Foresight & The Built Environment / by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts, Michael (Miguel) here writing down a few musings for your edification and leisure. 

Our colleague Bill Aylor over at Lake|Flato recently sent us a fantastic interview featured in Doggerel (a site run by Arup, a global firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants) on the Future of The Built Environment. In the interview, Dr. Gereon Uerz, a sociologist and consultant, unpacks the idea of corporate foresight and how it can be used as a strategy for making positive change in the way the built environment is designed and delivered. If you've got the time to read the article, I highly recommend it. If you don't have time to read it, here are a few takeaways that impacted me as they relate to Positive Energy. The quotes herein are pulled from Dr. Uerz's interview. 

What Is Corporate Foresight?

Corporate foresight provides evidence-based ideas about possible future developments based on ongoing trends. It gathers and analyzes information about things going on within a society and on a global level, then uses this information for business operations, especially in the fields of innovation, strategy, change management, and risk analysis.

There is a heavy trend in business the last few decades pushing for more data driven decision making. And for our purposes, we're talking about the data that speaks to a necessity for better, higher quality buildings. This trend hasn't fully made it to the larger construction market yet.

Cheap tract homes and suburbanization are in rapid expansion mode across the US, homogenizing architecture and lowering the bar for construction quality. Health problems caused by indoor environmental issues are only just beginning to make their public debut. And yet for many professionals, the only data driving decision making in design and on job sites are first cost. Foresight strategy likely hasn't proliferated into the AEC industry because old guard practices are comfortable and because it's difficult to fully understand the global implications of first-cost driven decision making. It's become normalized to "value engineer" which actually means "removing otherwise crucial pieces of a building for more expensive countertops and the like." 

But there are those of us who are the vanguard. There are a brave few who are weathering the tide to build profitable business operations around better decision making, prioritizing data driven decisions (like better air quality, energy usage, etc.) that are also profitable to the future of our ecological and societal positions. It's an aberrant thing to do, but the tipping point is now well within in range. People are telling/hearing countless stories of health impacts from houses that made them sick. We're better understanding the ecological impacts of our building practices more and more every day. It's a new industry milieu and it's a big deal.

How Does Positive Energy Fit Into The Equation?

We see ourselves at Positive Energy as an avid user of corporate foresight strategy. We've used it to do something a bit odd in the residential construction market - to deliver high quality and thorough HVAC designs and to verify that the systems get installed correctly.

On most residential projects, the HVAC design is left to installers and is almost an afterthought. Project economics have squeezed the delivery process of a building into this shape because nobody was challenging it. We're disrupting the notion that mechanical engineers should not be involved in custom residential markets simply because the old market dynamics dictated such. We're breaking into the habitual mind of architects, installers, builders, and by proxy, homeowners. 

This idea didn't come to life from some vague intuition or a gamble on entrepreneurial ambition. We've built our business by absorbing data points from a wide range of industries and market trends. We've consumed information intensely and it has shaped our perspective on the world - specifically regarding the built environment. Since our business was founded, we focused that perspective of the industry into an incubator of innovation. We knew we needed a deep knowledge of building science and we knew we had to keep the lights on in the office. We could offer that perspective and depth of knowledge somehow, although we didn't necessarily know how it would pan out. So we experimented with the business model... a lot.  

In the past we offered deep energy retrofits, testing services, owners representative services, building science consulting, enclosure consulting, mechanical consulting, HERS ratings, passive house rating, etc. We were trying to see what would really stick and what had staying power. It took a moment to settle in (7+ years trying to find that signature service that worked for everyone), but our use of foresight strategy paid off. We have since created a great service and profitable business that challenges the status quo, leaving serious questions with our clientele - questions about what what we're doing with the built environment. And we'll continue to use this strategy to innovate and bring more services to market that are not only useful, but crucial. 

We like to think that our foresight strategy works both internally to encourage innovation, but also at the market/industry levels to use that innovation for better built outcomes. 

