads. Examples of structural risk reduction strategies include building material and site selection, and building code compliance. Non-structural risk reduction includes focusing on damage that can arise from non-load bearing building components such as architectural elements, mechanical, electrical and plumbing components, and furniture or equipment.

Overall, the fundamental areas to look at for safety are planning for fire protection and risk reduction from natural hazards, protecting occupant’s safety and health, and providing security for occupants. Of course, local and federal regulation accounts for many areas of risk reduction and incorporating building compliance codes are necessary for any building design.

Now that each of the design objectives has been described, it is worth noting that a successful design applies all of them together. A successful project is one where project goals are set early on and the interdependent building systems are planned so they work together as a whole building system.

For a great resource, check out the Whole Building Design Guide.

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