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Keeping Green on the Right Track

‘Project information creep’ can waylay a designer’s original vision

Image 1 of 2
In addition to perennial herbs, an edible landscaping approach often includes berry bushes, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens.
Image Credit: Rosalind Creasy
In addition to perennial herbs, an edible landscaping approach often includes berry bushes, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens.
Image Credit: Rosalind Creasy
A bike kitchen provides a space for repairing bikes and instruction for those who need help.
Image Credit: bikekitchen.org

Green building programs have a tendency to focus on the means rather than the end, to the point of not even identifying a comprehensive end goal. Two examples illustrate my point.

The first example is a bit like the game of “gossip” or “telephone” that we used to play around the campfire. You know, one person whispers something into the ear of the next person, who whispers what they thought they heard to the next person, until it has gone around the circle. Invariably, the final wording is absurdly different from the original.

Healthy food options for an affordable housing project

A similar story is ubiquitous in building circles. In this case of an affordable housing project, the funding agency identified a need for improving the food security of the residents. The site was far from a decent grocery store, and there is the basic problem of high relative costs of fresh produce and existing junk food cultures (a.k.a the Jamie Oliver crusade). This is not an uncommon scenario in social housing.

So, the architect drew an “urban garden” into the plan. The specs provided no details, in order not to restrict the contractor. When the GC subbed out the landscaping, he provided the directive for the landscape to support the green building program. The landscaper earned all sorts of green building points, and included a lovely little herb garden to fulfill the “urban garden” component. Great — now we can put fresh basil on our potato chips…

There is no fault here, but several points of information drift. The point of divergence from the original idea happened when the concept of ‘food security’ became implemented as the action item “urban garden.” From that point on, the best one could do was to reduce project creep. Each layer of the implementation chain based their actions on the information provided.

Imagine instead if there were a way to communicate the project goal of “food security.” The architect might identify an urban garden, but the contractor might recognize the opportunity for a small learning kitchen facility in the common room, and the landscaper could offer not only vegetable gardens, but a full edible landscape with berry bushes, fruit and nut trees.

Articulating and communicating the end goal could provide opportunities for input at every step of the design and delivery chain and could continue to evolve with input from the residents. For a great example of how this can work in real life, watch the TED talk about the town of Todmorden, England.

Bike paths without bikes

The second case was a large scale restoration project of a park area. Bicycle paths were added as a relatively typical “sustainability” improvement, and the proximity to the housing project lent some credence to the appropriateness of that action. In fact, there was a high percentage of teens in the housing complex, hanging around in gangs, and the community social workers identified the need to channel their time into some alternate activities. So far, so good.

We have paths that connect the housing to a woodlands area (which already had bike paths). From a “green program” perspective, this earns some points, and the mission would seem to be accomplished.

However, on closer inspection, there was missing component — bikes! It seems that not many of the teens in the housing complex had bikes, there was no safe place to store them, and the few bikes we saw were in bad repair. The housing project itself was undergoing a massive energy-efficiency upgrade. Again, very good on the green program scale. Adding bike parking might have earned more points, but the problem was a deeper social need, and the solution more complex.

In addition to providing safe bike storage, a recommendation was made to turn one of the (empty) ground floor units into a “bike kitchen,” which could be set up to help the kids learn to repair and rebuild bikes. There were several other components of the plan, but the point is that the ultimate goal related to the bike paths was intrinsically linked with social needs, possibly transportation needs, and perhaps even a job-creation need.

Developing a holistic plan

Focusing just on the listed “green” improvement was not wrong or harmful, but it missed the bigger picture. The process wasn’t set up for the three agencies (parks, buildings, and social work) to get together and design a holistic plan, or even to articulate the end goal. Without the end in mind, the green building actions ended up being a bit random, disconnected and not as effective as they could have been.

Green building programs have been very helpful in cataloging specific actions and categories of actions. They are great tools, but as we all know, tools alone do not build a great project. Of what use is a well-built chair if it only has two legs? Or a beautiful dining room chair if there is no table? The collaboration on the design and implementation is a good step in the right direction (thank you, LEED), but maybe it is time to dig deeper in the problem shaping and project conceptualizing.

