Building regulations and how to change them -

Building regulations and how to change them

Once I was introduced to a systems-based lens to see the world, I just couldn’t help but ignore it. This point of view is really one of the most pivotal frameworks for understanding the problems of society.

Today, I see myself, my business, my buildings, climate change, and everything in between as one incredibly complex interconnected system. Systems thinking provides valuable insights into how to manage and create systemic change – the only kind of change that will get us out of this climate crisis.

What is “order”?

The definition of “system” varies in each field of study, but essentially refers to a set of interrelated parts that share a unified function. The relationships between the parts of a system are key to understanding how a system works. For example, a car is a system for transporting people – enabled by the interactions between an engine attached to a drive shaft connected to its wheels.

All systems have inputs and outputs – flows of material or energy that cross the boundary of the system from other neighboring systems. In our car example, the system switches from a gas input and CO2 outputs to an electrical input with no direct greenhouse gas output. Of course, advanced systems thinkers are already asking about greenhouse gases from manufacturing and electricity production for electric cars, which is a fair point.

building energy system

As a building geek, one of my favorite systems I talk about is the exterior walls, also known as the “building envelope”. Each layer of the envelope—from the interior drywall and insulation to the building envelope and exterior façade—works together as a system to separate the conditioned indoor air from the outside ambient air.

One of the primary functions of the envelope system is to act as a thermal barrier that keeps heat inside or outside the building depending on the season. This is an essential part of a building’s overall heating and cooling system, allowing the mechanical HVAC system to introduce and remove heat from the conditioned interior space without it dissipating through the walls.

The heating and cooling system is typically the largest energy consumer in a building, so you can see why building geeks love to talk about envelopes as a significant part of a building’s energy consumption.

But the building’s total energy consumption (depending on its use) includes lighting, water heating, pumps, appliances, and delivery loads. Each of these energy consumers has a different way of using energy at different times and rates. Seeing the entire building as a system allows us to holistically understand all of these small, interconnected systems so that we can systematically improve energy performance.

Our built environment as a system

Nature is the underlying system on which all human systems are built. Once humans began to come together to communicate and coordinate our actions, we created a social system—one that encompasses our systems of governance and economics. The modern industrial system, in turn, grew out of our social system. It encompasses all of humanity’s physical systems – primarily our built environment.

I see the built environment as a layer between the natural system and the social systems because we have largely created the infrastructure and buildings to increase our vulnerability to the harassment of wild nature.

Professionals who work on each of these buildings’ subsystems generally work in silos—an HVAC contractor rarely thinks about the building envelope even though it is an essential part of the heating and cooling system.

The absurdity this lens reveals is that the system we created to improve nature’s cruelty is now the system that makes nature more cruel.

Humans have created a living experience so devoid of the natural order upon which our lives depend that we have lost a direct connection to the natural world. It shocks me to think that most of us would see ourselves more as part of the industrial system we created than the natural system from which we came.

Changing our built environment

Most systems are dynamic, which means their relationships and performance change over time. This is most true of our social system – human behavior is notoriously difficult to model and predict. But when we think about how our built environment has changed, I think we don’t spend enough time understanding how the professionals working on this issue need to change the way we do our work.

Seeing our work through a systems lens draws attention to the relationships between the roles each construction professional plays. In my previous description of a building’s energy system, I referred to the interdependent functions between parts of a building. However, the professionals who work on each of these buildings’ subsystems generally work in silos—an HVAC contractor rarely thinks about the building envelope even though it is an essential part of the heating and cooling system. From all my years of consulting and meeting on-site with design and construction teams, I can tell you that getting countless professionals on a construction project to incorporate their work is quite a challenge.

This is why I am so excited about the rallying cry to work closely together on sustainability, because how we engage with each other in this work will be key to determining the results we will achieve.

Our collective failure to create a sustainable society stems from the insular and self-centered mindset that created today’s social and industrial systems. We need harmonious working relations to create a harmonious relationship between our social system and the natural system.

It is my hope that these reflections on systems provide a useful mental model for understanding buildings and how to transform them. It is the lens I have learned to use to analyze issues such as a building’s energy consumption, overall changes to our built environment, and how our relationships as colleagues inform the results we can achieve. As always, I welcome your thoughts. You can reach me at j(email protected).

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