Right, so at this point, you might be asking yourself why I’m all of a sudden rambling about stress and work-life balance, and why I’m doing it here on flowXRG.
To me, this site is about thinking through ways in which the world can be changed for the better, and thinking through how we go about making that happen. All of the idealism and brilliant ideas won’t help us make an impact unless we are also really good at making things happen, at affecting real change. So if we’re running around in circles, ineffectively driving ourselves to the point of frustration, exhaustion, and burnout, we’re sidelining ourselves in the pursuit of impactful change in the world.
These posts have been a long time coming, and they’ve grown out of the following personal contexts:
- The rare freedom to explore different approaches to work-style that the company and boss I work for have allowed me (so, to clarify, the previous two posts were not a passive aggressive attempt at criticizing my organization). I have worked up to 80+ hours per week every week for about nine months straight, and I’ve worked as little as 30 hours per week for about nine months straight, and everything in between. My exploration of these extremes of work-life balance have a lot to do with the second context:
- My name is Tyler and I’m a workaholic. I get off on all-nighters, taking on the work-load of two or three people, and the rush of delivering on an “impossible” schedule. I do find the energy and pace of high-pressure work to be rejuvenating, but I also struggle to comprehend and respect my own physical and psychological boundaries. I tend to do too much work and neglect all other aspects of my life such as friends, family, exercise, hobbies, sleep, and some of the finer points of good hygiene.
- So, for the past two to three years, I have been intentionally seeking out ways to deliberately impose better balance and harmony in my life. I realized that for the most part, I wasn’t being very effective or impactful with the amount of work I was doing – I was just cranking. I was too stressed out and overloaded, too “nose to the grindstone” to be able to reflect on the Big Picture of what I was doing. I am taking a gamble that in order to be effective with my life, in order to do the big things I want to do and to actually enjoy my life, I have to impose some sort of balance in my life, and learn when to say “no” to a project and when to go outside into the sunshine and count butterflies in the grass.
So with that in mind, I want to wrap up my thoughts on work-life balance.
Numbers Are Meaningless
There is no chart that you can look at that will tell you if you are working too much or not. There is nothing magical about working 40 hours a week, or 60, or 20 (or 4 if you are Tim Ferriss).
Every single person is different, and even if they weren’t, every single person’s situation is different. Some people can handle only a little bit of stress before they start going off the rails. Some people thrive on stress, and they can just soak up intense situations with a smile and a cheerful attitude and keep going.
The type of work some people do is inherently stressful. Some people’s daily tasks are as stressful as a game of frisbee. Some people’s jobs are way less stressful than their home situation.
Some work you can do all day long in a state of flow, while some types of work you can only get a little bit in before your brain turns to mush. Neil Stephenson, one of my favorite authors, says that he writes for two hours a day. If he tries to write longer, his writing turns to crap, and the next day he’ll have to spend time going back and fixing it. So he just writes two hours a day and then goes and does other stuff.
And of course, just because working 16 hour days every day is typically unhealthy doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with doing it occasionally. Sometimes inspiration strikes. Sometimes deadlines are really important to hit and you just have to suck it up and make it happen. That is part of the fun of life, the dynamicism and the challenges and the horror stories we laugh about after the fact. That’s all okay.
The challenge is to figure out what works for you, what your authentic and genuine balance is. And I can’t overstate how hard it is to do that.
Silicon Valley Syndrome
I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area, and most of us are insane here. The Silicon Valley status quo of overwork permeates just about every facet of culture here. People one-up each other humble bragging about how little they sleep, how many all-nighters they’ve pulled in the last month, how long it’s been since they took a vacation.
The most pernicious thing about the overwork culture here is that it isn’t managers figuring out devious ways to trick people into working longer. It’s the culture. People drive themselves to work more because it’s the norm. Social cues and expectations have somehow evolved into this dead-end trajectory of a suicidally brutal work ethic.
The most overworked people in our culture are people who aren’t told how much they have to work. They are people who work at “cool” companies with massage parlors and foosball tables, who are told that they can make their own hours and work from home a lot. The people with the most insane hours work at the startups and the tech companies, but that culture of insane work load has oozed into peripheral industries and most people now follow suit to some extent or another.
You Can’t Solve a Problem with the Same Sort of Thinking That Created It
If you are reading this, you are probably concerned with making the world better in some way. I’m going to hazard a guess that you agree that our world is full of destructive, ugly, dead things and forces, and I think that you have a desire to fight that ugliness and death by making something beautiful.
Do you think that you will be able to make something beautiful and living, if you are using a process that is itself dead and destructive? Do you think you will be able to make the world a functional, delightful, easeful place, if your internal world is dysfunctional, painful, and hectic?
Our industrial, consumer, virulently capitalist world is a slough of ugliness, greed, and death, and it was created with a certain kind of thinking, a certain kind of perspective on the world. You can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that caused it, and we will not be able to build a world that is beautiful, egalatarian, and living, with the same kind of thinking and perspectives that built this dead one.
