Shifting Mindsets and Awakening Possibility

Helen J. Kessler
An inquiry into how we can create a new paradigm.

Am I doing enough? Are we doing enough? These are questions I ask myself as the Arctic’s ice and Greenland’s glaciers melt at an accelerating pace and as our planet’s life support systems continue to be subjected to relentless assault from extraction, overuse and pollution. Major changes will be required for the Earth to continue to support its growing population. As time slips by, I wonder: In a world where most people don’t seem to care, or perhaps simply don’t see (or want to see) a problem, how can we shift mindset and awaken new possibilities? What will be the new way of life, and how do we get there before something unthinkable occurs?

I have written this article as an inquiry, but first want to describe some of my work and sphere of influence. I will then explore the following: Where do we go from here? How do we shift mindset? How can we create a new paradigm of a world where all living beings have the resources to sustain healthy, productive and abundant lives?

Green Building Stories and Using an Integrative Design Process

My influence on sustainable practices is varied. I help develop curricula and education programs, create and deliver courses and presentations to other professionals and college students, write articles, advocate for green building practices, and mentor. I am constantly advocating for use of an integrative design process, which requires a shift from traditional linear ways of thinking to holistic ways of thinking.

LEED Gold is the most commonly achieved certification level across the United States.

LEED Gold is the most commonly achieved certification level across the United States.

As a green building consultant who has focused on sustainability since my college days and who has worked on more than 60 LEED projects, I influence the design of many projects as well as the mindset of owners, design team members and contractors. On many occasions, I have caused a shift in expectations, especially with regard to LEED certification and energy efficiency. As an example, when owners ask for LEED Silver or LEED Certified buildings, we often deliver LEED Gold; and for a soon-to-be certified project, we may deliver an astonishing LEED Platinum. We do this at little to no extra cost. As expectations shift, many owners now require LEED Gold (or better) buildings. There is no question that this is a mindset shift for those owners and the design teams, and it opens up new possibilities and opportunities for advanced thinking regarding how to make projects more sustainable.

It is most gratifying to see the ripple effects of improving efficiency and optimum sizing of buildings and systems, resulting in both lower utility bills and construction costs. This does not happen by accident. Whenever possible, we use an integrative process that brings teams together early in a project to brainstorm and co-create. My favorite part of this process is getting to an “aha” moment when team members perceive a new way of thinking—a less expensive, more effective way of handling the mechanical system, for instance. We had such an opportunity on a project that uses a geo-exchange system with distributed heat pumps and “direct outside air” rather than a large central plant with large and lengthy duct runs. Due to moving water throughout the building rather than a huge amount of air, the size of the ducts was dramatically reduced, allowing the floor-to-floor height of the building to decrease and the overall project cost—including the cost of the mechanical system with the ground source wells and heat pumps—to be significantly lower than originally budgeted. In fact, the project was built for approximately the same first cost as an almost identical building with less efficient systems.

“I believe that it is my duty to push the envelope, to encourage people to see things differently and to create greener, more sustainable and more efficient buildings.”

A large part of my “job” is to encourage design team members to think holistically, not just in their own silos or disciplines. As a green building consultant I believe that it is my duty to push the envelope, to encourage people to see things differently and to create greener, more sustainable and more efficient buildings. It is always rewarding when someone from one discipline has a great idea for someone from another discipline—or even better, when it takes three or more disciplines working together to make an idea work. A recent example is a project with a large open (and tall) public space. Rather than using a typical overhead air distribution system, a displacement ventilation system will be used to reduce the size and number of ducts, eliminate ductwork from the top of the building, allow for less building structure and provide increased comfort for the space. Additionally, the building envelope and lighting systems were designed together with the mechanical system. The project includes large areas of very efficient glazing and daylight dimming to reduce electrical lighting usage. By integrating efficient glazing and lighting, the size of the HVAC system will be reduced, resulting in significant energy savings.

Isn’t this the way everyone thinks about design? Isn’t it the right way to do it? In my experience, it’s just the opposite. This integrative way of thinking is not obvious and it’s hard to make it happen. Thinking in silos seems to come much more naturally than thinking in a holistic and integrated fashion.

It is so important to begin thinking about all systems together—building envelope, heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, daylight, water, the site—while the building form is being created. If it’s not, one risks losing a significant chunk of the benefits of integrated design. Consultants who contribute ideas at the beginning of a project rather than react to an architect’s design will change their own discipline and the mindset of everyone. This takes some courage among all parties—the architect needs to be able to let others help design the building, and other consultants need to be willing to provide significant input into the building design before the form is finalized. I’ll never forget a presentation that I gave together with the architect and mechanical engineer regarding a project we had worked on together. The architect lamented how much work it had been to move a huge team of consultants forward from the inception of the project to completion, while the engineer, elated, noted that this was the first time his ideas had ever been considered at the beginning of a project and, for once, he would be able to make a difference in its ultimate design. (All participants agreed that a better building resulted from this practice.)

These stories illustrate the potential for changing the mindset of a design team and owner. Building design is important: Buildings can last longer than 100 years, and how they use resources will affect not just the original owner but society as a whole. However, I continue to ask myself: Am I doing enough? Why aren’t all of my projects LEED Platinum or Living Building Challenge?

