As collaboration and sustainability take a firmer hold in the AEC industry, it’s crucial to have resources on hand to guide the construction process. The Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG), a web-based portal developed by federal agencies, private sector companies, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions, helps contractors optimize energy performance throughout the planning, design, construction and commissioning phases. Based on an integrated project team process, the guide considers all key design objectives in concert with each other during a building’s life cycle.

To achieve synergy, the integrated design process considers building components and sub-systems collectively, along with their potential interactions. Because every project is unique, the importance of each design objective differs. One design element should never become the sole driving force behind a project or it will fail to meet its holistic objectives in both the short term and long term.

Along with its design objectives for projects to be accessible, aesthetic, cost-effective, functional/operational, productive, secure/safe and sustainable, the WBDG provides an extensive list of resources on energy-efficient lighting, high-performance HVAC, water conservation, alternative energy strategies, and codes and standards. Major sections include building envelope design, project management, mechanical insulation design, construction waste management, building commissioning, and facilities operations and maintenance. Each WBDG section includes links to relevant codes and standards, related professional and industry organizations, and additional government and private sector resources.

Content on is updated regularly to reflect the latest standards, laws and regulations. It is presented at a non-expert level and geared toward team members who need to know enough about a topic to make educated decisions that drive the project’s direction and development. Further, the WBDG does not tell team members how to design a project; it simply provides them with the information necessary to select and properly apply appropriate strategies and technologies.

For example, when determining each project’s energy and sustainability goals, consider whether the owner wants the building to be 60 percent better than ASHRAE 90.1 or if it wants net-zero status. Does the project team need to meet any green building standards or achieve a certain certification? Is the project required to employ biomimicry or meet the Living Building Challenge? The team must consider the tactics and technologies needed to meet these goals, as well as which strategies apply to new construction versus renovations.

Designing major renovations and retrofits for existing buildings to include sustainability initiatives and energy conservation strategies can reduce operational costs and environmental impact while increasing building resilience. But before moving forward with a retrofit, it is important to determine if the investment is worthwhile considering other building conditions. Is the building structurally sound?Are seismic upgrades needed to meet current standards? Are contaminants such as asbestos present? Can the existing roof support the additional weight of a green roof without costly reinforcement?

Once these questions have been answered satisfactorily, then the building is a candidate for renovation.

Before installing more efficient equipment, determine if existing systems are operating at optimum levels. Sometimes considerable savings can be gained by checking for leaks, clogged filters and disabled sensors. Also consider the possibility that operations and maintenance staff needs training to properly run the equipment. In short, it’s advisable to re-commission all energy and water systems before upgrading them to minimize consumption and optimize performance.  

Continuing Education Courses
The WBDG offers more than 50 continuing education coursesin two categories: WBDG and Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP). These e-learning courses are approved for AIA Learning Units, and the Green Building  Certification Institute also has approved many for LEED professionals. There is no cost to register for WBDG courses, nor is there a fee to access the entiresuite of information on

Richard Paradis is director of the Whole Building Design Guide for the National Institute of Building Sciences. For more information, visit or follow@wholebldgdesign.