If we don’t make time for beauty, love, health, creativity, wonder, and unconstrained curiosity in our own lives, I don’t think we’ll able to build a world full of the same.
Stress is a Good Thing
The human stress reaction is a normal part of human physiology and it is a terrific biological adaptation. It helps us deal with intense or dangerous circumstances by dumping a ton of (awesome!) drugs into our bloodstream. Our eyes dilate, our digestive systems pause, our hearts pump around more blood to enable the muscles to either run or fight, time seems to slow down, and our minds hyperfocus.
This is an incredible system we humans have and it has served us well in the past– you don’t want to be all hakuna matata when a saber-toothed tiger is stalking your ass.
The thing about saber-toothed tigers and ash-slides, however, is that after a little while they go away and it’s safe to be chilled out again. The stress reaction is adapted to occasional, short-lived intense or dangerous situations. There is unfortunately nothing occasional about having your email inbox full of shitty emails all the time and a to-do list that only grows, particularly if you carry both of those things in your pocket on your smartphone and look at them obsessively. To your body’s stress reaction system, it is sort of like having a saber-toothed tiger padding along next to you all day, every day, that you poke with a stick every five minutes.
Above 26,000 feet of elevation, the human body becomes unable to adapt to the low partial pressure of oxygen in the air. In mountaineering, this elevation is called the Death Zone. In the Death Zone there is a clock ticking down to when vital organs start going offline and you die. You have to descend to a safe elevation to turn the Death clock off.
Similarly, at a certain volume of sustained stress, a clock starts ticking.* In most people, feedback mechanisms exist that will essentially force them to a safe “elevation”, or volume of work, before they die. Some people push themselves through these feedback mechanisms and actually die (called Karoshi in Japan, it is also sometimes referred to as Sudden Executive Death Syndrome, or SEDS).
For most of us, we simply run into our body’s natural feedback mechanisms that forces us to back out of the unsustainable work/stress volume. We get sick and stay at home in bed for three days. Maybe our body refuses to wake up at the alarm and we catch 10 hours of sleep one night. Or we snap, scream at our coworkers and throw our monitor through the window, get fired, and the work volume drops to zero. One way or another, we return to a safer level of stress.
A lot of people tend to short cycle into the Death Zone. Short cycling is when a control system is out of tune and the system “bounces” between two levels. Think of an overpowered heating system in your house. You wake up in the morning and it is cold, so you turn the heater on. It roars to life and warms the entire house up to 90*F in three minutes, then shuts off (because it’s now too hot). The house isn’t very well insulated, however, so all the heat quickly seeps out and the house cools down within 5 minutes. The heater bangs on again, then off. It repeats forever.
Similarly, people tend to have some looming deadline and let their volume of work increase into the SEDS Death Zone. After a short amount of time they realize that they are yelling at their spouse for no reason, losing (or gaining) unhealthy weight, and twitching when they sleep. Their quality of work also starts dropping off as they start forgetting things, making mistakes, and catch themselves staring at spreadsheets without actually doing anything for longer stretches of time. For a while they try to increase the work volume even more to make up for the lack of productivity, which makes things worse. Finally they back off the work, go into the mountains for a weekend, and chill out. Life gets better, their bodies and minds heal a little, and their quality of work improves.
Then some deadline comes up and they start to ramp up again, just a little. Just for this one thing, this one week, it’s a rare thing, they gotta do it. No big deal.
Years later, they have permanent health problems (probably heart-related) and can’t recall what it was they used to do for fun, or what they dreamed about when they were young.
*To clarify, the ticking clock of stress death is an analogy only, not a documented medical fact. Karoshi and “SEDS” are, to my knowledge, not well understood phenomenon at this time.
The term “work-life balance” seems to imply a relative amount of time spent on work versus the amount of time spent with one’s family, friends, and on hobbies. You get the idea that if you spend too much time at work, you don’t have enough time for your “life” and so you are therefore out of balance. This notion is, however, barely the tip of the iceberg.
If you go from working 40 hours a week to working 80 hours a week, the change isn’t just that you now have less time to spend with your family and friends and on rejuvenating activities. You are overstressed and underslept, so you are irritable and snap at your spouse. You sleep through the weekends and wander around the house sluggishly, trying to recover your immune system before going back to the office. You exercise less, both because you don’t have the time and because you’re too tired. You don’t eat healthy because you don’t have time to prepare good meals.
In short, your life sucks.
And not only does your life suck – you start to suck at work too. It is incredible to me that some managers seem to think that if they can get a salaried person to work 60 hours in a week, they have squeezed 150% productivity out of that person. It simply doesn’t work that way, at least not in the long term. The bottom line is that people aren’t machines. I’ll just go ahead and repeat that in bold for dramatic effect.
People Aren’t Machines.
