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There has been a shift in the definiton of building excellence from opulence – Taj Mahal, Empire State, the Biltmore – to an excellence in driving performance – Net Zero, Zero Impact, LEED Gold.

This shift in values is interesting, but in my opinion still displaces the right emphasis. I am striving for buildings and systems that no longer point to the designer or the builder. Rather, I’m eager for excellence to be defined as buildings that point to the users and operators.

It is estimated that 20-30% of energy improvements are lost in the first four years. How does this define excellence? Why do we applaud the energy model depiction of 50% energy savings when our users are unable to keep that level of performance? Or the lighting controls we override because we never really understand them?

It reminds me of Biggest Loser contestants who achieve admirable, massive weight loss only to regain many of the pounds after leaving the carefully organized supervision and care available on the TV show.

This is not an engineering-only shortcoming. It’s not a gap filled by commissioning. It’s not a gap satisfied by owner training or better controls. In my opinion, we are often just one question away from purposeful, usable, beautiful, operable, cost effective buildings. Who is our user?

User-centric design and construction places the beginning at the end, and the end at the beginning. We must decide on the human interface before determining the solution. We must think about the operation before we decide on the control. Afterall, as Thomas J. Watson of IBM said, “Design must reflect the practical and aesthetic in business but above all… good design must primarily serve people.”

I’d welcome your thoughts, too. Leave me a comment with your perspective and experience.