Shoving Green Circles in Brown Squares

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

At an event I recently attended for manufacturers and design professionals, I had the pleasure of hearing a keynote speech by Marvin J. Malecha, FAIA, outgoing President of the American Institute of Architects and Dean of the College of Design at North Carolina State University.

One of the points that really struck me in his presentation was the idea that we are trying to shove green pegs in brown squares.  We are developing band-aids for problems in existing structures based on our current technologies.  How can we take product “A” and massage it a little bit to solve problem “B?” The fact is, you should start from scratch to get rid of problem “B.”  Don’t solve problem B, get rid of problem B.

In other words, what we are doing is slapping bigger fins on the Cadillac. What we need to do is get away from that Cadillac model. Maybe it’s not about improving the performance of our existing designs; it’s about completely rethinking our designs.  Do we really need to have green high-rises? Maybe we don’t need high-rises. Don’t get me wrong, Malecha isn’t suggesting we get rid of high-rises.  He is suggesting that we are stuck in a rut of thinking and trying to solve our existing problems when maybe the long-term solution is to start from scratch on basic issues such as:

  • How we build buildings
  • What we think of our buildings
  • What we think we need in our buildings

Consider, for example, the internal combustion engine.  No one in their right mind would set out today to design the internal combustion engine we have in our cars.  It is ridiculously complicated. We have gotten to this complexity by continuing to solve or improve a bad design and pushing it down the road as opposed to getting rid of the internal combustion engine and going back to the electric motor. Similarly, this is how we are approaching sustainability.

According to Malecha, the present Green strategy is to fit new products and systems into present design. Design must change completely to truly move forward. Even in the most corporate environments, the free agents will win and rule because they can re-invent.  Keep learning, keep being creative and keep moving.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation. 

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