Your project is far more than an amalgamation of materials and systems. It is a physical manifestation of your values, of what you really care about. Its design and construction sets the stage for much of what it becomes and serves over its lifetime. Its effects will extend well beyond the people who design, construct and inhabit it. It can contribute to the ecological health of the place it inhabits. It can serve to enrich the community, the watershed and the larger systems that support and enable it to exist. It can be experienced as more than an enclosure for people to be sheltered by focusing on its larger purpose and greatest potential. Just like each one of us, every project should be manifested in a way that expresses the entirely unique contributions it seeks to make to the inhabitants of the evolving place it serves.
To effectively make such contributions, we have found that each project must begin with an examination of the singularity of the place in which it will be located. Several years ago, we participated in an early design charrette for a new border crossing station in northern New York. The site consisted of green space with shrubs and small trees on one side and a very rocky, gravely area on the other side. The designers had originally determined that they should build on the rocky side so as not to disturb the existing vegetation. Just prior to this charrette, an ecologist and botanist had surveyed the property, and what they found altered the core thinking about the project and its location. It turned out that the vegetated area was full of invasive, non-native species that did not provide much usable habitat and was practically devoid of the diversity necessary to support and build the capacity of a healthy ecosystem. The rocky area was full of native lichens and plant species that supported a great deal of diverse insect and animal life hidden within the rocks. Too often our design decisions are based on incomplete information, or worse, based upon our incorrect assumptions (for more on place see Regenerating a Sense of Place).
This is just one small example of the connections that need to be explored in the Discovery Phase of a project’s earliest design stage. All stakeholders to be impacted by the project should be engaged to produce a common understanding and alignment around the project’s Purpose (beyond purely functional needs). Ideally, these stakeholders include a carefully selected design and construction team of co-creators that understands the value and efficacy of an integrative design process. Representatives of the surrounding community, the people who will inhabit and use the building, and the people who will be investing in the project should all be included; as well as voices representing the other-than-human beings and ecological processes impacted by the project.
We often begin by exploring and aligning these stakeholders around the project’s larger Purpose to facilitate alignment among all participants. Too often projects are initiated without a clear understanding of their purpose beyond typical functional programming requirements. As indicated earlier, projects are much more than their functional components and clarifying their larger Purpose opens up new ideas and conversations that encourage a developmental process of exploring potential connections and interrelationships by asking questions such as:
- What specifically are you seeking to transform through this project? . . . What larger systems does it seek to affect?
- If successful, what specifically does that transformation look like? . . . i.e., what specifically are the most essential tangible affects you seek to manifest?
- What is the project’s aspirational potential for achieving such affects?
- What are the most important outcomes that the project must deliver?
- What is the single greatest area of unrealized potential being sought by our work on this project?
- How can the project improve the ecosystems within which it is nested?
- How can it serve as an instrument for developing greater community health and prosperity?
- How could it meet the needs of all stakeholders through reciprocal relationships?
In addition, the project stakeholders align around a set of beliefs, philosophies and principles at this earliest stage that will serve as guides to actions, behavior and decision-making as the project moves forward. We have found that slowing down the process very early to create such alignment is the most crucial factor in the ultimate success of the project in terms of achieving its targeted outcomes.
The time taken to discover the unique Purpose of a project can literally transform its original intentions. For example, the purpose of the RE Farm Cafe shifted from building a farm-to-table cafe on a farm to developing a place-sourced farm that transforms regional food practices in Central Pennsylvania, which happens to also include a farm-to-fork café. The purpose of the Lions Gate secondary wastewater treatment plant in Vancouver shifted from building a fenced waste management facility to creating a freshwater and renewable energy generation plant that serves as a community amenity and gathering place – a garden where people want to get married (for more on this project see Creating Regenerative Processes). Image how such shifts in Purpose affected how these projects were conceived and designed. Such transparent and careful examination of Purpose will produce the conversations needed to explore and manifest the very essence of any project’s reason for being.
As the project team aligns around a Purpose, specific project goals and aspirations are discovered and evaluated. This includes a thorough examination of the connections and interrelationships that affect the creation of targeted outcomes associated with the building, human performance and living systems. Design decisions within this integrative process are then based on this analysis and evaluation, instead of emerging from conjecture, opinions and assumptions. Revealing these connections enables project teams to understand and evaluate these interrelationships, thereby discovering and developing synergies between the various building systems, along with the larger systems within which the building is nested. On a functional level, such questions might include:
- How can we minimize the heating and cooling loads most effectively?
- How does the selection of the wall paint impact the size of the HVAC system?
- What are the implications for eliminating pipes and curbs related to the rainwater resource systems?
- How does the site design affect the local ecology?
- How will the project affect the local community and economy?
- . . . and so on.
While such potential questions are numerous, the evaluation of interrelationships between all of the systems any project affects tends to yield the most benefits at the lowest cost. The project is then viewed from its highest potential, rather than being seen as just a series of problems to solve.
