May 2007

Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.

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The Consensus Conundrum
To be successful in your contribution to this industry at this critical time, more than anything else these good ideas you develop need an effective champion – you!


Thomas Hartman, P E
The Hartman Company

Contributing Editor

In the last few months some very stark realizations have developed regarding the enormous social and economic costs – present and future - paid for the energy waste that is endemic in our society today. At the same time, approaches for converting to a vastly more energy efficient society are being discussed that certainly appear to be technically feasible, socially acceptable, and at the very least neutral to the present level of economic activity we enjoy today. Also, an enormous transformation in public opinion appears to be taking place. General public concern about climate issues and the enormous costs associated with maintaining international energy sources have sharply increased. It is now, or very soon will be, a reasonable characterization of public opinion that strong efforts toward a more energy efficient and sustainable society are widely desired and supported by the public.

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So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we in the building industry doing our part by moving resolutely forward in this exciting direction of ultra-efficient buildings? In our industry, there are nearly as many meetings and conferences on energy issues as there are experts to attend them, but actually designing and constructing buildings of exceptional efficiency is still rare and involves convoluted and often expensive processes with far less than guaranteed successful outcomes. Such building projects frequently fall short of expectations largely because they are often saddled with decades old technologies and cumbersome design/construction processes and procedures. Our industry’s failure to take the bold steps necessary to support truly new technologies and approaches in building design and construction leads to the relatively modest levels of actual energy performance improvement we see in even the most efficient new buildings. The question is, how can our industry break free to realize the full potential of advances in technology and meet society’s rising expectations that we do so?

My analysis is that this problem is tied to the fundamental way our industry approaches its work. What we believe is part of the solution - a strong emphasis on collaborative approaches to aid in the development and application of new technologies and strategies in building design – may in truth actually be more a part of the problem that is holding us back from progress. When you look at building projects that have struggled to incorporate new technologies and ultra-efficient strategies, nearly all rely on collaborative processes aimed at reaching a consensus within the design team on whether and how to apply these new approaches. The design charrette is an example of this collaborative approach. Design charrettes are simply an extension of the consensus achieving goal employed by most architectural and engineering firms, professional, trade and business organizations, and others in this industry. Progress through collaboration is also what is behind the plethora of meetings and conferences taking place in the industry today. But at this moment of need for radical reductions in energy use through the application of new technologies and new approaches to the design/construction processes, this universally accepted consensus mechanism seems to be acting more like an anchor that is holding us in place. My experiences with these consensus efforts are that such efforts nearly always require compromise to make any step forward. At best, the required consensus building compromises made act to dilute the effectiveness of new technologies and approaches, and also tend to compromise the responsibility path so that success becomes less certain. Thus the consensus focused approach so central to improving the performance of buildings actually makes it difficult for genuinely innovative approaches to be applied successfully. Consensus can be a valuable tool at some levels in the development of designs and standards. But the problem right now is that by being allowed to dominate the processes we hope to be infused with innovation in order to rapidly achieve much needed design and construction improvements, our focus on consensus is distracting the industry from what is really needed – strong, innovative and responsible leadership!

contemporary It certainly seems at times that our industry’s focus on consensus is even used as a shield to avoid needed change and to protect weak participants from accepting responsibility for their sub par work. Those trying to encourage greater operating efficiencies certainly see this happen all too often. If some element of a project fails to meet expectations, it’s easier and a lot less risky for those individuals involved to point to the fact that the configuration of that element was a consensus decision.

So instead of leading us to better and more powerful solutions, subjecting new technologies, procedures or policies to the current popular collaborative consensus processes often leads to their demise. This consensus process reduces their effectiveness and decreases the likelihood that there will be strong responsibility paths to correct ongoing problems and issues. Sometimes, the entire beneficial capacity of a useful new approach is lost when members of the consensus process do not fully understand or are less than fully committed to making such a new approach work.

So here’s an important consideration for each of us as we move forward in our own careers and at the same time work to push our industry forward at this time of much needed change. Study, listen and learn about the good ideas that you see and hear in print, at meetings, conferences, or develop in your own day to day independent or collaborative work. But remember, to be successful in your contribution to this industry at this critical time, more than anything else these good ideas you develop need an effective champion – you! So become knowledgeable and then become the champion for the good ideas and approaches you develop on your own or in collaboration with others. And most of all develop your own leadership capacity so that you retain the responsibility and authority to take charge and see your good ideas are realized. If you don’t, you may very soon find yourself to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Society is depending on each of us to get this right!


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