Feature Article

How Buildings Fail Their Users

A building doesn’t have to be falling down to fail. We share seven stories of green buildings gone wrong—along with tips for prevention.

“You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.”

            –Sam Levenson

Kroon Hall at Yale School of Forestry third floor

Kroon Hall at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, is a beloved building in lots of ways, but it also has issues with thermal comfort.

Photo: Paula Melton

We need to talk about failure. Because the more we talk about it, the more successful we will be.

That’s the position of Henry Petroski, Ph.D., civil engineer, failure analyst, and author of Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design.

“Successes don’t teach you anything,” Petroski told BuildingGreen. “Following successful models is always dangerous.” That’s because we tend to build on success by pushing the limits further and further—and eventually we push too far. “But if you start worrying about failure and designing against it,” Petroski said, “you’re more assured that your design is going to be successful.”

“Lessons Learned”

Petroski claims it’s important to learn from our own mistakes but even more important to learn from the mistakes of others. In particular, he says, the younger generation needs to learn from the mistakes of more experienced colleagues in order to avoid repeating them. “Most people try to cover up failures or run away from them,” he said. This creates a design culture in which we seldom get to benefit from others’ failures except when they are catastrophic and public. Even then, we often see more finger-pointing than accountability or analysis.

There is no shame in failure; in fact, it’s how we get better. For this article, we coaxed stories of failure—er, lessons learned—out of design and construction professionals.

“There are a lot of euphemisms used in different fields to avoid the word ‘failure,’” notes Petroski. Whether you call it “failure” or a “lesson learned,” though, the important thing is to face it head-on, and put some time and energy into thinking about how it could have been prevented. And then to share your wisdom with others.

Editor’s note: In order to encourage people to share their experiences with failure, we have chosen not to identify some of the buildings in this article or their exact locations.

Published March 6, 2018