Feb 13, 2023


by Dave Blankfard

The More You Know: An Engineering Perspective on Sustainability and Regenerative Design

Little Engineering Studio Principal Dave Blankfard bellied up to the bar with Lead Mechanical Engineer Miles Grubbs for a candid conversation centered around sustainability, regenerative design, and the benefits of an integrated design approach. Plus, the two share the differences between LEED and WELL, and even resurrect a popular slogan from 80s/90s-era Saturday morning cartoons. Engineering has never been so entertaining. Grab a beverage and listen in as they share their perspectives. 

Listen to the full conversation here.

Abbreviated Transcript: The More You Know: An Engineering Perspective on Sustainability and Regenerative Design

Miles: Okay, so we’re gonna talk right here, so that the sounds can be synced up. Listen for the beep.

Both: Beeeeeep [laughter]

Dave: Anyways, my name is Dave Blankfard.

Miles: Introducing myself now is Miles Grubbs.

Dave: We’re gonna have a candid of conversation about sustainability with our local expert, Miles Grubbs.


Dave: So, Miles, can you explain what sustainability is?

Miles: Sustainability is just like riding a bicycle along the same route. You’re not really falling off the proverbial bicycle, but not really keeping up with it so to speak. In the built world, a lot of times, that has to do with trying to be conscious of energy, water use… things like that. You know, use as little energy as possible and not waste water a whole lot.

Some people view this as a slow way to die. I don’t necessarily disagree with them. While you can use less energy on your building, it doesn’t mean that you’re using no energy or producing more energy than you need. A lot of times this ends up with burning more and more fossil fuels to maintain energy, buildings, and things like that.

Dave: Okay. You said this is a slow way to die, right?

Miles: Yeah. We don’t want to be the frog in the pot of water that’s slowly being warmed up, right?

Dave: Right. I don’t want to be that.

Miles: A newer way to think of it is instead of green buildings that are sustainable, there are the blue buildings that are regenerative. They are actually a positive benefit to their environment—aspects of buildings that produce more energy than they consume.

A lot of times solar cells are viewed as a way to produce energy on buildings that can help become energy positive, or buildings that kind of take all the wastewater that they have for flushing toilets, breakroom sinks, and things like that—and kind of reuse that water, as much as possible. Anything that they can’t reuse, they clean it up to send out into the environment. Kind of akin to rainwater on the site. So, we’re talking about greywater. You can use greywater to do things that you wouldn’t normally want to use the drinkable potable water for because that’s the expensive stuff that doesn’t make you sick and ill. It’s been cleaned up.


Dave: So, what other things are coming down the pipe that are regenerative? We’ve got reusing rainwater, generating our own electricity by PV cells. Are there other ways that we can be regenerative?

Miles: As a child of the 80s and 90s, we’re all familiar with the infomercials that came at the end of ThunderCats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where recycling was big and reduce, reuse, recycle was like…

Dave: A recurring theme!

Miles: Yeah. The more you know.

Dave: The more you know!

Miles: So, with the reduce, reuse, recycle that was touted throughout the 80s… With building design, what you want to do is try and use a similar mantra. Reduce, reuse, recycle is a way to prevent material wastes. Reduce the amount of materials you need to use, reuse what you can, and then recycle what you can’t. So, instead of getting a new Ziploc bag all the time, you want to try to reduce the amount of Ziploc bags you need. Excuse me, Ziptop. We’re going to do Ziptop bags… not Ziploc. That’s a trademark line. Please do not come after me.

Miles: Yeah. So, if you could reduce the number of Ziptop bags you have, and then reuse the ones you have, then you’re less likely to have to recycle the Ziptop bags at the end of the day.

Dave: So, what’s the difference?

Miles: For buildings what you really want to do is reduce the overall energy and water that you need in the building as the first step. We can make any building positive energy with enough

solar cells, but that’s not necessarily a best use of money or space on a building. You want to change how you view the design and from the get-go try to minimize that energy use. Then the energy you must use, you want to use it as efficiently as possible. Step 1: Reduce the energy you need. Reuse the energy you can.

For things like exhaust air for bathrooms… We don’t want our bathrooms to smell like sewer gas. We should exhaust this (It’s also required by code. Please exhaust your bathrooms.). You can run that through an integer recovery ventilator to reclaim as much of that energy as possible to condition the restroom air and reintroduce it back to the building afterward without having your bathroom smell horrible.

Then you generate power on-site with things like photovoltaics. Using these strategies, you can reduce the amount of photovoltaics, wind turbines, and things that you need on the building from the get-go.


Dave: So, my next question is what’s the difference between LEED and WELL?

Miles: LEED and WELL. LEED stands for leadership in energy and environmental design. It’s a building rating system that takes a look at how much energy a building uses and scores it accordingly. Every building is scored on a variety of metrics of varying sustainabilities.

Dave: How far away your materials come?

Miles: Yeah, the transportation from materials.

Dave: The VOCs from off gas? You know, paint and…

Miles: Yeah… and insulation, all the furniture that gets put in there, and energy and water efficiency. That is LEED.

WELL looks at how healthy a building is. So LEED looks at energy. WELL looks at health. WELL looks at how active the building is for the occupants, how healthy the material choices are for the occupants, and ensures that there is adequate drinking water where people want it, so they make healthy choices.

Miles: Usually for people who aren’t familiar with building rating systems, and most people aren’t, I’m gonna be honest. I equate LEED to something like the EPA mileage on your car. Everybody knows about what mileage is on their car. That’s what LEED is. It’s not going to tell you how healthy the building is or anything like that. LEED will tell you this is about how much energy you’re building is going to get you, need, and use in terms of being constructed and operated. And then WELL, I usually describe this like the nutrition facts on a package of juice. You can look at the nutrition facts on a juice and see that this one has a bunch of added sugar, or that this one doesn’t. WELL looks at how healthy the building is for its occupants.


