Reposted from i.e., the Center for Energy and Environment's Innovation Exchange blog --

The business and technology worlds make much of innovation and how it will power the future. One process that has become popular as a means to foster innovation in companies is design thinking. Tim Brown, the CEO and president of IDEOdefines design thinking as “a methodology that imbues the full spectrum of innovation activities with a human-centered ethos.” The field of industrial design formalized and popularized the idea of design thinking as a process through the efforts of IDEO and the IIT Institute of Design. Today it has become an innovation model for businesses. As Brown clarifies, “by this I mean that innovation is powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives and what they like or dislike about the way particular products are made, packaged, marketed, sold, and supported.” We apply two principles from the design thinking trend to our work to improve energy efficiency in buildings: 1. systems thinking and 2. understanding the user. 

During the late 80s and early 90s, the term “house as a system” pervaded the home energy field. Most often it was used as a clarion call reminding building practitioners that building envelope air-sealing could create moisture and indoor air quality concerns. As such it became a byword for unintended consequences. While it did lead the community to consider the interconnected systems of the building, it fell short of a systems thinking approach.

In 1990, Peter Senge published his bestselling business book The Fifth Discipline which applied the principles of systems thinking to businesses and promoted the idea of a learning organization. A disciple of Donella Meadows at MIT, Senge describes systems thinking as an approach to make clear the fuller patterns of a system and see how to change them effectively as opposed to “focus[ing] on snapshots of isolated parts of the system, and wonder[ing] why our deepest problems never seem to get solved.” When looking at Senge’s Laws of Systems Thinking:

  1. Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.

  2. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.

  3. Behavior grows better before it grows worse.

  4. The easy way out usually leads back in.

  5. The cure can be worse than the disease.

  6. Faster is slower.

  7. Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space.

  8. Small changes can produce big results - but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.

  9. You can have your cake and eat it too - but not at once.

  10. Dividing an elephant in half does not produce two small elephants.

  11. There is no blame.

Many of these relate to today’s building science challenges. A fundamental aspect of systems thinking is “seeing circles of causality” rather than linear cause and effect. The approach helps define positive and negative feedback loops and organize interrelationships into patterns that simplify our understanding. 

Yes, the house is a system, but we do not practice systems thinking until we understand and define the system patterns and consider the entire system, including its occupants.

During the late 90s when I was teaching at a design college, I used IDEO’s approach to teach systems thinking to my students. In the initial class of my studio course, I would show the Nightline Deep Dive video of IDEO’s redesign of the shopping cart. They found it both revelatory and inspiring. Back then, we called it user-centered design: a bottom to top approach rather than the designer-centered top to bottom approach. Gaining insights from the user-experience can inspire innovative approaches and design.

In building science, we would define the user as the building’s occupant. As engineers, we sometimes focus on the building envelope or the mechanical system to the point where we barely consider the occupants other than the fact that they consume energy, operate and maintain the building incorrectly, or are living, breathing IAQ sensors. So much for systems thinking. When we do consider the occupant, we take the top to bottom approach known as “client education.” In order to systems think, we need to learn to listen and not just lecture.

The influence of design thinking is becoming evident in the residential energy efficiency field. Opower has applied the principles of social psychology to gain energy savings from utility bill feedback. The Nest thermostat has used slick design and improved usability to help homeowners lower their energy bills. John Tooley at Advanced Energy is applying the principles of Lean and Training Within Industry to train the home energy workforce. We hold entire conferences focused on behavior and energy. We are training our auditors with sales and persuasion skills. We are creating programs based on community-based social marketing. Recently published whitepapers detail ways to create market transformations in home energy efficiency. Design thinking and innovative approaches can help us take advantage of many missed opportunities for energy savings.

Related CEE program:

Community Energy Services

Related posts:

A Pattern Language for Residential Energy Efficiency
$250 for a Thermostat?!
CEE’s Energy Label Hits the Streets

Photo credit:

 Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licenseby  Aaron Escobar 

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Comment by Robert Riversong on October 11, 2012 at 9:57pm

Yes, much of US foreign policy is geared toward maintaining access to fossil fuel reserves, and that's an enormous off-the-books subsidy to the fossil fuel industry. But even the Pentagon is now viewing global warming as the next major threat to world peace, as environmental refugees increase in numbers and nations vie even more militantly for the remaining resources of all kinds, as well as access to markets.

Yes, our world is ridiculously and dangerously complex and it's nearly impossible to factor in all the variables or predict all the unknowns.

But many intelligent people today perceive global warming as the primary threat to our future, much like nuclear war was when I was a kid (we did duck and cover exercises in grade school, as if that was going to save our butts), so it's just as important for people in the energy-efficiency trades to understand the global warming impacts of our material choices as to understand the potential future energy savings.

Comment by tedkidd on October 11, 2012 at 9:47pm

Factoring in the cost of global conflict, or the value of conflict avoidance by taking a path towards energy independence? 

Comment by Robert Riversong on October 11, 2012 at 9:01pm


Read the article at again and the several others there on the global warming impact of insulation, which Alex Wilson has researched and written.

