Green Technology

Building systems and how to change them


Once I was introduced to a systems-based lens of seeing the world, I could not unsee it. This point of view is truly one of the most pivotal frameworks for understanding society’s problems.

Today, I see myself, my work, buildings, climate change and everything in between as one vastly complex interconnected system. Systems thinking offers valuable insights into how to manage and create systemic change — the only type of change that will get us out of this climate crisis.

What is a ‘system’?

The definition of a “system” varies within each field of study, but fundamentally it refers to a set of interconnected parts sharing a uniting function. The relationships among a system’s parts are key to understanding how a system works. For example, a car is a system to transport people — enabled by the interactions between an engine that connects to a driveshaft that connects to its wheels. 

All systems have inputs and outputs — flows of materials or energy that cross a system’s boundary from other adjacent systems. In our car example, the system is transforming from having an input of gas and output of carbon dioxide to an input of electricity with no direct output of greenhouse gases. Of course, advanced systems thinkers are already asking about greenhouse gases from manufacturing and electricity production for electric cars, which is a fair point.

A building’s energy system 

As a building geek, one of my favorite systems to talk about is exterior walls, also known as the building’s “envelope.” Each of the envelope’s layers — from the interior drywall and insulation to the building wrap and exterior facade — work together as a system to separate indoor conditioned air from outdoor ambient air.

One of the envelope system’s core functions is to serve as a thermal barrier that keeps heat in or out of the building depending on the season. This is an essential part of the building’s overall heating and cooling system, enabling the mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system to introduce and remove heat from the indoor conditioned space without it dissipating through the walls. 

The heating and cooling system is typically a building’s largest consumer of energy, so you can see why we building geeks love talking about envelopes as such a critical part of building energy consumption.

But the total energy consumption of a building (depending on its use) includes lighting, water heating, pumps, appliances and plug loads. Each of these energy consumers has a different way it uses energy at different times and rates. Seeing the whole building as a system lets us understand all these interconnected smaller systems holistically so we can improve energy performance systemically.    

Our built environment as a system

Nature is the core system upon which all human systems are created. Once humans started coming together to communicate and coordinate our actions, we created a social system — one that includes our economic and governance systems. The modern industrial system, in turn, emerged from our social system. It encompasses all the physical systems of humanity — primarily our built environment.

I see the built environment as a layer between the natural system and social systems because we’ve largely created infrastructure and buildings to augment our exposure to the discomforts of wild nature.

The professionals that work on each of those building’s subsystems generally work in siloes — the HVAC contractor rarely thinks about the building’s envelope even though it is an essential part of the heating and cooling system.

The absurdity this lens reveals is that the very system we created to improve upon the harshness of nature is now the system causing nature to become more harsh.

Humans have created a lived experience so devoid of the natural system our lives depend on that we have lost a direct connection to the natural world. It shocks me to think that most of us may see ourselves more as a part of the industrial system we have created than the natural system we come from. 

Changing our built environment

Most systems are dynamic, meaning 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 will change, I believe 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 among the roles each building professional plays. In my earlier description of the building energy system, I referenced the interrelated functions among a building’s parts. However the professionals that work on each of those building’s subsystems generally work in siloes — the HVAC contractor rarely thinks about the building’s envelope even though it is an essential part of the heating and cooling system. From all my years consulting and meeting onsite with design and construction teams, I can tell you that getting myriad professionals on a building project to integrate their work is a huge challenge.

This is why I am so passionate about the rallying cry to work closely together on sustainability, because the way in which we relate to each other in this work will be key to determining the outcomes we will achieve.

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

I hope these musings on systems offer a helpful mental model to understand buildings and how to transform them. It is the lens that I have learned to use for analyzing issues like a building’s energy consumption, the macro changes of our built environment, and how our relationships as colleagues inform the results we are able to achieve. As always, I welcome your thoughts. You can reach me at [email protected].

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