Process, Products, and Politics

My last blog was titled “to LEED or not to LEED” and discussed the use of the LEED guidance and rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. To be clear this was not a post about turning away from LEED or any of the excellent green building guidance tools in use in the industry, but a call to use them well. We need to employ a robust process of discovery to identify the goals of the work, the constraints that can inform the work, and the systems affecting the work in design to maximize co-benefits.

Sounds simple, right?

If you have read any of my blogs you may already know a few things about me. You probably have a sense of my politics, and you hopefully see that I am a generalist. One of my strengths, and a thing that makes writing so much fun to me, is my recognition of ideas in one arena that help inform and interpret other aspects of life and work.

With this in mind, let me clarify a few of my current assumption before I begin to share my curiosity and my insights on process, products, and politics.

1 – We all know, at some level, that climate change is real; What we don’t all see or accept is our direct ability to affect what is barreling down on us.

2- The laws in place about GHG emissions reductions, such as CLCPA, all cite long-term BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOALS. Yet they give no direct responsibility to each project, or to each person, and we have no training that helps us to understand how to take the responsibility to place each project clearly along the path. We do not recognize our individual roles or our collective power in this effort.

3 – We are each experts in our own work, and wish to remain expert in that work. Most of us, if not all of us, are unfortunately pressured to do what we already know how to do because it works (or has to-date), and we also have the restrictions of time and budget to contend with. This does not make us bad people.

4 – We have been trained, for decades, that “the end justifies the means”, to just “put pen to paper”, and that we should “work the problem and find the solution”. Few people, other than Ms. Frizzle, encourage us to explore, take chances, make mistakes, ask questions, and get messy.

5 – We have been trained to vote, but not to engage in civic debate or civil service, or to question governance in any way. We think our job is done once the votes are tallied. Even some people that get elected to serve act this way – the only “win” is the vote and then the job is done. Some may even treat the job as perk with rewards instead of the service in leadership it should be.

6 – Process is messy, and we hate messy. We celebrate graduation, retirement, the opening of a business, marriage, birth (sometimes scheduling it at our convenience), even divorce – these singular moments, but we don’t celebrate the process that got us to that point. This is a great loss. We don’t learn from the process.

6 – Our education system focuses on grades, tests, products, and results. Again, no process, no specificity to the student, no definition of desired outcomes, other than a degree. By the way, our education system has mostly stripped civics from the curriculum, unless your are majoring in government.

Please know that these assumptions are intended as general, and are not meant to label (or libel) individual people. However, sharing these thoughts with you will help you understand my focus on process, and the value of it.

The word “politics” may have enticed you to read this, or you may have read it despite being put off by that word. Thanks for reading this far. It is in the realm of politics that I come to understand the need for process even better.

I have read often, and agree, that one of the biggest reasons our current president was voted into office was that half the citizens of the USA were not being served by the status quo, and they felt that anything would be better than their current condition. This is of course oversimplifying, and there are many other just and unjust reasons. The vote, therefore, indicated only what the USA did NOT want: vast, unchecked inequity, and a significant portion of the nation with no voice whatsoever in government. We see now that the USA has some serious problems, yet we can only heal them through a process, defining together what we actually need going forward. Rebelling with no vision or plan fails.

Expertise of any value and validity requires knowledge and a respect for new knowledge, even vulnerability in seeking that knowledge.

At this point, we are in the messy realm of discovery. We are learning from #BLM, we are being harshly educated by #COVID-19. We are now all seeing the tenuous nature of our educational system, our healthcare system, our economic system, our immigration and naturalization system, our transportation system, our food supply system, and our manufacturing, not to mention we are also experiencing the natural hazards that will increase with #climatechange. If we do not recognize these discoveries (and to be fair, at least half the USA was well aware of these issues way before 2016), learn from them, and work together to figure out how to address them in our crafted “new”normal, we are, quite frankly, idiots.

Only with full discovery can design professionals begin to make recommendations that are grounded in reality.

As an architect, I recognize that the best work comes when we engage in a rigorous process of discovery that informs the setting of appropriate goals for the eventual product. And by product, I am speaking of every damn project from a re-roofing project to masonry repointing to a half a billion dollar brand new building or community planning intervention. The main aspects of discovery include at least these things:

  • The project team
  • Stakeholders
  • History of the site and community
  • Expected need-by date and potential budget, along with an understanding of how flexible this is (include the CFO!)
  • Mission and vision of the owner organization
  • Programmatic needs
  • Related and affected constructed infrastructure (transit, source of electricity…)
  • Related and impacted natural context (views, soil, wind, flora, fauna, aquifer…)
  • Laws and goals of the owner entities, the community, the state, the region…

Only with this information can you determine what is possible for this project within the existing constraints (budget, schedule, site?) for the project. Only with this information can the design professionals begin to make recommendations that are grounded in reality! Only then can the team decide what guidance resources can best support achievement of the established goals. Only then can the iterative work be completed with clarity and consultation between the experts that make up the full design and stakeholder team. A building design is useless if not informed by the experience of those maintaining and using the building. A design cannot serve its purpose if the team does not know the purpose it must serve.

New is not necessarily better. Beware the vast re-tooling with no planning behind it.

Regarding politics, very few of us have been taught to engage in governance or in the process of asking questions and discovering perspective in a calm and respectful manner. People don’t engage in politics because it’s messy, and mean, and most of us want someone else to just take control, but not enough so that their control restricts or bothers us, or needs to raise taxes to move to greater equity in health, education, or access to work.

Regarding design, I suggest some architects and engineers don’t want to ask questions for fear it makes us look less knowledgeable. We also don’t want to engage in the process because we feel we know how to design, or, quite the opposite, we feel we need to do what the client tells us to retain their business.

We will be empowered to build better buildings, engage in systemic thinking, and tap into a closed loop material system when we ask questions, look beyond the cad file in front of us, and challenge the team to make informed and difficult decisions about the investment in the project, for the long-term. If we don’t, where is our actual value to the process, and how will we improve over what has always been?

My big point is that expertise of any validity requires knowledge and a respect for new knowledge, even vulnerability in seeking that knowledge. A true systemic solution can only be developed through discovery to find out the current realities, and with the will to define what is needed going forward, identify what problems are to be solved, and source what talents/resources/inputs are needed to craft that solution. This statement applies to the constant re-creation of our government, and it applies to design, construction, and planning.

Be curious, embrace process, and be greener,


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