The Power of Story in Sustainable Building

The following is an article I wrote for as part of an assignment for Live Exchange this past semester.  For those who read this blog, you should recognize the source of my inspiration.

As a child, one of my favorite nighttime stories was Virginia Lee Burton’s classic, The Little House. The book follows the life of a tiny house in the countryside that gradually gets swallowed up by an encroaching nearby city. All the things the little house loves about its life in the country-the birds, the grass, the sun and the moon-disappear once the sidewalks and skyscrapers take over. In the end, a passer by recognizes the little house and transports it back to the country where it lives happily ever after.

Every home has a story. But who gets to tell this story? Is the story documented and, more importantly, how is it told? What was once a tale of four walls and a roof has evolved into a complex system of purposefully integrated components designed to minimize impact and maximize efficiency. The true power of homes’ story lies in its ability to successfully transfer knowledge to future residents. The rationale behind south facing windows, how the energy meter works, and why the greywater system is more efficient than a traditional sprinkler system may be perfectly clear to the architect or original owner, but unless the story resonates with the new occupants, these advancements will rest idle and eventually work against the home.

As a graduate student in California College of the Arts’ MBA Design Strategy Program, I’ve learned how a powerful story can shape perceptions and influence behavior. Whether it’s a product, a brand, a person or a home; story is one of most effective ways to communicate a complex system or relationship. An effective narrative also establishes buy-in by seamlessly integrating the world-view of the consumer with the attributes of a particular brand or technology. Understanding the user is crucial to establishing this meaningful connection because when you truly understand and empathize with your audience, communication is authentic and impactful.

Last summer I attended a sustainable building event where an interesting case study was presented. In April of 2001, a volunteer organization built a cluster of low-income housing units in a Detroit suburb for families in need. Each unit came equipped with energy saving appliances and the latest in green building technology. Floor to ceiling south facing windows flooded the units with warm, natural light and small ventilation windows allowed the rising heat of summer to escape. Each feature was specifically designed to help reduce monthly energy expenses and encourage more sustainable living practices.

After two years of backbreaking work, the job was completed and the first family moved in. The process, however, was never complete because the homes´ story was never told. When the project manger returned to the site after only one month he was shocked to see most of the innovations he´d worked so hard to integrate were not being utilized.

The windows were framed with black curtains, drawn 24 hours a day preventing any natural light to enter the home. The small, ventilation windows downstairs were stuffed with pillows creating a dark, damp, and claustrophobic environment for the tenants. Within a few months, unfortunately, the family couldn´t afford the cost of living and were subsequently evicted. Shortly thereafter a new family moved in, but like those before them, couldn´t afford the cost of living. Then a new family moved in, and another, and another.

This home had an incredible story that, unfortunately, was never told. If the tenants had known that covering the windows actually increased their heating bill…would they have done it? And if they understood that opening up the small, louvered windows in the summer would have lowered their air conditioning bill…would they have done it?

Historic neighborhoods typically have a dedicated panel responsible for overseeing any change to a home in their community. Why not develop a similar model for projects like this or for the homeowner up the street who´s converted his energy-sapping 1940´s bungalow into a modern-day “green marvel” capable of generating more energy than it uses? As technology within our homes becomes more advanced it is crucial that this information be documented and passed on.

So how might one approach designing an effective communication tool within this context? While sometimes intuition produces a solution, it´s a rare and difficult to validate. As design strategists, we learn to begin the process with the user. The more we learn, the more effective and powerful our design will be. A design strategist operates within the following framework:

1. Start with the user.
2. Define the problem.
3. Gather data.
4. Synthesize the data and identify correlations.
5. Build rough prototypes and get them into the hands of your users.
6. Observe their behavior.
7. Iterate as needed. The solution reveals itself.
8. Refine, develop and produce.

As a first year graduate student, I´m learning that my process is, well, a work in progress. There are many ways to gather data and even more ways to interpret that data. What ultimately delivers value is the ability to connect the dots and tell a meaningful story: one that resonates with the user and delivers longstanding impact. My story, thankfully, is just beginning. For the next two years I´ll be connecting my own dots, changing the way I see the world. Perhaps one day, I´ll change yours.

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