Flaming camels and road diets part 3 – we can create elegant sustainable solutions

Part 1Part 2

We are capable of creating elegant solutions, it’s just that the forces dragging us towards the complexity at point 2 are more powerful than those pulling us back down once we get there.

elegance figIn school, we have grades and assignments that reward complexity. Your paper should be at least 10 pages. You must show all your work. The cost estimate should have at least 100 line items. In practice, the incentives are different, but the pull is in the same direction, towards complexity. Design fees that are a percentage of the project cost will, for rational people, discourage any search for simpler solutions. Similarly, what firm approached by an owner about a new building is going to tell them that they really don’t need it, that the owner could just use their existing spaces more efficiently?

Whether in school or practice, there is comfort in providing a complicated solution. It shows you put in the time and effort; there would be no other way to produce that 200 page capstone project report. A detailed, complex design shows that hiring your firm was a smart move by the owner; no way they could have done it on their own. Provide an elegant solution and you run the risk of looking like you didn’t put in enough effort. How many of us leave parts in a report or design not because they serve any purpose, but because we worked on them and want people to see that?

Once we have reached point 2, few incentives encourage striving for point 3. User needs are met. Designers have done their job. Construction budgets may lead to re-evaluation of a design, but just for incremental changes. Rarely are completely different approaches to meet user needs evaluated. It’s not easy to think of and follow through with a radically new design that disrupts the status quo. But incremental changes, even if they meet immediate user needs, are not stopping the charging elephants.

Awareness can help us achieve more flaming camel solutions. Those who not only recognize the magnitude of our sustainability challenges but also are thinking about flaming camels and road diets are more likely to create the elegant sustainable places we need.

While spreading awareness, we can also establish incentives (and remove barriers) encouraging advances from point 2 to point 3 solutions. We can require iterations. A 25-page report as the first draft, and a 10-pager covering the same topic as the final version. Or, a solution that meets user needs as the first submission followed by one that does so at 10% of the cost. Owners can shift from requesting products to requesting services. A designer asked to provide a building or add lanes to a highway will do so. If they are asked, and paid, to identify the best way to provide shelter or mobility, they will be more likely to create an elegant sustainable place.

Main street in Greenville, SC (after its road diet)
Main street in Greenville, SC (after its road diet)

Moving from digging ditches to flaming camels is not only required to address our sustainability challenges, it should also be fun, expanding the design role of engineers. We hope you agree and will think about the best way to bring elegance to your teaching, research, and designs.


Flaming camels and road diets are the subject of my presentation at the upcoming Engineering Sustainability Conference April 7-9 in Pittsburgh.   

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