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

1 comment:

hkki said...

nice post. Actually I work with synthetics. :)