Learning while designing an energy neutral building
|Function / Domain:||Building, Energy|
|Illustration of:||(first and second order) learning|
In an academic article Halina Brown and Philip Vergragt described learning processes that occurred during the collective design of an energy-neutral building. The building, in an old industrial district in Boston in the United States, was being converted into apartments, studios, artist's studios and galleries.
The principal, an atypical property developer with a degree in philosophy, had an innovative vision for the project. On the one hand, he wanted to make it a commercial success. But he also had a social objective, which was to show that eco-friendly homes could go hand in hand with a pleasant lifestyle.
To minimise the use of fossil fuels he wanted to maximise the use of the latest energy-saving technologies. He also planned to create an organic garden. Another idea was to promote sustainable transport to the centre of Boston, for example in the form of a bus service for residents, car pooling or the use of electric bicycles or scooters by the residents.
The property developer's ambitious objectives meant that the project was in fact a transition experiment, both in terms of the development itself and the design process. For the design process, the principal formed an interdisciplinary team which he felt had ample creative potential, although in his view the participants would have to subordinate their own professional input to the central objective of creating an energy-neutral and attractive complex.
The developer's original team consisted of architects, urban planners, engineers, solar energy experts, lay proponents of bio-fuels and artists who rented apartments in a neighbouring distillery which had been redeveloped.
The resulting design produced an attractive building, with a greenhouse and courtyard and energy supply that produced no greenhouse gas emissions. One of the ways the latter was accomplished was by making the shape and size of the building compact, so that enormous energy saving was possible. A smart connection was made between an atrium and a heliostat. Combinations of existing technology yielded further energy savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Contrary to what the property developer initially thought, it was not essential to use new technology.
Those involved in the project learned a lot along the way, both in terms of first order learning (learning about perceptions of the problem, the analysis or selection of a solution of a problem, while retaining the underlying theoretical insights or deep convictions and values) and second order learning (reconsidering dominant, including professional, patterns of thought and action and deeply ingrained values and convictions). Examples of first order learning by the urban planner and of second order learning by one of the architects are given below.
First order learningThe urban planner revised his perception of the problem. Initially, he considered his main task and challenge as being to address the requirements of the neighbourhood and local institutions, although naturally taking into account the wishes of the principal and the architect. By the end of the process, his perception of the problem had broadened. He now felt the challenge was to integrate different relevant views of sustainability and possibly competing objectives in such a way as to make the project as a whole attractive for the local community and relevant institutions. His perception of the problem was to apply his professional knowledge to achieving that. His deeper professional views and identity remained unaltered, however.
Second order learning The architect also learned at the deeper level of professional and personal convictions. This was also second order learning. For example, in the course of the collective design process he became convinced that architects, builders and suppliers of buildings materials should work more intensively together in what was originally regarded as the exclusive domain of the architect: producing technical drawings, developing ideas for the design, reflecting on the aesthetic aspects for the building. In his new vision of their professional identity and role, architects are no longer the sole source of aesthetic input and creativity in the design process. Nor are they solely responsible for the overall design process.
Problem definitions change more often than deeper convictions. To start with, the authors note that problem definitions change more often than underlying interpretative frameworks (professional convictions and values and standards). Perceptions of a problem can therefore apparently change without any change in deeper convictions. On the other hand, although the authors do not address this point, it is likely that when a person's deeper convictions, values and standards change, that will also alter their perception of a problem.
Learning also takes place at the team level. A second lesson is that the team as a whole also learned. This occurred because the composition of the team changed. Participants who felt uncomfortable with the group process left the team. They had difficulty, for example, with the loss of professional autonomy or with new perceptions of problems developed by the group that differed from their own. One example is one of the original architects, who envisaged designing the building himself with the ‘green' technology being incorporated afterwards. His ideas about what approach to take conflicted with those of the client, however, so he left the team. Other people also left and a team developed with a shared interpretative framework comprising world views, values and convictions relating to the design and the design process. While the interpretative frameworks of the individual members did not entirely correspond with the collective framework the differences were not so great or fundamental that the participants could not live with them. This started the innovative design process that had previously stalled.
On the one hand, the case study thus shows that important learning processes for system innovation can have an effect on individual team members. On the other hand, the team learning process shows that carefully choosing the participants - on the basis of fundamental convictions - can be important for ensuring that the system innovation process proceeds smoothly.
Positive conditions for second order learning
Finally, the authors mention the following conditions that favour changes in the perceptions of a problem and the deeper convictions of participants in a system innovation project:
- The collective project has a clear focus and limits
- Intensive and persistent communication among those involved
- A commitment by those involved to the process and the objectives of the process
- A sense of urgency.
Brown, H.S. en Vergragt, P.J (2008). Bounded socio-technical experiments as agents of systemic change: the case of a zero-energy residential building. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 75, pp. 107-130.