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A Pattern Language for Residential Energy Efficiency

Posted by Lester Shen  |  Date June 26, 2012  |  Comments 2

"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 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 a 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.

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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!
Great idea Lester. I have been a fan of Chris Alexander for over 20 years. Although A Pattern Language was my first Alexander book, The Timeless Way of Building and the concept of "A Quality Without a Name" has been most inspiring to me. I have also been fascinated by Alexander's influence in computer science and Object Oriented Programming. I wonder if there is a connection or application of your project to retrofitting of existing homes and developing software that can actually make accurate retrofit recommendations. His book on The Production of Houses also resonates with me in the context of community energy programs, community based social marketing, and neighborhood scale retrofit. Finally, a book by Alexander's friend and collaborator, Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn, rounds out a collection that should inspire anyone committed to transforming the built environment to make communities more livable and sustainable. Cheers!

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