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Making Mistakes in Getting "Everyone Early" on a Green Project

February 27, 2007
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I have worked on two different project teams over the past year that have walked the walk when it came to both integrating sustainable design and LEED certification into a well-designed facility. Both projects received LEED certification (one NC-Silver and one CI-Gold). Among all the success stories (and there are many), I have made and seen some mistakes that could be commonly repeated on any project. These mistakes have impeded my ultimate personal and my teammate's equally ambitious goal- to design better buildings that can co-exist and perhaps even mend what's left of our natural environments.

   Today, everybody uses the words "collaboration" and "everybody early" as key words and necessary requirements to a successful LEED (or just green) project. However, my mistakes revolve around the "everyone early" idea. You can't just put 20 people in a room for two or three days on a double-digit million dollar building project and expect top-notch results. Organizing 20 people's schedules is tough, and it is easy to be missing one (or more) of the critical decision-makers for the project (even if just for a portion of the charrette). In order to be a success in integration when everyone is there early, the project team must do their homework prior to the multi-day blitz and allow for some flexibility. Each owner team today creates a new project based on hot buttons, whether it be a change in corporate structure, a surge in growth, a shift in management, a realignment (or a reduction) in function, or some other issue that is the primary programmatic element that generates the project. 

   If you haven't done your homework on the site, initiated discussion on its issues, its realities, and maybe even sent your civil engineer and others to the site, then "everyone early" to talk about stormwater reduction could be useless. If the hot button is minimizing the stormwater that discharges from your site, the "everyone early" idea means everyone together to discuss, solve, challenge, and innovate on the FACTS of the situation. You cannot do anything without facts on how the stormwater system innovations can work and what pre-existing conditions exist. At the core of any LEED (green) project, every team member generally is EXCITED to do the right thing for the environment, but the hot buttons drive project momentum (and the energy of a SUCCESSFUL early charrette). Fund-raising, design process, construction schedule, and occupancy deadlines become pivotal to an owner's organizational success and new facility creation. These hot buttons drive schedule, cost, and quality (including environmental quality) and must overlap with doing the right thing. With today's complex environmental problem's, "everyone early" should have a clear picture of both the project hot buttons and the environmental issues simultaneously. You need those elements to make the "everyone early" element succeed.

   For example, one of our firm's project hot buttons included renovating an existing old historic fraternity house into an energy efficient, top-notch residence hall facility for today's college student. Considering both the historic preservation issues of a 100 year-old college campus with the energy efficiency opportunities of updating an old, tired building were interrelated. The renovation succeeded when both were addressed simultaneously, but unfortunately it didn't happen in the early charrette. Critical parameters were not part of the early charrette; they were developed further along in project development. The renovation resulted in a new facility that used 39 percent less energy than all other residences halls on that campus, but that result took extra effort because the early charrette didn't have the right information to strategize and solve the problems. For this residence hall, a university was willing to test out a geothermal heating and cooling system as a LEED strategy early in the renovation, but making the strategy work was not fully determined and integrated until further along in the delivery process. Today, the renovated fraternity house has become one of the most desirable residence halls on campus now, but integration did not result from a clear "everyone early" charrette. It had to be developed further along in the process, which had its issues.

   All 20 people (or whatever number includes your key decision-makers) ideally must attend the charrette, but whoever misses the charrette must be deliberately brought into the spirit of innovations discussed and generated at the charrette. Chances are you will not get all of the key decision-makers at the charrette for its entirety, but innovations, ideas, and suggestions generated in that charrette will typically carry for the next two or more years. Success requires constant stewardship. Mistakes are very easy to make in the charrette blitz. Homework on the hot button project issues prior to meeting, meeting minutes, follow-up discussions, decision-making clarification at the charrette (Was a decision actually made on charrette day?), and organizational skills become areas where we all make mistakes.
br> Today, talking the talk occurs on many projects. Two years later (or longer), when the contractor has built the ideas, the reality of "walking that talk" with environmentally sensitive decisions fully developed can shine through, but it takes focused and consistent follow-through from charrette to owner occupancy.

   And now for my last mistake of using the words "collaboration" and "everybody early." It takes a huge effort to get 20 experts in a room to solve today's green building problems. When you do your homework, have your charrette, address your problems, and overcome the potential mistakes, remember, the charrette remains one of the most successful parts of the design process and project success. Yes, avoid making the above mistakes as much as you can, but when you do get the hard work done, do not forget to celebrate the success of bringing those twenty experts together. Take a picture, have a celebration cake, make everyone do something goofy; just do something fun when the work is done (and before everyone goes home). People actually like to work hard if they get to play a bit, too. Bringing people together is a "party." In the green design charrette, it may be 95 percent WORK PARTY, but don't leave out the 5 percent PARTY. We all are human, after all. I consistently am amazed at how hard people work in the charrette atmosphere, but they still need a vent to remember the charrette environment focuses on people, interaction and problem resolution. I remember working hard in many project charrettes, but the one I remember most is the one where we took a picture of everyone on their hands and knees making a pyramid.

   AND you know what, that was the charrette that was actually the most successful, too, for the building owner.
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