Building Performance Analysis

Building Performance Analysis

By Pieter de Wilde. Wiley Blackwell, 2018, ISBN: 9781119341925.

Michael Donn (Victoria University of Wellington) reviews this book which provides an account of the context for building performance analysis and various techniques for undertaking this.

The International Building Performance Simulation Association (IBPSA) entry for Pieter de Wilde lists him as “an expert in the use of building simulation in the building design, services and engineering community.” Professor de Wilde’s book ‘Building Performance Analysis’ contains an endorsement from IBPSA which states “…the book mobilises an extensive quantity of relevant literature on this broad subject, making it an invaluable resource for students at all levels. Each chapter concludes with a list of activities that not only serves as a summary of the material covered but also provides an excellent basis from which to develop student projects and assessments.”

To this reader, the joy and delight of this book is this extensive literature. It led me, for example, to a secondary reference to a Progressive Architecture (PA) special issue on ‘Performance Design’. The editorial in this extensive 45 page discussion of the potential of Operations Research in architectural design addresses ‘Architectural schizophrenia’: where Performance Design (i.e., design based on reason and reality, …) might create a dilemma for the architect-as-artist used to a “more intuitive and less rational approach”. The focus of this special issue on a Systems Engineering approach to examining the connection between building design and performance, foreshadows the approach taken in this book which, for example, quotes the System Engineering Body of Knowledge 45 times.

I will confess, I found the book a tough read. It reads like an extended annotated bibliography. It is therefore rich in references, but the text does not flow readily. However, the more I read, the more I came to understand and appreciate the quality of the analysis. Like all the best analyses of the literature, this one develops themes and presents a bigger picture than the individual pieces. For example, Chapter 3 from a bold proposition that “building performance as a concept … expresses how well a building performs a task or function”, develops its Systems Engineering view using many clear examples into a set of performance attributes that fit under the “engineering, process and aesthetic views of performance”. Immediately, one is struck that this last view is a remit that might resolve the PA editor’s concern about architects simultaneously trying to be a part of civilisation and to subvert it.

The tri-partite views of performance seem almost like an attempt to emulate Vitruvius’s commodity, firmness and delight functions of buildings. And raise the usual questions about why only three, and where can one fit common attributes of buildings like connectivity in planning, or the health effects of material or environmental choices? But this is a well-argued, and deeply referenced Systems Engineering case for including a wide range of building attributes in performance evaluation.

Unexpectedly for a book entitled  Building Performance Analysis, especially one endorsed by IBPSA, much of this book is focused on the context and application of the concept of building performance, not on the tools by which it might be assessed. This is valuable. Examining the needs of building occupants and the type of criteria by which performance might be assessed to support those needs makes for far more interesting reading than lists of criteria. That said, where actual criteria are mentioned, they are presented in a simplistic manner: it is disappointing to read the eye has two types of “photosensitive cells”, when the lighting industry has been working on the retinal ganglion cells (RGC) for close to two decades.

But, the value of the book is the big picture: how can the ability to define performance criteria fit with the ability to predict performance, and then weigh design decisions balancing several criteria? This process and the various techniques and contexts in which decisions might be made are canvassed broadly in the three major sections of the book: Foundation, Assessment and Impact. The Foundation section provides an interesting insight into the role of systems engineering in examining the users’ needs and the definition of performance in buildings. I found the categorisation of performance requirements under four headings, particularly intriguing. In my view, the future of Building Performance Analysis is assured, if we can develop performance models able to address these four categories: “functional requirements, performance requirements, design constraints and condition constraints”.

The Assessment section contains a useful discussion of the application of  “black box”, “grey box” and “white box” models that link known inputs to predicted performance (outputs).  The insights and application domains of an analysis in this section of the nature of the models in common use for performance analysis is promising. The black box is merely use of known correlations between inputs and outputs, with no in-built modelling of the building physics or human behaviour. White box models, by contrast, explicitly model the relationship between inputs and outputs. The description of the  tools that can be used in different building performance domains (air flow, acoustics, energy, fire, lighting etc) is generally interesting. The list of actual software tools is certainly a starting point for the graduate student looking to establish a thesis starting point. However, not categorising these into the black/white/grey typology is an opportunity missed, and mention of programs like Ecotect and Energy-10 somewhat undermines the credibility because they have not been available for general use for many years.

The third section of the book, Impact, really has only two chapters developing the book’s theme: first Design and Construction, and then Operation and Control. The third chapter in this section consists of a definition of a ‘high performance building’. Apart from a useful set of references as to the origin and definition of ‘high performance’, this does not seem to develop the book’s theme. The first two chapters, like most of the rest in the book, summarise the literature on the types of building design and operational analyses that are feasible,  not how these analyses might be performed. They do not provide direct guidance. Apart from a comprehensive listing and general description of each analysis activity, they do not offer any guidance on how  these activities might be developed in practice.

The final chapter of the book, after these three sections, provides a bookend to match the ambition of the introduction. It posits an ‘emergent theory’ of building performance analysis. In the absence of a theory, a model of how the world works, research cannot design experiments to test the theory. Emergent theories derive from a systematic analysis of information gathered by survey or other means, such as the massive amount of reference information contained in this book. They are typically  intended to create a framework that can be subject to systematic test. Creating experiments for these tests following  a standard scientific methodology typically requires an hypothesis to be tested. This chapter delivers a multitude of ‘tentative’ hypotheses. Few, however, are testable. The strength of this chapter is not, in my opinion, these hypotheses. Rather, it is the summary observations of an author after he has compiled the mass of the preceding chapters’ reference material. He has distilled his observations into a 15 page series of propositions having examined the literature though the lens of Systems Engineering.  

In summary then, would I recommend this book? Yes. I believe the author has achieved his objective expressed in the introduction to "… bring together the existent body of knowledge on building performance analysis".  The core three sections of this book could form the basis of a Building Performance Analysis Body of Knowledge (BPABoK). They could readily be converted to an electronically accessible and updateable database. The Introduction contains sufficient definition material to form the background to a  BPABoK. The "Epilogue" reads more like a manifesto that could be used over time to identify gaps in the BPABoK. Until such a body of knowledge becomes available, I suggest every budding Building Performance Analyst whether learning to model fire egress, daylight or carbon accounting needs to read the introduction. Too often the apprentice Simulationist focuses on how to use the tools, not why. This book provides that context.

Latest Commentaries

Turkey and Syria Earthquake 2023. A devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the Turkish province of Kahramanmaras. Photo: Twintyre (Shutterstock).

In light of the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, David Oswald and Trivess Moore (RMIT University) reflect on the rights that inhabitants have for buildings to be safe, healthy, comfortable and robust. However, serial and various failings in the construction supply side and its oversight by governments mean greater accountability is needed.

Blind Spots in Energy Policy

As a policy practitioner who leads a national organisation representing households and small businesses in shaping the future of Australia’s energy system, Lynne Gallagher (Energy Consumers Australia) responds to the Buildings & Cities special issue, Energy, Emerging Technologies and Gender in Homes.  Insights from lived experience reveal blind spots in the design, provision and use of smart tech that adversely affect energy outcomes.

Join Our Community