Rethinking Design

A guest post by The story of the oak beams of Oxford’s New College is helpful in rethinking design as a part of a larger process. Gregory Bateson tells how a maintenance man at the school found that the large beams that spanned the dinning hall were riddled with beetles. In the search for oak beams of that size the forester who managed the school's forestry endowment was called in. When told the problem he replied that he’d been waiting to be asked for the trees, as “everyone knows that in about five hundred years oak beams get beetlely.” It turned out that acorns had been planted when the school was built to supply the replacement beams. Bateson’s comment is “That’s the way to run a society.”

Learning from this example, we can see that the planning and development of a regenerative building begins with the development of the forests that supply the timber, the coppices that supply the withes and poles, the gathering of stones from crop fields, the tending of the sheep whose wool will insulate the walls and ceiling, and the development of the craftspeople who will tend the forest and flocks, fell the trees, tend the cleared fields, and craft the building. Seen in this much longer arc, if the design process is focused simply on the design of form, it misses most of the value-adding potential of the process of which “design/build” is a part. The full value-adding stream includes sourcing materials in regenerative ways and developing all five types of capital, including developing businesses and human and natural capacities and capabilities.
In realizing the full regenerative potential of a building, the process is the most fruitful portion. It is important to shift the focus from designing the form of the building to designing the form-giving process (which includes but is certainly not limited to planning and design). The building is a temporary manifestation of a much longer on-going process. What is to be gained by giving careful thought to the process rather than the form?
There is a well-known example from Australia where a farmer wanted to clear and fertilize a scrubby field and turn it into an orchard. Rather than hiring a bulldozer to clear the field and buying compost to fertilize it, he bought two piglets and some electric fencing. Concentrating their effects, a portion of the field was cleared and fertilized and was planted to orchard trees. The hogs were butchered. One supplied the pork for his family for a year, while the sale of the other provided money to buy two more piglets and corn to feed them for a year. After repeating this process for a number of years the entire field was cleared, fertilized, and planted to fruit trees while paying for itself and feeding the family. By establishing the orchard in stages, the fruit production began before the pork production ceased. In fact, pigs could easily have continued to feed in the orchard, eating fallen fruit and cultivating the soil. The food production process did not begin with the completion of the orchard, but began with the commencement of the process for establishing it. In fact, it was a food production process all along that shifted form from pork to fruit. The form is unimportant. How do we design “design/build” processes that are similarly productive from the outset or from which buildings are a byproduct?
There are many systems that encourage the creation of drawings of the design of buildings as a focus, from permitting to financing. It is usually the assumed design decisions - which are in fact unmade because they are assumed - that could yield the greatest benefit if thought about, questioned, and addressed creatively. If we assume how the building process occurs, we miss many opportunities for regeneration.

It is just like assuming that transportation means cars - or if  I'm really thinking radically, electric cars or even buses. This limited thinking misses many opportunities. The greatest limit to yield (potential) is our minds. Certainly this limit is mostly in our assumptions and preconceptions. How do we shift our focus from designing objects to designing processes that are regenerative? How do we stop thinking about any activity as separate from the ongoing life (self-regeneration) of places?