A Pattern Language for Residential Energy Efficiency

Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog -- http://mncee.org/Innovation-Exchange/ie/

"The overall name of these interrelated structures is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system. ...There's so much talk about the system. And so little understanding. That's all a motorcycle is, a system of concepts worked out in steel. There's no part in it, no shape in it that is not in someone's mind. I've noticed that people who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this- that the motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon." - Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

You know who they are. They can look at a house and, by smell or some psychic power, immediately diagnose the building energy, IAQ, or moisture concern. You can call them about a problem you’re working on and with a single question they can get right to the heart of the issue. How do they do it? Usually, they’ve spent significant time in several houses. But it’s more than just experience: their practical knowledge gives them an intuitive understanding of how buildings work. This helps them identify the important patterns and identify the factors that created them. They are building systems thinkers.

In this era of green job creation, we ask: “how do we create a job force that attains this level of proficiency without waiting for years and years of experience to allow people to reach the proper level of understanding?”

At the advent of World War II the nation also had to ask this question. As the male-dominated skilled labor left the factories to go to war, the US had to ramp up its industrial war effort with an inexperienced work force. They accomplished this with a program called Training Within Industry (TWI) that instituted rapid and consistent training. TWI was a huge success for the US War Effort. To provide a similar consistency and conciseness in our training, we need to define our system patterns and develop a way to teach them.

In systems, patterns arise through the interactions of various parts of a system in reaction to particular driving forces and system conditions. These patterns therefore manifest how the system works. Systems thinking is understanding these patterns and knowing how they relate to how the building as a system works.

Furthermore, we need to test the patterns that we’ve learned from experience and intuition with the actual savings that have been obtained. We need a system to identify and classify the important patterns that will guide us in training new building energy professionals.

In 1977, Christopher Alexander published his classic book A Pattern Language, in which he describes a design process for buildings and planning. He created over

“250 patterns that are the units of this language, each consisting of a design problem, discussion, illustration, and solution. By understanding recurrent design problems in our environment, [designers] can identify extant patterns in their own projects and use these patterns to create a language of their own” 

for their specific needs. The pattern language provides a context for the design problem and establishes a set of rules which could be followed to effectively solve the problem as part of the overall system.

I am creating a Pattern Language for Residential Energy Efficiency to apply Alexander’s methodology to a building diagnostic process of existing buildings (rather than a design process for new construction). I hope to understand the recurrent patterns that we encounter and develop a rule-based process to identify effective approaches in delivering energy efficiency services to communities, buildings, and households.

I used the same textual format as Alexander: a list that defines each pattern in terms of its problem statement and its resolution. I listed other patterns that would contain the defined pattern (parent/sibling patterns) and patterns that the defined pattern would contain (child patterns).

Building this pattern language in a textual form is difficult because the relationships between the patterns are not easily visualized from such a linear format. This is especially problematic since the interrelationships and interactions are often the crux of the problems encountered. The purpose of this pattern language tool is to evoke the systemic nature of buildings. In order to more effectively show the interconnectedness of the patterns, I tried to reorganize them into a tree map. Given the breadth and depth of the patterns, the map quickly became unwieldy.

Then I found TheBrain, a cloud-based mind map service. It manages and organizes information to show parent, sibling, and child relationships in a clear and visual way. It also permits fairly straightforward navigation to other parts of the mind map and displays each pattern’s descriptive text.

You can view the House Pattern Language on the webbrain.com site if you sign up for an account. It is still very much a work in progress! I am working on this project to define the term “house as a system” and create a systematic approach to our questioning. Relying on an intuitive expert approach can expose us to underlying biases and prejudices from unsubstantiated patterns. If we can delineate building morphologies and create an ontology of building patterns, we can quantify and qualify our knowledge and establish a building science rather than a building art. If you would like to collaborate on this house pattern language, please contact us.

Related posts:

in other words: Understanding How to Interpret Your Energy Use

Productivity in the Cloud

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Comment by Lester Shen on October 25, 2012 at 7:41am

Thanks, David. That's a great list. I have the Art of Game Design and http://getmentalnotes.com decks. Ideo also has a deck worth looking into:


Comment by David Eggleton on October 25, 2012 at 7:00am

Among decks of cards surveyed are some pattern languages.  You may be interested in others, as well.

Comment by David Eggleton on September 18, 2012 at 8:19am

I defer to Robert with respect to what is ultimately accurate and desirable.  Short of that, like Dale I believe your efforts/outcomes can facilitate improved organization and integration of the multitude of facts with which industry newcomers must engage.

Comment by Dale@EnergyWright on September 14, 2012 at 5:38am

Just as Alexander's book points out that the pattern language he presents is just one of many patterns, so it is with defining patterns in houses as systems.  And while apprenticeship is a tried-and-true means to learn these patterns as one builds experience, your transforming the pattern language concept to house-as-a-system will undoubtedly help students and apprentices in our industry build a framework of comprehension on which they can layer their experience over time. 

While 70% of adults are visual learners, I would venture to say contractors are probably 99% visual.  Displaying house-as-a-system in a visual pattern language will enhance the understanding of interactive relationships of house components.  In effect, I think your efforts could help fast-track the apprenticeship/mentoring process and strengthen diagnostic skills within a house as a system. 

Lester, I look forward to seeing more of your efforts on this. Great work.

Comment by Lester Shen on September 13, 2012 at 9:53am

Robert, I agree that this probably has limited use as a training tool. You also make a good point about experiential learning and it is the same issue that came up when the US ramped up for the war effort in WWII. Training Within Industry managed to circumvent the apprenticeship system and brought an unskilled labor force up to speed very rapidly. Daniel Kahnemann in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, discusses intuition and decision making and makes the case for regression analysis. Similarly, if you consider systems thinking, I think that you could say that intuition is the identification of patterns. Since patterns are a manifestation of systems, then cataloguing the patterns and creating a pattern language will help us understand the system and perhaps provide us with lists or tips that speed up this process of creating masters.

Comment by Lester Shen on September 13, 2012 at 9:38am

It has come to my attention that the labels at thebrain.com model were not visible. I have tried to correct the problem and hopefully it is readable. Sorry and let me know if there are still issues. Thanks.

Comment by C.J. Randall on September 13, 2012 at 8:54am

I'm an urban planner by training and an energy aficionado on top of it. I'm reading Alexander's 'A Pattern Language' now also and this has given me some great ideas and resources for the book I'm writing about energy development in New York. Thanks for the great post!

Comment by Robert Riversong on September 13, 2012 at 8:53am

This is a useful exercise and it may result in an "app" which helps professionals remember the interconnections they might overlook.

But I'm not sure it's a useful training tool, as it is overly-complex and only a 2-dimensional approximation of the intricate webwork of connections that occurs in the mind.

Further, I think there is a fatal flaw in trying to convert what is, in reality, an art into a science. The most significant statement is "it’s more than just experience: their practical knowledge gives them an intuitive understanding of how buildings work."

Nothing can replace years of experience and the intuitive (non-linear) understanding that offers. There was good reason that, once upon a time (and still in some countries and some trades), it took years to work one's way through the apprenticeship system to become a journeyman before finally achieving master status.


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