One practical example of starting with potential would be to create an energy model of your project that is based on its maximum, theoretical energy efficiency. The project team then evaluates strategies that will only increase energy use. This is the opposite of current practice, which generally seeks to add strategies to a code compliant baseline; under this scenario, each strategy must be justified as cost effective. Starting with the maximum potential forces the team to focus on the whole instead of the parts. Accordingly, holistic impacts on energy use and first cost are justified and based upon synergies between systems, as opposed to viewing them in isolation as a series of line-item fragments, or problems to solve.
Such an integrative process must be designed in a way that builds the capacity of and the relationships between all participants and stakeholders. The Discovery phase of the project, then, becomes more about discovering and revealing the implicit order of the place and using the project to further express that order, rather than superimposing a preconceived vision upon that place. As such, regenerative thinking and process aligns with living system principles around an explicit transformational Purpose that serves as a developmental means of building the capacity of all involved and affected, including the land itself, to make meaningful contributions that evolve larger living systems. The root of the word development is “to unveil” or “unfold by bringing out the latent potential” – to create new potential. In the case of regenerative development, the potential to be revealed serves to align with the way nature works, so that life continues to evolve and develop over time.
Development applies to the individuals involved as well.
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. – Albert Einstein
We operate from the belief that humans are co-evolutionary participatory beings in reciprocal interrelationships within larger living systems, therefore, we need to fundamentally change how we think about “nature” in order to effectively be in service to that larger whole. We believe that humans need to care as much about (and serve the development of) all life as we care about ourselves and our immediate family and friends. By working with a process based upon a regenerative paradigm and associated principles, projects help others transform and develop their capacity to accomplish what they care about deeply. Consequently, 7group sees our role as helping you manifest what you really care about to improve the health of the places where we work, live and play in community. Healthy places include healthy people, communities and ecosystems nested in relationships of reciprocity that continually regenerate a healthy living whole.
Project teams engaged in regenerative development view their role in the world as a part of the evolutionary development of the planet herself. For example, we have worked on a succession of projects for both the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh and the Willow School in New Jersey. Their projects have evolved through time aspiring to increasingly higher levels of performance and affectiveness relative to the changes that these organizations seek to manifest in the world. They understand that their buildings are instruments for helping them achieve the larger effects and transformations that these organizations seek to contribute, and as such, their buildings must embody and engender such contributions. Although both organizations began more than a decade ago with LEED rated buildings, then evolving into projects earning the Living Building Challenge, their pursuit of such certifications does not render these projects regenerative (in fact, if applied the wrong way, they can curtail the project’s potential). Rather, they have discovered that it is the emergent on-going, co-evolutionary process of applying living system and regenerative principles to everything they do that makes the meaningful difference they seek, entwined with life herself.
An integrative process grounded in regenerative development is often facilitated through a series of workshops and smaller project team meetings. In the beginning, the meetings focus on creating alignment, followed by goal-setting during the Discovery phase. Often this requires project teams and owners to restrain their desire to begin “designing” too soon. As with many living systems, the intention is to slow down the project’s flow to facilitate the exchange of understanding and information (the fundamental nutrients of any project). We often serve as the equivalent of beavers whose role is to slow the flow of water to create habitat and nutrient exchange that serve to develop a greater abundance of life, which in turn increases the complexity and diversity of the local ecology, all while having their own needs met in reciprocity with the other beings in the larger ecosystem. We have consistently found that slowing the flow early in the process enables the kind of alignment that allows projects to manifest their full potential. Once design begins at the concept level, the process tends to accelerate quicker than under conventional circumstances, since the design guidance gleaned in the Discovery phase includes a full set of principles that can effectively guide the design’s development.
Each project is entirely unique, so each project’s process is also unique in its design. Some projects require significantly greater community engagement (see Your Community). Some need many workshops (we have facilitated as many as 12), while others may need only a few (the minimum is usually three). Some require extensive ecological assessment, some require greater focus on community economic effects, some aspire to produce more energy than they consume, some need to be particularly resilient, others require detailed and varied types of technical research, assessment and analysis to inform the development of the process and the design (biological, hydrological, geo-morphological, etc.). Depending upon the nature of the project, the precise activities engaged will vary, but each project likely still uses materials, energy and water, and will impact its indoor and outdoor habitat for living beings. Regardless of the issues that need to be addressed, the process entails a cycle of assessment and discussion between various project stakeholders who align around a project’s Purpose, followed by establishing a set of principles and goals, and engaging in an iterative evaluation of the project’s potential. This process tends to be front-end-loaded, so design is essentially completed by the end of Design Development; therefore, the Construction Documents phase simply documents the project (as it should be).
Our approach seeks to implement an integrative process grounded in regenerative principles that are aimed at realizing the potential of your project, so that we can help you build your capacity to manifest what you care about in the world. In reciprocity, then, we seek to work on purposeful, place-sourced projects with owners and teams that are interested in engaging a developmental process of discovery to enhance their systemic affectiveness.
We invite you to come along with 7group as we seek to help you manifest your project. Visit our latest Your Project webpage for more information and examples of our work. Click here to find Services we offer.
We have been unveiling the specific areas where we can help you to seek the “difference that makes a difference” in the words of Gregory Bateson. Our fondest desire is to help you to manifest the life affirming change you wish to see in the world. Visit sevengroup.com.
What do you seek to transform?