Archive for August, 2006

Collective thinking

Monday, August 28th, 2006

I’ve been testing the waters of the design profession by talking to designers about what their firms look for in new hires and I encountered a remark that got me thinking. The fellow I was interviewing said (and I am paraphrasing), “Our firm would be interested in you because, unlike many younger graduates, you can think.” This comment made me wonder – what does it mean to “think”? The immediate answer is that thinking is the exercise of intelligence, reason, logic, and so forth, but it’s equally clear that thinking goes beyond “book learning” to involve life experience, social skills, basic curiosity and, perhaps most important, a willingness to step outside safe boundaries.

One of these boundaries is certainty. In his book The Long Tail, Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson talks about Google, blogs, Wikipedia, and other internet sites that operate on the “alien logic of probabilistic statistics.” By this he means that content of these sites is not certain, but is based on probability. For example, Wikipedia is an on-line encyclopedia created, monitored, and updated by users, with an incredible number of in-depth articles on nearly any topic one can imagine. Because, however, the articles are not backed up by panels of experts, as is the case with traditional encyclopedias such as Britannica, it is not certain that the facts in the articles are accurate. The probability is quite high that what you read in Wikipedia is accurate, but you can’t be sure that the particular article you are reading is. Britannica’s online version has some 118,000 articles; the English version of Wikipedia has 1,336,000. Certainty may be lost, but a world of information is gained.

The other interesting thing about this mode of amassing information is that it works with minimal or no structure. Anderson states, “The true miracle of Wikipedia is that this open system of amateur user contributions and edits doesn’t simply collapse into anarchy. Instead, it has somehow self-organized the most comprehensive encyclopedia in history.” This reminds me of the collective “thinking” of social insect colonies, which, though composed of many individuals, operate as a single entity – a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “collective intelligence” or “swarm intelligence.” David Gordon, in his essay Collective Intelligence in Social Insects, discusses the organizational processes of insect colonies and applies the method to science, math, and ultimately modern life. He concludes his essay with this statement:

It’s possible that this type of thinking will characterise the 21st century, where mighty corporations and institutions evaporate into networks of nodes and sub-nodes. Where individuals, dwarfed by the social, political, economic and informational networks they comprise once again surface as the collective masters of those networks.

This strikes me as nothing less than revolutionary. Business as we know it is going to change.

My question, then, as I approach my new profession of interior design and architecture, is: can this way of looking at things be translated into, say, the design of a building or a community? Judging by the admittedly limited exposure I’ve had to the design profession so far, it appears that the design process is one of drilling down from general requirements to minute, specific, and accurate details. This attention to detail is vital – after all, designers must ensure the health and safety of the people who will be using the building. But does this process restrain innovation and creativity by limiting design thinking to forms, materials, and processes that are certain? Is it possible for designers to look at their clients from a new perspective, tapping into the collective intelligence of not only the decisionmakers within the client firm, but also of the firm’s employees, customers, business partners, and communities. Can designers create solutions by drawing from the collective intelligence of the entire design community or even from that of the human world at large? One might say that the collective experience of architects and designers over the centuries has resulted in a community intelligence for design, but the profession is still churning out dysfunctional, non-sustainable structures. Perhaps it’s time for a new type of thinking in the design world.

Project management – take 1

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

This fall, as an elective for my Interior Design Master’s program, I’m enrolled in a Project Management course in the business school. I’ve purchased the text and have started in on it. Two things immediately strike me. First, project management probably should be part of the curriculum for the ID degree, or at least listed as an elective in the ID department information. Clearly architecture and design are all about projects and even with the smallest of projects, completing work on time, on budget, and within requirements requires a great deal of management. Second, the process appears at first glance to be quite a bit more complicated than I would have thought, though perhaps I already intuitively do the things the textbook discusses, but don’t quite recognize them in the PM lingo.

At any rate, I think this course will be right up my alley. My book, Project Management: The Managerial Process, by Clifford Gray and Erik Larson, defines a project as “a complex, nonroutine, one-time effort limited by time, budget, resources, and performance specifications designed to meet customer needs.” That’s the kind of work I like. Here’s to a new semester!

LEED and GreenGlobes

Monday, August 21st, 2006

The tide seems to be turning for sustainable building. Government projects require it, private clients are increasingly demanding it, and the popular press is spreading the word (see USAToday, CNN, SF Chronicle). Discussion continues, however, as to how best to encourage green building and assess the sustainability of projects.

