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.