Some questions to Shift our Mental Model

 Some questions to Shift our Mental Model

English does not contain a suitable word for 'system of problems. Therefore I have had to coin one. I choose to call such a system a 'mess.' The solution to a mess can seldom be obtained by independently solving each of the problems of which it is composed. Russell L. Ackoff

. . . and the solutions to the larger objectives of green buildings are unlikely found by looking at buildings alone. So . . . at a basic level, what are the larger objectives of green building? What are the questions that will help move our professional practice and our clients to a higher or more integrated level of green design?

Let’s put the current state of green building practice in context:

The USGBC definition of green buildings – “. . . Buildings that are environmentally responsible, profitable and healthy places to live and work.”

This is a somewhat limiting definition if one considers the absence of a qualifier for the word “environmental.” Certainly metrics and performance benchmarks are necessary to help give focus to the word but are these enough?

Perhaps the following definition may expand the range of our thinking, design, and construction activities – Design and Construction practices that support and improve the health of the systems that sustain life. This definition is more connected to the real reason we are engaged in green building design and construction.

We might start our investigation into the mental model of those engaged in the project by asking, “What is the Core Purpose of your project?” If we try to help our clients understand the fundamental aspirations behind the purpose of a building they eventually end up with a statement “achieving a quality of life” as one of the core purposes of their work. Of course this is over simplified for this article, but think about it, there are few people, no matter what their profession or trade, that do not want quality of life as a result of their efforts – for their family, for them, for their community; at one level or another.

The “five whys” is a familiar facilitation device to get people to think beyond the common assumptions that are deeply part of each of us. “Unpacking” the reasons behind comfortable answers helps us move toward investigating the real reasons for anything we do – such as constructing a building.

The following questions are those we recently used at the beginning of an international headquarters project; this is a paraphrased dialogue with the Executive VP:

Why do you need this building? (Bear with me, I know this seems obvious.) We need the space.

Why do you need the space? To house our growing work force. Why do you need to house the workforce? To achieve a level of quality communication.

How often will they interact if present in this large building? (Light goes on) You know? They are often on the road. When they are here they communicate electronically.

Why do you need this building? Maybe we don’t need all of it, they can work from their home and come in for meetings once a week.

This isn’t a bad way to begin a discussion about environmental building. We’ve likely opened the possibility to save the client a large amount of money. They are open to some more questions based on a larger scale of systems interconnections.

Everything is connected or integrated. When we speak of integrative design as the key to green building – and it certainly is – it leads to more fundamental questions:

  • What are the systems of problems we are engaged in addressing?
  • Can the act of building address these problems?
  • What additional resources and expertise are needed to help us to answer these questions as we select sites, and design our buildings?
  • Can buildings and human development participate in a healthy manner with the place they inhabit?
  • Have they ever done so? Might those examples inspire and inform us?
  • How can humans interact with the “place” of this building in such a way that it catalyzes the health of this place or watershed?
  • What causes this place to maintain its health? (hint: it’s more than just the absence of bad stuff or the reduction of energy use)
  • What are the key species and systems in this place that if disrupted, will reduce the watershed’s viability?
  • How can the process of building engage this place in such a way that it leverages the health of these key species?
  • How can the activities in the building and the community become aligned in a way that greater understanding of the important connections of health are addressed on a larger scale than the site alone
  • What kind of feedback is required so that the people engaged in this place become aware of unintended consequences from any aspect of the design and construction process, and then can make appropriate responses or adjustments to their activities?
  • Once we have some direction from the above questions, how can this building and its activities become a participant in the system of life to catalyze the evolution of ongoing health and improve understanding of how to do this in other places?

This foreword is intended to help you think beyond your current level of green building practice; no matter what level. It is just the first step of a deeper process that is necessary if we are to reach the ultimate goals of green building. Is there any reason you can’t begin asking questions about broader and deeper levels of systems on your next project?