SPI Leadership Spotlight: Roger Chang

Welcome to the SPI Leadership Spotlight!

In this series, we interview professionals from across the industry—from architecture, engineering, construction, facility management—and find out what helps their companies achieve success. We believe sharing our stories is an important way we can learn from each other and, as a community, raise the bar on what we accomplish! Today we feature Roger Chang of Architecture Magazine’s #1 ranked firm in sustainability, Westlake Reed Leskosky

SPI: Roger, congratulations to your firm for being named #1 in sustainability and #6 overall design firm in Architect Magazine in 2012! That’s great – can you tell us what that sustainability ranking is based on?

RC: The sustainability component was weighted heavily to the AIA 2030 Commitment, use of energy modeling, tracking of actual building performance, and various firm sustainability practices.

SPI: Many firms claim that they are “green” but many have not really institutionalized sustainability into their practice. There are also firms who have done that, but not signed on to the 2030 Commitment. I’d love you to share your thoughts about what WRL’s success factors are.

RC: I would say that first is the set-up of company. WRL is a design firm, first and foremost. We have truly institutionalized the IDP (integrative design process) design model in our company, which helps tremendously. The methodology through which we deliver our services is the foundation of being able to achieve results. I came from a large, international engineering firm, who had an integrated model, but just for the engineering disciplines. I found that having broader mix of specialties, as we do at WRL, also helps. We can coordinate right away instead of a reactive process where meetings are more sporadic and drawn out. We have 10 minute feedback loops instead of weeks. We have 5 offices, and we can utilize the capacity in all of them, but when I can keep a team within one office it makes a difference in terms of immediate collaboration.

Another factor is our use of technology, especially for knowledge management and sharing information internally. When I joined, we didn’t have an intranet, so my first priority was to set that up. After a trial period using Google Apps, we’re now moving to Sharepoint. I’ve had mixed experiences with intranets because some people use them and some don’t. We’re able to encourage staff to use an intranet by ensuring information is kept up-to-date and that people can contribute, no matter what level they are in the firm. Making it the default homepage also helps significantly.

Additionally, we recognized a couple of years ago that there isn’t good information on MEP products. So we’ve taken the initiative and launched a public website that takes a deeper dive into products we’ve specified on MEP systems. It’s called RECOOL. Users can go in and select a category and highlight technologies and review them. Originally the intent was more ambitious, similar to Consumer Reports ™ with more R&D but it’s a considerable effort just to compile this information, and it provides a lot of value.

SPI: Integrative design process, knowledge management and innovation – three critical aspects of sustainability practice! Many firms claim to provide IDP services, but we’ve seen that it’s rare to have that institutionalized as a fundamental platform for project management. It’s great that this is recognized at WRL. Another key element we’ve noticed is interest in R&D and innovation, which your RECOOL project is an example of.

RC:  R&D is a very important component – the last company I worked in reinvested 5% in R&D. When I came to WRL, I carried that over. Without R&D you are a commodity firm. On many of my past projects, we’ve wanted to do cool things that had no precedents, or perhaps had been used in Europe and not here in the US, but it was hard to get critical information. Keeping R&D as an active part of practice really influences the firm overall.

SPI: I’d like to go back to IDP. Can you talk about how WRL has inculcated IDP in its culture?

RC: A lot of engineers don’t like to project manage. Some are very introverted and like to focus on their work and stay in a bubble. We tried to shift the bubble and the role of engineer and actually redefine what an engineer is (as a collaborator, educator). Programs like the one at Penn State support that newer mindset. We’ve had a series of IDP lectures and we invite all staff to attend to get cross-disciplinary participation. I’ve been working on creating a position on project teams of “Master Coordinator” – someone with a broad knowledge base so they can see the overall picture.  Traditionally an architect has taken that role, but the expertise of the mechanical engineer is very valuable, especially when it comes to optimizing systems integration.

