Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Value of Value Engineering - Part 2

Recap Part 1
Last week, in Part 1 of The Value of Value Engineering, I talked about easy buttons and paradigm shifts. This week I am going to start to look at value engineering with a different spin, that is, not just through the lens of first costs. And for the sake of clarity, I am going to follow the credit categories of the LEED Rating System, which is divided into five categories: Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy & Atmosphere, Materials & Resources and Indoor Environmental Quality.

When LEED® emerged in the late 1990’s, it filled a huge void. The building industry in this country was trying to understand how to effectively define ‘green building’ and measure it in a consistent way. To date, LEED has done more for the national green building movement than anything previously conceived, its main focus of to make green building mainstream and to move the bulk of buildings being built towards higher standards.

It's Not Easy Being Green
But there is still hesitation with green building in any form, that is LEED or not LEED. Some arguments you may be familiar with are “it costs too much money” or “the process is cumbersome” or “the payback isn’t viable.” There of course papers and responses to these arguments, showing that green does cost the same as conventional building and that it increases productivity, saves energy, but I feel we must go beyond these arguments; in my view, they are often too focused on the economic viability of changing the marketplace, that is, baby steps. And I agree that baby steps are needed. However, I also contend that bold strides are needed.

The Value of Value Engineering Place
So let me jump in and look at Sustainable Sites. Generally when we start a project, we don’t think much about the site beyond it’s this sq footage or acreage, here are the utilities, these are the zoning issues, what environmental permits are needed, the buildable area, and so forth. We may go out and look at the site for a bit, take some pictures, but it is rare to really spend time there, walking the site, learning about the site, being with the site. So we view the site as an isolated entity, more an object in a field persay than something connected to a much larger whole.

But let’s look at a typical site for a minute. Any site is a part of a greater watershed, the watershed itself being a critical component of a healthy hydrologic cycle. Within any watershed there is infiltration of water back into the groundwater, which in turn replenishes underground streams and aquifers, runoff which replenishes above ground creeks, streams, lakes, rivers and so forth, and a healthy cycle of evapo-transpiration that occurs from grass and trees and other plant life.

There is also a flourishing ecosystem –or systems, above and below ground, water-based and non-
water-based, consisting of plants, animals and micro-organisms and more. All of them work in concert to maintain a balance –both at night and during the day; nocturnal animals are just as important as non-nocturnal.

Each site is also a unique and distinct place, place not being a destination, as in “we are going to that place” but place as in each place having a spirit “symbolizing the living ecological relationship between a particular location and the persons who have derived from it and added to it the various aspects of their humanness over time” (the latter eloquently stated by RenĂ© Dubos). Being a part of place though, is necessary to being human and indeed, we all have a place or places which we connect to.

But of all of these, the watershed or the ecosystems or the place, how much do we generally know? Usually nothing. And so for years and years we have been developing land, divorced from a connection with it. We have filled in streams, viewed wetlands as a nuisance, cut down mature trees and replaced them with saplings –a token measure almost in comparison, introduced non-native and invasive species, forced animals from their natural habitats, built unattractive, inaccessible and artificially aerated retention basins, lit up sites at night so that nocturnal environments are severely impacted, allowed water to run off sites into storm systems, instead of re-infiltrating it on site, thought little about who and what might have been on the site before, and so much more.

Now, some of you might say to me, these things must happen for progress to occur. Perhaps this is true in the conventional sense. But I also know that we have drastically changed watersheds, eroded and destroyed habitats, developed sites in inappropriate ways, created large heat islands with our cities and freeways, to list a few examples. We have also increased insurance rates, changed flood plain patterns, caused litigation and lawsuits, and more.

Where is the value in any of this?

Next week, water, our most precious resource.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Value of Value Engineering - Part 1

Over the next few posts I’d like to talk about value engineering, but not in the typical understanding and use of this term and action in the design and construction industry today. Value engineering means taking a project and slicing and dicing it to be within budget. This is done generally through changing materials, or systems (building envelope –floors, walls, roof and/or mechanical), or in more “severe” cases, reducing square footage, and so forth.

Instead, I’d like to talk about value engineering in relation to sustainable design, and the creation of our built environment.

But first, I’d like to talk a bit about paradigm shifts.

Where’s the Easy Button?
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift with respect to how we connect to Earth. For the past several decades, we have seen a rise in environmentalism and environmental responsibility. Indeed, whereas before an environmentalist might be labeled a tree hugger, today it is probably more un-cool to NOT be green, no matter what shade you are; today, green is everywhere. And more and more we are thinking beyond our current wants and needs to ever greater extents -or in some cases, at least starting to. But essentially, we are beginning to truly see that we are not separate from Earth, and are in fact part of Earth, and what we do effects it, just as what Earth does effects us. We are moving from a very linear way of thinking and being, one which is divorced from connection to Earth, to a much more grounded and holistic way of thinking and being.

How we design and build is in no way divorced from this paradigm shift. The thing about paradigm shifts though, is that they’re tough. And I have two examples for you, to help you understand just how tough a paradigm shift is.

The World is Flat. Dammit.
The first one is, flat world / round world. For a very long time, we thought the world was flat. If you sailed past the horizon, supposedly you were toast. But there were those who also thought, hmm, this doesn’t make sense. Let’s test this. So one day someone kept sailing past the horizon and discovered that in fact, it didn’t end, and that by following the stars, the sun, the moon, which are the same everywhere, just positioned differently depending on longitude and latitude, they could in fact arrive back in the place where they started.