When people are overstressed and underslept, they make more mistakes, are less creative, care less about what they’re doing, have fewer innovative ideas, produce mediocre work, and eventually burn out and leave (and turnover is actually shockingly expensive). The mechanistic concept of productivity and efficiency that some managers apply to human beings is offensive and embarrassingly wrong.
Organizations that cultivate (intentionally or not) a culture of overwork cultivate a culture of mediocrity, poor health, destructive social relations, organizational dysfunction, and waste. What this means is that you ought to be able to tell the sort of work a company produces by observing its culture and attitude towards the health and balance of its people. If a company claims to be green, or socially just, or for the cultivation of a better world, and yet they treat their people like interchangeable gears in a motor, then you know something isn’t quite right.
This is the last of a three-part series on refusal.
Part I introduces the idea that there are projects that should not be built.
Part II posits that refusing to do that kind of work, and risking financial loss, can powerfully perturb the status quo.
Tactical Decision vs. Moral Imperative
In the last two posts I talked about the concept of refusing “bad” work, and how refusal to do certain types of work is a decision that may be able to perturb the status quo system and help move the world to a better place.
I want to stress that I think refusal is a tactical decision and not a moral imperative (truth be told, I’m not a fan of the concept of moral imperatives in general).
- A moral imperative is an action that one ought to do no matter what.
- A tactical decision is an action that one may do in a certain situation, with the hope of some tactical effect/outcome.
If it seems quite certain that no good could possibly come of some certain act of refusal, and in fact that the act would endanger the possibility of future, more likely impactful actions, then that act of refusal might be highly inadvisable.
We are in this fight to fulfill a specific vision (i.e., we aim to win), not to uphold some illusory notion of moral superiority. Moral superiority is a hazy realm to exist in. The vision of avoiding climate catastrophe and reversing ecosystem destruction is as clear a definition of purpose as we could ask for.
Doing some bit of distasteful work might be the ticket to get inside a particular system, or a means to make powerful friends. That position could grant powerful leverage to change the status quo and impact the world for the better. Not refusing can be part of a larger strategy as much as refusing can, and our struggle needs people inside the system just as much as it needs people outside the system.
I am not exhorting people to refuse debatably “bad” work on the basis of some moral evaluation. I’m exhorting people to examine the tactical and strategic power of refusal as an act of perturbation of the status quo. I’m trying to problemetize the prevalent justification that you have to take on the less good projects in order to be able to afford to work on the more good projects.
I wish there was some simple formula, slogan, or 10 step list I could write that would make this issue black and white. The bummer and the beauty of reality is that it is complicated. There are no easy answers. Simple formulas and slogans are ideologically dangerous bullshit.
The question “Should I refuse to do work that I don’t think is good enough?” doesn’t have one answer. It’s going to be a judgement call every single time. Sometimes the call is going to be easy, and sometimes it is going to be hard.
For example, I would not work on a prison. That one is easy for me. If my boss told me I had to design a prison or he’d fire me, I’d pack up my desk up without hesitation.
Being asked to work on a LEED something-or-other luxury condo highrise in San Francisco, on the other hand, is a tough one for me. I don’t like luxury condo highrises. I don’t think the world needs one more luxury highrise. They shouldn’t exist. I want to help people, and more luxury condos is not the type of help I have in mind for wealthy people.
On the other hand, the demand for housing in San Francisco is way above supply. Everyone wants to live there and there isn’t nearly enough housing for all of them. That pressure is driving the cost of living up and up, forcing people who don’t make $90k or more out. The city is gentrifying. Providing more housing, even for the affluent, may help the less affluent afford to live in the city. The more luxury condos rich people are living in, the fewer affordable historic flats in the Mission they’ll force poorer tenants out of, renovate, gentrify, and occupy.
Ultimately, the idea of designing more stupidly opulent environments for rich people to fill with pointless luxury consumer goods is odious and I just really want to have nothing to do with it, LEED rating notwithstanding.
I touched on this earlier but it bears repeating: it is easy for me to talk about risking financial ruin as a young white male with no dependants. I can afford to engage in risky behavior because I am priveleged. A single mother with two children cannot responsibly take risks with her source of income. She has two little humans to feed, clothe, and look after. It would be rediculous to wag a finger at her and judge her for not refusing to do work.
Refusal is a tactic that is not equally available to everyone. I do think that people who are in situations similar to mine have a responsibility to seriously evaluate refusal as a tool to further their vision of a better world.
This is the second post of a three-part series on refusal.
Part I introduces the idea that there are projects that should not be built.
Part III clarifies that refusal is a tactical, and not necessarily a moral, decision.
This is a follow-up to my last post, which was rather high-level and conceptual. The task of actually walking up to a moral spectrium of work and deciding where you land on it is much more difficult than merely agreeing that a moral spectrum does in fact exist and it deserves a more concrete and specific treatment.
That specific treatment is going to have to wait until the next (or near future) post because there’s a little more conceptual ground I want to cover first.
