Apr 23, 2012

Interdisciplinary Collaboration and the Economics of Change Project

(The following is a guest post from UW grad student, Kate Bonaparte, regarding The Economics of Change research project which seeks to map and measure the monetary benefits of ecosystem services for real estate investment in high performance green buildings. posted 4/23/12)

Why can’t we all just get along?
After five years of studying architecture at the University of Miami I learned the art of hand and computer drafting, design, methods of rendering and graphic communication, and even how to write with the stereotypical architectural block lettering. But the most surprising revelation I encountered upon my matriculation was that I had also learned to talk like an architect.

For anyone who hasn’t spent much time with architects this probably doesn’t seem like a big deal; everyone learns the terminology of their chosen field of study. But “architect speak” is, in fact, quite unique and once you recognize it you will never stop noticing it. Architects use words like ‘activation’ when referring to inanimate objects, always say ‘space’ instead of room, and use verbs like cocooning and stitching in somewhat creepy ways. While there is nothing wrong with this kind of language, especially we describing the intentions of design, for many other disciplines, especially those that are technically based and largely objective, this sounds foreign. Of course, this is also true in the reverse. A developer could easily lose or bore someone with a discussion on internal rates of return, proformas, and cap rates.

Unfortunately, the distinctions between these fields go past jargon and syntax; the methodologies and assumptions that underlie each discipline’s work, and even goals and motives, can be vastly different. These divisions have only widened as these disciplines become ever more specialized. So, when confronted with an issue such as sustainability, that requires input and action on the part of all these disciplines, how can we ever come to a consensus and effect real change if we can’t effectively communicate? Finding a way to constructively collaborate is imperative to addressing the issues of sustainability and creating real solutions.

The design silo of the built environments was the first to understand the importance of this collaboration in regards to sustainability. Integrative design processes were developed that focused on early communication between the architects, engineers, and builders to encourage creative and innovative solutions. But historically developers, banks, and brokers have been left out of the discussion. This has caused a large disconnect between the intrinsic value of sustainability that architects and planners profess and the economic justifications developers are looking for. However, this gap is beginning to close.

An excellent example of a recent interdisciplinary collaboration is this report: The Economics of Change: Catalyzing the Investment Shift Toward a Restorative Built Environment. The work was developed through the partnership of multiple fields including environmental economics, appraisal, development, and finance. The problem addressed is that currently there is a lack of financial payback to developers and investors for the creation of living buildings because economic values were not placed on social and environmental externalities, especially ecosystem services.

Necessary processes an ecosystem performs in its pristine state, such filtering and absorbing stormwater, are called ecosystem services. As a site is built out these systems are disturbed or destroyed, and costly public services and utilities must be built to compensate for this loss. A living building can perform these services similar to the natural ecosystem, and therefore, not increase infrastructure needs. However, currently, the developer is not compensated for this reduced infrastructure demand, and therefore, the true value of the living building is not captured.

In the first phase of the project, the Economics of Change team determined what ecosystem services and social benefits should be valued and then showed how they could be incorporated into a prototype sustainable investment proforma. Since the report was published, the team has solicited feedback and input from practitioners in multiple fields before moving forward. This has helped ground the work in reality, making it more feasible for future implementation and more accurate in its goals. The next phase of the project, which began early this year, will determine the actual value of the services identified and test the sustainable investment proforma on multiple case studies. The work of Economics of Change shows that sustainability and real estate are not only compatible, but that interdisciplinary collaborations can work and create important change to make sustainable built environments a reality.

Today many people are pursing dual Masters Degrees to further specialize themselves. My reason for studying both is the opposite – to broaden my knowledge and, essentially, be trilingual. By coexisting in the architectural, planning, and real estate world I can act as a conduit for inter-disciplinary collaboration like the Economics of Change Project. So, in the words of my chosen disciplines: We need to stitch together these isolated silos of innovation, to renew and revitalize the built environment stakeholder community, and capture value from strategic investments in sustainability.


  1. The Economics of Change project looks fascinating! Great work. Although it may not be comparable, I am also starting to feel the impacts of planning lingo now that I am studying to be an urban planner. I can't imagine being "trilingual," as you say.

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