You're not understanding the issues if you believe that "the inputs are inaccurate". The data and formulas were verified by John Straube and others at Building Science Inc.

Almost nobody in the energy efficiency field considers the embodied energy of materials, and even fewer consider the embodied global warming life-cycle impacts of insulation. While we make decisions typically based on cost-benefit analysis (often just short-term payback), or perhaps life-cycle cost analysis, if the manufacturing impacts and life-cycle off-gassing of insulation causes more global warming than is prevented by the reduction in heating or cooling fuels, then it's a counterproductive choice if the planet's health is taken into account.

This article and the free spreadsheet software program make clear that, at least with current foam expanders, the net effect of some petrochemical insulation materials on the climate is negative beyond a certain R-value, even if the net life-time energy savings increase.

Comment by tedkidd on October 11, 2012 at 7:41pm

Again I'd defer to Amory Lovins - all problems converge if you step far enough away from them.  If the model shows saving the planet and energy efficiency are in conflict, the inputs are inaccurate.  

Comment by Robert Riversong on October 11, 2012 at 7:28pm


I see where you're coming from. But the inflection point on that graph has nothing do to with optimum insulation levels for saving either money or energy - it has only to do with the one issue which is almost universally ignored: that saving energy and saving the planet from global warming are two entirely different strategies that are sometimes in conflict.

Comment by tedkidd on October 11, 2012 at 6:33pm

Sure, Amory Lovins talks about how economists put a cost to volatility.  Basically, it's insurance risk.  The cost of hedging.  Put another way, the more price volatility the more you are paying per gallon just for risk.  

I would apply cost uncertainty to insulation.  Cost benefit around today's cost of energy needs to have an additional cost added to it, which might change the r-20 inflection point into r-25.  

And there are economies to scale in designing your btu distribution and fresh air distribution into one system.  What I mean by that is this.  Again, hypothetical:

Let's say your R-20 house requires 2 ton or 800 cfm worst case airflow, and to provide fresh air, humidification and dehumidification control you need 200 cfm.  If you can drop your worst case load to 1 ton, your duct requirements drop in half and possibly improve your fresh air control.  You save money on duct and equipment and have a better solution.  

If getting load down to there requires r30 you see how your inflection point might shift through savings on equipment and energy?  

Making this even more complicated I suspect these benefits may not be linear.   

Comment by Robert Riversong on October 11, 2012 at 6:09pm


You're right that I was generalizing somewhat, the actual inflection point depends on local conditions, and XPS is far more problematic in terms of GWP than SPF.

The solution isn't to use less insulation (and not meet code requirements) but to use the right kind of insulating material and strategy to optimize energy efficiency at minimum cost to both the client and the environment.

I'm not sure why you would say that insulation effects fresh air requirements and I don't know what you mean by "future risk". Could you say more?

Comment by tedkidd on October 11, 2012 at 5:42pm

Robert, It's a great article.  I was simply responding to the chart and your comment: 

clearly shows that anything more than about R-20 of either XPS or spray foam has a contributory effect on lifetime global warming rather than diminishing its impact as we might expect.


I'm simply advocating that designing "inflection point" (I like that) must consider equipment and fresh air requirements to be truly comprehensive design.  

I think you also put that well: 

Here in Vermont's cold climate, with wood heat (low carbon footprint), XPS has a point of diminishing return in terms of global warming at only R-12. R-20 would be a good average. R-30 would be over the top in most situations.


Although I imagine you see and add future risk to the conversation if people lean toward r12.  Amory Lovins: does a wonderful job of expressing embedded cost of fuel cost risk if anyone stumbling across this conversation wants to understand it better.  

Comment by Robert Riversong on October 11, 2012 at 2:42pm

Ted, No one claimed that there is one fixed point of diminishing return for additional insulation. If you read the article, it depends on climate, R-value baseline, type of heating fuel and lifetime of assembly. You can download the spreadsheet and insert your own values to see where the inflection point occurs with various insulation materials.

Here in Vermont's cold climate, with wood heat (low carbon footprint), XPS has a point of diminishing return in terms of global warming at only R-12. R-20 would be a good average. R-30 would be over the top in most situations.

Comment by tedkidd on October 11, 2012 at 1:20pm

Awesome post!  And nice link Robert!

HVAC guys lean to HVAC heavy solutions.  Envelope guys lean to Envelope heavy solutions. I think the idea making the envelope so efficient that it can be heated or cooled with duct small as a drinking straw misses cost effectiveness understanding - we need duct big enough to provide fresh air.  

I think what that link suggests is to be cognizant of the point of diminishing returns.  I don't agree it's a fixed point and that type of rigid thinking makes me uncomfortable because it dismisses the importance of thoughtful situation specific design.  I suspect that point is different for every situation and every climate zone, but to say that the typical range might be between R20-R30 doesn't seem unreasonable. 

My ideal is designing the home to a load where BTU airflow matches fresh air requirement airflow, then providing both through heating and cooling ERV's through one system.  

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