Instead of chasing points, identify values

This summer, I had the opportunity to work on research in this very area, identifying a process and even the vocabulary to help identify project values that are nested in sustainability systems.

We are looking at ways to integrate with BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), and eventually LEED, but all of us already have the innate ability to look at the impact and connections of our actions. It’s the way our brains are wired. It’s just unfortunate that we have not developed our management processes with this same sense of purpose and connectivity.

Dr. Vera Novak was recently awarded a PhD in Environmental Design and Planning by Virginia Tech. Her work is dedicated to increased depth and breadth of sustainability in construction, by leveraging the points of greatest potential impact. She is currently working on optimizing corporate sustainability practices to support regenerative design, as well as adapting a lean thinking process for smaller scale projects. She also writes the Eco Build Trends blog.

4 Comments

  1. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #1

    Simple Green, good stuff.
    How to make the simple, complex.

    Or, how many PhDs does it take to screw in a light bulb? Vera, what say you, a green team, and maybe a 10% green tax to pay for a new green grant initiative to save the planet?

    Employment for PhDs...hmmmm....

    Don't take this post hard you're strong and critique is good for sharpening ones thoughts and direction.

    My view.... Employ youths... The best part of your blog. The green yap sounds like rule by government committee level efficiency, $1 in $10 lost.

    Child labor laws should be turned on their head. Kids just like adults employed and actively engaged in community... That's what joining a gang is, it's just much better for all if the gang joined is a bike shop or any other legitimate activity.

    Your thoughts in this blog to me if acted upon by just you, no group vote, would see results worth the effort.

    Vera, go build your green vision yourself. Come back here with the pics, look forward to seeing some kids happily working learning making some income to be proudly spending on themselves and their mom's.

  2. Vera Novak | | #2

    Response to aj's concerns
    Your comments have in fact helped me to sharpen my thoughts. Since the gist of your remarks to my blog postings seem to take issue with the PhD, let me assure you that I do NOT have a PhD in Residential Construction, having only built one net-zero, LEED Platinum home. For that type of information, I turn to the pages of Greenbuilding Advisor.

    PhD work is based on research about specific topics, such as improving safety through dust reduction in sheetrock application, or efficient modeling of as-built drawings for existing buildings using just regular camera snapshots. In fact, lean construction, an approach that has been improving value and working conditions while decreasing cost and time was first developed as a PhD dissertation. This was the motivation that prompted me to leave my job and incur student debt at this point in my career. I was determined to learn how this management change could be adopted from commercial construction to the conditions of residential construction. It is not so much the scale of the work as the structure of the implementation.

    And PhD jobs? There were several opportunities in commercial work, but I chose to continue my research with a small group of dedicated residential contractors. For example, Bensonwood has been an early adapter of many of the lean / green approaches and provided some inspiration. We have made some very promising inroads into rapid estimating/ modeling, as well as job site communication.

    As for the bike kitchen idea, the city planners were very pleased with the plan and are hoping to incorporate it into their next phase of redevelopment. It was quite simply a good idea.

  3. Aj Builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a | | #3

    Vera, thanks for the post
    Vera, thanks for the post back. I very much appreciate your enthusiasm. Keep blogging and we shall meet again.

    The bike kitchen reminds me of all the attempts made so far for a few decades to deal with our young starting down the road to "Breaking Bad." If we all keep trying... the day may come when things change whether we have an affect on this all or our young just get tired of the gang bang lifestyle.

    OK... back to green... ... for me.. low energy.... low maintenance... low VOC.... more cellulose.... less foam.. if possible....

    aj

  4. Hazel Christine | | #4

    Keeping Green Right Track
    Wide economic disruption has slowed green development. Today, most green projects involve higher costs for which financing is more difficult to obtain or that owners may be unwilling or unable to pay. On federal projects, for instance, a cost-benefit analysis must be completed prior to pursuing green techniques for the Dept. of Defense.Green building programs have been very helpful in cataloging specific actions and categories of actions. They are great tools, but as we all know, tools alone do not build a great project. Of what use is a well-built chair if it only has two legs? Or a beautiful dining room chair if there is no table? The collaboration on the design and implementation is a good step in the right direction, but maybe it is time to dig deeper in the problem shaping and project conceptualizing.

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