Climate Responsive Design

A win/win for our clients and the environment

The integration of climate data is a driving factor in the design of new buildings, as well as in the renovation of existing buildings. SERA is on the leading edge of architecture firms practicing climate responsive design, resulting in an integrated and efficient approach to designing resilient structures. Just as flora and fauna adapt to their surroundings and create sustaining ecosystems, we too are learning how to design buildings that respond to their climate and are living rather than consuming.

Don’t start with architecture

For the last 50 years, buildings have been designed mostly the same way. The process starts with architects designing a building form that relates to its context and accommodates the client’s program, then progresses through increasingly detailed design phases. In thinking about climate-responsive buildings, SERA staff began to question how we could expect different results if we kept doing things the same way. The answer for us was to rethink the traditional design process by not starting with architecture. To move this concept forward, SERA began approaching our work from a genuinely sustainable perspective, striving to create buildings that respond directly to their unique place.

This new focus on ‘location, location, location’ embraces climate responsive design by starting first with a deep understanding of the physical location’s environmental data—sun, wind, light and rainfall—which then drives architectural design.

The most crucial lesson we’ve learned so far is the importance of developing a deep understanding of the climate metrics before the pencil ever hits the paper.

So rather than starting with building massing or an architectural form, we first answer questions about the building’s location like: “What is the sun’s position in the sky at a given time and season?” “What effect will the wind have on occupant comfort surrounding the building?” and “How much rain falls on the site each season?” Beginning with climate data rather than architectural sketches turns the typical design process upside down.

Let form follow information

Using SERA’s work renovating Portland’s Edith Green – Wendell Wyatt Federal Building (EGWW) as an example, Design Architect James Cutler of Cutler Anderson Architects didn’t draw anything until SERA’s Sustainability Resources Group gave him information on how each of the building’s façades had to perform to meet the energy saving opportunities. Cutler then custom-designed each façade differently to respond to its specific environment. From a design perspective, the basic idea exemplified by EGWW is that although each façade works differently, the overall building has a unified aesthetic.

We call this concept “tuning” a building—start with an overall idea of what will work, meld the different façades to respond directly to the environmental forces on each side, and end up with a cohesive building with variations on each façade.

In the case of a brand new building, SERA’s team can do even more through master planning and siting to maximize a building’s orientation and massing. When applying climate-responsive design principles, several differences in a building’s form typically emerge. The building is elongated in the east-west direction to take advantage of solar orientation and daylighting.


Floor plate height and depth is proportioned to allow daylighting to reflect deep into the space; glazing is carefully regulated and properly shaded. In some climates, the addition of a central atrium provides supplemental daylight, allows the building to naturally exhaust excess heat, and drives a convection current to assist in natural ventilation.

Maximize the benefits

With climate-responsive design and computerized Building Information Modeling (BIM), the entire team spends more up front time, but the design process can take less time because the project is on the right path from the beginning.


 Developing the appropriate metrics and understanding the climate data is critical for a successful design process

In a traditional sequential design process, the team would not start a building energy model until the Design Development or even Construction Document phase—which would either make it too late to integrate necessary changes or would push out the schedule for redesign time. SERA’s process is more overlapped and less sequential, which works much better to integrate the layers of data necessary to increase energy and water savings.

Climate-responsive design is not only more sustainable from an environmental perspective, but it also increases occupant comfort and workplace satisfaction. Designing within the climatic envelope means the building will be quieter because it doesn’t need as many noisy mechanical systems, will be more comfortably lit with appropriate daylighting rather than electric lighting, and will be healthier due to the presence of fresh rather than recycled air.

SERA’s team has become adept at programming spaces so that conference rooms and enclosed offices are positioned in the building where they will reduce rather than increase the building’s energy load — using data to determine the most efficient layout of interior spaces.

A lot of things have aligned over the last few years to lead SERA in the direction of climate-responsive design. Our clients increasingly want high performing green buildings, and in many ways SERA is breaking new ground that we hope will help move a deeper commitment to conservation of natural resources to the forefront.