Disruptive marketing for green building
How can a green building consultant, architect, engineer or builder get a market advantage in today’s constrained economy, when everyone has lots of green building experience, dozens if not hundreds of LEED APs, capabilities and experience in each market sector? I will tell you: One way to stand out is to become an advocate for “disruptive” approaches, ways of approaching sustainable design, green building, and green product development that advance the state of the art, while at the same time improve performance and cut costs.
The idea of “disruptive technologies” or “disruptive innovations” was first posited by Professor Clayton Christiansen of Harvard Business School 15 years ago, in The Innovator’s Dilemma. It is used to describe innovations that create new markets and value networks, and eventually go on to disrupt existing markets and value networks (over a few years or sometimes decades), displacing earlier technologies. Over time, what may have been initially an inferior (but cheaper) solution gives rise to a continuous wave of innovation that displaces a formerly superior technology or business model. Think of what the iPod did to reinvent and save the recording industry.
What does this have to do with green building? I will argue that, over the past dozen years since LEED came onto the scene, green building has NOT fundamentally changed how the business of building design, construction and operations works. In fact, the rapid adoption of green building techniques and systems by existing organizations in the building industry has not changed the relative strength of any of the companies involved in design, construction and building operations. And there have been, in fact, no new entrants of consequence into the industry, beyond a few materials suppliers.
But clients keep looking for better solutions. If you look at the relatively high ratio of dissatisfied to satisfied clients, it would be extremely upsetting for the architecture/engineering/construction (A/E/C) industry. It’s very much a case, as my mother used to say, of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Buildings still don’t work very well when built and most building operators still struggle to keep up with the modest technological innovations in green building, such as better building controls, radiant heating and cooling, etc. What clients really want is the ability to make a quantum leap in performance at lower cost. Where will they find those attributes? More importantly, how can your organization find, develop and deliver such disruptive innovations?
This past week, I received a newsletter from the managing principal of a mid-sized architectural firm that lamented the lack of disruptive thinking in the architectural business. He mentioned recently attending a technology conference hosted by Wired magazine, at which he was the only architect. By contrast, he noted, the most recent conference of the American Institute of Architects contained nothing really new, with a program designed mostly for architects to get their annual quota of continuing education hours.
It got me thinking: where should the US green building industry (and, by extension, all architecture, engineering, construction, commissioning and building operations firms) be looking for new ideas? Here are a few suggestions:
Geographic expansion: My own experience is that we are rapid adopters of other people’s ideas, such as new design approaches from Europe, including underfloor air distribution, double-skin façades, radiant heating/cooling, wood technology and climate engineering, to mention a few. So, the obvious thing to do is to send your cleverest people to Europe for six weeks on “voyages of discovery” to learn what’s new and report back to the rest. Or, perhaps better yet, go to China and find out how entire hotels are being built in 30 days. Perhaps study every industry that’s building $50-$100 million products to see what you can learn. This might include ship building, commercial aviation, etc. Who’s going to be sent on the next trip to Europe or China, the firm’s current leaders or the smartest “up and comers”?
Industry technology transfer: What about looking seriously at Lean manufacturing as a way to reinvent design and construction practices? Lean manufacturing has been well studied and practiced for more than 20 years. Hire a lean manufacturing “sensei” for your firm to re-engineer all your design practices, don’t just adopt BIM or Revit and call it a day. This may mean an entirely different hiring paradigm for most firms, where industrial engineering is more highly valued than education and experience mechanical engineering or architecture, for example. Can you widen the job descriptions and qualifications for your openings to attract more “interesting and qualified” people?