This article is part of an expanded online version of “When Disaster Strikes,” a special report on designing for resiliency and disaster preparedness that was first published in the March 2019 issue of Healthcare Design

Healthcare Design talks to Amir Rezaei, high-performance building analyst at CannonDesign, about how his role contributes to the design process and why using data can help ensure project teams are building the right resilient structures.

Healthcare Design: You’re a high-performance building analyst. What exactly does that mean?

Amir Rezaei: I’m essentially a subject-matter assistant to our design teams. As they work on projects across all the markets we serve, they come to me for guidance or with questions. How much insulation does this building require? Which chiller should I use? I analyze the building data and project design and make recommendations to ensure our projects meet/exceed energy codes and performance targets.

In many ways, I’m like a consulting doctor who checks on a patient at various stages of a procedure. Just as a doctor would monitor a patient’s vitals, I use different software to monitor a project’s data across energy studies, daylight analysis, and numerous other applications.

What design elements/characteristics must a building possess to be considered high performance?

Part of answering that question is defining high performance. For me, a high-performance building is one that consumes the least amount of energy while still ensuring occupant comfort. With that as the definition, it’s then all about how you integrate disciplines and balance low- and high-performance elements to drive overall performance.

Just as there are myriad ways to score a touchdown in football, there are numerous ways to achieve high performance. You can have a building with high insulation and weak HVAC performance and another building with a very sophisticated HVAC but code-level insulation that achieves the same overall performance. It’s all about how you integrate, balance, and maximize synergies in the design.

How does your role apply to creating more resilient buildings?

When it comes to resiliency, my focus is on passive survivability. I can help health systems “emulate” power outage scenarios before they happen. So when an actual storm or other disturbance causes a hospital to lose power, they know exactly how much time they have before patients and staff face hazardous indoor temperatures. We also help them understand the best areas in the building to move patients to—where it is less cold or hot—when these dire situations arise. Having this information makes health buildings more resilient and can save lives.

How, specifically, do you approach energy use on healthcare projects?

Due to the large, sophisticated equipment healthcare facilities rely on, these building inherently have high power loads you cannot easily trim or predict [ever or just prior to opening?]. Knowing this, our team puts special focus on user data when it comes to healthcare. How often will MRIs be used over the course of a week or a year? Those kinds of questions.

Securing reliable user data can be a real challenge before the building is built and user behavior is realized. And often we have to present our data back in the form of performance ranges. This is another challenge, because when it comes to performance data, people like absolutes. They want a clear goal and a specific result. But with energy performance, absolutes aren’t easy to establish. I often use the analogy of prescribing drugs. Understanding a drug’s potency is only half the battle, as you then need to understand how often a patient can take it. We have to help healthcare leaders look at data the same way, with ranges and different possibilities based on the accuracy of user data and client feedback.

Do you find more healthcare organizations are interested in not just being more resilient but having data to support design solutions?

Definitely. Healthcare executives are very comfortable using data to drive decision-making. They look at performance outcomes, clinical studies, salaries, etc., every day. They may not be as used to our types of data and data sets, so it’s on us to help them understand exactly what building performance means to their people and their balance sheets. Their understanding of building performance data can lead to better patient experience, higher profits, or lives saved when crises occur.

What will a better understanding of a project location’s climate, weather threats, survivability, etc., do to help create a better facility solution for healthcare organizations?

We used to just be able to look back to historic climate data, but now we can model the future with a degree of uncertainty. Knowing these buildings will be standing for 30-50 years, we can use software to simulate environmental conditions that far into the future. We can give health leaders a sense of how many extreme hot or cold days they’ll face in a quarter century. These climate changes impact budgets and design decisions today.

It’s all about scale. Understanding building performance today ensures health systems know what to do in those 3-5 hours after power goes out next year. And, understanding future climate conditions helps them know better what they’ll need to do 30-50 years down the line.

Could you give us an example of how your work recently contributed to the design of a healthcare project?

We’re working with Dignity Health on its new women’s and children’s tower, and what’s really fascinating with this project is we’re contractually bound to hit specific energy targets. In this case, our team’s design and financial success on the project is bound to building performance. I think you’ll see more and more performance contracting like this moving forward.

Are you able to use data to identify broadly applicable solutions or is every project dependent on data specific to that project and its local environment?

It does depend on the specific climate and location. But we’re trying to ease the burden of having to do the same work each time by generating literally 1,000s of simulations around energy performance for given climates. We combine these simulations with artificial intelligence to create ready-made packages of solutions for a given region or climate. Once such a data set is established, it saves us a lot of time, as we don’t need to design performance of building elements from scratch each time. We’re starting from a point of strong certainty and can deliver feedback on projects faster.

How does a better performing healthcare facility become a more resilient one?

It’s all about balancing design elements. Sometimes design elements that ensure high performance are actually bad for resiliency. For example, if you have a building that is highly insulated with non-operable windows, that’s really good for high-performance but it’s not ideal for facilities in hot climates when the power goes out and you can’t open the window. High-performance and resiliency can work hand-in-hand for projects, but you need to think about them holistically.

What do you wish more people understood about how data can inform design?

First and foremost, data is different from “information or insight.” If you don’t package data appropriately so people can use it, it means nothing. The key is effectively visualizing data so people can understand it, and also delivering data at the right moments in the design process when decisions are being made. Far too often, data is realized after design decisions it would have positively impacted have been made. We need to speed the data collection process to a point where it matches the speed of design.—Jennifer Kovacs Silvis

To read the full special report, “When Disaster Strikes,” go here