Everyone is practicing Integrative Design! Or at least that’s what they say…

(a version of this article appeared in “The Integrated Design Guide to Green Building” by 7Group and Bill Reed)

Everyone is practicing Integrative Design!

Or at least that’s what they say…
What is this mysterious label and what does it mean? How do you know if you are really practicing integrative design or not? How does a building owner know who to believe when selecting a team?

With the steadily increasing demand for green building, and the proliferation of the LEED(R) Rating System, there is a heightened awareness that the design process itself determines the success and cost effectiveness of implementing green building and using rating systems. It is recognized that a more collaborative design process that focuses on integrative design can make or break a project and determines the final value of the built work. It is also the most difficult aspect of (green) design and depends on everyone in a team to participate and commit to this process. Rating systems are “concrete” but process can seem “squishy” so we tend to cling to our old ways.

When asked about green building, design professionals often respond in one of two ways. First there are the naysayers, who feel that green design is either a passing trend, or that it is an expensive add-on to ‘traditional’ design. Second are those that profess that they’ve been doing green design since the 70’s solar craze and that everything they do is green. So how do you know? You need to have a sense of indicators – qualitative and quantitative criteria that evaluates whether or not you are really building green. The US Green Building Council created LEED to answer the question, “how green is your building?” Similarly, we need to have a set of indicators that can answer the question – “how green is your process?”

When we work with teams to coach and train them in executing an integrated process, the first thing we do is try to raise people’s awareness about their current practice and what could be working better. It is important to recognize the indicators of a “dis-integrated” process. Those include:

  • a heightened degree of mystery between disciplines and around specific analysis (for example, the architect doesn’t understand how the mechanical engineer arrived at their current design or what assumptions defined their analysis)
  • lack of value in meetings, tasks or activities (this could range from “value engineering” – which is jokingly referred to as neither – to a set of ongoing meetings where the specific meeting outcomes are not clearly defined. People walk away from a meeting feeling like it was a waste of their time)
  • overlaps and gaps in roles and responsibilities (especially in LEED projects, discoveries along the process of holes in scope or overlaps in tasks)
  • silos – decision making that happens without collaboration (a typical example is the architect saying, “it’s too early to include the mechanical engineer, we’re only in early design”)
  • lack of a specific map. The integrated design process differs in significant ways from what we’re used to. There is no way to embark on it without charting its course (together as a group). If your team does not intentionally map its process with clear pathways identifying decision making paths, milestones and methodology for analysis – you have no idea where you will end up but you will guarantee yourself lots of added headaches and increased cost.
  • meeting structure and flows – if you do not use a charrette process, and intersperse targeted meetings in between larger group meetings that are focused on specific analysis and co-solving problems – you will tend towards silo behavior.

On the other hand, you know you are participating in an integrative design process when…
…you are pushed out of your “comfort zone” (you either find this exciting and invigorating, or terrifying and disturbing!)
…you are asked for your input on a wide range of issues – including those outside of your immediate area of expertise
…the expectations of your work are clear and detailed – the results have targeted performance goals
…other people’s work depends on yours – no one’s efforts are completely independent, rather now they are interdependent and you can’t just go off and hide in a corner to push through your deliverables. Stakeholders need to co-solve problems.
…you feel like the interactions of the group inspire creativity…working sessions are more ‘fun’
…you feel more respected and valued than in a traditional project and you feel obligated to return the same attitude – that there is a higher level of morale among the group and a higher level of pride in the outcome.
…the process is mapped clearly – stakeholders actually spend time planning how they will solve problems together and make decisions in a transparent way.
…innovative solutions are encouraged (innovation doesn’t mean high tech or risky strategies)
…decision makers (clients) are involved in a significant way

However, it is important to remember that very little in life is black and white, including the design process. It is not usually the case that a process is completely collaborative or completely dysfunctional. More likely, there are variations. Very typical is the scenario where a team gets off to a great start and then the process degrades over time. At the outset, a team focused on green design will plan an initial charrette – excitement is high, enthusiasm abounds. People leave the charrette revved up and ready to charge ahead…however, engrained habits are hard to change! Either the charrette was a one-hit-wonder and didn’t include a rigorous process mapping process, or there wasn’t enough built into the ensuing process to insure that the collaborative nature would continue. Taking it on faith after the first charrette isn’t enough and people should assume that their process will not be integrated unless they continue to pay special attention to it with great vigilance and continue to question even their own participation and habits. A truly integrative design process will include a variety of interactions amongst the team – a series of larger charrette meetings with smaller focused meetings in-between that are all orchestrated to build on each other. Each meeting, interaction and activity should serve to add clarity and value to the design and the analysis. If it doesn’t, question its merit and what alternative might serve the purpose better.

The indicators of an integrative design process are found mirrored in both the built product and the human interaction that leads to it. First, opportunities are found that optimize the integration and interdependence of building systems – and (this is key!) also optimize cost. Decreased costs that are related to eliminating redundancies and streamlining systems are a solid indicator that you are not just piling on technology without a rigorous and carefully considered method of analysis. Clarity of both the design and the steps along the process is another strong indicator – reduce the mystery around who knows what and how they do what they do as well as a clarity visible in the final design. Accountability is another strong sign – accountability in building metrics (where LEED plays a role) tells you what you’ve actually accomplished and accountability in the design process requires that stakeholders are held to task for specific milestones and their input is interdependent with others to meet deliverables. The first step in assuring your proficiency as an integrative designer is to pay particular attention to your own indicators – if you are reflective about your participation and the participation of others in the group, and look for quantifiable feedback that evaluates the collaborative nature of the process, you have a much higher chance of success.