The most-used system is the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System®, a “voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings,” developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Here is how the USGBC describes the program:

LEED provides a complete framework for assessing building performance and meeting sustainability goals. Based on well-founded scientific standards, LEED emphasizes state of the art strategies for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. LEED recognizes achievements and promotes expertise in green building through a comprehensive system offering project certification, professional accreditation, training and practical resources.

The USGBC has developed rating systems for new construction, existing building operations, commercial interiors, core and shell projects, homes, and neighborhood development. Standards for retail are in development. Projects that accumulate a certain number of points under the LEED standards can apply for LEED certification.

Some believe that LEED is too expensive, too cumbersome, and unfairly favors certain industries over others. Take a look at Auden Schendler and Randy Udall’s November 2005 article in Grist Magazine entitled LEED is Broken: Let’s Fix It.

In response, alternative rating systems for green building are springing up. The Green Building Initiative‘s Green Globes program is an example. Originating in Canada, the system is billed as “an interactive, flexible and affordable approach to environmental design” and includes an “assessment protocol, rating system and guide for integrating environmentally friendly design into commercial buildings.” Here’s how GBI describes its rating system:

The Green Globes™ system is questionnaire-driven. At each stage of the design process, users are walked through a logical sequence of questions that guide their next steps and provide guidance for integrating important elements of sustainability.

Builders complete the questionnaires to collect points for their projects. Points are verified by a third party before a final Green Globes rating is granted. Ratings are based on the percentage of points achieved, not on a point count as with LEED. Proponents of Green Globes say the system is cheaper, more flexible, and easier to manage.

Green Globes is not without its critics, however – some aver that it is less credible than LEED (for one perspective, see Forest Ethic‘s article Green Buildings Standards Factsheet: Green Globes’ Lack of Environmental Credibility), so the controversy continues. Here is a factsheet from the Wood Promotion Network comparing some aspects of the two standards.

Whether LEED or Green Globes is the better standard is beyond the scope of this post, but having standards and rating systems in place plays a big part in bringing sustainability into the public eye. Competing standards may be confusing, but in the long run the competition will force all standards to be improved – and that is a good thing for the environment.

A few of the many other websites that help builders and designers understand and meet green standards:

Snakes on a Plane

Friday, August 18th, 2006

Snakes on a Plane premiered last night. A scare flick, its makers figured it would be mildly successful, but because of the internet it mushroomed into a cult movie – well before its release – and just might bring in some box office dollars.

A blogger named Josh Friedman seems to have started the craze for the movie in a July 2005 post. His blog got mentioned on several other sites and soon, according to an article on Wikipedia, people began creating “songs, apparel, poster art, pages of fan fiction, parody films, mock movie trailers and even short film parody competitions” and posting them all online. TV and print media picked it up as well, and “Snakes on a Plane” (“SoaP”) became a slang phrase roughly equivalent to a shoulder shrug. The studio even reshot several scenes of the film to incorporate internet fans’ suggestions and dialog.

My 23-year-old daughter arrived home yesterday. Tonight, on the official opening day, she and an enormous crowd of her buddies are going to see the film, plastered with snake stickers and outfitted in custom T-shirts they designed. They plan to invite the entire audience to join them at a nearby bar for a Snakes on a Plane party.

According to posts and comments on SnakesonaBlog some people even camped out to get tickets. Early reviews posted by the snake crazies are overwhelmingly positive. Apparently filmgoers are bringing toy snakes to toss into the air, shouting out comments and lines during the film, clapping and whooping, and generally having a fabulous time.

The very interesting thing about this is its demonstration of the incredible power of the internet and social networking. A single guy recognized the humor in the title and wrote an irreverant blog. This tickled the funny bones of the 20-somethings and they turned it into their own huge party. This movie – the plot of which sounds really dreadful to me – may net the studio some extra bucks, not because of the studio’s advertising dollar or the quality of the film, but because of the interconnectivity of this savvy generation.

Wow. If companies (including design firms?) can even begin to grasp this phenomenon and learn how to use it, they’d have a gold mine. I may be too old to really tap into social media to the same extent as my daughter and her friends, but I can at least be aware of it. I am awestruck and perfectly delighted.

