Building Science Numbers and the Perfectly Placed Window

The philosopher Descartes is best known for his stand-against-the-raging-wind assertion “I think, therefore I am.” From this position of strength, he fashioned a whole new method of thinking that quickly became the foundation for the new sciences emerging in his time. But while doing so he foisted on the Western world a fundamental split between that indubitable, thinking mind and the world it thinks about.

This is not just a subtle philosophical point. This split so permeates our conscious minds that it shapes not only how we think about the world but how we feel about it, too. Its importance cannot be underestimated. Many social critics have attributed our manipulative, dominating, extractive treatment of our world to this very split. But I want to approach this split from another tact, one that is no less damaging to our fragile planet.

Turning back to philosophy, this split can be cast in the language of object and subject. So the mind is a subjective reality that must some how reach out and appropriate the constellation of things arranged in the objective world order. The accuracy of that appropriation is described as a gradual peeling away of subjective involvement in the act of appropriation. The goal is to just understand what is really out there, to “get” the “plain meaning” of the words of a text, to get at the data and numbers (the givens and their quantification) that exist irrespective of the one perceiving the data.

There is something correct about thinking about thinking in this way. There is honor and truth in peeling away bias and aiming for a degree of objectivity that pushes us past our desire to fashion a world according to our own image and likeness. But there is something corrosive about understanding the act of true understanding in this way, too.

The consequence of this misunderstanding of understanding leads to problems when designing homes that are sustainable. The sustainable building community can risk getting the objective, measurable elements correct at the neglect of the subjective. Well, that is not quite right. We remember the subjective, but we cringe as we indulge it. We compromise between the two, but we do so with a lot of hand wringing. I wonder if that is because we are suffering from this cognitive dualism that now bleeds into an existential dualism. When making decisions about where to commit our resources, we so privilege the objective (our bible is building science, after all), that we see can only see concessions to the subjective as a weakness that leads to homes that fail to measure up to some objective standard.

But maybe we are not doing so badly when we concede to or even privilege the subjective in our decision making. Maybe we can find peace in knowing that our “objective” metrics are cloaked in a deep uncertainty and are subject to constant development. Similarly, we cannot with certainty know the affect a well-placed window can have on the history of the world. After all, the very shape of Cleopatra’s nose is credited with radically remaking the Ancient World. We need to make better houses, no doubt, but the world is going to be saved less by high performing houses than by fully actualized, non-dualistic-thinking people who have what it takes to further develop the science and effect the political and economic changes required for that salvation. And the making of fully actualized people is a lot more complicated than getting numbers right.

I am by no means asking the building science wonks of the world to go soft and back off on their calls for rigor. They have made a mighty contribution to the global effort to live within the means of our finite global resources and we all need to learn from them. I am trying to create an intellectually and morally honest and honorable space for those who are informed by that science but who also obsess over and choose to commit resources to the perfect placement of a really great window.