Backpacker or Urban Condo-Dweller?

At the end of July, I attended the Sustainable Design Leaders’ Summit in Seattle with 50 sustainability directors from architecture firms across the country. The discussions varied from specific project tasks such as material choices, building performance analysis, and post-occupancy evaluations to overall firm sustainability strategies and the role of the architect in advocating for sustainable practices, choices and policies in the AEC industry. Some of my favorite quotes from the conference are:

  1. The nature of all things is cooperation.
  2. We reorganize ourselves almost daily.
  3. Create bumpers, not bunkers.
  4. Are you a backpacker or an urban condo dweller?

The last two quotes are the most compelling, and curious.

Create bumpers, not bunkers

Two things come to mind.

  1. Too much uncertainty creates instability.
  2. Develop a shared baseline of knowledge.

On a design project, or any project actually, it is important to manage the uncertainty. Create enough structure for team members to move forward, and also be comfortable taking risks. Institutionalize transparency in information sharing and team process (rather than working in bunkers or silos). What are your design bumpers? What are the criteria that inform your project? Establish your playground early on. Set clear intentions and boundaries for the team to bump up against along the way to guide the creative process, but not stifle it. (Important to note: You can’t trust the process if there is not one.)

Are you a backpacker or an urban condo-dweller?

Zyliss garlic press
Zyliss garlic press

What is the tool of choice for a backpacker? A Swiss Army knife. A Swiss Army knife is a tool that does a lot of things fairly well to complete simple tasks, but does not do any one detailed task exceptionally. An urban condo dweller, on the other hand, has many specialized tools (a food processor, a coffee machine, a garlic press) to complete specialized tasks.

How does this relate to sustainable design?

Use the right tool at the right time.

During concept design analysis we use simple box models to compare various solutions. We study big-picture concepts to determine good/better/best scenarios. We compare a variety of scenarios quickly using simple tools to set the direction of the project.

We are all backpackers in concept design.

Farther along in the design process, once we have narrowed our choices to the best solutions, we start to dig deeper with more specialized tools. We are urban condo dwellers at this point—we forgo the Swiss Army knife and use specific tools to study certain technical concepts very well.

This is an important distinction. If we jump ahead to the specifics without setting goals, comparing big-picture strategies, or looking at system synergies, we are likely to miss opportunities.

Questions to consider early in your project:

  1. What are the Owner’s and the team’s values and intentions for the project?
  2. Have project goals and team processes been clearly stated to all team members?
  3. Is the project team comparing various options before jumping ahead to the details?
  4. Are team members using the right tools at the right time?

Concept Design Principles

  1. Determine project values
  2. Set clear intentions
  3. Define process, roles and tools
  4. Compare options
  5. Use the right tools at the right time

That sets us all off to a good start.

Allison Zuchman Sustainability Director

P.S. If you are in Seattle, it is worth your time to check out Islandwood (outdoor learning center) on Bainbridge Island and the Bullitt Center (net-zero, Living Building Challenge) in downtown Seattle.

Bullitt Center
Bullitt Center