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Green Building Negative Feedback Loop

Core Concepts: Collaboration - Systems Thinking

Robust Low-No Cost Sustainability, Resiliency, Regenerative Process Requires:

Embracing and Maintaining The Integrative Collaborative Process


Action Item #1 - During Site Selection - Commencement of Schematic Design:

Ensure an Integrative Process Facilitator is included on your team.

The Core Concepts

1. Integrative Collaborative Process  

2. Triple Bottom Line Decision Making

3. Industry Tools: Rating Systems, BIM, Life Cycle Analysis...


Foundational Guidance Documents

ANSI Consensus National Standard Guide for Design:

 Construction of Sustainable Buildings and Communities 

AIA Integrative Project Delivery

Excerpt from

USGBC Green Building and LEED Core Concepts Guide: 

Section II + III

Pages 18 - 49


High-Performance Green building will change the way you think. Buildings that seem to be individual, static objects will reveal themselves as fluid systems that exist in relationship to their environments and like all things, change over time. Professionals who previously appeared only distantly related will become partners in a dynamic process that incorporates perspectives from outside their respective fields discovering new insights, efficacies, strategies, and approaches to lower costs, and enhance the design, construction, and operations of any built environment. (or product, policy, program, service, etc.)

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

Albert Einstein

In systems thinking, the built environment is understood as a series of relationships in which each part affects many other parts. Systems include materials, resources, energy, people, and information, as well as the complex interactions and flows between these elements across space and through time. Green building also requires taking a life cycle approach, looking at all stages of a project, product, or service. It requires asking, where do building materials and resources come from? Where will they go once their useful life ends? What effects do they have on the world along the way? Questions such as these encourage practitioners to ensure that buildings are adaptable and resilient and perform as expected while minimizing harmful consequences. Finally, to achieve results that are based on whole systems across their entire life cycle, building professionals must adopt an integrated process. This approach emphasizes connections and communication among professionals and stakeholders throughout the life of a project. It breaks down disciplinary boundaries and rejects linear planning and design processes that can lead to inefficient solutions. Although the term integrated design is most often applied to new construction or renovations, an integrated process is applicable to any phase in the life cycle of a building.

In green building, solutions are examined through different perspectives, scales, and levels of detail, and then refined. The lens of each discipline involved in a project contributes to an overall view that leads to refined and more effective designs. For example, sustainable neighborhood design strategies might be analyzed by land-use planners, traffic engineers, civil engineers, infrastructure designers, public health experts, and developers. The more each team member understands the perspectives and strategies of the others, the more integrated the design. The iterative pattern of an integrated process can be used throughout the project as details come into focus. Far from being time-consuming, the process can actually save time by encouraging communication upfront and bringing people together for highly productive collaborative work sessions.

Integrated Design Meets the Real World

In the article “Integrated Design Meets the Real World,” the authors note that users of an integrated approach “… got better at the process over time, especially when they were able to work with the same team members more than once, Once they’d gone through the process, they found it valuable, and many couldn’t imagine doing design any other way.”

Wendt and n. Malin, Integrative Design Meets the Real World, Environmental Building News 19(5) 2010 C.cfm?Volume=19&Issue=5.    


This section addresses problem-solving approaches that can be applied throughout the green building process. Subsequent sections will explore how green building professionals can begin to incorporate these ideas into projects and professional pursuits.

Systems Thinking

Sustainability involves designing and operating systems to survive and thrive over time. To understand sustainable systems, we must further understand what we mean by systems. A system is an assemblage of elements or parts that interact in a series of relationships to form a complex whole that serves particular functions or purposes.

Systems thinking has had a profound effect on many industries and fields of study, such as computer science, business, psychology, and ecology. Especially the built environment. Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers and Dennis Meadows, pioneers in the study of systems and sustainability, describe this discipline in their book The Limits to Growth. 


A system can be physically small (an anthill) or large (the entire universe), simple and self-contained (bacteria in a Petri dish), or complex and interacting with other systems (the global trading system or a forest ecosystem). Systems rarely exist in isolation; even the bacteria in the Petri dish are affected by the light and temperature of the laboratory. The boundaries of a system depend on what we are looking at, and most systems are actually systems within systems. For example, the human body is made up of many interlinking internal systems, such as the musculoskeletal system, which interact with external systems, such as the natural environment.

