The following was published in the Northeast Sun, the journal of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association in 2003, the year I served as the chair of NESEA’s Building Energy Conference
LESSONS LEARNED FROM TWO DECADES AROUND NESEA
As the chair of the committee that organized this year’s Building Energy Conference, I have had a wonderful opportunity to interact with many NESEA members. While immersed in preparations for the conference, I spent considerable time thinking about NESEA and about what we NESEA members all have in common. I want to share some of my thoughts with you.
The Idealism and Practicality of NESEA
NESEA, if nothing else, is an idealistic organization. But we NESEA members are generally also very practical. We work on real solutions. At our core, what we all share is great dreams. We want to change the world. At our conferences, we try to cross-fertilize ideas across a range of professions that are all critical to creating a sustainable future.
Most of the success I have enjoyed over twenty years owning and helping businesses can be directly traced to ideas and opportunities developed though my connections in NESEA. More important than business success, I have been able to develop personal friendships through NESEA with many truly brilliant leaders of the kind of world we are all hoping to create.
I put a lot of time into volunteering for NESEA. But I make this effort selfishly. I believe that the way we best help ourselves is to make real and measurable contributions to the world. Investing time in NESEA is one of the most important investments I make for my business and myself.
For those of you who are new to NESEA or who haven’t been active, I encourage you to engage yourself. The people you will meet at NESEA gatherings could become the most important people in your life.
I want to share a few of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my involvement with NESEA since 1979.
For years, Marc Rosenbaum, of Energysmiths has been admonishing us to focus our attention and financial resources on those things that are fundamental and would be most expensive and difficult to change later, like the foundations of buildings we build. There is a simple wisdom in that advice which too many people easily forget while chasing the latest flashy new “green” fad of the moment.
Jamie Wolf of Wolfworks, Inc. has been a huge guiding force behind NESEA. He reminds us to stay focused on what really matters by telling us: “I don’t want to be a green builder. I want to be a good builder.”
Tedd Benson, of Benson Woodworking Company, has long advocated building more rationally, arguing that the tangle of structure, skin, and systems typically found in most conventional buildings fundamentally diminishes the potential for quality, durability, and long term value. When I asked Tedd to share the theories of disentangled open building systems at the Building Energy 2003 Conference, he responded that he doesn’t spend much energy advocating and theorizing any more. Instead he focuses on actually building projects that are tangible and real.
It may be time that we, as advocates of environmental sustainability, start to disentangle the often grandiose mixes of technological, political, economic, and business solutions that have too often emerged as easy answers, but which may in fact hinder the healthy development of the more fundamental solutions we advocate. Rather than all the grandiose schemes, instead we should focus on the very real work of actually building a sustainable society, one good project at a time.
Joe Lstiburek, a principal in Building Science Corporation, has been the best teacher that many of us have had in our effort to improve our practice in the building arena. He has often encouraged us not to be afraid to change as we learn, with his unembarrassed admonitions to alter practices he earlier advocated, but later found could be improved. At the end of a great treatise on green building on their website, Joe and his partner, Betsy Pettit, suggest that fundamental to good building practice is respect for a critical lesson that few architects or builders ever even consider as they focus on less important issues. “A green architect or builder must be a student of science first; great buildings will follow.”
John Abrams of South Mountain Company has had an amazing ability to create wonderful successes when he smiles his broad smile, speaks the truth bluntly, and helps empower other people to find the courage to break the rules that get in the way of doing good work. He is successful because he usually is right and he is not afraid of breaking the silly rules that hinder most of us from doing the right thing.
In his keynote address at one of the best NESEA conferences ever, the inspiring writer and entrepreneur Paul Hawken started the conference by telling us boldly that: “Business is the most powerful force on the planet.”
I’ll share a premise of my own for you. I believe that none of the solutions we advocate can be sustainable until they become profitable as business ventures. The real work we have in front of us is the practical effort of making environmentally sustainable projects profitable rather than the abstract idealized concerns many people get wrapped up in. The challenges we face are neither as glamorous nor as daunting as many presume. The fundamental solutions to the problems we aspire to address demand clarity, honesty, a little courage, and a lot of hard work. Those are the keys to a sustainable future.
It is important that we keep an open mind about our vision of the future and be willing to listen to those who question our assumptions. We should at least try to understand those whose world views are shaped by different realities than those we perceive. Without at least understanding and trying to answer the concerns of skeptics, we will never be able to actually create a sustainable future.
In an amazing 1997 essay on creating change entitled “Places To Intervene In A System,” Donella Meadows described the various ways we can intervene in any kind of system. She organized these intervention points in a hierarchy based on their power to impact change. She suggested that if we want to influence change in an especially powerful way, we must influence “the mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.” She went on to say that “people who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.”
Then at the end of this incredible essay, Donella wrote: “To be truthful and complete, I have to add this kicker. The highest leverage of all is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to realize that no paradigm is true, that even the one that sweetly shapes one’s comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe.”
Many of us who consider ourselves environmentalists are absolutely wedded to certain paradigms, like the presumed value of certain renewable energy technologies, unquestioned understandings of the problems of pollution and climate change, and concern about a breach of Malthusian limits. Some environmentalists profess to embrace paradigms that I believe are humanly irreconcilable, presuming a fundamental conflict between the economy and the environment or between business and nature or between humanity and other forms of life. Surely our visions of a sustainable future need to reflect a deep regard for the hopes and dreams of the other people who share the planet with us and who will follow when we are gone.
As an optimist, there are several paradigms that I find compelling. Human ingenuity is undeniably remarkable. Historically, opportunity and hope have proven to be far more lasting and influential human motivators than fear. The possibility of peace, freedom, hope, and prosperity for all humanity seems greater than ever before with low-cost access to information and communication, and the clean, plentiful non-polluting energy resources of the emerging renewable-hydrogen economy.
Remembering Brian Smeltz
I want to end these musings by remembering and honoring a remarkable man that I was privileged to work with briefly at Benson Woodworking Company.
Brian Smeltz was trained as a graphic artist and was extremely talented in that arena. He was also a mechanic, a woodworker, an amazing illustrator, a brilliant photographer, one of the best architectural designers I have ever known, a talented and effective construction manager, a senior partner in an inspiring business, a great father, an active participant in his church and his local community, a volleyball player, and a great friend to a lot of people. Brian worked hard and he played hard.
Brian died recently, just before finishing construction of the manufacturing facility that he designed and built to house the company he had dedicated his career to. I went to the ceremony at which the most beautiful and environmentally friendly industrial facility I have seen was dedicated to the man who created it.
Brian didn’t talk much about theories. He was too busy working and creating inspiring realities on the ground. When I remember him, mostly what I remember is the great smile he always seemed to wear. Brian’s rich life should be a model for all of us. Teamwork, honesty, skill, focus, dedication, fun and hard work. These are the attributes that will create the future we desire.
Just Go Do It
The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association has always strived to be at the cutting edge where theory and real work come together to create the future. It’s not often easy, clean, neat, or perfect. We’re not always right. As John teaches us, we have to smile as we master our fears and take some chances. Like Joe, no matter how good we may already be at our work, it’s critical that we constantly adapt and improve as we learn. As Jamie reminds us, we have to focus on the real essence of what we are about, rather than the rhetoric. As Brian taught us so well by his example, the best way to create a great future is to just go do it.