Aside from lectures and working with engineers to expand the perception of their role, we try to make sure that new staff gets exposed to all phases of services (like commissioning). One thing that is different here is that project duration is relatively shorter, smaller projects, so we finish design in 4 months and construction in under a year. It’s very helpful for teams to see projects through to completion within 2 years. In my last company, there were people who were still not finished after 7 years so the time-scale was different. People didn’t always get to see the whole process in that context. I’ve also been trying to push the integration of facility management and design engineering – instead of having them stepping on each other’s toes, trying to bring more facility managers into the design industry. I’m working with others to create a facility management program at Catholic University and those skills are a huge asset.

SPI: You touch on a critical issue that is another emerging trend, the post occupancy adjustment period.  The connection between firms wanting to understand the performance of the projects over time and clients wanting the team to be part of the transition from turnover to longer-term occupancy.

RC: Yes, we are experiencing that particularly with our GSA projects. We try to be involved for a year after occupancy, which gives us a year-long access to data. It’s invaluable on many levels and really helps us connect the dots between predicted and actual energy performance and the effectiveness of our energy modeling. In the case of the GSA Smart Buildings Initiative, we exceeded what they looked for on the Wayne Aspinall Federal Building modernization, but we also found that the data may be overwhelming, especially when the building owner is sub-metering down to the receptacle level.

SPI: Is this an intentional push at WRL, to transform the relationship with the client to extend through a performance period?

RC: Yes, over the next year, it is one of my strategic initiatives. Another strategic focus ties back to innovation. In our healthcare practice, we realized the importance of technology, and in our museum work, we recognize the need for standards that relate to that specialized environment. Because of those experiences, we are taking a lead on creating solutions. Our Director of Innovative Technology is on a committee that’s developed a green AV standard and we are also helping to put together a summit on sustainability standards for the 2013 American Alliance for Museums conference, to begin to understand what really works in the museum environment. We will be publishing a white paper about what we learn.

SPI: Those are great strategic efforts that serve the community and show that WRL is not shy about taking a leadership role. What are your internal strategic priorities?

Strategic priorities: Internally, our focus is related to education about the IgCC and our alignment with 2030. We want to make sure everyone really knows what that means and what energy modeling requires. We even have a goal to get architects to do some energy modeling. We are focusing on building a shared understanding of core values among our core staff, building a strong culture around sustainability. We signed the 2030 Commitment early last year and we’ve submitted one round of data so far. Everyone knows it’s a priority.

SPI: How has that first year been?

RC: Once we get to 2015, it’ll be tough to also stay aligned with the energy reduction targets. Energy modeling continues to be a challenge. I really wish that someone would develop a consistent platform for the whole country to rely on – similar to what’s used for Title 24 compliance in California. There are simply too many tools out there and no standard protocol for implementation. It’s good to use what you know for design but for compliance with codes that are performance driven, a higher level of standardization is needed.

Internally, we have a practice document for energy modeling, like a checklist, which identifies things to watch out for. This helps promote consistency in our methodology.

Our success comes down to the people we have and the clients we’re honored to work with. Without cool projects, we wouldn’t have interesting stories. We’ve also found that it’s important to engage everyone internally as a partner in our sustainability efforts. Marketing and business development are key functions and the more they are part of the development of our sustainability culture the better. We don’t approach sustainability as piecemeal or ‘on-demand’; we make sure it’s truly a part of our identity.

Roger Chang is currently a principal and Director of Sustainability for Westlake Reed Leskosky (WRL), a 108-year old national integrated design firm. Mr. Chang is a licensed professional engineer, an associate member of AIA, and an ASHRAE Building Energy Modeling Professional. He was selected as ASHRAE’s 2006 New Face of Engineering and was a 2011 Building Design and Construction 40 under 40. He regularly speaks on integrated design and building simulation and has had work published in various building related publications, including the ASHRAE Journal and Eco-Structure Magazine. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Catholic University of America Master’s Degree Program in Sustainable Design, president of the International Building Performance Simulation Association National Capital Chapter, and sustainability co-chair for the National Capitol Region ASHRAE Chapter.