Imagine the turmoil this caused. Everything that probably a majority of the population thought was true was no longer true. It changed all the rules.

The next one is humors (also called vapors) and germs. For a very long time, we thought that disease was caused by vapors -essentially, the air itself. But there were those who also thought, hmm, this doesn’t make sense. So they tested and researched and questioned until one day they discovered these dastardly microscopic things called germs.

Imagine the turmoil this caused. Everything that physicians of the time knew, from how they treated sickness, to what sickness was, to even training physicians, was no longer true. It changed all the rules.

It’s Not Easy Being Green
Now we are in the shift between conventional building and green building.

Our conventional way of designing and building is a very economically driven industry, one built primarily on first costs. Now, granted, what isn’t economically driven, but for the sake of this talk, we’ll focus on the design and construction industry. And, to boot, for all we know, perhaps building has been a very economically driven industry since we began building. Picture a Roman Emperor for example, building a building, one which probably still stands today, saying to his builder “yes, yes, I do want the Senate chambers to last and be reflective of our empire, but I don’t want to pay a lot for it; find the cheapest stone you can and build with that.”

Now, however, we are moving to a more holistic way of building, one which also considers the economic impacts of NOT building responsibly. This way of building is nicknamed green building. Believe it or not however, with respect to green building we still have a ways to go -like I said, paradigm shifts are tough and they take time. We are saying in some respects that everything we thought to be true about how we design and build may not be as true any longer. We are also still focused in large part on first costs, rather than long term costs, in spite of new evidence each day that thinking long term makes economic sense. Still though, and in spite of good intentions, the value of the dollar in hand today speaks volumes over the dollar in hand down the road.

Part of this is due in large part to a misunderstanding of what green design is. Green isn’t an add-on. It isn’t merely following the LEED Rating System either -although LEED is an excellent tool and a great place to start. It is also not a linear process, which is how we’ve designed and built for so long.

Turning the Tables
So this is where I want to begin looking at value engineering with respect to green building. But again, I am putting a different spin on the term. Instead of looking at value engineering in the standard light of getting a project within a set budget, which is for the most part, about first costs –which granted, strives to achieve the best possible building, I instead want to look at value engineering in terms of long-term impacts and costs to us, to our legacy, to Earth. Now, I am going to add a caveat to this. In spite of the rise of green building, there are also those who still argue that it is not economically viable. There are others who just aren’t ready to move in the green building direction. This however, is all in the spirit of a paradigm shift, just as someone like me, advancing and challenging our conventional ways of thinking is part of a paradigm shift.

End Part 1.

Next week, I'll start to look at value engineering through the lens of the LEED rating system

Image: Circa 1531 map of the world, from Google Images

Monday, February 9, 2009

Afraid of the Dark

Face it folks, we are afraid of the dark. And I am not talking about being-in-your-bedroom-and-being-afraid-of-the-dark afraid, I am talking about being outside, in your community, whether it be rural, suburban or urban and being afraid of the dark. At night anymore, it’s often as bright as it is during the day.

Up until about 100 years ago, you could see the stars at night, even in the city, because back then, the lamps –which were gas-fired or simply candles, weren’t near as bright or as frequently placed as today, nor was there as much light escaping from buildings as there is today. Imagine what that must have been like, to stand in the streets of any major city, from New York, to London (the most populated city in 1800), to Moscow, to Hong Kong and still look up and see the stars, perhaps even the Milky Way. Now however, our communities are lit up in the name of security, and from interior light escaping from our buildings through windows. Then there’s decorative and accent lighting, to show off features of buildings and bridges. And more. And to boot, all this light is reflected, refracted and scattered above us, creating an even brighter halo over top the community.

Bright Lights. City Nights.
All this light is wonderful and beautiful in some respects –it’s quite something to fly over cities at night, the glowing network of roads and buildings below, but what is the cost to nocturnal environments? Because remember, even though we are diurnal creatures, the world doesn’t exist just for us, and just as much activity goes on at night as during the day. And indeed, migration, reproduction, and feeding patterns and habits of other creatures we share Earth with have been adversely affected. Birds get trapped and disoriented in our glowing cities, often colliding with buildings, killing up to 100 million birds each year, (click here to learn more about FLAP), turtles who’ve just laid eggs on the beach can sometimes be led off course, following the glow of a city beyond, instead of the natural glow of the horizon, and frogs and toads who live near brightly lit areas are thrown completely out of kilter, to name a scant few examples. Our built environment, our imprint and legacy, has drastically altered the natural environment, whether we want to admit it or not.

Regaining Transcendence
The first time I saw the number of stars in the sky was on the Big Island in Hawai’i. Over my head were millions of lights of various size and brightness. I had never seen such a sight and can still remember it today, as well as exactly that, the feeling of transcendence and awe. There is also a sense of deep humility that accompanies this experience. And I think humility is something we need right now.

We are also working towards reducing light pollution, and that’s a good thing, although admittedly we doubtfully will ever return our night skies to what they once were. Today, however, light fixtures have cutoff design, and the LEED rating system requires that specific requirements be met for both interior and exterior building lighting, so as to reduce light trespass and overall lighting power density. It's a start.

But there is something else to be gained by reducing light pollution, that being a reconnection with the stars and the galaxy beyond, and the transcendence and awe associated. Imagine what it might be like to stand in your community, whether small town USA to Times Square, New York City, and look up and see more stars than you have ever seen up to this day in your lifetime. Imagine too, what it might be like to proclaim as the Psalmist does in Psalm 8 “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the Earth! You have set your glory above the heavens!"