One of the hallmarks of NESEA as an organization is that we embrace, or at least purport to embrace, whole systems thinking. We bill ourselves as “the Northeast’s leading member organization of professionals working in sustainable energy, whole systems thinking, and clean technology.” In fact, NESEA’s whole systems thinking brand was part of what attracted me to the organization when I first accepted my position. I was drawn to the fact that nobody here was espousing simple, band-aid solutions to the complex issues associated with the large scale behavior change necessary to create a more sustainable built environment.
Well, for the past almost three months, I’ve been working on a deep energy retrofit of a house my husband and I just purchased. After three months of iterative planning, modeling, permit-seeking and neighbor stewarding, we’ve scarcely broken ground. Here’s what I’m learning, through the process, about whole systems thinking:
- It’s hard;
- It’s time consuming; and
- Often it results in receiving differing, and even conflicting opinions that even an informed homeowner might have trouble sifting through.
This may seem obvious to those of you who do this work every day. But to me it’s a revelation that gives me even greater respect for the work that you all do, and for the clients for whom you do it.
I don’t think our experience is atypical. Like many of your clients, we face a number of constraints, including: a tight budget with lofty energy savings goals; and a tight timeframe. Bottom line – We can’t afford to keep paying both a rent and a mortgage for much longer!
So, we’ve had to sacrifice the process in favor of the result in some instances. For example, we learned fairly early in the process that we couldn’t operate by consensus within our team and still meet our timeframes. And, closely related, we found that we needed to be crystal clear about each person’s role and responsibility within the team to ensure that we didn’t have more than one person working on the same thing at the same time. Ultimately, we had to decide who was in charge. (In our case, we went with our contractor, who had completed more DERs, and had worked more closely with the local utility on its incentive programs, than anybody else on our team.) We took this step in part, to contain costs, and in part, to keep the project on track with the timelines we need to meet.
Some of these decisions have been particularly challenging. As Executive Director of NESEA, it’s important for me to preserve my relationships with NESEA members. The stakes feel particularly high when I’m dealing with NESEA members as a client, but also trying to enhance my professional relationship with them through the process.
In any case, we’re still in the thick of the project, and many NESEA experts have told me to expect the stress levels to get worse before they get better. But I hope to report, within a few short months, that it’s all been worthwhile, and that we’ve moved into our new, very comfortable, very energy efficient home!