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Setting Quantitative Goals and Following Through

The key to achieving ambitious project performance goals? Survey says: Ownership Involvement

In many ways, the building sector is well-positioned to meet climate action goals. The ambitious carbon reduction targets established by our industry, our cities, and in some cases, our clients, set the baseline for high-performing buildings. Oftentimes the professionals involved in projects have not only the technical expertise to deliver high-performing buildings, but also a profound sense of personal responsibility to improve the impact of their work.  

So where do things go wrong?

In 2022, we launched a survey to uncover what drives the gap between projects that meet high-performance goals and those that don’t. Our team—Lori Ferriss (Executive Director, Built Buildings Lab), Alejandra Menchaca (Principal and Owner, AIRLIT studio), Erik Olsen (Managing Parter, Transsolar KlimaEngineering), and I—developed this survey and distributed across our networks of architects, sustainability consultants, contractors, engineers, and owners. Between two rounds of surveys, we received over 100 responses. Respondents shared with us valuable insights into the goal-setting process and how our industry can become better at creating goals that are ambitious and achievable design drivers. 

The survey began by asking what are the most common barriers that prevent a project from reaching its intended goals. We wanted to understand the hurdles between the design vision and the advanced targets many of us hope to meet. Common responses included the client and their priorities, conservatism, resistance to change, budget, and the investment level of the team throughout all stages of design.   

What is the greatest barrier that prevents projects from meeting their goals?

Source: Mentimeter

We asked respondents about the types of quantitative goals their teams are setting and how often those quantitative goals drive design decisions. Their responses revealed that numeric performance targets are valuable, but across energy, carbon, water, and human health, there was a wide range in implementation. Lowering net energy consumption appeared to be driving design decisions more frequently than potable water consumption or embodied carbon emissions. Looking back on this result from the present, we know that targets around embodied carbon emissions have gained significant momentum. A future survey could help us understand how powerful these targets are becoming as driving factors on projects. 

How often do quantitative goals for the following categories drive design decisions on your projects?

Based on this feedback, perhaps the most important role that quantitative targets play is as proxies—mechanisms for pushing teams to optimize and excel—rather than specific targets to hit.

Though these quantitative targets are necessary and effective, the majority of professionals don’t believe that hitting a numerical target at design completion is the most important marker of success. Based on this feedback, perhaps the most important role that quantitative targets play is as proxiesmechanisms for pushing teams to optimize and excelrather than specific targets to hit. On each project, it’s crucial to understand the motivation behind goals and ultimate vision to make sure the team is evaluating the right results.

What is the most important marker of achieving a project’s goals?

Top three factors that prevent a project from achieving its goals:

  1. Default to business as usual 
  2. First costs 
  3. Lack of consensus around goals  

Most respondents confirmed that a range of factors, from risk tolerance to constructability, maintenance concerns, and regulatory barriers are at least somewhat likely to prevent a project from achieving its goals. 

How likely are each of these factors to prevent a project from achieving its goals?

What do these survey results tell us about how we can improve?

The survey highlighted the critical role of the client in the design process. While client commitment and buy-in were repeatedly cited as common barriers to meeting goals, a majority of respondents agreed that clients are instrumental in achieving high-performance goals on their own or as part of an integrated team. Client engagement, communication of project goals, and early-stage establishment of team-wide commitment are all considered highly effective methods for reaching performance targets, underscoring that soft skills are equally, if not more important, than technical skills. 

How effective are each of these strategies in helping teams achieve their goals?

Who was the driving force in consistently rallying the team to the meet the desired outcomes?

Three steps for achieving project performance goals

The survey results indicate three critical approaches for delivering high-performing buildings:

  1. Co-create performance goals with the client and the design team.
  2. Set quantifiable targets for energy, carbon, water, and human health that the team can work towards.
  3. Provide consistent communication around goals as the design progresses. Update and revise those goals together as needed.

Knowing the importance of the client’s role in accomplishing project goals suggests that establishing proven and creative methods for engaging them is a priority. In this way, ambitious goals can be an effective way to get clients, stakeholders, and communities excited about a project vision and its potential impact. To effectively achieve high-performance on a greater percentage of projects, we must consistently aim high and work vigorously to engage owners and achieve our goals, together. 

How is goal-setting evolving now?

These survey results from 2022 remain instructive today as they underscore key best practices that can help more projects become high-performance exemplars. Notable changes in the past two years include an increased focus on embodied carbon and growing awareness and planning for new climate-driven resilience challenges. As the AEC industry continues to become more knowledgeable and strategic on both topics, we would expect to see project-specific embodied carbon and risk resilience goals become more prevalent and more powerful as project drivers.  

We plan to reissue this survey by the end of the 2024In particular, we will be looking to answer the two following questions: 

  1. Has the use of quantitative goals meaningfully expanded in any of these categories over the last 2 years?
  2. What can we see in regional differences across the country for any of these goal-setting categories?

We look forward to providing an update on how goal setting is evolving for teams in 2025. 

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