In the late 1990s I was part of a team hired to consult on a model green elementary school for McKinney, Texas. The kickoff workshop for this project included the architects (a firm specializing in school design), our team of consultants, and teachers and other staff from the school district. As the workshop began, participants couched all ideas about the green school in terms of modifications to current school designs. Each idea had to be justified individually. Needless to say, this approach was leading to a design that would be at best a light shade of green.
I was there to provide input on materials choices and water conservation technologies, but when it was my turn to present, I felt compelled to try to shift the group’s perspective. We had visited the building site earlier in the day—an attractive field surrounded by hedgerows. I asked the group to imagine themselves as teachers, on the site with a group of students. What pedagogical opportunities were available to them, and what services would they require from the school building to teach effectively? By turning the conversation to the basic need for shelter and the opportunity of a connection to the environment that most buildings lack, I hoped to reframe the conversation about what a green school might be. At the time, I wasn’t convinced that my efforts succeeded, but each classroom in the model school provides a direct connection to the outdoors, so maybe that exercise had at least some influence on the outcome.
In retrospect, my naïve effort at shifting the group’s perspective was an attempt to address the collective mindset. Some designers and consultants in the building industry have made the mindset thing a focus of their work, both to increase their chances of success in implementing green measures and to explore the possibilities of creating projects that go beyond green or sustainable design as it is typically defined. This article offers a peek at what those people are doing and why they believe it’s important.