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Transformative Design: The Means to Sustainability and Future Success

15 January, 2010



An excerpt from Chapter 9: Tranformative Design, The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment, and the Bottom Line by Leigh Stringer, vice president, HOK, LEED. For more on Stringer's views and her new book, read HOK's Leigh Stringer Talks Green and check back Tuesday to read Contract Magazine's exclusive Q&A. --SS

Chapter 9: Transformative Design

By analyzing the way buildings have evolved over thousands of years, there is much to be learned from the past. Indigenous populations have always used local resources to create shelter. And the environmental impact of these structures has been almost negligible. Consider the tipi popularized by the Native Americans of the Great Plains. A tipi (also tepee, or teepee) is a durable conical tent, originally made of animal skins or birch bark that provides warmth and comfort in winter, is dry during heavy rains, and is cool in the heat of summer. Tipis could be disassembled and packed away quickly when a tribe decided to move, and could be reconstructed quickly after settling in a new area. This portability was important to those Plains Indians who had a nomadic lifestyle.

Consider also the rondavel, a traditional African home made of mud and straw. These structures, usually round in shape, are traditionally made with materials that can be locally obtained in raw form. The rondavel’s walls are often constructed from stones with mortar that may consist of sand, soil, or some combination of these mixed with dung. The floor is finished with a processed dung mixture to make it smooth. The roof braces of the rondavel are made out of tree limbs cut to length. The roof itself is thatch sewn to the wooden braces with grass rope. The process of completing the thatch can take one weekend or up to a year if done by a skilled artisan, as it must be sewn in one section at a time, starting from the bottom working toward the top. As each section is sewn, it is weathered and aged in to form a complete weatherproof seal.

Ironically, neither the tipi nor the rondavel are likely to receive an architectural design award or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) certification for their design ingenuity, but they are some of the most sustainable structures in existence. Zero-waste structures are just not part of the building vocabulary in a postindustrial society. Demographic and market forces pressure designers and builders to use more materials, water, and energy to support a global economy while increasing humanity’s ecological footprint. The old Native American proverb, “Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it,” becomes an almost impossible target. Design alone will not be the quick fix to solving environmental problems. That said, there is much to be learned from the way designers approach problems that can help transform the way organizations solve problems and tremendously benefit the environment.

New Ways of Thinking

Solving environmental problems requires thinking and acting differently, because traditional approaches—to business, industry, and policy—will only take organizations down a path that is status quo. Many claim that business as usual is what caused major environmental problems to begin with. That’s where design thinking comes in to play. In 1969, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon noted that “[e]ngineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent—not with how things are, but with how they might be—in short, with design. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional
training.”

Successful designers (of buildings, products, services, and organizations) must be willing to admit that there is no “set solution” and that the answer to making the planet greener cannot be bought off a shelf. Instead, environmentally savvy designers use their principles, creativity, and a willingness to learn and adapt to guide them to new and more sustainable solutions. For many organizations, this way of thinking requires new skills and a different process for developing solutions.

Think back several decades. The traditional twentieth-century company was successful because of its hierarchical structure, division of labor, clear chain of command, economies of scale, and the controls in place that kept it running efficiently. The traditional organizational model, initially based on practices established during the industrial revolution, worked well for twentieth- century business needs. Though much of these structural features are still relevant, there are some that will not be as useful in the twenty-first century, given the breakthroughs needed to differentiate business solutions and solve seemingly impossible environmental obstacles.

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, asserts that modern firms should become more like design shops. He notes:

Whereas traditional firms organize around ongoing task and permanent
assignments, in design shops, work flows around projects with defined
terms. The source of status in traditional firms is managing big budgets
and large staffs, but in design shops it derives from building a track record
of finding solutions to incredibly complex problems—solving tough mysteries
with elegant solutions. Whereas the style of work in traditional firms
involves defining roles and seeking the perfect answers, design firms feature extensive collaboration, “charettes” (focused brainstorming sessions) and constant dialogue with clients.

Also important in any design process, in addition to intellectual curiosity and tenacity, are defining limits for the creative process and focusing on performance- based solutions that combine aesthetics, function, and long-term impacts. Solving for one of these factors is not enough.

© HOK, Inc. 2009. Excerpt with permission from "The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment, and the Bottom Line" by Leigh Stringer, vice president, HOK.



