Are We Going About This All Wrong?

Are we going about this all wrong?

What have we done so far?

  • We have invested in energy efficiency, new systems, more monitoring, more data.
  • We have labeled sustainability with many words including green, high efficiency, resilient, local, diverse, biomimetic and biophilic.
  • We have talked about ROI (Return On Investment) and net present value.
  • We have begun to comprehend toxic burdens and the benefits of cradle to cradle innovations.
  • We have made guidance systems, performance testing and ratings to show what we know and who is doing well.
  • We have understood the difference between source and site EUI (Energy Use Intensity), and explored smart grid approaches, community energy production and off peak strategies including using our electric vehicles as our batteries.
  • We have looked at flood management and climate risk.
  • We have tried to engage in completeness, as in Complete Streets, Smart Growth, Whole Foods, and Life Cycle Analysis.

In a mere 20 years the world has changed…but it has not changed enough.

What haven’t we yet done?

We affect food affects us…

Take a look at the brief list above and see if you see what I see.

I see a lack of connections overall, including a lack of people and a lack of nature. Even the few nature-tied items seem to create the connection only in one direction. We allow nature into our buildings and are starting to identify how our health and well-being can be fueled by nature, but are we completing the relationship? The solutions remain apart from the human effect upon nature which can then return the effect to the humans. We, and our buildings, are part of nature, and in the same way that we affect food which then affects us, we must seek to be an active part in a full cycle of connection. And in this lack of connection we are missing the transformational answer that will get us to changing, potentially, enough.

How do we re-connect?

Don’t design a green building, or a complete street, or a new innovative, cradle to cradle product. Reach wider.  Identify the mission and vision of the owner of the building or future building and help them to understand if they do, in fact, need a building (or a park or a room or a re-org of their company or a clean-out of their basement).

Once you understand the mission, start playing with the design team, and as many stakeholders as you can reasonably manage…or rather, as many stakeholders as an experienced facilitator can manage. Play with them. Brainstorm. Look at the spectrum of the world with all of its labels and silos, nature, human and built forms, air, water and soil, and figure out what goals are right for the work. Notice I did not say what goals “make sense” as too often that phrase limits discussion to money or schedule or the reality that already exists. What we want is the freedom to imagine, and then to innovate.

Once you have written some seriously ramped-up, mission-tied goals out large for all to see, the design team gets to ask amazingly powerful questions to begin their work. Questions such as  “how could we do this, what tools do we have, what skills do we need, where does this objective conflict with another goal, what is nature telling us, how are the people served, where does it support another of our goals, where does it support some worthy goals of some other entities nearby” and finally, “ in what ways  can we be clever to reach these goals within the budget and schedule parameters?”

It is only by starting this big that we can find the connections we are missing. We need to create opportunities for zero net building by using them to feed educational curriculum in schools. We need to build a community park in order to have outdoor play space that feeds the mission, builds community, and allows us to have less square footage heated and cooled. We need to invest in that EV (electric vehicle) as part of our resiliency strategy so we can offer our small, local food co-op as a shelter while we tackle the food desert and provide living wages to dozens of local farm families.

Your brain is no doubt currently screaming how big this all is and how unmanageable, while your heart and soul are shouting “yes, this makes sense to me”. Remember that any one step toward connectivity at this scale will facilitate future steps toward that goal. There is no failure when the ultimate goal is to do better than last time, unless you begin by artificially limiting your explorations and stifling your creativity. As a start, ask one more question than you have in the past. Or change one question to seek connection with (to and from) nature and community.

We need to be more creative, more inclusive, a damn sight more humble, and absolutely more passionate.


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