“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

Every day, every week, month and year we’re given a clean slate. Every day is a day to start anew. It’s normal to fall into habitual ways of doing things, we all do it. When we catch ourselves defaulting to our old modes of thinking, it provides us with an opportunity to create something new. Of course, some tasks, such as brushing our teeth, require less of us and don’t necessarily need our full attention, while others require us to show up wholeheartedly. But, what if we tried using our other hand to complete this everyday task? How would this change our thinking, our perspective? Now, what if we look at every meeting as an opportunity to show up refreshed and kick off a project with a clean slate, even as the project moves forward. There are tried and true methods we can take to ensure a successful green building project, including a checklist or two, but that’s never a good way to kick off a design charrette or any meeting for that matter. It robs us of our creativity. We’ve all been to status update meetings where everyone rattles off a list of what they’re doing and what needs to get done. For some odd reason, we keep holding these types of meetings although they’re rarely productive and feel like a waste of time for many participants. Just another ingrained pattern that was born out of efficiency. How do we prevent this from happening? Many would agree that starting a project off with a list of things we need to accomplish is a surefire way to lose sight of why the project was initiated in the first place. It doesn’t allow the client or the project team to reap the full benefits of co-creating a design together. Nor does it create an energizing field around the potential embedded in a project. Through an integrative process, we seek to align around values and create connections with the team involved through deep questioning and listening.

If our aim is to design and build projects that are transformational, we have to change the way we approach each project. We’ve written extensively about this in our book, The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building: Redefining the Practice of Sustainability. Changing the way we think about buildings and how they interrelate with the environment and the communities they’re embedded within is challenging and stimulating at the same time. We begin this with creating alignment around what could be. We start with asking what the client and project team are trying to accomplish by building their project. What will define success? How will the project continue to evolve and contribute to its community and place? A project team comes alive when they begin to shift their perspective and see new opportunities in the design and construction process. The team naturally begins to make choices that align around their values and aspirations, revealing the interconnections between a building’s systems and its environment.

Iterative Process at The Willow School
We strive to understand the invisible connections, whether they’re direct or indirect, such as toxins released in the material manufacturing process or during occupancy, or how to see stormwater as a resource. We do this by fostering an iterative process at every level so members of the project team make decisions informed by how their work relates to the entire building and its environment.  One example, we remember fondly is when ecologists were brought into evaluate the health of the soil and habitat at The Willow School in New Jersey. The ecologists created a reluctant field of excitement around the potential of restoring the spongelike character of the soil that supported the original forest with alternative methods of handling waste. Reluctant because these methods hadn’t been tried before in this area and they went against normal conventions of wastewater and stormwater management. They recommended replacing the septic system with a constructed wetland that would clean the wastewater to drinking water quality. This would substantially reduce the civil engineering infrastructure.

At first, the civil engineer refused to change his original design, which consisted of a dry well with concrete pipes, culverts and a septic system. After a few meetings and readings to understand alternative methods, we challenged the civil engineer to design the rainwater management system without using any pipes, catch basins or curbs. He came back with a phenomenal solution using natural systems in place of hard construction. He had replaced 50% of the infrastructure with vegetated swales and rain gardens. The newly designed system cleans rainwater runoff via biofiltration and infiltrates the water onsite. He only used technical solutions when necessary, not by rule of thumb. Not only does the new system contribute to the health of the place, but it was less expensive than the original design. It became the first permitted constructed wetland wastewater treatment system in the state of New Jersey, clearing the way for others to follow.

Shifting Mindsets
What needs to change is not just what we do, but the mindset behind it. We have to be open to trying new things and break free of habitual patterns. As one of our mentors, Carol Sanford, often says, “Never do the same thing, the same way twice”. Just because something worked in the past or that’s the way it’s always been done (we strive to never say that), doesn’t mean you have to do it that way again. In fact, you shouldn’t, because all living systems are constantly evolving and so should our processes. We urge you to try something new, to discover the potential in questioning the way you have done things as a group, to image new possibilities and optimize the health and efficiency of the systems that are dependent on each other. We have to shift from focusing on the things, or products and technologies first, to exploring the interrelationships that contribute to the health and wealth of each unique place. We embrace a purposeful systems thinking approach into the process. We move from the Age of Specialization into the Age of Integration and Regeneration. Ecological, social and technological concerns become integral to the process as opposed to technology dominating the equation.

“Buildings can be designed as autonomous, but they only become meaningful and beneficial when understood as part of the living fabric of a place.”

– 7group & Bill Reed, Integrative Design Guide

We use charrettes to explore principles, guides to action and how we might approach a project in relation to its place. Then, we take a deep dive into our roles and how they relate to each other and the natural world we inhabit. How can we deepen our understanding of how a project relates to the systems it is embedded in? How do we relate to the various systems we are embedded in? Whether it’s the project team, our organizations, or the industry the project is nested in. it’s worth taking a step back to move forward in a direction that is energizing, collaborative and allows you to see all the connections. Once the connections are seen, the project team is able to work through challenges through new eyes. We’re able to see from other perspectives and come up with new solutions with new possibilities. Often, these new approaches save money and time in the long run. Checking off items may feel efficient, but creating an energetic field around potential is liberating. The solutions will carry well into the future too.

Potential Cannot be Found in a Checklist
Simply put, checklists immediately limit our thinking and our creativity. The role of the project cannot be found in a checklist. Of course, checklists can serve a purpose in the background to keep track of tasks, but they should never serve as the overarching framework. Allow the project team to co-create and design around values and principles that show the connections between their role, the systems within and external to the project and its place. Creativity abounds when we’re able to take off our blinders and consciously step into our roles as a project commences and evolves as our thinking around it develops. Don’t take our word for it. Try it for yourself and let us know how it went. We love hearing stories of breakthroughs that create alignment around purpose and the embedded potential in a project and its place.

You can learn more about The Willow School here and how the project and the school moved well beyond checklist mentality.