Many systems in the modern world are designed as open systems, into which materials and resources are constantly brought in from the outside, used in some way, and then released outside the system in some form of waste. For example, in most urban American communities, water, food, energy, and materials are imported into the city from sources outside the municipal boundaries. In fact, many of our materials and resources are imported from around the world. After they have been used inside the city, they are released as waste in the form of sewage, solid waste, and pollution. In nature, there are no open systems; dead and decaying matter become food or something else, and everything goes somewhere. There is no “away.” By slowing the passing of materials and resources through the system and linking elements to form new relationships and functions, we can begin to mimic nature and design closed systems,

which are more sustainable.

When designing buildings and communities, we must understand both the individual elements of the system and their relationships to each other as a whole. One decision may have a ripple effect. For example, improvements in the building envelope, the boundary between the exterior and interior elements of a building, can change the requirements for the mechanical system. Using better insulation or more efficient windows might allow for a smaller heating system. At the same time, reducing air infiltration can raise concerns about indoor air quality. Envelope design can also be used to increase daylight into the space, affecting lighting design, heating, and air-conditioning as well as improving the quality of the indoor space. But envelopes designed for increased daylighting without consideration of glare and heat gain can create uncomfortable and less productive spaces. Even the interior finishes and furnishings can change the effectiveness of natural daylighting and ventilation strategies.


“Optimizing components in isolation tends to pessimize the whole system —and hence the bottom line. You can actually make a system less efficient, simply by not properly linking up those components … If they’re not designed to work with one another, they’ll tend to work against one another .” Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins Natural Capitalism

Our training taught us to see the world as a set of unfolding behavior patterns, such as growth, decline, oscillation, and overshoot. It has taught us to focus not so much on single pieces of a system, as on connections. We see the elements of demography, economy, and the environment as one planetary system, with innumerable interconnections. We see stocks

and flows and feedbacks and interconnections, all of which influence the way the system will behave in the future and influence the actions we might take to change its behavior.

Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

The concept of feedback loops helps explain how systems work. Feedback loops are the information flows within a system that allows that system to organize itself. For example, when a thermostat indicates that the temperature in a room is too warm, it sends a signal to turn on the air-conditioning. When the room is sufficiently cooled, the thermostat sends a signal for the air-conditioning to stop.

This type of feedback loop is called a negative feedback loop because embedded in the system’s response to a change is a signal for the system to stop changing when that response is no longer needed. Negative feedback loops enable a system to self-correct and stay within a particular range of function or performance. Thus, they keep systems stable.

Positive feedback loops, on the other hand, are self-reinforcing: the stimulus causes an effect, and the effect produces even more of that same effect. Population growth is a positive feedback loop. The more babies who are born, the more people there will be in the population to have more babies. Therefore, the population can be expected to rise until acted upon by another force, such as an epidemic or shortage of resources.

In the built environment, roads and infrastructure built out to the urban fringe often result in a positive feedback loop of increased development. This suburban growth can sprawl far from the urban core, requiring more roads and encouraging additional growth,  as well as using more resources (energy, water, sewage systems, materials) to support that growth.

Negative Feedback Loop

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Positive Feedback Loop














Climate change is another positive feedback loop. As the earth gets warmer, fewer surfaces remain covered with snow, a reflective surface that bounces incoming heat from the sun back into space. When snow melts, the darker surfaces absorb more heat, which raises the temperature and melts more snow. Similarly, in the built environment, the dark surfaces of roofs, roads, and parking lots absorb more heat from the sun. This heat island effect raises temperatures in urban areas several degrees above the temperature of surrounding areas, increasing the demand for cooling and the amount of energy that buildings use. The additional energy use can increase carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming, further raising urban temperatures and energy use, and the cycle continues.

Unchecked, positive feedback loops can create chaos in a system. For example, if urban temperatures rise too high, local populations may suffer or abandon the area. In nature, positive feedback loops are typically checked by stabilizing negative feedback loops, processes that shut down uncontrolled growth or other destabilizing forces. Stability and resilience in the system return as the feedback loops begin to control the change. To design sustainable systems, we must understand the positive and negative feedback loops already in existence or those we set in motion, to ensure systems remain stable and habitable over time.

Feedback loops — positive or negative — depend on flows of information.

When information about the performance of the system is missing or blocked, the system cannot respond. For example, buildings without appropriate sensors and control systems cannot adjust to changing temperatures and maintain a comfortable indoor environment. The information must be both collected and directed. Most buildings have thermostats to provide information and control temperature. However, there are many other parameters, measurable or quantifiable characteristics of a system, that are relevant to sustainability but do not get measured or reported in effective ways. For example, the amount of energy used by tenant-occupied buildings may be collected by an electricity or gas meter and reported to the utility company but not to the occupants, who therefore have no information about their energy consumption and no incentive to reduce it. If real-time information on energy use is delivered to them in a convenient way, they can use energy more efficiently. Some have called this the Hybrid Car effect,  which gives the driver information about fuel consumption so that she can drive in a fuel-efficient way. Installing real-time energy meters where operators can act on the information is an example of connecting elements of a system so that they can interact and respond to each other more appropriately in the feedback loop.


