Thursday, May 15, 2008

Five Simple Things You Can Do To Make Sustainable Design a Reality in Your Lifetime

The past few days, I have heard buzzwords being tossed around surrounding the issue of sustainable design. Words like LEED, low impact development, walkable communities, etc. These are great words. Wonderful, powerful words. But what do they mean to the average Civil Engineer today?

Not a whole lot. These words remind me of giving a visualization demo for Civil 3D. Everyone gets excited. Everyone loves it. Everyone nods, claps, smiles and says its cool. But nobody sees how they can make it work in their office, for their clients, given their constraints. So they leave happy that they saw a great show, but business proceeds as normal.

A year or two ago, we felt like superheroes. We were in demand. We patted ourselves on the back for being so insightful when we majored in Civil Engineering or studied CAD. In my neck of the woods, talent salaries were moving higher and faster than starter homes prices. Anyone with a P.E. and an entrepreneurial spirit was breaking off and hanging their own shingle. It was a golden time.

Now? Not so much.

During the rush, we couldn't focus on sustainable design because we were being pushed so hard by our clients to get projects finished. Now, we feel like we should be grateful for any work that comes our way and we dare not open our mouths. Or at least that is what we are telling ourselves.

Let's face it. Though we civil designers might like to think that we call all the shots, we have two very big stakeholders that make the final call. Our clients (developers or similar) and the government agencies that regulate and approve our work. Until both of those groups decide that sustainability is important to them, we are a bit stuck. However, I do think we underestimate our ability to influence them. We can guide change by making them believe that good design was their idea in the first place.

The truth is that now, more than ever, we need to focus on doing BETTER. Sustainable design isn't about birkenstocks and compost piles. It isn't about commune farming or straw bale houses. It is about really simple small things that can make a huge difference.

How do we start ramping up this evolution? Streaking your next Planning and Zoning hearing isn't really the answer. It's a more quiet revolution that will evolve one town, one site plan, one BMP at a time...

1. Get Inspired and Involved

You need to see success stories. You need to see photographs of great places and find out how they were built. Real places that had real issues and roadblocks. You need to start building up at least mental library of ideas, and even better, keep a scrapbook or notebook. Find books, magazines, websites, clubs and people that talk about real, hard, facts. Not just ideas or dreams, but things that have worked and things that have not. A big library or library network should have access books on Urban Planning, Landscape Architecture, Architecture, Stormwater Management, and more.

Two of the best magazines to subscribe to are Urban Land and Landscape Architecture. I am not allowed to read these magazines within two hours of bedtime, because I wind up so excited and full of ideas I am up writing in my notebook until morning. (Or blogging. I made the mistake of reading one tonight.)

The first is the official magazine of the Urban Land Institute, and you can only get it as a member. Membership for folks under 35 is about $150. Don't run away screaming. Think of the last thing you bought for $150 and ask yourself if it made a profound and lasting impact on your life and career. If you can't join right away, try your company library or any project manager/owner/planning types in your office. They might be members and would probably loan you the magazine.

Landscape Architect is the official magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Yes, you can be a member if you are not a landscape architect (and I recommend it highly), but you can also subscribe without being a member. Why is this magazine important? If you have never worked with Landscape Architects on projects, you might think their job is planting trees. WRONG. This magazine focuses on site planning, drainage, great projects, innovative earthwork, erosion control and much more all wrapped up in a gorgeous package that makes me giddy with anticipation when it arrives in the mail. I have torn out articles about green roofs, bioswales, buffer strips, subdivision layout and all kinds of creative stormwater management.

Also consider the American Planning Association. ASCE and NSPE are staples in our Civil Engineering diet, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if you can only afford to join one group, or only have time to attend one set of local functions, I'd skip ASCE and NSPE and go for ULI. This might make more sense further down.

Then of course there are the online and free magazines. CE News, Erosion Control, Stormwater Management and Site Prep. I find them all useful and worth reading, but they don't challenge me and feed me with a stream of ideas like UL and LA do.

Now that you joined these groups, go to their meetings if you can. If not, go to free and cheap functions thrown by pipe suppliers, erosion matting companies and the state environmental office. Get to know the "cross pollinators" or people who are in contact with many different projects and engineering firms in your area- such as the local NPDES Phase II review agency, the concrete manufacturers, soil scientists, wetlands specialists, etc. Go to Planning and Zoning hearings, County Council Meetings, Charettes and the DOT public workshops. Find out what is going on (But don't be a rowdy. You'll get more done with the quiet revolution.)

At first, just sit in the back and politely feed your face from the buffet. Listen as much as you can. Then, make some friends. Have some conversations. Find out what is working for others, and what you might be able to do. Get a feel for what the public rejects, what county council rejects, and do your best to learn more about WHY.

Find out which developers do great work and demand great, innovative engineers. You'll meet them at ULI, not ASCE. Figure out how to become their consultant. This make take years. You're young. Start now.