If you do foresight, you are not just exceeding the usual time horizon of a company, but challenging some of its core assumptions. You’re not there to provide answers; you’re there to address the most relevant questions. You do a good job if the people who commissioned you end up with one more question than they had before. If they have one more answer, it’s what they want and expect, but I don’t think you’ve done a good job. Because when you’re talking about tomorrow, well, they’re not there yet, and you’re just groping in the dark. If you shine light on some areas that are just emerging and ask “What could that mean for you?” you’re doing a good job.

Integrated Mechanical Design

My hopeful assumption is that Positive Energy's efforts in bringing Integrated Mechanical Design to market has not only created the question Dr. Uerz wants asked, but also answers at least part of it. Our company's rhetoric is designed to leave with architecture firms the idea that more is possible, sensible, and reasonable. And our Integrated Mechanical Design service provides architecture firms with a means to bridge the gap. 

We want to help projects reduce risk and overall cost by shifting the way budgets are utilized. For now, we're using our IMD service to make transactional and positive changes for residential projects by helping architects and their clients prioritize the budget by encouraging data driven decision making. If you could cut 25ish square feet of your total floor plan to free up enough budget to ensure that the health and comfort delivery system of your home are designed and installed well, wouldn't that make sense? And by using the same foresight strategy, we're currently developing energy modeling services that will help projects make better systems decisions before it's too late to go back and change things without incurring major costs. If you could know more accurately how much solar PV you needed, wouldn't you want to save that money and use it elsewhere in the budget? 

Telling or even insinuating to architects and their clients that their budget priorities are misaligned with reality is not often a fun conversation. And not every architect gets it nor agrees. But there are those who do. They're paying attention to global trends. They're trusting their consultants to make decisions with expertise. 

It hasn't been easy, but the fundamental motivation for our building such an unusual business is quite simple actually. We want to transform the way that the built environment is delivered. In the long-term sense we want to usher in a new practical philosophy in our industry - prioritizing design and integrated project delivery as a means to improve how buildings affect occupants. Unlike other industries, we have the unique position to make an incredibly lasting impact. Whether that impact is good for society or bad is riding on all our shoulders.

The Future

The built environment has long planning cycles, there’s a huge investment that goes into it, and almost all ongoing megatrends — demographic change, urbanization, digitization, sustainability — are highly relevant. The leverage that you have is much bigger than in the consumer goods industry or others that operate on very short cycles.

While the road less traveled pioneering our way into residential engineering has been somewhat lonely and daunting, Positive Energy is seeing real results. We have not only begun to make changes here in Austin via our IMD service, but we've also positioned ourselves to scale the business beyond our local market. We're excited for what the future holds and we truly see each of our clients as a crucial part of that. If we can make good design decisions together and coordinate project delivery together, we can really lead the market and, in some ways, the industry together.

The trends aren't going away. Cities are growing and changing. Codes are changing. Home building is changing and the demands are more stringent. The planet is changing and we've got to be good stewards.

If you don't think we're telling the truth, look at the science on indoor air quality. Look at what the economists and sociologists are saying about demographic trends. Look at the transition underway in the energy sector. Look beyond short-term politics at the critical mass that our planet will hit as we urbanize and our population tops. We've entered an age where building science really matters. It matters because people want data to back up their decisions. It matters because those same people are going to be living in the buildings we're talking about and that is an immersive experience. If they're immersed in crap, the health and comfort outcomes are going to be crap. 

Only together can we keep that from happening and build a better future for society and the planet. At Positive Energy, we're confident that we can do it. I hope you'll join us in that rally cry.

One final thought from Dr. Uerz:

Buildings and infrastructure can provide ecosystem services just like nature does, but we don’t know to what extent, where it is applicable, and what solutions are already available... Since we aren’t going to stop covering the earth’s surface with infrastructure and buildings, we need to think really hard about how to make this beneficial in terms of services. If the built environment does nothing other than just accommodate people or host cars, it’s a missed opportunity.

This is history in the making and none of us know exactly what it looks like, but we shouldn't miss this opportunity. Let's get to work.