In addition to elements, their relationships, and the feedback loops among them, systems theory explores the emergent properties of a system—patterns that emerge from the system as a whole and are more than the sum of the parts. For example, the pattern of waves crashing along the beach is an emergent property: the pattern is more than the water molecules that make up the ocean, more than the surface of the shore, more than the gravitational pull of the moon or the influence of the wind. The waves emerge as a result of the interactions and relationships among the elements.

Similarly, the culture of a company emerges from the people who work there, the buildings in which they work, the services or products they provide, the way they receive and process information, the management and power structure, and the financial structure. These elements and flows combine in both predictable and unpredictable ways to form a unique and individual organization. The elements of the system (people, buildings), the flows within the system (of materials, money, and information), the rules that govern those flows (management and structures), and the functions of the system (providing goods or services, generating a profit) determine whether the company is a good place to work and will be sustainable over time.

To influence the behavior of a system, it is important to find the leverage points—places where a small intervention can yield large changes. Providing building occupants with real-time energy information is an example of using a leverage point to alter behavior. Rather than changing the elements of the system—the envelope of the structure, the mechanical system, the building occupants, the electricity grid—the change focuses merely on delivering available data to a point where it can be acted on appropriately. This minor tweak can dramatically raise the efficiency of the system. Donella Meadows’s essay “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” provides an excellent summary of how to find and use leverage points to make meaningful change. 

In Natural Capitalism, Hawkens, Lovins, and Lovins explore how capital markets can be used for —rather than against—sustainability, not by eliminating them or adding intensive regulation, but by using leverage points within the system. One leverage point they examines the goals that govern the system. By valuing not only financial capital but also natural capital and human capital, existing systems and structures can lead to sustainability.

Leverage Points

Places to Intervene in a System (in increasing order of effectiveness)

  1. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)

  2. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows

  3. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, and population age structures)

  4. The lengths of delays relative to the rate of system change

  5.  The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against

  6. The gain around driving positive feedback loops

  7. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)

  8. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, and constraints)

  9. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure

  10. The goals of the system

  11. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system—its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters—arises

  12. The power to transcend paradigms

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When designing aspects of the built environment, consider the systems in which the project will be located and the systems the project will create. Learn about the relationships between the elements, the flows of resources and information, and the leverage points that can lead to dramatic changes. Before starting any project, the team can explore these systems by asking questions. Whether working in the planning, design, construction, or operations phase, these questions may provide insight into the systems context and ways to move more fully toward sustainability in an integrated way.

Questions project teams should explore as they begin working together include, but are in no way limited to:

  • Where is the project located, and who are its neighbors—locally, regionally, and beyond?

  • What is the local watershed? The bioregion? What are the characteristics of these systems?

  • How do resources, such as energy, water, and materials, flow into the project? Where do they

  • come from, and from how far away? What other purposes or projects do those flows serve?

  • What natural processes are at work on the site? How do resources, such as rainwater, wastewater, and solid waste, flow out of the system? Where do they go? Are there places on site where these flows can be captured, stored, or reused?

  • What are the goals of the owner? What is the function or purpose of the project? How will the project meet those goals?

  • What is the community within the project? Who are the people who come here, and where do they come from? Where do they go? What brings them together, and what might keep them apart?

  • How will the project change their interactions?

  • How does the project community interact with other, overlapping communities? What are the interrelationships? Are there sources of conflicts? What is the economic system within the project?

  • How does it fit into larger or overlapping economic systems?

  • What are the leverage points within the system? Are there places where small changes can produce big results?

In a linear design process, the solutions to one problem may cause other problems else wherein the system. When problems are solved through a systems-based approach, multiple problems can often be solved at the same time. This synergy is possible when we take the time to explore the interconnections and approach a project in a holistic manner. In the context of the built environment, systems thinking allows us to explore and support the rich interactions that make healthy, thriving, and sustainable communities.

Life Cycle Approach

Green building takes a life cycle approach, looking at the entire life of a project, product, or service, rather than a single snapshot of a system. The dimension of longevity distinguishes the green building from conventional building practice, which may fail to think across time, and helps create communities and buildings that are meant to last. For a building, a lifecycle approach begins with the initial predesign decisions that set goals and a program to follow. It continues through location selection, then design, construction, operations and maintenance, refurbishment, and renovation. A building’s life cycle ends in demolition or, preferably, reuse.

