December 11, 2015

Eight takeaways from Greenbuild 2015

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Greenbuild, a multi-day conference centered on sustainable design and construction, lived up to its promise in 2015. Three BKSK staff members share their top takeaways from the annual event.

It’s essential to move past good intentions.
While it is admirable to start with your heart in the right place, it is important to use that sentiment as motivation for achieving meaningful impact. By moving beyond intention, we can uncover surprising opportunities and create more successful designs. For example, in a session titled “The Science of Circadian Lighting,” we learned about a design team that was deeply committed to bringing the best quality daylight to their client. Fortunately, through measurements, they were able to identify that the site’s north-facing windows would facilitate more appropriate daylighting levels than the south-facing ones, which were often shaded due to glare. (For a broader illustration of this idea, look no further than the Center for Urban Pedagogy’s delightful brochure on Dick & Rick.) End users (and their devices) are smart.
Along those lines, it’s highly beneficial to spend time interviewing your project’s users, such as existing residents, visitors, and workers. Their insight into an office’s culture, the behavioral patterns of a group of students, or other social systems is invaluable. In the session “Resilient Brownsville: a Plan for Public Housing in Brooklyn,” project members shared some of the actionable anecdotes learned from residents of the Tilden Houses. For instance, one woman’s observations on how daylight reached her unit on the complex’s ground floor changed the massing of the new building. In many other Greenbuild sessions, speakers shared ways of augmenting this type of qualitative information with quantitative data. Several personal apps, such as those that control circadian light at a workspace, are making it easy to adjust and accurately document the details of a specific environment.

We need to get better at dealing with data.
Every day, methods for tracking environmental data are improving, meaning there is an unprecedented amount of information at the disposal of today’s designers. This is, frankly, both empowering and overwhelming. Fortunately, there are some helpful tools already available – such as the Thermal Comfort Tool developed by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment or the growing suite of Sefaira products – but there is still significant progress to be made.

Exploring ecosystems at a human level is eye-opening.
A balance of quantitative and qualitative information is always going to be necessary for identifying true design solutions. One way to find the right balance is to use several lenses of inquiry, such as the lens of an individual ecosystem. By observing what influences a single person over the course of a day, a designer might realize the importance of heating an individual workstation (or just the chair!) rather than the entire office. At Greenbuild, multiple speakers shared how the study of an individual’s ecosystem revealed opportunities for improving a project, with factors ranging from interior lighting quality to public safety.

Even small design solutions can have big impact.
In several Greenbuild sessions, we were reminded that small projects have potential to impact a huge community, whether you are working with a single person or a full city block. This seemed especially true when projects were framed in the context of a “pilot,” where an upfront expectation is set to outline scalable outcomes. As an example, the population of the New York City Housing Authority’s public housing developments is approximately 600,000, or the population of Washington D.C.; an innovation at one of those sites has the potential to scale across the system, and therefore improve quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people. The same is true for Cornell Tech’s forthcoming high-rise residential tower, soon to be the largest and tallest Passive House building in the world. This project will demonstrate that it’s possible to achieve PH performance in future high-rises as well.

Large-scale thinking is complex but critical.
Both at Greenbuild and at the subsequent meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP21), it was clear that there are global-level sustainability questions that remained dangerously unanswered. Among these is the question of “splitting the bill.” Much in the same way that friends dislike evenly splitting a dinner bill when not everyone has ordered dessert or wine, today’s leaders face complex concerns about who should finance sustainable development, design, and construction work in an only partially post-industrial world. Similar issues exist at local levels as well, such as in Nigerian towns or public housing in Brooklyn.

Most spaces can do double-duty.
One way to make the most of limited resources is to find the previously untapped value of existing infrastructure. In the session “Everything is Food: Nutrient Systems for Cities & Buildings,” we learned how rooftops can also serve as sites for commercial agricultural production. At other points of Greenbuild, we saw parking lots that could act as floodwater storage basins and facades that collected solar energy. It seems that today’s designers not only seek form and function in their work, but form and dual-function. (If this is reminding you a bit of Rem Koolhaas’ Elements, you’re not the only one.)

Let’s strive to be better at connecting audiences with our ideas.
Architectural professionals spend the majority of their days communicating ideas, whether it’s through drawings, models, or e-mails. On some level, we all know that the manner in which we present these ideas will influence how well our audience understands them; but that doesn’t mean we necessarily present our ideas successfully each time. For the team behind the aforementioned Cornell Tech residential tower, a very well-considered tape detail drawing became the key for smooth workflow at the construction site. For the District of Columbia’s real-time building energy database, BuildSmart DC, a somewhat confusing user experience seems to be the cause of limited site usage. Throughout Greenbuild, some presenters dazzled while others left us wanting, despite having a great project to present.

We can only hope that those folks, like us, are committed to being ever better communicators, designers, and stewards of the planet.

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