Introducing the COTE Top Ten Toolkit

Corey Squire, AIA and Tate Walker, AIA share the Top Ten Toolkit with Z Smith, FAIA, on the A'18 Expo Floor. Image: Kira Gould

By Corey Squire, AIA and Tate Walker, AIA

AIA’s COTE Top Ten Measures of Design have been the benchmark for high performance and high design for the past 25 plus years. Recently, they’ve taken on new life. This year, a task group of subject matter experts from across the country put together a meta-analysis of the award criteria in the form of a COTE Top Ten Toolkit (Phase 1) that debuted in June at A’18. The intent is to make the criteria accessible to all practicing architects by cataloging the vast amount of resources that underpin COTE’s Top Ten Measures of Design.


The task group cast a broad net, capturing project examples, tools, and influential research across the breadth of all the measures. Then edited it down to the essential criteria. However, there were a number of challenges to overcome throughout the process. For example, the criteria represent a vast amount of information. Indeed, entire careers are built around subsections of the measures. So, rather than release another detailed report focused on an isolated measure that must work in all conditions, the team developed a resource that summarizes the landscape of best practices to encourage deeper adoption in everyday practice. It removes the barriers to high performance/high design by focusing on low cost, high impact strategies that work most of the time.


To that end, the task group adopted a few guiding principles for the development of the toolkit:


High performance is within the purview of an architect

As a generalist and project team leader, what influence do architects possess to enhance high-performance design? What decisions are wholly within their scope of services?


Lead with a vision instead of a checklist

Open-ended questions and multiple outcomes allow flexibility for design teams to come up with innovative solutions to unique challenges presented by a particular climate, client or building type.


The toolkit informs the design process from the beginning, not the end of the project

‘Start with the end in mind’ and ‘Sample all the way through’ are consistent messages throughout the toolkit.


Quantify everything

Architects are excellent storytellers, but increasingly, clients want to see results quantified to be able to believe in them. Mastering big data and storytelling is the definition of relevance.


Contextualize the metrics

Is 25 percent better than code good or bad? Once you master a sense for the relative weight of the numbers, and how to tweak them, it leads to a deeper understanding of the potential for design.


If you only had to do one thing…

Limited budgets and timelines are a universal truth in architectural practice. A good architect needs to be able to quickly assess the landscape of ideas, select which ones are relevant for the project, and integrate them quickly to stand a chance of delivering on time and budget. Make sure to incorporate these critical concepts on every project, and improve the performance of your portfolio as a whole.


Crowdsource the best resources for the measures

There is no single person that has deep expertise on every COTE measure. Additionally, most architects are generalists. Consequentially, highlighting key research and best practices to support a comprehensive sustainable vision at the firm level becomes a key concept for the toolkit. National subject matter experts and multiple peer reviews make the toolkit an essential resource.


There is little correlation between a high-performance building and its cost

Anyone can design a high-performance building for $800 per square foot, but what about $200? The toolkit emphasizes low cost, high impact measures for very high-performance design. With the vast landscape of new materials, best practices, and studies, the toolkit asks which ones are the most accessible. Often the only barrier is coordination.


Visible sustainability

It’s not about having a laundry list of high-performance features tacked on to a project, the strategies need to be manifest in the form of the building and work to support the big idea. Measures have to be integrated with the design if there is to be no separation between performance and beautiful design.



The toolkit was made to be as simple as possible, and no simpler. Accuracy plays out in two ways: by providing a quick, general feedback and highlighting additional resources for a more in-depth study and increased accuracy. It’s critical for designers to be able to understand the magnitude and direction of their design decisions in a short amount of time and make adjustments if necessary.


Duty to beauty

COTE’s fundamental belief is that you can’t have good design without good performance. It’s been borne out by a strong correlation between AIA’s Firm of the Year Award and those firms that have won multiple COTE Top Ten Awards. There are scads of technical papers to quantify performance, but very little on the universal definition of beauty in architecture. Phase 2 of the toolkit will analyze the link between the high performance and high design precedence set by past recipients of the award. Indeed, metrics pioneered by COTE have made their way deep into the organization as they criteria for honor awards, fellowship, and in our core values.


We sincerely hope you will find the toolkit valuable in your practice, and we kindly request your feedback (which you can provide within the toolkit site).


While at A’18 in New York, Walker and Squire spent an hour discussing the toolkit for The Building Science podcast--check it out.

Corey Squire, AIA is the Sustainability Coordinator at Lake Flato Architects in San Antonio and Tate Walker is the Sustainability Director at OPN Architects in Madison, Wisconsin. They are both members of the COTE Advisory Group.