Worldchanging and Uncertainty
From the perspective of a worker in the deep green design movement, it can be exceptionally disheartening to think about one’s actual ability to shape the industry or to change the world. You feel so small, and you feel like any sacrifice you make (like turning down work) would be a drop in the bucket that could neutralize you as a change agent (e.g. by getting fired or going out of business). Worse, perhaps you are wrong in your reasons for your sacrifice, and then you are the jackass tilting at a windmill. No one wants to be that guy.
When we talk about changing the world, or even an industry, we are talking about changing a complex social system. Complex systems have attributes that should be both heartening and challenging. Complex systems are nonlinear and highly unpredictable. You can push and push and push against a complex system for a long time before anything happens, and then everything happens at once. There is no set of hard and fast rules to follow, because tiny perturbations can cause a large range of changes in outcome.
This is a hard pill to swallow because it means we just don’t precisely know how to change the world, how to have maximum impact, how to fix resource depletion, how to fix the climate, how to end war, how to get everyone to build only super green buildings, or how to stop capitalism. We have ideas, notions, and principles, but there will never be a step-by-step blueprint for success.
The reason I think the complexity of what we’re trying to do is heartening is actually the same reason it is challenging. We don’t know exactly what to do. We do know that even if we are on the right path, the system might not give us immediate feedback and we won’t be able to tell. We might die before the fruits of our efforts work their way through the system and blossom. I think that we can take comfort in the uncertainty of this situation.
The uncertainty gives us massive freedom in approach. Because it is so difficult to say what will and will not work, points go to the creative persistent ones. We also know that small actors can have disproportionate effects on outcome, and it gives us the hope that our work is part of a now-unseen flap of a butterfly’s wings that causes a storm of change in the future. Small teams doing new things can in fact have a huge impact on the world, and the more teams we have doing more different things, the likelier we are to hit on success models.
I want to live in a world where things like McDonald’s and bomb factories don’t exist, and culturally that implies that the notion of being involved in the design and construction of a fast food joint or a bomb factory has to be odious to just about everyone. I want to live in a culture where no design professional will touch a fast food project with a ten foot stick. I want to live in a world where bomb factories go unbuilt for lack of professionals willing to take on the project.
The only way I see to get from here to there is via a culture shift. We don’t have the time or the ability to rely on regulation and mandate, and I doubt those methods would work anyways. I think success will only follow a massive perturbation in the complex system that governs the unspoken, non-formal, ever-changing rules of how to act and think in society.
As an individual, what action shifts the culture more – taking on the shit jobs you don’t really believe in to save some energy, or refusing the work outright, on principle?
You might be able to save 20% building energy of a vast corporation, thereby saving a certain chunk of carbon from entering the atmosphere. Yes it is an impact, but it’s still just doing the wrong thing less terribly. It’s still a Vaseline sandwich.
What impact will you have by calmly, respectfully, publicly, firmly, refusing to do business with socially toxic corporations? Maybe not much, particularly if you are just starting out or are in no position to have your action seen by anyone else–but maybe a lot.
Maybe you are taking the first step towards seismic culture shift. Maybe the fact that you are sticking to your principles will act as a beacon both to other professionals and also to potential clients who are looking for someone who isn’t anyone’s shill. People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.
The story of the professional turning down work because it went against her principles, even if she needed it badly, excites people. It motivates people. It changes how they think about the world, and their relationship to it. When one person does something no one has ever done before, that action gets put in the “things I could potentially do” list in everyone else’s head.
And maybe by refusing to compromise your principles, you actually do better for yourself financially speaking. Maybe the industry is ready for this kind of change and it actually won’t hammer you into the ground. Maybe turning down certain types of projects can be part of your business development plan, resulting in people with cool deep green projects beating a path to your door because they know that your values and beliefs are aligned with their own in a profound way.
Or, hey, maybe not. Maybe you turn down that job that could have floated you that year and your company or enterprise goes under due to your stubborn adherence to principles.
Maybe that’s the best reason there has ever been to fail.
If why you do what you do is to make money, you shouldn’t read anything I write. If why you do what you do is to change the world, the “failure” of your enterprise from a business perspective might be a smashing success in terms of changing the world. I think a lot of leaders of “green” companies either A) don’t actually lead green companies or B) are afraid that if they fail financially, they’ll fail to change the world by neutralizing themselves as change agents.
The fear of failure is a debilitating mental block that no wildly successful organization or individual suffers from. The failure of one venture does not preclude future ventures – in fact, failure sometimes clears the way for new, better, smarter, clearer ventures. Refusal resulting in financial failure may cause a highly impactful perturbation in the culture and pave the way for a future, more successful venture.
I think it’s important for people who are invested in worldchanging work to not be too rigidly invested in the success and financial viability of every venture they start. We’re trying new and untested things. We’re going to fail at a lot of things. The quicker we work through all the ways not to quickly change the world, the quicker we’ll get to the good work of actually changing the world. The two activities are quite linked. Futhermore, the more time we waste building Vaseline sandwiches the further we distance ourselves from the goal of a socially just one-earth world.