In most cases in our industrial system, we treat the manufacture of products, the construction of buildings, and the operations of organizations as open systems. We take materials from outside the system, use them to make something, and then discard what remains. This throughput of resources occurs at every phase of the life cycle, creating a constant cycle of consumption and waste. In addition to the upstream effects that happen before a material is used, there are downstream impacts associated with its operation and end of life. We need to consider both upstream and downstream effects in our decision-making processes.


Systems thinking relies on identifying and acting on opportunities to close this loop.

Because we typically do not consider building elements as linked into a larger set of systems, this waste remains largely invisible. By incorporating the upstream effects into our analysis of alternatives, we can get a broader picture of the environmental costs and benefits of materials. The practice of investigating materials from the point of extraction to their disposal is sometimes described as cradle to grave—a term that suggests a linear process through an open system. To emphasize the cyclical aspect of a closed system, architect William McDonough and colleague Michael Braungart coined the phrase cradle to cradle. In a closed system, there is no waste, and all things find another purpose at the end of their useful lives.


A comprehensive, life cycle approach improves the ability to address potentially important environmental and human health concerns. For example, a product may consist of material mined in Africa, manufactured in Asia, and shipped to the United States for purchase. By focusing only on the energy efficiency of this product during its use, we might miss the damage caused by its transport from the place of manufacture or by the extraction of its raw material. Or a window may have a high recycled content but not be highly efficient. By looking only at the percentage of recycled content, we might select a product that will compromise the project’s energy-saving goals. In a green building project, the team must consider embodied energy — the total amount of energy used to harvest or extract, manufacture, transport, install, and use a product across its life cycle — alongside performance and adaptability. The careful consideration of all attributes may lead to the selection of products that did not at first appear to be the most sustainable option.


Life cycle thinking can be applied to environmental considerations, life cycle assessment (LCA), and cost life cycle costing (LCC). These are distinct approaches with different methodologies but are often confused. Both can support more sustainable decision-making, but they use different types of data and provide different kinds of information.

Integrative Process

Integrated design is a core component of sustainability. An integrated process, as it relates to green building, is an interdisciplinary method for the design and operation of sustainable built environments. The integrated process builds on systems thinking and a life cycle approach. Although practitioners often refer to integrated design, the integrated process can be used for all stages of a  project, from design and construction to operations and reuse or deconstruction.

An integrated process provides opportunities to consider resources in new ways. It encourages professionals to think and make decisions holistically. In the conventional building design process, hydrologists, civil engineers, mechanical engineers, and landscape designers make decisions involving water. Often, though, these professionals make their plans for potable water use, irrigation needs, wastewater disposal, and stormwater management separately. In contrast, an integrated process is highly collaborative. Conventional planning, design, building, and operations processes often fail to recognize that buildings are part of larger, complex systems. As a result, solving one problem may create other problems elsewhere in the system. 

When an integrated, systems-based approach is used, the solution to one problem can lead to solutions to many problems. The process of planning a project’s water use might lead to the design of systems that capture rainwater and gray water to meet water supply and irrigation needs while reducing runoff and protecting water quality. More broadly, by thinking about the system across the entire life cycle, integrated strategies can be developed synergistically.

Practitioners of an integrated process must develop new skills that might not have been required in their past professional work: critical thinking and questioning, collaboration, teamwork and communication, and a deep understanding of natural processes. An integrated process is a different way of thinking and working, and it creates a team of professionals who have traditionally worked as separate entities.

The integrated process requires more time and collaboration during the early conceptual and schematic design phases than conventional practices. Time must be spent building the team, setting goals, and doing analysis before any decisions are made or implemented. This upfront investment of time, however, reduces the time it takes to produce construction documents. Because the goals have been thoroughly explored and woven throughout the process, projects can be executed more thoughtfully, take advantage of building system synergies, better meet the needs of their occupants or communities, and ultimately leads to improved living conditions, saving money, and reducing risk. 


Nature has much to teach us about applying systems thinking, a life cycle approach, and integrated processes to our work. By observing natural patterns, such as how heat flows, water moves, or trees grow, we can learn to design systems that use resources effectively. The fields of biomimicry and permaculture provide two different and innovative approaches to solving problems by following nature’s patterns and strategies. Both of these fields of practice ask: how would nature solve this? Similarly, green building practitioners can use core concepts to determine the nature of the systems in which they are working, meet the needs of the community, and set goals and priorities.

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