Knowledge management and the COTE Top Ten Toolkit development process


By @Taylor C. Walker AIA and @Corey Z. Squire AIA 

Buildings are becoming increasingly complex, but the timeframe to design and document them is shorter than ever. A constant barrage of information often demotes sustainability to just one of many competing priorities that projects teams struggle to fully incorporate into their work. This is no different in our practices.
The process we took to develop the AIA COTE Top Ten Toolkit (now in Phase 1 Draft stage) is very similar to the process we use to integrate sustainability at our own firms. It’s based on building a collective understanding of each measure, and applying a mix of technical tools and social pressure to bend the project in the right direction. Our task with the toolkit is to combine and consolidate the most current, useful, and objective resources for architects - the stuff we repeatedly reference on our own projects.

Conceptually, everyone wants ultra-high performing, deep-green buildings. The myriad of benefits are well documented, as are the technical solutions. We know how to make very sustainable buildings for almost no additional cost. It’s not rocket science, it’s actually more social science. The primary challenges to innovation are knowledge gaps or behavioral barriers (which can occasionally be same thing). In order to move yourself, your practice or profession from theory into practice, you must master the technical as well as the human dimensions of these challenges. You can’t just throw some scientific papers on the table, have everybody read them, and say “That’s what’s missing from my design process!” and see immediate change. In my experience, institutionalizing best practice takes at least two project cycles, or more than two years, depending on the building type. Architecture often embodies the definition of delayed gratification.

The first step we took to develop the Toolkit was to focus on the technical aspects of each measure. Cast a wide net, and understand how the one issue you’re trying to solve connects to others. A thematic literature review was key. Engage your colleagues in collaborative learning. “An undiagnosed gap in knowledge means you might not fully understand a problem. That can hinder innovative solutions.” Harvard Business Review The toolkit is there to help you form better questions both internally with your team, and externally with your clients.

Once we developed a detailed write-up of each measure, we edited it down to its essential components. In practice, assimilating this disparate information helps you internalize it. That’s critical, because the design process moves incredibly fast, and unless you have a very clear picture of what you want to achieve and how to get there, it’s likely to get cut before the next milestone.

The next stages of the Top Ten Toolkit development are in process. We are connecting case studies to demonstrate examples of the measures, linking graphics, and developing tools like the super spreadsheet to rapidly assess and contextualize them in a consistent way. All this will culminate in a web- based tool hosted on in early 2019. The intent is to continue refining the resource over time.

It’s been amazing to work with subject matter experts from a variety of disciplines from all across the country to put together the Toolkit over the past year. The dialog between “deep technical” and “generalist” approaches is often surprising as we edit toward simplicity. It’s especially relevant because it’s built as a resource for all firms to use and defines what sustainability means for the AIA. It’s a good start, but ultimately, the best test of its value will be if it becomes part of everyday practice.

Corey Squire, AIA is the Sustainability Coordinator at Lake Flato Architects in San Antonio and Tate Walker is the Sustainability Director at OPN Architects in Madison, Wisconsin. They are both members of the COTE Advisory Group.