Building Systems Theory for Civil Engineers

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Any type of construction will inevitably involve contributions from across the spectrum of the physical and life sciences. Developing a complete “built environment” that caters to the needs of the people inside it means understanding human nature at a deep level and applying those lessons within the confines of available resources and engineering principles.

Building systems theory is an approach to building science that takes into account all the human factors surrounding the development and use of the built environment. By permitting a wide spectrum of insights – not only from engineering, architecture, and construction, but also from many related disciplines – it looks at the physical behavior of a building as a coherent system.

The Building System Perspective in Brief

Just as this system has many inputs, it also has many outputs. These outputs are the physical factors that maximize the performance of the building for its intended purpose. Understanding these elements can also help experts in designing buildings that promote psychological and even social well-being, although these are often considered separately.

Some of the aspects of building systems theory include:

  • Standards and Building Codes
  • Planning and Design
  • Construction
  • Commissioning
  • Facilities Management

The systems approach does not end with planning or even with construction, but also concerns itself with forensics, rehabilitation, restoration, conservation – and, ultimately, deconstruction. In this way, all elements of the build environment can be conceptualized together as part of an urban ecosystem that also includes concerns about energy efficiency and greening.

Characteristics of the Building Systems Theory

Building systems theorists take it as given that the early history of modern construction was based on trial and error. Innovation was a significant departure from the norm that carried its own risks. Although many innovations have been successful, more have had unintended negative consequences. Building systems theory seeks to synthesize the grand spectrum of lessons learned into a single toolkit for resolving building challenges that can be applied scientifically.

Some of the key elements of the theory include:

  • Fundamental Integration: Systems theory cautions the user against viewing individual elements in isolation. It posits that all elements of a system are deeply intertwined in ways that are not always immediately obvious – and that the quality and nature of the interactions and outputs can only be accurately determined with a holistic view.
  • Boundaries & Boundary Criteria: Building systems are bounded in space by a single site’s exterior wall, but their temporal, environmental, and social effects go beyond this demarcation. Other infrastructures, such as municipal utilities, transportation, and so on, deeply impact a building system’s functionality even though they are apparently remote.
  • Flows & Storage: Occupant behavior is perhaps the most unpredictable flow type, but for most building systems, it is an ever-present concern. Other types of flows might include water, energy, and even data. Different elements facilitate the different types of storage necessary to channel flows and hold flow elements successfully.
  • Transformations: Architects and engineers have understood since ancient times that buildings will be gradually modified by the passage of time, occupants, and the environment – often in negative ways. However, designs of the future must leave space for new technologies and ideas that will positively transform building systems over time.
  • Hierarchies in Space and Time: The structure and layout of a building creates obvious spatial hierarchies. Temporal hierarchies are protected by the development of strategies for security, safety, and passive survivability. These and more are elements of ensuring continuity in daily operations and human well-being in the event of disasters.
  • Control and Feedback Loops: No building system is a completely closed environment, so all are subject to feedback loops rooted in the surrounding systems. Modern buildings require ever more complex control capabilities, including environmental and security systems, to meet the perceived needs of commercial and residential occupants.

What is Building “Performance” in the Systems Perspective?

Buildings are developed with specific functions in mind, but these functions are mutable and subject to change. On the micro level, occupants will make nearly immediate decisions about how to optimize spaces to their benefit. On a macro level, changes in ownership and surrounding environment can prompt complete transformation in intended purpose over a few months or years. Nonetheless, there are interrelated arenas of performance that all building systems share.

The four spheres of building performance are:

  • Health and Safety: Even from the viewpoint of someone with no background in building systems, a building that does not conform to minimum expectations of safety can hardly be called a “building.” Shelter is a fundamental goal facilitated by codified expectations in fire safety, structural strength, and rigidity as dictated by environmental conditions.
  • Environmental Separation: This is the level at which building occupants access levers of control over heat, air, moisture, and solar radiation. This encompasses both the common passive and “low-tech” systems as well as more technologically sophisticated systems that correspond to “Control and Feedback Loops” in the theory overview.
  • Sustainability: Sustainability has gained traction as a leading concern in today’s new structures, but it has always been an element of performance. Durability, the short- and long-term economics of building maintenance, and the interplay between the building and its environment will all influence the extent to which it is sustainable in a given form.
  • Aesthetics: This encompasses virtually all aspects that appeal to occupants’ deeper sense of artistic and creative pleasure, but it can also include concerns central to the practical purposes of certain structures. Aesthetics can encompass the visual, tactile, and acoustical properties of the structure as well as thermal comfort and other factors promoting wellness.

To maximize performance in any given scenario, the architect, engineer, or other strategist must have a fine-grained understanding of the interconnected systems within and outside the given structure. These include the obvious physical inputs – climate, landscape, resources – as well as those that tend to be implied but unstated: The economy, the structure of the community, the available technology, and the infrastructures that surround the building system.

Building Information Modeling’s Role in the Systems Approach

Traditionally, it has not been possible to adequately model or predict all the aspects now understood to be part of a building systems approach. Some, like climate and weather, may never be predictable to a high degree of accuracy. Even so, the new technology of Building Information Modeling (BIM) has made it possible to obtain deeper insights into man-made elements.

BIM involves the development of sophisticated digital models that can demonstrate the interplay of physical and functional characteristics of a building. This is facilitated by advanced computer-assisted design tools combined with the latest “big data” processing and modeling. Using this approach, it becomes possible to pinpoint and avoid issues caused by the interaction of many complex factors – augmenting a team’s problem-solving capabilities with a wealth of new data.

Through a deeper, more cohesive understanding of the complex interplay of factors that make up a system, experts are empowered to develop the built environment in ways that serve occupants on a variety of levels. Likewise, that environment will incorporate greater flexibility, allowing it to adapt to new factors in the future and sustain operations longer. Seen as a whole, building systems theory is a gateway to synthesizing knowledge into wisdom for civil engineers.