Luminous Buildings, Sleepy Rooms

Convention centers, with their dreary lecture halls, would benefit from systems thinking.

Greenbuild 2010 deserved all the superlatives heaped on it. From the ever growing number of attendees (nearly 30,000 this past November) to the inspiring speakers (“Reproduce!,” Paul Hawken said, urging us to boost the green gene pool), the conference reminded us that we’re part of a strengthening movement. But for me, the most inspiring moments were the Q&A sessions. Eager audience members lined up at the mike to ask their questions. What was unique about this everyday conference behavior was the quality of information each questioner brought into the room. We learned from them about local projects—obstacles and successes. These shared experiences led to useful suggestions from the speakers as well as from the audience. Indeed, the sessions lived up to the promise of this year’s theme, “Generation Green: Redefining Our Future.”

It was palpable that each person, in his or her own way, is actively reshaping the future. Unfortunately, these invaluable sessions took place inside the darkened rooms of TVS’s addition to Chicago’s McCormick Place, which lives up to its promise, in part, of being a state-of-the-art convention center. With Wi-Fi access, cavernous exhibition space and hallways, numerous places to eat, and hundreds of meeting rooms, this luminous modern structure was ideal for every function cited in the promotional materials. But not for the people who congregated in the halls (the wayfinding was convoluted), food-service areas (unhealthy calories consumed in crowded rooms), and meeting spaces (a gray, sleep-inducing pall fell over everything, turning important after-noon sessions into flaccid snoozefests).

On the last morning of Greenbuild, I was surprised to be in a new kind of room, for a session called “Urban Agriculture as a Means of Achieving Ecological Balance.” The chairs were arranged in a theatre-in-the-round manner about a low central podium. The visuals were projected on a cube that hung overhead. The lights were on, and images of foliage enlivened the walls. As I wondered how this happened, I recognized Annette Stelmack, an interior designer, from across the room. She came over and explained that the U.S. Green Building Council, which put together the conference, sought out interior-design help to humanize the alienating, sleep-inducing rooms.

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But as the session wound down and the questions from the audience kept percolating, I realized that the only thing Annette and her cohorts could accomplish in such a building were smart but piecemeal fixes. What people do here, how they do it, and what we need to inhabit our buildings have more to do with our connections to the natural world than to technical overrides of it. The visual drone of PowerPoint presentations (they require darkened rooms for us to decipher the bad graphics and small type), the overreliance on mechanical ventilation (making the air cold, dead, unwelcoming: I wore a coat throughout the conference), the standard lecture-hall-style arrangement of a podium looking out to a mass of disciplined, uncomfortable chairs (at a time when there’s lots of talk about new ways of learning that are less formal)—all told me that the user, once again, was left out of the design solution.

Such demoralizing experiences of place make it clear that designers must commit themselves to systems thinking. Instead of assuming that PowerPoint presentations will be made, why not talk to graphic designers about the newest ways of presenting information? Instead of assuming that rooms need to be 65˚F, why not consult with health specialists to discover new attitudes toward comfort in an age keen on natural light? Instead of stiff chairs, why not ask ergonomists about new learning environments? At a conference that’s all about positive change, old assumptions reveal themselves to be hopelessly inadequate.

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