Dave: About how many projects a year are you doing regenerative design on currently?

Miles: So regenerative in my mind is more of a path, not a destination. It’s about the journey. Every project has aspects that can be regenerative. Just because a project’s small, doesn’t mean it can’t have regenerative aspects to it. Every project has some opportunities that they could take or not take. Even a small little retrofit of a project can make good choices. We’re not all going to be doing new ground up construction with unlimited budgets, right?

Dave: You try to do a little bit of regenerative design in every project that you work on. That could be little changes, as in we’re gonna use electric water heaters….

Miles: Correct, or we may put in bottle fillers on the drinking fountains. Every project has a little thing that they can do.

At Little, we look at regeneration and regenerative design through what we call the HEWS. That’s the health, energy, water, and social impacts of the building. We want to have a building that helps keep the occupants and the neighborhoods around them healthy, reduce energy use, use water effectively, make sure that the social impacts from the building are minimized. We want to be a good neighbor for our clients and help set them up for success by engaging with the community around them.

Dave: The HEWS also ties into what our company promises—which is results beyond architecture. Miles: Yes.

Dave: So, we’re trying to… let me put words in your mouth…

Miles: #RBA …results beyond architecture!

Dave: #LivingIt. #Little. We want to provide buildings and serve the function that the owner has asked for, but then it do a little bit extra so that you’re like, “Oh, I should have thought of that. I’m glad our architects and engineers thought of that for me, and provided that extra little bump at hardly any extra additional cost.”

Miles: Yeah, I mean depending on the scale and the impact, right? Different solutions require different amounts of capital investment. There are some things—like wheelchair accessibility or a space designed for people of all mobility types—that don’t necessarily include an increased premium on the cost of the building. We have some buildings where the clients want to do universal design. One of the things we did for that was in the breakrooms where the sinks were turned 90 degrees, so that all the controls for the hot and cold water were easier to reach while you’re sitting in a wheelchair. It had a tiny impact on cost for a few feet of pipe that was needed to extend those connections, but, in the grand scheme of things, it was a lot easier for people to reach the handles in the sinks.

Dave: That’s good. You’re also taking care of water and energy throughout the design. When you’re looking at this type of unit versus that type of unit, you’re obviously saying, all right, well, I should obviously pick this unit because it’s more efficient?

Miles: Yeah. Usually, we do our best to meet the requirements of ASHRAE 90.1. A lot of the energy codes are based around ASHRAE 90.1 and is required to generally be first cost neutral. So, it doesn’t cost anymore to do that than any other comparable thing. There are other building design technologies that are designed to be lifecycle cost neutral, which sounds similar, but isn’t the same.

First cost neutral means when you first buy all the equipment, it needs to not cost any more than anything else. Lifecycle cost neutral often costs a little bit more at the beginning of a project—where you got to go to the bank, write a big ol’ check, and buy all this stuff for your building. But, over the life span of a building for 40 or 50 years, it will be more effective.

Miles: But, yeah, with ASHRAE 90.1 being cost neutral from the at first cost, we want to make sure that we’re doing what we can to make it attainable for as many people as possible. A lot of the energy codes that are used throughout the country are based on that ASHRAE 90.1 standard. I know, recently they’ve come out with ASHRAE 90.1 2002, which is the latest version. And, so, if you can, please reference that. It’s a little bit dry. It will put you to sleep.

If you’re an architect, you want to read Chapter 5 and Appendix A only. Don’t read anything else. It will get you all the secrets of the engineers, and I don’t want you to have those.


Dave: What else have I missed about regenerative design and what Little is doing about it?

Miles: I know one thing that we’re working on—not necessarily directly related to regenerative design—but we are working on an integrative design approach that gets the engineers, architects, contractors, and owners all talking together earlier than what would traditionally happen.

Dave: Why is that important?

Miles: It’s important because it allows decisions to be made early with inputs from all parties. Architects and engineers make up the design team. In the traditional path, the architects lay out the building, the engineers come in and wreck everything, and then the architects do what they can to rectify all the horribleness that the engineers have brought into the building. [laughter]

This is from an architect standpoint. From the engineer standpoint, they are just making the building better by keeping it from falling down…and keeping the water out, keeping it comfortable…and powered. Yeah. So, your mileage may vary on that comment. [laughter]

Then the architects and engineers send out their drawings to the contractor and owner—who was involved at the beginning, hired the architect, and has to pay for this all. It takes a while and the quality at the end is—it’s good—but, it could be better.

Dave: Yeah.

Miles: But, by getting everybody engaged in the process early, it often leads to a project that takes less time to design, easier to build, and costs less for the owner. By getting input from the contractor at critical design points, talking to the owner about what they want out of the building, and making sure everybody’s on the same page, well, it does take a few more meetings. But, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot more time over the course of a whole design project.

Dave: Yeah, I’ve found that if the architects are consulting with the engineers early enough, they can, at least, have in the back of their mind how they might lay out the building and what it looks like. It’s easier to work with, and a better project overall.

Miles: Yeah.

Dave: We’re at our time. Thanks, Miles.

Miles: Thanks, Dave.

Dave: Cheers. [glasses clink] Until next time.


Dave Blankfard

Dave serves as Engineering Studio Principal in Little’s Durham, NC office. With a knack for forming quick and authentic connections, he prides himself on delivering cost-effective construction methods for a breadth of project types across the country. When not trying to keep up with the strong, multi-disciplinary team of engineers he has built, Dave enjoys hanging with his wife, three dogs, and two grown boys.

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