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Slow Down & Take the Holistic Route

After decades of research, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman determined that people make most decisions after thinking fast, a process governed chiefly by instinct or habit or both.  Slow thinking, in contrast, may yield better decisions.  Slow thinking, as Kahneman defines it, requires stepping back, looking at the big picture, and acknowledging biases.

Kahneman’s research aligns with my own experience as an architectural engineer.  When we work too quickly, we think fast, and this can work to our detriment.  An example of fast thinking in our business is to look at first costs rather than value.  For the most part, as engineers we are already pretty good at explaining to a client that the system with higher first costs may be the better value if it saves money over time on energy and maintenance.  But because no building system operates in isolation, it’s worth it to slow down even more and take the analysis further.

“The benefits of slow, holistic thinking extend beyond money.  Many times the system that solves the problem holistically is also better for people.”

On a recent project, we proposed using a geothermal heat pump system for climate control.  Considering the system in isolation – comparing its higher direct costs to energy usage and maintenance – the payback would have exceeded a decade.  The client was not enthused.  But when we slowed down and looked at the effect of geothermal on the project as a whole, our assessment changed.  Geothermal eliminated the need for boilers and coolers, saving those equipment costs.  Geothermal also eliminated the need for 1,500 square feet of building space to house the boiler plant – a significant savings at $250 a square foot.  There were more savings as well.  With geothermal, the building didn’t need rooftop HVAC infrastructure or expensive structural systems to support that infrastructure.  Likewise, there was no need for HVAC-related equipment in the building yard, and therefore no need for a wall or other barrier to shield it or to dampen noise.  Accounting for these holistic considerations, the payback on geothermal was closer to six years, and the client embraced the idea.  In fact, I have yet to find a client unreceptive to the concept of a holistic look at value.

The benefits of slow, holistic thinking extend beyond (dare I say it?) money.  Many times the system that solves the problem holistically is also better for people.  An example would be a building that relies on daylighting for natural light.  Say you achieve this with the addition of skylights, which cost money up front and may cost more down the road in maintenance.  Are there benefits that offset those costs?  Yes, there are.  Skylights save on energy for lighting, for example.  But the human benefits might be even more important.  People like to work in natural light, and a pleasant work environment may result in more effective, more efficient employees – maybe even in reduced employee turnover.  While harder to quantify than an electric bill, these effects of daylighting can have a bigger impact on the bottom line.

Take all this slow thinking to its logical extreme and you arrive at the Edge, a state-of-the-art office building in Amsterdam that houses Deloitte Consulting, among other firms.  Designed by London-based PLP Architecture, the Edge uses a host of innovations to control climate, lighting, and security.  The most energy- and cost-efficient innovation of all, though, was the design decision to build square footage based on the number of employees actually in the building at any one time, not on the full complement of employees.  As a result, the building is only 60 percent as big as it would have been.  (If you’re wondering how that works in practice, a phone app assigns a locker and a workstation to each employee when he or she arrives for the day.)

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Think (slowly) about the all-encompassing implications of the simple decision to build smaller: smaller construction costs, smaller impact on the surrounding environment, smaller financing.  Over time there’s also less maintenance and lower energy costs.  It’s a wonderful, not to mention edgy, example of the holistic approach.

To my mind, the value of the consulting engineer to the client lies in the innovative thinking he or she brings to a project.  In my experience, clients rely on us for expertise and are more than ready to listen to our advice.  At Reese Engineering we have an energetic, eager-to-learn group of people who embrace the new.  It’s counter-intuitive in a hurry-up world, but doing our best work may require us to think slow.

– John D. Reese, PE, LEED AP

John is a Licensed Professional Engineer, a LEED Accredited Professional, and Managing Principal of Reese Engineering, Inc.