Starting an Inquiry, Creating a Paradigm Shift

So, what would be enough? There are undoubtedly a number of different or overlapping ideas that could lead to answers. To uncover them, I would like to start an inquiry.

“To create a world where ‘all living beings have the resources to sustain healthy, productive and abundant lives,’ a paradigm shift, or a new context for how we view the world, is required.”

Consider that to create a world where “all living beings have the resources to sustain healthy, productive and abundant lives,” a paradigm shift, or a new context for how we view the world, is required. The following are a number of ideas:

1. As we consider how to make large systemic changes, it would be a good idea to first make use of the best ideas currently available:

  • Implement well-understood energy efficiency strategies and develop a robust renewable energy infrastructure. An inspiring resource that looks at both cutting-edge technologies and economic feasibility beyond energy cost savings is the Rocky Mountain Institute’s latest book called Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era. (Lovins, 2011)
  • Build or renovate buildings to achieve LEED Platinum or the requirements of Living Building Challenge.
  • Certify every existing building under LEED-EB: O+M.

If every building met one of these goals, it would require a shift in mindset, but it still would not be sufficient. So, what else would help?

2. Develop new codes of conduct relative to the use (against the misuse) of “the commons” or the common good.

As an early step, the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) is ready for adoption. It will provide a new green building baseline (code) for everyone, allowing rating systems such as LEED to become more ambitious and potentially lead to restorative or even regenerative practices.

Understand Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons; create new codes of conduct relative to doing no harm that everyone, without exception, would adhere to. These codes of conduct would encompass all resources, would not just affect buildings and should be both local and global. Consider the following examples:

  • The unintended consequences of agricultural practices which affect long-term soil productivity, downstream health of water systems and habitat, among others. Also consider the health impacts of fertilizers and herbicides, overuse of (invisible) underground water and jobs.
  • The unintended consequences of cutting down a forest for lumber when the forest provides more cost-effective ecosystem services such as erosion control, fish habitat and clean water.

3. Change the way that we value resources.

  • Understand the benefits and value of ecosystem services—re-sources that are supplied by natural ecosystems, such as clean water, productive soil, and forests that sequester CO2 and prevent erosion.
  • Removing the current system of subsidies and instituting a carbon (or other) tax would immediately change the way certain resources are valued.

4. Understand that the economic system is a subsystem of the environment. Human beings invented the economic system. We did not invent the environment; the environment is the context in which we live. How crazy is it that most standard economic models treat the environment as an externality?

5. The paradigm shift would occur when we re-invent the economic system so that growth is no longer the primary indicator of a healthy system and the environment becomes the overall context for a newly designed economic system. Consider that growth cannot go on forever in a finite ecosystem, and therefore in the long run it is harmful.

Changing Mindset

Changing mindset may be the first step toward a paradigm shift. How can one change one’s own mindset, let alone someone else’s? As Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

1. Understand that everything is connected and interdependent. Consider nested systems—how each system is affected by and affects adjacent systems (buildings, communities, neighborhoods, regions, etc.). The building you are working on is affected by much more than what you directly control.

2. Consider how one decision affects others. (How did subsidies for corn lead to the use of high fructose corn syrup and an obesity epidemic?)

3. Changing mindset can take a long time. However, it can also happen instantly and sometimes in surprising ways: One of my neighbors, someone who had been a staunch Republican, surprised me one day. I was listening to Joe Biden’s Democratic convention speech (in my car—a driveway moment). She said, “Oh, you’re listening to Biden—haven’t there been a lot of great speeches this week!” I couldn’t believe my ears and asked her what happened. She said that some professors had asked her questions that got her to think of herself in other people’s shoes.

4. Consider the “Leavers” and the “Takers.” (This concept is beautifully illustrated in Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.) (Quinn, 1995) Will the takers (that’s most of us) be able to leave a healthy planet for future generations?

Now is the time for a paradigm shift. There could be a fine balance between moving too quickly and losing the marketplace, and not moving quickly enough and losing the ecosystem that supports human life. In order to achieve change, both a paradigm shift and a mindset shift will be required. Our society continues in the paradigm of the currently unsustainable, consumption-oriented, growth-reliant, short-term thinking economic system which leads to the massively unsustainable use of natural resources. I believe that only by shifting mindset, leading to a paradigm shift and a new design of our economic system, might we be able to create a world that sustains the lives of all living beings for the long-term future.

These thoughts are in my mind as I continue to work on exciting green building and LEED projects. I also want you to know that I am not depressed by the current state of affairs—I view it as a challenge and something we can change. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” If you have made it to the end of this article, you also probably have strategies that you would like to see implemented. Let’s continue the dialogue.

Article orignially appeared on EDC Magazine

Helen J. Kessler
Helen J. Kessler, FAIA, LEED Fellow is President of HJKessler Associates, a green building consulting firm in Chicago. She has been the LEED team administrator and sustainability advisor on over 60 LEED projects. Prior to working on LEED projects, she managed energy efficiency projects and helped write ASHRAE Guideline 0 – The Commissioning Process.