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WORDS THAT BUILD: Re-invent Green Communication

Tip #13: Try the spectacular 2-step program to cut fat and reduce telltale signs of greenwash.

By Norman Weinstein
April 2, 2009

Editor’s note: This is the 13th in an exclusive series by Norman Weinstein focusing on the overlooked foundation of architecture: oral and written communication.


Forgive the silly pitch in this month’s heading. And I trust you already have if you’re still reading. But I’m reaching a state of dismay at the superficial use of green marketing language – and I suspect I’m far from unique in my distain. Consider this month’s column my attempt to clean up a linguistic toxic waste.


Do I exaggerate? Here are examples of commonly used green terms bandied about by architects and their marketers that call for immediate “clean up” and/or transformation:


-- “Cradle to Cradle”: shorthand for the good old American denial of death?

-- “High-performance buildings”: as opposed to those that don’t receive an encore from the audience?

-- “Ecological footprint”: inept metaphor? Doesn’t one “footprint” imply another?

-- “Sustainable sites”: shorthand for let’s-imagine-a-universe-without-entropy?

-- “Zero-net-energy buildings”: a way to bypass considering energy expended in construction while feeling virtuous about rarely visiting your construction site?


Why is such a monumentally necessary shift in architecture wrapped in such an assortment of listless, trite, and vague words? Here’s my guess. Sloth. Reinforced by inadequate professional training. There has always been a major disconnect between academic architectural language and the marketing language a profitable practice has to traffic in. Academic architectural theory is abstract, theory-rich. “Shop talk” of technical terms makes sense solely among like minds. Clients don’t buy theories or tech-talk. They want your words to accurately communicate a design in alignment with their vision and budget and schedule. And their vision is increasingly green, or sustainable, or whatever you want to call it.


Since clients knock on doors, even during this recession, with a semblance of program (often an architectural form with associated functions within a sustainable paradigm), the obvious opening gambit much of the time in architecture dialogue is the architect asking: “LEED or non-LEED?” That is the question. Like all simple architectural queries, it is anything but simple. Suppose the client says LEED because he or she wants to save the earth (within one’s budget, naturally). Suppose you have qualms about the feasibility of doing this client’s project within LEED guidelines. Or visa versa. The client goes for non-LEED because the word on the street, or by the client’s water cooler, is that a LEED-certified office building will offer a return on investment only when the client gets reincarnated as Donald Trump IV in the 22nd century.


Your goal is to filter the enormous written text of LEED and deliver the gist of relevant LEED issues into commonplace and yet engaging English. This isn’t as quixotic as it might initially sound. The advantage of LEED language over odious “GREENSPEAK’ or “ECOMARKETBABBLE” is that it traffics in concrete specifics within building systems. The downside of LEED language is that it borders on “official” bureaucrat-ese,” the palaver of numbed technocrats. Here’s an example from a 2007 revision of LEED guidelines for school construction published under the topic of “Site Master Plan”:


Site development should include all potential expansion of the school to accommodate future needs while adhering and maintaining the environmental site conditions referenced above and explicitly noted on the site plan as future expansion.


Thirty-four words to communicate the simple notion that “school expansion must align with LEED guidelines” Total: 7 words. But let’s look again. LEED guidelines read like mock religious or moralistic injunctions: the verb “should” runs riot throughout. In explaining LEED guidelines to clients, there’s a danger in falling into a preacher’s long-winded, redundant rhetoric yourself.


The solution? Transform, translate, and simplify the meaning of a LEED project into a compelling story. Implicit behind sustainable design are multiple plots (pun intended). Your client’s spoken and written intentions convey a sketch, an outline of a fully developed story. Your design could ideally become the gloriously fleshed-out version of a still emergent client story. Adding the sustainable wishes embedded in your client’s sketchy story into your design is introducing a new character, or sub-plot, or time frame, to your client’s story. Encourage your client to “try it on” for fit. There’s a hint that Shakespeare acted the role of Hamlet’s father after writing an initial version of his play. Perhaps you should invite your clients who are indecisive about LEED vs. non-LEED to join you in trying on roles, or variant endings, for a joint production of “All’s Well That Ends Well.”



Norman Weinstein writes about architecture and design for the Christian Science Monitor and Architectural Record. He consults with architects and engineers about communication. He can be happily interrupted by contacting him at


See also:


Op-Ed: Life After Ada: Reassessing the Utility of Architectural Criticism
Ada Louise Huxtable deserves mucho thanks and praise - but other questions moving us to a new flavor of criticism have to be asked.



WORDS THAT BUILD: Taking Advantage of Interruptions in Architectural Communication
Tip #12: Cogent communicators exploit opportunities offered by interruptions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Faceting Architectural Communication
Tip #11: Effective communication evolves out of cross-reflective details. 


WORDS THAT BUILD: Use Space Creatively When Designing Your Client Communications
Tip #10: Use paragraph spacing in writing and pauses in conversation to promote "out of the box" thinking.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Making Your Client's Contradictions Productive
Tip #9
: Work with your clients' contradictions to discover possible solutions.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Initiate Conversations with Designs that Engage Your Clients
Tip #8: Write dialogues engaging materials and processes with clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Creating a Site Analysis That's Out of Sight
Tip #7: Write a site analysis using words referring to senses beyond sight.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Learning How to Persuade Through Learning Variations on a Theme
Tip #6: Master a communications tool that generates copious variations on your theme.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Respecting Key Words as Materials for Building Durable Structures
Tip #5: Recognize the key vocabulary shaping your professional practice and share those keywords with your clients.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Steering Your Client in the Appropriate Direction
Tip #4: See your writing as a navigational aid so your design intent clearly comes through to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Playing with the Flow of Communication
Tip #3: Use language that playfully enhances the flow of design intentions between you and your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Clarifying Presentations to Clients through Rhythmic Emphasis
Tip #2: Use rhythmic accents to create a persuasive story to your client.


WORDS THAT BUILD: Coping with chaotic communication challenges
Tip #1: Learn to enjoy communicating with your client.



Best Architecture Books of 2008
10 tomes from the superior to the indispensable


Book Review: You've Got to Draw the Line Somewhere

A review of Drafting Culture: a Social History of Architectural Graphic Standards by George Barnett Johnston


Book Review: "NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith," edited by Franklin Sirmans

Sharpen your pencils - and get ready to do a NeoHooDoo shimmy


(click on pictures to enlarge)


© 2009