Who is more important for a building – an Architect or an Engineer?

Do buildings rely more on architects or engineers? I believe there is a third option – “all of the above.” The debate about the importance of architects or engineers in the construction industry has been an eternal one. At a high level, one’s answer to this question boils down to personal perspective on the importance of creative skills versus technical skills. Having studied both architecture and engineering, I have always believed that these two should go hand-in-hand. However, I rarely find a project where I can amalgamate my skills from both sides of the aisle.

Last week, I was simultaneously excited and fascinated to work on such a project in Durham, North Carolina with my colleague, Jonathan Lemmond. We visited a historical brick building built in 1905 that once housed a tobacco warehouse. The exterior shell of the building was retained and the interiors were renovated to accommodate an office complex. While the rugged aesthetics of the building give it a unique architectural character, its historic construction techniques posed challenges like air and water infiltration, thermal bridging, etc. Baumann Consulting was contracted to carry out the enclosure commissioning (BECx) of the building to diagnose the underlying causes for these issues.

durham buildingsWater infiltration at several locations was a particularly critical issue for the building. One occupant had a bucket next to their desk to collect the water dripping off the ceiling. We diagnosed the issue for one part of the building roof with simple visual inspections. It was obvious that the architectural details of the roof were askew. The flashings were incorrectly installed on parts of the parapet, resulting in water seeping through the walls. Further the awry roof gradient resulted in standing water puddles over the roof that slowly infiltrated into the spaces through tiny cracks in the roof.

The root cause of the water leakage at another location in the building could not be determined in a similar fashion. Although the issue symptoms were like the first location, there was no standing water on the roof, nothing wrong with the roof drainage, and there were no visible cracks for the second location. We adopted IR thermography to diagnose the issue at this location. Because wet surfaces have a different temperature than the surrounding areas, we traced the low temperature spots to locate a leaky sealant in a skylight.

With the latest version of LEED (version 4), there is a raising awareness about building enclosure commissioning. According to the Department of Energy guide for commissioning of federal facilities, commissioning of building HVAC systems saves an average of 15% of energy cost for existing buildings. Although the issues found from BECx activities do not always result in tangible energy savings, they can significantly reduce occupant complaints and may sometimes even prevent a structural catastrophe. This brings me back to the original question – “Who is more important for a building – an Architect or an Engineer?” We would not have identified the issues for this project without my architectural training and my colleague’s mechanical engineering experience. It helped reinforce my belief that beautiful buildings can be high performing and vice-versa when there exists a synergy between architects and engineers.

Raghuram Sunnam is as a Building Performance Analyst in Baumann’s Washington, DC office. He specializes in energy modeling, commissioning, Operation Diagnostics, M&V, building enclosure commissioning, energy benchmarking and energy audits. Raghu holds a B.Arch. from VNIT and a M.S. in Architectural Engineering and Construction Management from Carnegie Mellon University. He is currently pursuing a part-time PhD in the Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

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