In the world of building design and construction, "value engineering" is one of those technical-sounding terms that suggests the pursuit of a lofty goal through the beneficial application of technological know-how. But among architects, it often is used pejoratively, implying reduction or even elimination of aesthetic value and, for the owner, the possible sacrifice of long-term economic value.

Just what is value engineering?

The phrase, used routinely in the building industry only in the past couple of decades, is comparable to other late 20th-century jargon, such as "downsizing."

The ostensibly worthy aim of value engineering in building construction is to attain, through design editing, an adequate, acceptable level of functional and technical performance using only the resources necessary to achieve that performance. Not surprisingly, value engineering is carried out by construction contractors and cost estimators as well as by construction engineers.

Value engineering seeks to remove the "fat" and "frills" from buildings by eliminating unnecessary or overly complex elements, trimming away unnecessary quantities of materials and scaling back materials that are excessive in quality and expense.

At its best, value engineering is holistic, comprehensive and balanced. It optimizes building design without compromising functional, structural, environmental or aesthetic attributes. Responsible value engineering achieves proper equilibrium between appearance, durability, utility, technical performance, initial capital investment and life- cycle energy and operating costs.

At its worst, value engineering simply cheapens buildings.

When lowering initial capital investment is the dominant or only goal of value engineering, it easily can strip buildings of their architectural quality and, in fact, reduce rather than enhance operational performance.

Imagine what the architectural consequences might have been if Dulles International Airport, Union Station, the Capitol, the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, the United States Holocaust Museum, the new Finnish Embassy or Washington's Metro subway stations had been ruthlessly value engineered.

Hardly a building has been designed by an architect that cannot be further reduced in size and cost or further simplified while still satisfying the owner's programmatic requirements and complying with building codes.

Consider the elements susceptible to economic optimization but also essential to creating lasting architectural quality.

Building volume and shape. It's no mystery that a building's overall geometry, mass, height and interior floor area greatly affect its cost. And with their love of form and its manipulation, architects frequently go overboard in articulating a building's geometry. But nothing is cheaper than a box.

Structural systems. Choosing the wrong type of structural system or materials for a building, using inefficient spans or column spacing, can drive up costs unnecessarily. However, pragmatic structural engineering consultants usually ensure that architects make prudent decisions about configuring the skeleton holding up the building.

Mechanical systems. The heating, ventilating and air conditioning system, normally representing a large percentage of the initial capital investment, greatly affects a building's operating cost and the comfort of its occupants. Indeed, such systems are the source of most complaints -- too noisy, too drafty, too hot or cold -- from dissatisfied building users. Unfortunately, the quality of system components and their performance can be compromised easily in the cost containment process.

Exterior finishes and details. Another set of big-ticket considerations are the materials covering walls and roofs, and how those materials are assembled. Architects must consider several variables, along with cost and availability, in designing building skins: visual imagery, resistance to moisture, thermal and acoustic conductivity, durability and dimensional stability. To the aesthetically insensitive value engineer, visual imagery may not be on the checklist.

Windows and doors. There is an immense array of choices and range of costs in specifying these. Because we touch and operate windows and doors, we are more keenly aware of their performance characteristics. Thus few things cheapen a building as fast as inferior windows, flimsy doors and ill-fitting door hardware.

Interior finishes and details. These are prime targets for value engineering, since architects take as much delight in crafting beautiful interiors as they do in exteriors. From floor and wall coverings to door and window trim, from built-in cabinetry to supply air registers to plumbing fixtures and faucets, designers often advocate doing and spending more than some owners believe necessary. But like cheap windows and doors, cheap interior finishes, millwork and details quickly announce their cheapness.

Ornamentation. Few things are as difficult to defend in passing through the value engineering gantlet as functionally unnecessary ornamentation, outside or inside. The architect's best strategy, and the most compelling design rationale, is to make ornamentation visually integral to a building's overall composition and character. If decorative elements seem gratuitously applied, if they can be removed without destroying the integrity of a facade, they surely will disappear.

Lighting. We illuminate buildings with natural light from windows, skylights and electrical fixtures, and the quantity, quality and patterns of light are important aspects of architecture. Light affects not only occupants' ability to see, but also their mood and sense of space. Therefore, architects pay a lot of attention to the design of light sources and lighting fixtures, many of which are expensive. Not surprisingly, value engineering readily attacks architects' favorite light sources, eliminating skylights, clerestory windows and designer-label fixtures on walls and ceilings.

Landscaping. Why go beyond asphalt, a little concrete and a few trees and shrubs? Like ornamentation, creative landscaping and seemingly unnecessary features -- walls and fences, fountains and pools, terraces, special plantings -- frequently fall victim to the value engineering ax. Not only do these items cost money to install, but some are costly to maintain. On the other hand, for many projects good landscaping can transform an environment, making attractive what otherwise might appear ugly or barren.

The biggest challenge for building owners, architects and value engineers is reaching agreement on the meaning of "value." How can they fairly measure design attributes whose worth cannot easily be quantified? There can never be a formula to precisely assess the qualitative advantages of granite over plastic laminate, of a 10-foot ceiling height over an eight-foot ceiling height or of a space suffused with daylight over one lighted only by fluorescent tubes.

Yet some owners and value engineers recognize that saving money upfront may not save money in the long run. Public acceptance and marketability, workplace productivity, long-term operating economy and durability can suffer if value engineering fails to take aesthetic qualities into account.

For their part, architects will continue producing work susceptible to hack-and-slash value engineering. Only when they build a solid case for their design ideas, a case that makes sense for all who are not architects, can they get their way. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.