Sunday, August 7, 2011

Sustainability, Silos, and Systems Thinking

I had the opportunity earlier this year to attend a screening of The Greenest Building, a new hour-long documentary by film producer and fellow University of Oregon graduate Jane Turville. The film presents a compelling overview of the important role building reuse plays in creating sustainable communities. Narrated by actor David Ogden Stiers, The Greenest Building delves into the myth that a “green” building is necessarily a new building. It demonstrates how renovation and reuse of existing structures fully contributes to the triple bottom line of economic, social, and ecological balance.

Following the screening, Jane recounted an epiphany which in part prompted her to produce The Greenest Building. During the course of conversations with historic preservationists on the one hand and green-minded designers on the others, she realized that the two groups did not frequent the same circles and rarely engaged in discussions of mutual interest or benefit. Historic preservation and sustainable design do not necessarily work at cross purposes; however, only infrequently had partnerships arisen to realize the synergistic potentials of an alliance between the two disciplines. Why?

As with other applied sciences, historic preservation is a specialized field. It developed as a focused concentration upon the theory and technology of preserving, conserving, and protecting buildings of historic significance. Historic preservation also entails cultural resource management, and resource identification and evaluation, but had not often been spoken of in the same breath as sustainability.

The green building movement was likewise rooted in specialization. Much of its emphasis had been implementation of new energy efficient systems and strategies to reduce environmental impacts. The underlying objectives were meant to be calculable and discrete. The goal-oriented focus favored traditional scientific processes—the gathering and measurement of empirical evidence—to achieve desired and reliable outcomes.

Historic preservation and green design followed separate paths, evolving in parallel as distinct interests with little or no cross-pollination. Consequently, one discipline was too often presumed to venerate only the old while the other was supposedly in the thrall of only the new.

Jane had discovered the conventional bias of simplified, linear thinking, wherein everything is neatly categorized. Our natural tendency is to reduce and compartmentalize a complex, multidimensional issue into isolated, more easily comprehended packets. This is scientific reductionism—silo thinking.

By breaking down complex interactions and entities into the sum of their constituent parts, the silo mentality effectively isolates disciplines. Those ensconced within their silos too often fail to see the promise inherent in a bigger picture. Such was the case for preservationists and green designers. Each field’s practitioners had largely overlooked the potential of their combined efforts joined for greater effect.

Achieving true sustainability requires a more holistic approach. Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another. It emphasizes the interconnections between disciplines rather than what distinguishes them. In so doing, it more adequately addresses the infinite complexity of the problems at hand. Systems thinking leaps the barriers erected by specialization. The systems perspective is the antithesis of the silo mentality.

Integrated processes and multidisciplinary collaboration are now principal tenets of sustainable design. Those dedicated to the development of sustainable communities increasingly recognize that the component parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with other systems, rather than in isolation.

Why shouldn’t architects and developers first consider reuse and preservation when weighing sustainable design options? Americans are on track to demolish one third of this country’s existing building stock over the next 20 years to replace seemingly inefficient buildings with energy efficient “green” structures. Is demolition in the name of sustainability really the best use of natural, social, and economic resources?

By evaluating the question of sustainability from a systems thinking perspective, Jane explains in The Greenest Building how reuse and reinvestment in the existing built environment can lead to stronger local economies that can thrive in a global context. She asserts that sense of place and collective memory, while intangible, are critical components of strong sustainable communities. She also points to a direct correlation between reuse of existing buildings and a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, degradation of the natural environment, and overuse of precious natural resources.

By documenting the value inherent in our existing building stock, Jane Turville’s implicit message is to see the big picture—to look beyond the walls of the silos we too easily fall into. If you have not yet seen The Greenest Building, check to see if a screening or televised broadcast of the film is available in your community.
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