This is all, of course, very easy for me to say, as I’ve never faced the choice between sticking to my principles on the one hand and probable financial ruin on the other. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have had a ton of cool, unambiguously awesome projects to work on. I also don’t have any financial dependants, and I’m a member of a priveleged class (white, male, North American) that tends to rebound rather painlessly. Not everyone is in a personal situation to be able to take the risks that I’m talking about here, and I don’t think the act of refusal is on the table in the same way for everyone across the board.
There are two ways to do something wrong.
- You try to do something worth doing, but you botch it somehow.
- You try to do something not worth doing. It doesn’t really matter if you botch it or not because it shouldn’t exist anyway.
Attempting to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and winding up with peanut butter on the ceiling and jam in your hair is an example of the first way of Doing It Wrong. You tried to do something worthwhile and you failed.
Attempting to make a Vaseline sandwich is an example of the second way. No matter how expertly and evenly you spread the petroleum goo over slices of bread, making a Vaseline sandwich is just a terrible thing to do. It’s stupid, wasteful and unhealthy.
Our economic system generally fails to regard the second method of Doing It Wrong. In capitalist logic, if you can convince people to buy Vaseline sandwiches, then you have just discovered a new market and have helped expand the economy and the health of the nation. “Should it be done?” is reduced to “Will it turn a profit?” If the answer is yes, then we build it.
(If you think a Vaseline sandwich is too bombastic of an example, take a look at the ingredients in any of the “food” you can buy at a gas station.)
Vaseline Sandwiches in the Built Environment
In the green building industry, we take our cues from society at large and tend to not think or talk much about projects that maybe shouldn’t exist. We tend to focus very much on the “how” – how to make a building green, sustainable, and energy efficient, without giving much thought to whether or not the building should actually exist.
If we do have reservations about the function of the building, we tend not to dig too deep. It’s not our job to say if the building shouldn’t be built. If we don’t do it, someone else will, and they won’t make it as energy efficient as we will. There is good work to be done. We need to be saving every kWh we can, and if we walk away from this project then we’ll be responsible for all those lost energy savings.
This is a touchy subject. There are good people in both camps, and I do respect the opinions and positions on both sides. But this is an issue we sideline way too much. It’s the sort of issue we talk about over beers at the pub. We (and by we I mean the green building industry in general) sweep this one under the rug. I think we should daylight this discussion and feel responsibility to engage with the issue.
How vs. Why
A lot of the things we include in our buildings blur the line between how and why so let me clarify a little.
By “how” I mean “how does the building function?” The physical-material aspect of a building is the how: the materials of the structure, the solar panels on the roof, the rainwater system, the lights, the furniture, the doorknobs, the angle of the windows with respect to the sun, etc. Is it net zero energy/water, is it very low embodied energy, is it toxic-material free, etc.
By “why” I mean “why is this building being built?” What is the building used for, what will it do? Will it be used to educate children? Will it hold healthy food for people to buy? Will it hold the prisoners of a commodified justice system? Is it a luxury condo tower with a mall in it, designed to get people to consume stuff?
There is a lot of critique and discussion in green building circles about the how. It’s all we talk about. Is it net zero energy? Net zero water? Are there any PVCs, VOCs, formaldehyde, any Red List materials in it? How about siting – is it in an urban environment, close to public transportation, is it walkable?
These are all excellent questions to be asking and discussing, but as green building as a whole becomes more mainstream I see a danger in not also asking the question “Why is that building being built? Should it be built? Does its function have any place in the sustainable, resilient, just, ecological future that we all want to live in?”
Deep Green Bomb Factories
It’s one thing to build a net zero energy, walkable, toxic-material-free, renovated children’s science museum. It would be bizarre to get worked up over a project like that. We like those, we all want to live in a society where we have things like children’s science museums. Deep green children’s science museums are the poster children (so to speak) of our industry.
It’s entirely a different thing to build a highly energy efficient Wal-Mart. It’s another thing to build a net zero energy McDonalds. Or a sustainable prison. Or a LEED Platinum bomb factory.
As we get deeper into this project of making the world a sustainable place to live, we’re discovering that it’s not enough to make buildings that function great. The scope of our work is to make neighborhoods, communities, and cities that function great. And just as PVC has no place in a truly great deep green building, so too do certain types of buildings not have a place in a truly just, sustainable, and resilient world.
Ultimately these are all shades of gray, and as professionals and activists in the sustainable built environment, each one of us at some point has to walk up to to the line that stretches between “children’s science museum” and “bomb factory” and put a push-pin in it somewhere and say “that’s me: that’s my limit. Right here is where I’m not willing to go beyond.”
I will not help you build your bomb factory.
This is the first post of a three-part series on refusal.
Part II posits that refusing to do certain kinds of work, and risking financial loss, can powerfully perturb the status quo.
