The Role of the Mental Model

 The Role of the Mental Model

Some background: We, in the building business, are generally material oriented in our approach to design. This is understandable because we utilize a palette of products and techniques to produce our buildings. However products and techniques are of limited value if seen only as things that are added to a building to make it green. In addition, the availability and performance characteristics of products are typically in a state of flux – especially in the current state of green market evolution. Concentrating on these alone as the knowledge base for green building we find ourselves in a continuous game of catch up, as well as spending more money to produce a building. Overcoming this challenge requires changing the design process to utilize tools, now widely available, that enable us to make decisions based on optimizing the performance and costs of the whole building, as a system, rather than focusing on the equipment, materials, and products that will be used. Energy modeling programs, Life Cycle Cost analysis, LEED – are examples of such tools. With these tools we can more adequately evaluate products, techniques, habitat health, water system health, and building massing/orientation/zoning at the conceptual phase of the design process; when opportunities are greatest for significant cost and performance improvements. To use the tools in a timely and meaningful way we must change the process of design. Changing the process to one that embraces the larger reaches of system design is the hardest.

While most of us feel we are “systems designers” by the nature of our work in delivering complex buildings – we usually are not. Sustainable design requires a different mindset or mental model. This model is able to look at systems in a more complex way. Instead of looking at just the physical elements of the building, the invisible connections between the elements need to be understood. These invisible connections and patterns, for example, may be manifest in the downstream impact of toxins in building materials, the multiple efficiency and cost relationships between the many variables in an HVAC system and the building envelope, or the impact on social systems due to logging practices or any raw material extraction. This level of analysis requires a rigorous level of enthusiastic and timely engagement from the participants and an understanding of tools used to make these evaluations. Since no one has all of this knowledge themselves, the role of the team takes on great importance; the role of the well-asked question takes on an equal importance in order to elicit answers beyond the conventional.

For teams to embrace this process a different mindset or mental model is required. One that has the desire to change the way things are done. A model that is open and willing drives the successful integration of green design.

By far, most successful green projects (i.e., projects that achieved the high environmental goals they originally set out to achieve, within budget) have done so, not because of adding technology and products to the building, but because they had the willingness to focus on the environmental issues – and the invisible and critical connections – as essential to the success of the design. They had the willingness to ask many questions about the potential beneficial relationships between ALL the systems in the building, site and region and explore the many different ways to reach toward better ecological integration. The environmental concerns were not secondary, nor were they dominant, just an integral part of the design.

Thus, it is essential to focus on the following four aspects from the top down, not bottom up:

  • Mental Model – design team - mindset, attitude, and will
  • Process – integrated, all parties engaged
  • Tools – metrics, benchmarks, modeling programs
  • Products / Technologies – stuff

Even though we must function on all four levels simultaneously, the most important questions to advance a green project to the highest level are built around discovering, “what will enable us to shift to a higher order of thinking?” This is the fundamental premise of any facilitated design charrette process. No facilitator can “make” someone do the work in question. If someone tries, then it isn’t facilitation, it’s a lecture.

The design charrette is a tool. It is the start of an integrated system design process. The stakeholders themselves will begin to move the expectations to a higher level if they are provided a context within which questions can be posed. The best facilitators are those who know how to set the context and ask questions that elicit the knowledge of the group. From this combined knowledge base and reciprocal intellectual energy transfusion, the group will move themselves to a higher level of engagement relating to environmental issues than could ever be achieved by telling them what to do.

If the client is not interested in environmental issues after this, don’t force it – sneak it in – even though you will likely not achieve the most advanced green practices. A high level of LEED, for instance, typically requires the client to be an enthusiastic participant in design deliberation. This doesn’t mean you should do bad design because the client doesn’t understand the rationale – the typical client doesn’t understand electricity either.

Even if you are not engaged early enough in the project or do not think you know enough to formulate the right questions, don’t worry. By practicing group facilitation in this manner you will gain experience and so will the client and other participants. Tell them what you are doing and why and they’ll even help you design the questions. Even if the answers aren’t practicable for the immediate project, you and they will have learned much that can be carried to the next.