Excellence Begins with Engagement

I have mentioned, in past posts, the importance of language in our work to engage people, to connect systems to our goals, and to connect solutions to our challenges. I think it is worth going through a few language upgrades, and I ask you to share any you may have recognized in your experiences.

Stormwater management is now rainwater management – this is a simple change of terminology that can change everything. Once we begin to think of the water that falls to a site as an amenity, and not just something we need to get rid of, we will learn to respect it and work with it to the system’s benefit and to our benefit. This language shift helps me to envision sculptural ways to direct rainwater to cisterns, and landscaping that can ebb and flow with water availability.

We are all familiar with the change from the term global warming to climate change…now even more transformative: climate weirding or climate destabilization. I tend to use the phrase climate shift as this still helps me to see potential opportunities to explore and indicates that this change is long in occurring and is not something we can completely “fix” (meaning undo).  Climate weirding and climate destabilization are phrases that sound uncontrolled and unpredictable, which make me feel less empowered to accomplish anything positive. Global warming is an old school term in that some areas will be colder for a time, and seasons will still come and go, and many people cannot understand the disparity between local weather and global climate. And “global warming” lets elected officials throw snowballs to make a point. Let’s stop that. 

Sustainable needs to morph into regenerative. This is a much-needed clarity of meaning as illustrated by the work of Ray Anderson with Interface, his modular carpet company. Do well by doing good. Find ways to work within the systems constraints and you will never outgrow the systems. Better is to find the ways in which you can regenerate the systems as you engage with them. Example? The biomass of ants is about the current biomass of humans, yet ants improve the soil, air, and water systems in their existence, while we degrade those systems with our existence. The relationship and related processes of ants and natural systems are regenerative, i.e. mutually beneficial.

In this same vein, conservation is not the goal. Optimization is. Nature does not conserve…it is actually quite wasteful if you just look at one siloed measure. The example used in Cradle to Cradle is the cherry tree. Of all the blossoms and seeds from one tree, maybe only one in a thousand germinates and becomes a new tree. So has that tree failed? No. The “waste” we find when measuring solely for propagation serves great use as food for birds and food for the soil which in turn feeds the tree and new trees. This is an optimized system. 

Energy efficiency must go by the wayside and be replaced by energy effectiveness or energy optimization. Sometimes efficiency is a limit. If we allow optimization or effectiveness over the full system, including flexes in interrelated systems, we may have “waste” here or there due to that flexibility, but the system over a year or over the usage life and related to the most effective use of energy will be spectacular. This is also where we can better make the case for investment in building envelopes and in user behavior interactions. It also will help us understand how nature can assist, through tree shading, wind assessments, and other microclimate information and inputs.

In the same vein, we need to talk to clients without using the words conserve, restrict, reduce or, for goodness sake, sacrifice. None of these are engaging words! In the end we will certainly conserve resources and operational dollars with a high-performing, well-designed building, but the way to get there is to discuss how to optimally achieve the goals of the owner, how to reach for excellence, balancing all the constraints of the budget, site, program, schedule, and natural systems. “You can’t have that” is not an engaging sentence, but “Let’s talk about what can be done to achieve your goal” is. 

Simple changes are also important. Integrated needs an update to integrative to underscore the active and ongoing nature of the work. LEED charrette needs to absolutely be changed to at least sustainability charrette or better, a project goal or purpose charrette. Not because LEED is bad but because we must first discover and agree the goals before our team can start working on solutions using the guidance system that is LEED. Here’s another – instead of weekly and monthly meetings let’s set up touchstone meetings and workshop meetings. My calendar looks more exciting already.

In brief, engagement begins with the language you use.

Here is a needed shift that is broader than a simple language change, regarding empowerment. We need to challenge everyone who says “that’s not in my wheelhouse”. Everything is truly connected, in some manner, and using a little thought-time to assess those links can reveal great opportunities. At least take a moment to see how your wheelhouse effects that thing in question. For example, eliminating poverty, one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, came up at a meeting on green procurement, and someone said that poverty is not in our wheelhouse. Yet there is a real connection when you look for it, a connection that we can use to engage more people in the work, define goals to additionally drive poverty reduction, feed economic resilience, and more. If we use green procurement to reduce toxins in our purchases, in our state facilities, and in our cleaning processes, we improve air quality and water safety. This will help people with chemical sensitivities and asthma, reducing reactions at the very least. This means fewer sick days and fewer hospital visits, and less time and money spent on healthcare, resulting in more disposable income…meaning less poverty. 

We are connected….and the issues are connected. We must work to remember this, always. Be aware of the language you use, and the ability you have to discover and support connections in your work and in the way you do it. It’s a big, unrestful world, desperately in need of excellence. And excellence begins with engagement. 


Engage, be excellent, and be greener,


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