Part III clarifies that refusal is a tactical, and not necessarily a moral, decision.
Definitions from Wikipedia.
Punk-related ideologies are mostly concerned with individual freedom and anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, a DIY ethic, non-conformity, direct action and not selling out. Other notable trends in punk politics include nihilism, rebellion, anarchism, individualism, socialism, anti-militarism, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-nationalism, anti-homophobia, environmentalism, vegetarianism,veganism and animal rights.
EngineerAn engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical problems. Engineers design materials, structures, and systems while considering the limitations imposed by practicality, regulation, safety, and cost. The word engineer is derived from the Latin rootsingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”).
Engineers are grounded in applied sciences, and their work in research and development is distinct from the basic research focus of scientists. The work of engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries and their subsequent applications to human needs and quality of life.
A professional or self-taught practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics, and ingenuity to develop solutions for social problems (all problems are social). Punk engineers design materials, structures, and particularly systems within an intellectual framework of anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, social justice, climate justice, anti-patriarchy, post-industrialism, human rights, animal rights, and individual self-expression.
Profit-driven design is anathema to the punk engineer; a badge of honor in punk engineering culture is to get fired off of a project for refusal to compromise and design to status quo.
The work of punk engineers forms the link between scientific discoveries, social theory, social and economic inequality, class warfare, and their subsequent manifestations as systems of material relations. Punk engineers strive through their work to directly confront and oppose consumerism, gentrification, resource mismanagement, the Myth of Progress, the police state, the oil and gas industry, capitalism, the centralization of economic and military power, and the exploitation of the natural world.
I’ve been doing virtual design modeling for building mechanical systems since 2009. That was about the time when Revit MEP, the main software tool I use, had advanced to the point where people generally considered them to be, finally, useful. There was and is a lot of talk about what virtual design software can do – what they can do for firms, for projects, for engineers/architects/contractors, and for the industry at large.
After being engaged in the software for over three years, I think that those promises of what the software can do for us are only part of a misunderstood reality. There are deeper truths to how these tools shape and interact with the people who use them.
It turns out that one of the most powerful effects of these tools lie not in the pure, objective capabilities of the particular program. Instead, we’re finding that the engagement with the software – the activity of a human designer grappling and engaging with the modeling tools in order to produce a virtual yet constructable model – does something to the mind of the designer.
The cognitive and spatial design skills of the modeler are impacted by the process of designing in a virtual model. Not just what people think, but how people think about design is heavily influenced by the particulars of their interaction with the modeling tools. Working in these programs is training in advanced spatial/analytical design thinking skills.
Notice that I used the words impacted and influenced, not enhanced or improved. The effect of the software can be a double-edged sword (I’ll get into that more below). That is one reason why this is so crucial a concept to understand.
Going even deeper into this engagement between designer and design tool, we start to dig into implications about What Design Is. We start to comprehend that a design is not something that pops fully formed into the mind of the designer, and is then transferred to the virtual space of the model (and then to the 2D space of the drawing sets and then to the physical space of the completed building). We start to see that daily engagement with the design tools is where a fundamental unit of design takes place, and that to be insulated from that engagement is to be distanced from the core activity of design itself.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back a moment and
Consider the Sculpture Artist.
A sculptor does not have an idea pop into her mind ex nihilo and then come to the rock with chisel in hand and precisely reproduce that idea. She is in fact inextricably embedded in a social, political, physical, geographic, and emotional environment that enormously impacts what is going to pop into her head. Her entire life’s experience of seeing sculpture art, reading art criticism, playing with Playdough as a kid, the film she saw last Tuesday, the fact that she lives in Seattle and it rains a lot, and the graffiti she saw earlier in the day by the metro, will shape the initial mental model of her design – the fuzzy whirling notion of what she wants to accomplish and communicate with her work.
And then, and this is the interesting part to me, with all that going on in her head, as she comes to the chunk of virgin rock with chisel in hand, the rock itself affects the idea in her head. It has a fissure in a place she wasn’t expecting and has to adjust her design for. The texture of the cut stone is smoother than she thought it’d be and she decides to roll with it in a direction she hadn’t initially planned on. The way her specific tools shape the material (slowly, giving her mind plenty of time to meander as she works) shapes her idea of what she’s doing and find expression back in the outcome of the model.
The stone, itself taking shape under influences from the sculptor’s environment, evolves, changes, and “speaks” back. The act of creating the sculpture is a relationship between the sculptor and the sculpted, a mutual connection. This process flies in the face of the popular notion of the Creative Genius, alone in a studio, who has a flash of brilliance and then sets about to transferring the pure idea to physical form in a linear fashion. It is this reaction against the idea that almighty (human) subjects act upon passive objects that is the foundation of materiality studies.