Transformative Design: The Means to Sustainability and Future Success

15 January, 2010


An excerpt from Chapter 9: Tranformative Design, The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment, and the Bottom Line by Leigh Stringer, vice president, HOK, LEED. For more on Stringer's views and her new book, read HOK's Leigh Stringer Talks Green and check back Tuesday to read Contract Magazine's exclusive Q&A. --SS

Chapter 9: Transformative Design

By analyzing the way buildings have evolved over thousands of years, there is much to be learned from the past. Indigenous populations have always used local resources to create shelter. And the environmental impact of these structures has been almost negligible. Consider the tipi popularized by the Native Americans of the Great Plains. A tipi (also tepee, or teepee) is a durable conical tent, originally made of animal skins or birch bark that provides warmth and comfort in winter, is dry during heavy rains, and is cool in the heat of summer. Tipis could be disassembled and packed away quickly when a tribe decided to move, and could be reconstructed quickly after settling in a new area. This portability was important to those Plains Indians who had a nomadic lifestyle.

Consider also the rondavel, a traditional African home made of mud and straw. These structures, usually round in shape, are traditionally made with materials that can be locally obtained in raw form. The rondavel’s walls are often constructed from stones with mortar that may consist of sand, soil, or some combination of these mixed with dung. The floor is finished with a processed dung mixture to make it smooth. The roof braces of the rondavel are made out of tree limbs cut to length. The roof itself is thatch sewn to the wooden braces with grass rope. The process of completing the thatch can take one weekend or up to a year if done by a skilled artisan, as it must be sewn in one section at a time, starting from the bottom working toward the top. As each section is sewn, it is weathered and aged in to form a complete weatherproof seal.

Ironically, neither the tipi nor the rondavel are likely to receive an architectural design award or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) certification for their design ingenuity, but they are some of the most sustainable structures in existence. Zero-waste structures are just not part of the building vocabulary in a postindustrial society. Demographic and market forces pressure designers and builders to use more materials, water, and energy to support a global economy while increasing humanity’s ecological footprint. The old Native American proverb, “Take only what you need and leave the land as you found it,” becomes an almost impossible target. Design alone will not be the quick fix to solving environmental problems. That said, there is much to be learned from the way designers approach problems that can help transform the way organizations solve problems and tremendously benefit the environment.

New Ways of Thinking

Solving environmental problems requires thinking and acting differently, because traditional approaches—to business, industry, and policy—will only take organizations down a path that is status quo. Many claim that business as usual is what caused major environmental problems to begin with. That’s where design thinking comes in to play. In 1969, Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon noted that “[e]ngineering, medicine, business, architecture, and painting are concerned not with the necessary but with the contingent—not with how things are, but with how they might be—in short, with design. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional
training.”

Successful designers (of buildings, products, services, and organizations) must be willing to admit that there is no “set solution” and that the answer to making the planet greener cannot be bought off a shelf. Instead, environmentally savvy designers use their principles, creativity, and a willingness to learn and adapt to guide them to new and more sustainable solutions. For many organizations, this way of thinking requires new skills and a different process for developing solutions.

Think back several decades. The traditional twentieth-century company was successful because of its hierarchical structure, division of labor, clear chain of command, economies of scale, and the controls in place that kept it running efficiently. The traditional organizational model, initially based on practices established during the industrial revolution, worked well for twentieth- century business needs. Though much of these structural features are still relevant, there are some that will not be as useful in the twenty-first century, given the breakthroughs needed to differentiate business solutions and solve seemingly impossible environmental obstacles.

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, asserts that modern firms should become more like design shops. He notes:

Whereas traditional firms organize around ongoing task and permanent
assignments, in design shops, work flows around projects with defined
terms. The source of status in traditional firms is managing big budgets
and large staffs, but in design shops it derives from building a track record
of finding solutions to incredibly complex problems—solving tough mysteries
with elegant solutions. Whereas the style of work in traditional firms
involves defining roles and seeking the perfect answers, design firms feature extensive collaboration, “charettes” (focused brainstorming sessions) and constant dialogue with clients.

Also important in any design process, in addition to intellectual curiosity and tenacity, are defining limits for the creative process and focusing on performance- based solutions that combine aesthetics, function, and long-term impacts. Solving for one of these factors is not enough.

© HOK, Inc. 2009. Excerpt with permission from "The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment, and the Bottom Line" by Leigh Stringer, vice president, HOK.
 


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