I would like to give thanks for the opportunity I have had to go back to school and devote my time to study. True, this has been made possible due to student loans, and a scrapping together of research funds, but I recognize that it is a privilege to even be able to return to school as an adult. I am fortunate to live in a part of the world where this is possible.So today, as I get closer to the final defense of my dissertation, I want to share some of my findings. My reason for going back to school was to identify the conditions and constraints to increased depth and breadth of sustainability in the built environment. Just meeting the commercial terms of time/ cost/ and quality is not enough anymore, nor is the “do no further harm” approach to sustainability. That window of opportunity is closed, and now we need to design “regenerative” buildings, which contribute in a positive way to the eco-system, the social system, and the economy.
What I found is that the biggest obstacles are not codes, nor lack of innovation, nor cost. It is the ability to envision the future in order to make it a reality. That may seem like a very bold or very simplistic statement. It is both, and comes after 3 years of school and more than a decade of experience of trying to “fix” the problem via codes, materials, distribution of innovation, and so forth. But the ability to see the future is, in fact, very challenging.I had the opportunity to work with a very progressive design team, which had full participation of the owner, contractor, designer, and engineer in a highly integrated process. They were amazing in their ability to deliver on project specifications. At first, I thought there was no more room for improvement, they were so exemplary. But there was an Achilles heel, and that was the ability to collectively see and design a future state which transcended the limitations of current assumptions. They were their own obstacle.
As part of my research, I developed a workshop for the team to help them break past the existing mental barriers of discipline-centric thinking, explore the whole systems concepts of sustainable prosperity, and engage in design thinking to imagine a scenario of ecological balance between man and nature. While the workshop design was quite innovative, what was most impressive was the potential brainpower which was generated in this constraint-free forum. Even in the short half day seminar, this group came up with some very insightful ideas.
The greatest opportunity in the construction industry is sitting right in front of us: harnessing the knowledge and abilities of the professionals in the industry. It may sound simple, but it is a radical departure from the status quo. It requires a change in the way we organize our design and construction process, it redistributes accountability and triggers a call for new skills. It is a change from a design approach of breaking everything down into parts, and replacing it with a systems approach, looking at relationships and impacts internal and external to the building. This would be a shift from a human-centric view of the world to one of shared responsibility for each other, and our planet. I have seen a group of tough contractors “get it.” Now it is our turn.