In the same way that we can talk about how the sharpness of a particular chisel or the heft of a rock hammer impacts the final shape of a stone sculpture, we can also talk about how the graphical user interface for drawing curtain walls with Revit or the series of keystrokes required to lay out a section of pipe in CAD-Mech impacts the (virtual) reality of a design model.
Let’s Talk About Ducts Now
I spend a lot of time modeling duct systems in buildings. These ducts are just big sheet metal tubes that fresh cooled (or heated) air moves through to get to (or away from) a specific space within a building. In the physical world, you can do a lot of different things with ducts. As I understand it, it should be relatively simple to come up with a shape, model it in special fabrication computer software (software that I don’t have access to or experience with), stick it into a big machine, and a few minutes later the machine will spit out the bit of duct you drew.
In Revit, which is the software I use to model a building’s mechanical systems, the default duct fittings are pretty basic and it’s actually difficult to get creative. If I try to model anything sophisticated I soon wind up with a ‘spaghetti model’. That’s a term I use to describe a model where all the pieces are sort of hacked together and if I need to nudge a piece over by a couple of inches, all the connections break and everything jams up and becomes a bear to work with.
The result of this situation is that I rarely get sophisticated with my duct modeling. I just use the basic parts, create simple connections that I know won’t break when I need to adjust them later, and call it a day.
It’s not that I can’t make a sophisticated duct system, it’s just that it’s a pain in the ass to model one in Revit and it will haunt every move I make in the model until I delete the whole mess out of frustration and do it over. After being in Revit long enough, I just don’t even think about doing duct modeling in a particularly sophisticated or geometrically innovative way.
The software has literally taught me not just what to model (duct systems) but how to model (basic, unsophisticated duct systems).
Design is a Relationship
Any thing we engage with (a chisel, a computer mouse, Autodesk Revit MEP, a bit of playdough) both enables us to do certain things and constrains us from certain other things.
This relationship between the designer and the software means that not just what we envision but how we envision our designs is emergent not in the designer alone, nor solely in the capabilities of the software, but in the engagement between the two. We start to see, as materiality studies suggest, that the irreducible unit of design is engagement, activity. The “solitary genius” idea that design happens in the mind of the lone engineer before being transferred without change to paper or a computer screen is deeply flawed.
Going back to the duct system example above, I know that Revit doesn’t do a great job of enabling sophisticated ductwork modeling. If I need to come up with a novel duct solution, I know not to bother with Revit and I’ll turn to Sketchup or Blender to effectively work with the tricky geometry since those programs really allow me to be infinitely creative with that type of thing. Once I’ve figured it out there I’ll hop back into Revit and adapt the design.
If I wasn’t conscientious of Revit’s “novel ductwork” constraint, I wouldn’t think to switch platforms for specific design tasks and my final model would reflect the unnecessary constraints of the design tool I was using.
I have learned a lot of things in my almost four years doing both traditional project engineering work and virtual design model production on some of the most innovative deep green and energy efficient buildings in the world, but the following two points are the biggies to me.
- If you are not “in the model”, you are not really participating in the space where an enormously critical and un-entangleable part of design takes place. What you are missing out on is not the transference of “the design” to “the model”, you are missing out on the core design activity itself.
- If you are in the model but not critically aware of the particular enablments and constraints of the tools you are using, you are going to be unaware of how the tools you are using are impacting the design itself, both positively and negatively.
These to me are the core fundamental concepts of the practice of virtual design modeling, ideas that are important for the people on the ground doing the work of shaping the future of our built environment.
The Concrete Lathe Project has a new online home: oslathe.com
The site is still rough but some exciting stuff is coming up that we’ll be posting about there.
My role on that project has been 3D design modeling, drawing prep, and a few other things. Pat is the brains of the operation. I’d say more but you should really just head over to oslathe.com to check it out.
I recently wrote about the importance of failure for learning and that as we ramp up to figuring out how to save the world, failure will be a critical part of our path and needs to be embraced. I stated that our culture is too failure-averse for what we need to do and that we need to foster a culture that accepts failure as a natural part of the learning cycle.
I still think that’s true but it’s dawning on me that it’s only the first step towards an appropriate way of thinking about failure.
Our failures must be intentional. Failure is only good when we actually learn from the experience and are able to apply the lessons to the future. I wrote
Think > Do > Reflect > (repeat)
and don’t get stuck in any part of that cycle.
I just finished reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which is my first real foray into the world of lean thinking. Pretty much everything I read in the book struck me as extremely relevant to people and organizations doing worldchanging work.
Failure is a critical component of the Lean Startup model, but embedded in the process of failure is a rigorous process for extracting information from the failures, i.e. learning. A core concept to the Lean Startup model is called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.
Build (a product) > Measure (data) > Learn (ideas) > Next iteration
The key to success lies not in any particular component of this loop, but in minimizing the total time it takes to get through the loop. One of the first steps of a startup is to enter the Build phase as quickly as possible with a minimum viable product, or MVP.