August 21 update: My daughter had fun with the crowd antics, but thought the movie itself was just terrible. Box office results for the film’s first weekend turned out to be no better than any other horror flick, which goes to show that sometimes the anticipation is all the fun. A more important lesson, however, is that the product has to live up to the hype.

Paper countertops

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

I recently visited an exhibit called The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit’s goal is to demonstrate “the emerging collaboration between stylish architecture, interior design, and environmental responsibility” through hands-on exploration of a full-size house containing sustainable products and materials, case histories and models of sustainably-built structures, and material samples. The exhibit helped me understand that good looking products are now readily available that give homeowners “the power to set a new course for a more sustainable future.” You don’t have to be a designer to incorporate sustainable products into your house – it’s a matter of knowledge and choice.

One product that caught my eye was the kitchen and bathroom countertops, which were made of paper, but looked and felt like stone. This composite material is currently produced primarily by two manufacturers, Richlite and Kliptech Composites, using slightly different processes and ingredients. Both manufacturers claim the material is stain resistant, scratch resistant, heat resistant, sanitary, strong, and durable. Prices seem to be roughly equivalent to solid-surface engineered products – in the mid-range, cheaper than stone, but pricier than laminates.

Richlite samples Paperstone installation

The material is not new, however. According to Richlite, paper composites have been “used for decades by the aerospace industry for tooling, the marine industry for fiberglass reinforcement and the action sports industry for outdoor skate ramp surfaces.”

Here is how the Environmental Home Center, an on-line source for sustainable home building products, describes the manufacturing process for Kliptech’s product, Paperstone:

Paperstone has pushed the envelope to develop a lower toxic countertop using recycled materials. Instead of using a phenolic resin, they use a 100% water-based resin that acts as a binding agent for the paper in the product. Paperstone impregnates paper water based based resin, heats and dries it, and then presses and again heats it to yield uniform sheets. Original PaperStone is made from a minimum 50% post-consumer recycled paper, while PaperStone Certified is made from a 100% post-consumer recycled paper.

Richlite, another manufacturer of the product, states:

Richlite® is made primarily of paper purchased from managed forests throughout North America. The paper is treated with resin then pressed and baked to create solid sheets.

I’m encouraged to know that choices like this are becoming more available and better known. Though it will take some time for kitchen and bath designers and retailers, contractors, and homeowners to become familiar with their green choices, I think the trend is toward sustainability. The National Building Museum exhibit is a great way for people to see this product, and the others featured in the exhibit, in a full-size installation. Perhaps if more people learn that green products are now every bit as beautiful and functional as less environmentally-friendly alternatives, there will be greater demand and more innovation.

If I ever have a chance to remodel my kitchen, I’ll know what to do.

Links and resources:

Wiki

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006

I stumbled on an article by Jason R Briggs entitled “Design by Wiki” on a software development site called ONLamp. The author makes a case for using wiki software to handle documents generated in a collaborative project such as an architectural or interior design job. Although this article is over my head technologically (and somewhat old, having been written in January of 2005), it’s an interesting thought and deserves more study.

For those of you who don’t know, wiki sites harness the collecive wisdom of web users by allowing anyone to add or edit content on the site. The most well known wiki site is Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that is both broad and deep. Some distrust Wikipedia because it is not necessarily written by experts, but others (like me) find it to be an incredibly useful resource. While there may be instances where the information contained in a Wikipedia article is not entirely accurate or where there is disagreement on what is factual, it still remains the best source of information that I’ve found on practically any topic.

Wikipedia is run by software developed by MediaWiki. The software is free and can be downloaded by anyone wishing to develop a wiki site. Because I’m not a software engineer, I can’t quite follow MediaWiki’s instructions on how to actually set up a wiki site, but I’m sure there are plenty of consultants who would be more than happy to do it for me.

Back to Mr Briggs’ point, however. He says:

From a collaborative point of view, a wiki can provide a central point of contact for a team, and indeed for all major stakeholders in a project, no matter how distributed–an end to the “check out doc, modify doc, check in doc, notify interested parties” cycle of document editing. It allows the tracking and monitoring of changes and control over edit access, and there is no need to enforce a standardized template or document structure because the wiki software itself very much dictates layout and structure.

Have architecture and design firms explored this project management option? If not, it might be worth trying.

July ‘06 index

Tuesday, August 1st, 2006