“It’s More Difficult to Change a Building Than to Change a Person.”

By Brandon G. Sprague, Brightworks Communications Team

Eric Corey Freed, organicARCHITECTPart One of our interview with architect, innovator, and thought leader Eric Corey Freed of organicARCHITECT explored his thoughts on the green building innovations and critical issues we’ll see in 2012. Here in Part Two, he shares practical steps building owners can take right now at no cost, and where he finds hope and the greatest potential for change.


Brandon G. Sprague: Many readers of this blog are members of the real estate community. When you travel around the country speaking and teaching, you often state, “My vision of why I’m doing this is the basic idea that everything that exists in this world should exist because it makes the world a better place.” In what ways is the design and building community making the world a better place with its current practices? In what ways is it not?

Eric Corey Freed: On a very high level, you can argue that the built environment – any built environment – improves the world by providing human beings with shelter, habitat, places to work, places to live…

But at the same time, practically all of the buildings that exist in the industrialized world – all but a very small percentage – ignore how they use energy, water, and resources. In creating such a built environment over the last 150 to 200 years, we have created a system that that is too expensive for us to maintain, a system that is actually threatening our existence. When we planned and designed this system, energy was cheap and abundant. But in the last 50 years, we’ve realized that energy is neither cheap nor abundant. And we’ve realized that our consumption of energy is actually threatening, if not killing, our way of life.

Now that cheap energy no longer exists and our consumption patterns are forcing us to change our way of life, what do we do? This is where the opportunity comes in for the design and construction industry to transform buildings and thereby transform civilization. We have the technology to do it, we have the ability to do it, we just need the will to do it. In doing so, we will have to look for innovative ways to work in, live in, and operate our buildings.

This Could Be Your Shopping Center

This could be your shopping center. Image via organicARCHITECT

People in real estate have done certain things well. In the current economy, they’ve realized that the cost to operate their buildings is greater than planned. Now that we have a glut of buildings empty or partially empty due to on-going weakness in the global economy, attention to operational costs is growing. That’s why you’ve seen the growing demand for LEED certification for buildings, especially LEED certification for existing buildings.

But there’s another level of innovation that needs to occur. This level of innovation will produce new ideas for how buildings operate, but also for what it means to go to work and even to live. We’ve just begun to scratch the surface of the potential.

Brandon: It sounds like technology isn’t an issue. We often think of innovation as the innovation of things and systems. But Brightworks has recently formed a business unit – the Brightworks Enterprise Solutions Group – to focus on the way people do what they do and how we can help them do it sustainably. If we have all the other resources we need, then how do you innovate social systems so that they can support the change we need?

Eric: That is the right question. We’ve known for a long time how to build energy efficient – even net-zero – buildings. We’ve known for a long time how to build buildings that process their own waste and generate their own energy. Technology is not the issue. The things I do and the things Brightworks does, which focus on development and change management, for example, are the most exciting part of current work in sustainability. Not only because people’s complacency is the last obstacle that we need to overcome, but because people can adapt and generate ideas. It is more difficult to change a building than it is to change a person. People can change, and often do at an alarming pace when they need to. The “new normal” will require us to. But I’ve also learned through my teaching and speaking that people can always generate new ideas. This gives me a great deal of hope.

Let's Chop It Down and Write On It

What do you think when you look at a tree? Picture courtesy of organicARCHITECT

Brandon: If you became the leader of the world tomorrow, what would be the first thing you would direct people to do to pursue the innovations on which a major transition in the built environment would be based?

Eric: Ah, how wonderful it would be! (laughs) First, I would demand that everyone stop waiting to be asked what to do. We need to move quickly toward planning our sustainable future together. Then I would give them two broad directives. First, I would tell anyone who maintains a building or a portfolio of buildings to do a list of things that are available to us right now – and that pay for themselves in the first year and thus cost nothing: cool roofs, occupancy sensors in stairwells, programmable thermostats, and smarter use of finishes. Such “no-brainers” would be mandated and this widespread acceptance would drive down the cost of these technologies.

Second, I would require the measurement of the energy use of each building and the resource footprint that goes into that building. By measuring these things, you take finally responsibility for them.

Brandon: That sounds straightforward. Why hasn’t every building owner and designer done these things?

Eric: We have 30 years of data showing us that there is no risk in implementing basic energy efficiency or sustainability measures into buildings. Yet the building industry is very risk averse, so most of our buildings stay the way they are because that’s the way they’ve always been. We have designers and builders today building Spanish Colonial buildings and French Chateau. Why are they doing this? Just because something was successful in the past doesn’t mean it’s the right approach for the future. The future will be very different from the past. And those who own a building, remember: you make your money in the future, not the past! Now that the economy is so bad that many can’t afford to maintain their buildings as they used to, they’re letting go of this risk aversion and exploring new opportunities.

We are creatures of habit. We wait until someone asks us to be sustainable. Whether it’s a government agency requiring a certain amount of green features, or a permit official, or an operations person demanding ways to save money. Imagine what will happen five years from now when everyone will have to take responsibility for the carbon footprint of their buildings. Whether by choice, necessity, or policy, that will happen. It’s inevitable. Do you want to wait and be caught off guard – and make less money in the meantime? Or do you want to start saving now, thereby preparing for that inevitability by taking action? I trust that we will make the right decision.

3 Responses to ““It’s More Difficult to Change a Building Than to Change a Person.””

  1. I’m confused by the title of this article. The author says in the article that we already have the tools to create “sustainable” buildings, and acknowledges the difficulty of changing people’s habits. That aligns with my experience as well. So I would say the opposite is true – It’s easier to change a building than to change a person.


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