February 1, 2012

Green Design Series Part 1: The Human Condition

I have recently been asked to present to the USGBC in Mississippi about how BIM is/can be a catalyst for green design. My research got me thinking about green design as a whole.  Then I thought that a blog series would be a good way to share my research and some thoughts on the topic.  This is a way to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of green design, BIM, technology; and some realizations about human nature as we try to become better.

I was trained in sustainable design during my college days.  Things have changed since then.  We have BIM, Green Building Studio, DOE Software, IES VE and a host of other applications that take the guesswork and long hours of manual analysis out of the equation.  Design has changed since then as well.  We have started experimenting with new forms as said technology has enabled us to do so.  Whole industries have grown up around "green technology" to aid in making our buildings more efficient, smarter, and carbon neutral.

But I have questions:
  • Can we believe, or even understand, the analysis?  
  • How far do we have to model to be accurate?  
  • Are new building forms really supporting the idea of green?  
  • Are all of these technologies truly beneficial, cost effective?  
  • How and when?  
I also feel that something may be missing: People's comprehension of green strategy and an innate understanding of themselves.  I have all of these great tools and technologies at my fingertips to analyze a building's design, but do I really know, without having a solid background in green strategy, what those numbers and graphics are telling me?  We are assuming that because we can model a building pretty well then we can model it appropriately to be analyzed and then make good decisions based on it.  We are sometimes assuming that throwing thousands of dollars of technology on a building makes it better, greener, when a simpler, cheaper solution may have solved the problem in a more succinct manner.  That's what I learned in college:  Simple, low-tech, thoughtful solutions based on a basic understanding of the environment that the building was going to inhabit.  We didn't have the analysis tools, and I'm glad they're here now, but let's make sure that they don't replace the process they are meant to enhance.  I will discuss how great these applications are in a future post, but we'll start the discussion with something that technology can't change, but much of it has been developed to combat: Ourselves.

Let's go ahead and admit it; we are inherently flawed.  We are lazy at times, forgetful at others.  We are occasionally prone to the idea that we are entitled to something, and our egos will get in the way when we aren't keeping them in check.  Coincidentally, these are the things that a goodly amount of our green technology is aimed at neutralizing.  Now, I'm not saying that the development of LED or CFL lights is a bad thing.  They absolutely use less energy while the light is being used and that is a good thing.  (I have not researched whether the production process negates any of the benefits, but that isn't the point right now.)  My point is that the problem is exacerbated by the fact that we don't turn them off when we are done because we are lazy or forgetful.  So to combat it even further we develop fixtures that recognize when we enter and leave a room, or expensive automation systems that make 'smart homes'.  We add to the construction cost of a building to counteract our own foibles.  My Kroger has installed sensors in the freezers that turn on the lights when you are walking past the pizzas, tater tots, and peas.  In that situation, and in many others, I think it is a brilliant use of the technology; but on a residential or office level, I see it as an unnecessary cost that could be avoided by simply paying attention.  These are some examples of many where we take a valid technology and perhaps make it frivolous.

Other times, it has less to do with technology compensating for us, but our own sense of entitlement that can destroy an otherwise useful advancement.  How about HVAC?  And I'm talking about both sides: heating and cooling.  While we develop ever more efficient processes, we have become far more entitled about our comfort than our forefathers.  Even though we are more efficient, we are still using more energy.  Where in the Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, or any other document about human liberties does it state that we have the express right to be perfectly comfortable at all times?  It's not in there. So you may happen to like wearing turtleneck sweaters and think that you look snazzy in them, but then you probably shouldn't live in Florida and keep your AC turned down to 50 degrees year round.  The same goes for heating.  Many of us may like wearing shorts around the house in winter, but our overdeveloped sense of 'comfort' is impeding our children's ability to have affordable energy in the future.  We humans are highly adaptable creatures that can purchase sweaters.  We should do so.  And we know this.  We have seen billboards and commercials stating what the "optimal" summer and winter HVAC settings should be.  Yet we still don't (or won't) do it.

And designers, this one is for you - or I should say, "Us."  It is so very, very hard to design a striking, warpy, organic building, only to be told that it is a complete tragedy when we are looking at it through a green lens.  I have been there.  I have even done the analysis on my own building and realized that I have failed on that level.  Years ago, I was asked to teach a BIM class to some professors at a design school.  Later, the discussion moved to using BIM to help sustainable design.  I offhandedly remarked that I wished them good luck because the student's buildings, while striking in their organic warpy-ness, were going to be impossible to analyze well.  I also inquired as to whether the students had any training in performing or understanding the analysis.  And even worse, they were probably about as non-sustainable as anything I had ever seen when it came to wasteful and expensive construction and fabrication.  Now, I support the idea of design school being a place to experiment with, and learn about form and expression.  (My wife always tells me that being married to a designer is like being married to an artist with a job.)  That's what school is about.  At some point though, if your focus is supposed to be on sustainability, you have to deal people a hard blow.  Unless you can look into the production, fabrication, and means and methods of constructing an organic building and guarantee minimal waste, overage, and efficient construction of that shape, you are not being green.  How many sheets of glass, sheathing, insulation are being cut in odd shapes, only to have the remaning bits be worthless and thrown away?  Can it be reused or recycled? Possibly, but can you guarantee it?  Is it still an additional cost that isn't necessary even if you can?  I'm not saying that green has to be ugly, but I do think that we need to understand that certain aesthetics don't work with it . . . yet.  And I can certainly appreciate those warpy buildings for what they are, but don't try to fool me.  There better be a good reason for that shape.  Otherwise, you're just gratifying yourself.  Form and function are still, and always will be, linked.

To end on a positive note, we did find a way to make BIM a teaching utility for green design for the school, and consequently everyone else.  If something is that difficult to model in a virtual environment, think about how hard it is going to be to build it.  It can be used as a reality catalyst. Think about how much extra waste in cost, time, and material there is by using standard construction means and methods.  Think about how much it would take in time and money to develop a more efficient production or construction method, and weigh that against what you are trying to accomplish.  Most importantly, weigh yourself, imperfections and all, against the greater goals that we, as designers and people are seeking to accomplish.  The design starts there.

pete zyskowski


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