The power of story in sustainable building
As a child, one of my favorite nighttime stories was Virginia Lee Burton's classic, "The Little House." The book follows the life of a tiny house in the countryside that gradually gets swallowed up by an encroaching nearby city. All the things the little house loves about its life in the country-the birds, the grass, the sun and the moon-disappear once the sidewalks and skyscrapers take over. In the end, a passer by recognizes the little house and transports it back to the county where it lives happily ever after.
Every home has a story. But who gets to tell this story? Is the story documented and, more importantly, how is it told? What was once a tale of four walls and a roof has evolved into a complex system of purposefully integrated components designed to minimize impact and maximize efficiency. The true power of a home's story lies in its ability to successfully transfer knowledge to future residents. The rationale behind south facing windows, how the energy meter works, and why the greywater system is more efficient than a traditional sprinkler system may be perfectly clear to the architect or original owner, but unless the story resonates with the new occupants, these advancements will rest idle and eventually work against the home.
As a graduate student in California College of the Arts' MBA Design Strategy Program, I’ve learned how a powerful story can shape perceptions and influence behavior. Whether it’s a product, a brand, a person or a home; story is one of most effective ways to communicate a complex system or relationship. An effective narrative also establishes buy-in by seamlessly integrating the world-view of the consumer with the attributes of a particular brand or technology. Understanding the user is crucial to establishing this meaningful connection because when you truly understand and empathize with your audience, communication is authentic and impactful.
Last summer I attended a sustainable building event where an interesting case study was presented. In April of 2001, a volunteer organization built a cluster of low-income housing units in a Detroit suburb for families in need. Each unit came equipped with energy saving appliances and the latest in green building technology. Floor to ceiling south facing windows flooded the units with warm, natural light and small ventilation windows allowed the rising heat of summer to escape. Each feature was specifically designed to help reduce monthly energy expenses and encourage more sustainable living practices.
After two years of backbreaking work, the job was completed and the first family moved in. The process, however, was never complete because the homes´ story was never told. When the project manger returned to the site after only one month he was shocked to see most of the innovations he´d worked so hard to integrate were not being utilized.