Nature Knows: Essence

Nature Knows: Essence (Locational Specificity)

My last post talked about diversity, and all the benefits of inclusion in bringing in ideas and people that help to fill the perspective gaps. Nature is diverse and creates resilience and adaptability through that diversity.

And yet we also must understand that diversity is not uniform, which would seem to be self-evident but usually is not.

We tend to make things diverse in a broad-brush, uninformed way. As if more is better. Diversity does not mean more. It means an understanding of what is needed and a willingness to fulfil that need with a wide reach for perspective, inputs, and knowledge.

In Nature, each square meter of land is categorically different in species as compared to the adjacent square meter. The typical disparity rate is approximately 30% according to surveys completed about 20 years ago by Dr. Gerold Wilhelm, formerly of the Conservation Design Forum near Chicago. That is the level of locational specificity in Nature. It turns out the same is true of each cubic meter of water in the oceans. Don’t you think we could learn from this?

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a fish tank, but I can tell you, putting in a poorly informed variety of fish means that most of them will certainly die. Putting in a diverse array of fish that get along well, with plants that add color and oxygen to the water, with bottom feeders that help to clean – this is workable, location-specific diversity.

Our existing processes are generalized. When you get Chem Lawn (now re-branded as “TruGreen”) to your house to maintain your turf, their formulation is designed to treat any lawn, meaning the application is probably much stronger than it needs to be and may contain toxins that do nothing of use in your specific circumstance. Broad-spray pesticides and fertilizers create broad waste and broad contamination.

In a similar way, when you build a team for a project, that same team may not be as effective in the next project. We need to create a flexible framework for that team so they can have the familiarity with a project type and maintain the responsive flexibility they need to meet the specific conditions of each project.  Regarding diversity goals for construction projects in NY state, we must reframe so the goals focus more on performance and less on metrics that are outside the value case for diversity. The key is to identify the essential aspects of the place and moment, and to define your goals for diversity based in that grounding.

We cannot make a list for our design and construction projects and say we need a certain number or percentage of women owned businesses and a certain number of minority businesses (called collectively MWBE) and think we are creating diversity, although this is often the approach. Although the intent is just and noble, this system has a few clear faults:

  • We have not clarified the value that business will bring to the project
  • We have in some ways encouraged the system to be “gamed” because it is not based on performance. A legal shift in ownership may be all that is needed to qualify as “diverse”.
  • We have missed an opportunity to recognize places in the state, or skills in business, that currently don’t have that diversity available
  • We have not created a process to create the needed diversity through education, resources, and informative market-signals
  • Sometimes, the well-performing MWBE or SDVOB (service disabled veteran owned business) firms that are alone or rare in their region are over-worked, to their detriment
Another way to increase diversity and locational specificity (if you add “local” in here…)

What is to be done if there are no MWBE or SDVOB in the area available for the work? Does it benefit the project to have companies come in from hundreds of miles away even if they may not know the market signals or labor issues of that project location? How can we ensure the project itself is instigates growth in local business diversity in a way that supports project achievement and success? How can we meet the goals of the work of the state, such as reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in a way that supports and sustains economic diversity, which we know will make the state more resilient, and which will lead to equity?

These are the questions that must be asked. Some are being asked and there are some resources inherent in the system. However, if we continue to seek diversity as primarily an uninformed, ubiquitous data point, we will continue to create faulty feedback loops. We will create “more” as if it is always better to do so. We will continue to create:

  • Stress for owners
  • Stress for consultant and general contractors
  • Stress for the few overworked MWBE and SVDOB teams
  • General contempt for the process
  • Prevalent perception that the MWBE or SVDOB contractors or consultants are being favored by the process
  • Lack of direct project benefit tied to the diversity achievement
  • Increase in delays to get to approved diversity goals, increase in administration overhead, increase in process and paperwork

We know that different locations require different skills. NYC is a very specific market and needs knowledge of city rules and regs as well as complex existing energy and transit systems. In weaning off fossil fuel, practitioners need to be savvy about the prevalent steam infrastructure and ways to optimize it as well as ways to realistically divorce from it. There are such things as “expediters” in NYC. We are dealing with more glass buildings as well as more buildings built with masonry.  Upstate areas of NY showcase highly detailed 100-year old brickwork as well as more wood frame homes and buildings. Commercial buildings are likely in the 3-5 story range, often in office parks, and zoning and home rule affect each community differently. There are no expediters, but the local town board can be a bear. Then we have LI and the coastal areas, dealing with sea level rise. And the inland areas affected by flooding from the great lakes and the effects of strongly flowing and flooding rivers. Soil is different from here to there, snowfall is different, and local codes and review processes are different and specific.

We also know that we need specific skills, skills to help drive new buildings and even renovations to zero net energy performance, for example. We know that these skills, and others, may be amply available in bigger cities or dynamic areas of ongoing development, but they are sorely lacking in much of NY. Each project can be used to identify needs, broadcast those needs, develop education, publicize successful firms, and share examples to help companies seek and develop the needed skills.

Needed skills to address our climate future include shifts in planning process, communication skills to define project goals holistically, iterative energy modeling for design, site assessment, total cost of ownership calculations, installation skills for contractors to maintain air barriers, on-site testing processes, building envelope commissioning services,  greenhouse gas inventories, facility manager skills, building management system experts, renewable energy services, post-occupancy evaluation skills and process, R+D and case study development, retro-commissioning and continual commissioning, marketing and communication of goals and work-to-date, educators, behavior change facilitators, to name just a few.

Diversity does not mean more. It means an understanding of what is needed and a willingness to fulfil that need with a wide reach for perspective, inputs, and knowledge.

We should use workforce development funds or volunteer expert trainings in a community to create and provide training to MWBE and SDVOB companies in skills we know we need on future design and construction projects. We should also seek to invest time, thought, and maybe a little bit of money into having a capable firm from “over there” work directly with an existing local firm, or a new local firm, right here, so they gain the necessary skills. Regardless, we make diversity goals about increasing the capacity of the local network, improving specific business capabilities, and achieving local goals, rather than about a % of dollars paid out to certain companies. We need to cultivate diversity by focusing on and building from knowledge of the place, moment, needs, and goals. This is about process and creation of real value in the moment and for the future.

This would begin to solve many problems:

  • Skills would be learned; skills that can be selected to support local goals
  • These skills would remain local
  • The availability of these skills would make the process less stressful for owners and certainly and less “add-on”
  • The greater availability of firms and companies would mean no one business would get burned out from over-use
  • We would reduce administration that is just about tracking, proofs, and punishment
  • We would build diversity of businesses
  • Local businesses know the local labor pool, local processes, and likely the local Nature and resources as well
  • Above all, the value of the MWBE and SDVOB firms would be clear as they bring needed skills to the work

Isn’t Nature amazing?  She knows that diversity is key, but only if it is truly informed by the essential and pertinent aspects of the work at hand.  Know the place and moment, reach broadly to fill the gaps in what you know, and support local business diversity through locational specificity! 

Find the essence, and be greener,


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