Put yourself in your doctor’s shoes. Nice Bruno Magli loafers, perhaps. What do you think goes through your primary care physician’s head when you come in with a sniffle and say: “Doc, what’s wrong with me?”

Of course he’s thinking: “Sheesh. This guy could have anything from an allergy to a viral infection. But before we can diagnosis this, we’ll need to ask him the usual hundred questions, starting with ‘are you getting enough sleep?’ And if he sneezes on my Bruno Maglis again, I’ll kill him.”

Doctors are trained to think like this. A diagnosis is a procedure. It involves investigation, testing, analysis, and the elimination of a myriad of possible solutions. Architects could think like this, too. It’s not how we were trained or how we always work, but good things happen when we, too, think like doctors.

Here’s a story to illustrate: At Bergmeyer, we do a lot of work in existing buildings. Sometimes the buildings are in pretty sad shape and in need of serious overhaul. But it makes us feel good to make old structures and enclosures productive again.

We recently won a project to renovate a university dining hall. Walking into the vintage 1960’s building for the first time, we thought everything had to go. Kitchen equipment: old and falling apart. Lighting: terrible. Finishes: institutional and grungy. Heating and cooling systems: way past their service life. Nice cast-in-place concrete structure built like a bomb shelter, though. We could work with that.

But those monster single-pane plate glass windows in steel frames? Imagine the heat loss. Hey, we’re all about energy efficiency. We signed the AIA 2030 Commitment. Those windows would have to be replaced. But this project had a fixed budget (imagine that!). Windows would be big bucks. We’d have to save money somewhere else.

We could’ve quit right there and sent the glass to a materials recovery plant without asking another question and specified some swanky high-performance glazing. As Darryl Filippi, AIA, (our project architect) tells it, we had a half a million dollars in our schematic design cost estimate to replace those damn windows.

Then we started asking the right questions. And talking with engineers. An energy use model of the building and some computational fluid dynamics showed that new windows were not the solution. The negative air pressure created in the space by the dozens of linear feet of new kitchen exhaust hood was so great that indoor air wasn’t in contact with the glass long enough to transmit cold. We didn’t need to replace the glass and could spend the half million dollars on more energy efficient fans and heat recovery systems.

And code compliance? Obviously the old windows wouldn’t have passed a prescriptive method where every building component had to comply with an isolated, independent table of standards. But thankfully, our modern Massachusetts building code also allows a performance-based compliance path and the engineers’ energy models made the case that new windows weren’t necessary. We looked like heroes.

My point? Design, too, is a procedure. It also involves investigation, testing, analysis, and the elimination of a myriad of possible solutions . . . some of which are born of old habits – and old ways of thinking.

This post originally appeared on the blog of Principal Mike Davis, FAIA.

Published Jan 20, 2014