The idea is that one-shot success is virtually impossible (reality is hard to model!) and iteration is expected. The more effort you put into building and polishing a product before testing it against reality, the more effort you have put in that will likely get scrapped. You want to put in just enough features to be able to see how they respond to the variables of reality, so that you minimize the amount of work you do that is irrelevant and maximize the amount of work that gets directly tested and has conclusions drawn from.
Don’t spend time building features you think are valuable into a package and then release the whole thing in one massive launch; test each feature against reality rigorously and be brutally honest about what works and what doesn’t. It’s okay to fake features and services to get feedback about whether or not they’ll actually work before building them.
A common problem with startups, or any productive venture, is a misaligned conception of productivity. A classic mistake is to spend all day hammering through tasks, getting things done and pushing out features. At the end of the day you can feel highly productive, but what did you actually accomplish?
Who cares if you built x widgets if they aren’t actually producing value? You can make metrics for all sorts of things that make it look like you are moving forward (the book calls them “vanity metrics”), but that doesn’t mean you are necessarily moving towards your goals and fulfilling your vision. In fact, you may be getting even further away.
An example of a vanity metric that Ries gives is website hits. What does it actually mean to say that your website got 20,000 hits? Did 20,000 people actually read your website? Or was it one guy with a really hyperactive browser?
An example of a vanity metric in the green built environment, to my mind, is number of LEED projects. It’s popular for design firms to boast that they have some number of LEED Gold projects, some number of LEED Platinum projects. That might be fine to say for marketing purposes and to communicate the firm’s dedication to pursuing green projects, but it’s not a good enough metric to define how “green” your designs actually are.
Sure, it’s great that fourteen of your buildings are LEED Certified – but how much carbon are they saving? How many thousands of gallons of water are they consuming? How much cancer was built into the building? Calling a building LEED Certified hints at these numbers but isn’t actually a decent metric to benchmark your success at building an ecotechnic environment. All of your LEED Platinum buildings might, in fact, use an egregious amount of energy – but if all you’re measuring is the fact that they’re awarded LEED points then you won’t even know that you are actually failing in reality.
In the same way, it’s not good enough to have an idea, build it and push it out, see it fail, and say “ah, well, that failed, it doesn’t work; next idea?”. Why didn’t it work? What caused it to fail? What assumption or set of assumptions didn’t hold up? This kind of knowledge can only come with rigorous measurement and analysis.
In fact, obvious failure without data can be harmful. Often an idea is mostly good but fails due to one missed detail. If the effort isn’t measured and analyzed, people will just see the failure and think that the entire idea doesn’t work and might abandon an entire approach that actually has potential. We can’t afford to throw out good ideas and we can’t afford to have wrong ideas about what works and what doesn’t.
Reis makes the point that at the heart of any new startup lie a number of leap-of-faith assumptions. There have to be; startups are by definition trying new untested things. Entrepreneurs base as much as possible of their business plans on knowledge and observed facts about reality, but down at the core of every startup are some statements that stand alone and are not strictly justified. They boil down to “We think people will pay for X because of Y.”
The task of the startup is to test these assumptions against reality. If the result of the metrics, the validated learning, indicates that the assumptions are false, then it is time to pivot.
“At it’s heart, a startup is a catalyst that transforms ideas into products. As customers interact with those products, they generate feedback and data. The feedback is both qualitative (such as what they like and don’t like) and quantitative (such as how many people use it and find it valuable). As we saw in part one, the products a startup builds are really experiments; the learning about how to build a sustainable business is the outcome of those experiments. For startups, that information is much more important than dollars, awards, or mentions in the press, because it can influence and reshape the next set of ideas.”
I think it’d be really illuminating to take a long hard look at what some of the leap-of-faith assumptions built into a lot of deep green organizations are. I’ll save that for another post.
Succeed at Failure
The entire time I was reading the book I was seeing the parallels between the work of traditional startups and those people and organizations trying to change the world in one form or another (deep green design firms, activist organizations, environmental advocacy organizations, etc).
Startups are trying new things that no one has ever done before. They’re kicked off with a vision of a possible future that has never been tested against reality. They push against the inertia of status quo and try to get massive numbers of people to change their behavior in some way. Startups introduce disruptive technologies and services that change how the world works.
In the same way, no one has built an ecotechnic future before. We don’t really know how it’ll work, what ideas will flesh out and which will turn out to be terrible. I thinkt the tools of lean startups have direct relevance and importance for worldchanging efforts.
What we’re fighting as worldchangers is the massive inertia of the world system, a leviathon, on a one-track trajectory for planetary destruction. The worst possible thing we can do is build our own giant green leviathon, built entirely out of untested assumptions about the world and shoved in one direction based on unvalidated knowledge (myths?).
In summary, my little foray into lean thinking has impressed upon me that we can’t just go out and start failing left and right and expect it to pay off. We must fail well, fail intentionally, fail in a very conscious and reflective sort of way. We need to rigorously measure our failures in a transparent way and develop a specific practice of failure.