2. Realize that Everyone Is a Sales Person and Learn How to Sell Your Ideas

We leave engineering school thinking that we are somehow above sales. We are the ultimate creator, the technical artist. Then we go to work and we get incredibly frustrated when the "man" wants to keep us "down" by making us fill out timesheets and being billable. Before long we just get jaded and resign ourselves to doing what we are told and we wouldn't know innovation if it bit us when we stuck our hand in the cheetos bag during coffee break. If we try sometime new, it gets shot down by the client. If the client likes it, the county hates it. If the county likes it, the environmental agency hates it. And if everyone likes it, then the contractor says it can't be built. He shakes his head and just builds it the way you would have designed it in the first place.

YOU are a sales person. This doesn't mean you grease your hair back, get a gold watch and start working a seedy car lot. This means that you learn to LISTEN. You learn to UNDERSTAND. You learn to NEGOTIATE. What do people REALLY care about? What is really on the minds of the objecting public? What does the conservation district REALLY need to make their review go faster? So many times rules were set in place based on assumptions that are no longer valid. So many times they don't realize what you CAN give them.

Ask questions. Never judge. Always listen. Try to understand. One of those amazing life changing reads is How to Win Friends and Influence People. The title stinks. It isn't about "winning" anything. It is about being a good person, a good listener and trying not to focus on yourself. I also like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

I don't always succeed in being a good listener, or being as open minded as I like, but the people I work with often say "You're so good with the users/public/etc. it must just be your nature." Maybe it is. But more likely, it is because I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to find ways to understand. To explain myself better. And it has served me well. I hope it will serve you well, too.

3. Focus on Real Value and Real Business Issues

Wake up and realize that the world doesn't care how awesome you are, how passionately you feel about sustainable design or how much you liked your hydrology class and that you passed the EIT on the first try. The world wants to make money, the world wants to get home at night to their kids in a comfortable house in a nice neighborhood.

Find ways to make your client more money on a project by a)making the design process faster b) making the review process easier and/or c)making each lot/building worth more money. Use your newfound listening and selling skills to find out what are the REAL issues. Make no assumptions about a client or agency's motivations. The sooner you realize that you have no idea, the better off you will be.

4. Find Ways to Learn and Leverage Everything You Can

There are tools in your office that you are not using well. Consider Outlook for example. How much time to you spend sorting email and searching for stuff? Learn how to use folders, rules, notifications. Learn how to plan your day, share your calendar.

Take stock of all of the things that get in your way and suck time out of your life. Time that you could spend focusing on your client's projects instead of burying them in paper.

Take a hard look at your CAD standards. Take a hard look at your project management techniques.

Learn Civil 3D or whatever other CAD tools you have in your office. Find ways to use free GIS data to improve conceptual design. Find ways to design and iterate site plans and grading plans. The more iterations, the more likely you are to get it right.

The more options you will have and the less your client will balk at the idea of trying something new. Be able to present options. Be able to present them in aesthetically pleasing ways that human beings at a public hearing can understand such as simple visualizations or simple color drawings (with Impression or marker renderings).

5. Make A Few Simple Changes on Your Next Site Plan

Using your newfound inspiration from step one, and some basic land planning principles from some of your textbook reading, try some of these simple (and often unnoticed by anyone in your office) things that might start making a difference.

a) Ask about what kind of homes will be on each lot. See if it makes sense to run your streets as close to true N-S and E-W as possible. Many house plans are put together to take advantage of a light and heat that come in through windows. (Every home should be a passive solar home, but I will save that for another day.) Ask questions. We never know enough about the houses that are going on the lots. Find out more.

b) Incorporate an innovative or "green" BMP for stormwater. Most state agencies now at least allow for things like bioswales, bioretention and maybe even infiltration. Every environmental review agency has someone who is super excited about these technologies and who wants to see them used. Find that person and get them on your side. Learn how to design them. Learn what it takes to get them approved. Remove all roadblocks and objections so that when you present the design to your client, they are excited by how hard you have worked to come up with a design that requires less materials, takes less time to build and will be reviewed in a snap (This is the dream. The first one probably won't be that smooth for you, so pick something easy like a bioswale instead of an elaborate constructed wetland covering 20 acres.)

c) Use Civil 3D to go through several scenarios BEFORE committing to a site plan. We tend to design outside-in, meaning from the boundary parcel to the road centerline to maximize lot yield. You need to start figuring out how to design from the inside-out so that you can take a preliminary stab at road grading before you get your heart set on a lot layout. Some tools to make friends with: Alignments, Profiles, Google Earth, Quick Profiles, Corridors, Volume Calcs, Surface Analysis, and of course PARCELS, PARCELS, PARCELS.

There is so much more to say. So many more links to be added, more books to recommend, but I will end here for now. This is on my mind, it is in my heart, and it has been since I wrote the manifesto. I needed to start the ball rolling, get the conversation going and renew my commitment to the journey.

I hope you will join me.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Good on you, Dana. I've just accepted a position in another State (another climate, another culture, another set of rules to learn) as the Development Engineer for the Shire. A shire that copped 1 in 200 year floods last December. It's time for change for me, it's time for change for the shire. And I think you've just inspired me.

Keep it up. I'll keep reading.