What does it mean to gather requirements with green consciousness?

I am not a crunchy tree-hugging green environmentalist. But today environmental consciousness is reaching the mainstream. The average consumer, like me, is asking questions about what it all means for daily life.

I was talking to a rabid green friend of mine.  “If we could produce electricity from renewable fuels or some other ‘non-oil’ means we wouldn’t need to conserve – right?” I said.  Frank looked at me askance!  “We can’t invent our way out of this,” he said. “We have to use less energy.”

Frank is a technologist – but even for him technology is not enough of an answer.

But I can’t live like Frank! He built and designed his own house – tightly sealed through special joint construction. It is entirely heated by a wood burning stove helped by an internal swimming pool heated by the sun (Not sure how that works!).  There is no fan to move the heat. They recycle everything and compost. He rides a bike to and from work – and I don’t know what else.

So I sure hope technology can do something – because like most Americans – that isn’t going to be my life.

But maybe I can do something, I thought. So I started a green experiment.

What about heat?  We live in New England – I don’t change the thermostat much. But somewhere along the line I learned you were not supposed to waste heat when out of town. So I turned down the thermostat whenever I left.

I do, however, have four zones in my house. I don’t have four zones because I wanted to conserve energy – I have four zones because my contractor gave me four zones. I don’t have fancy thermostats because my contractor put in the old simple manual type that turn.  It never occurred to me to ask for something different – that was his decision. In fact, my contractor had more influence over my insulation, windows, heat zones, air conditioning choices, and even my light bulbs which he bought and installed than I did.

I like having the zones because my pet birds need heat. They are in one room and I keep it warm without needing to keep the rest of the house warm when we are away.

Experiment One: I decided to try to become more conscious of the temperature and thermostat setting.

I started by lowering the heat at night and when we left the house in the day. The basement (a zone) wasn’t used much so I put it at 64. When I left for work I turned everything down to 64. And now I turned it all to 60 when we were gone. My home office could be heated when I was working and I could leave the main house lower. I ran around the house moving the temperature up and down many times a day. Why? Because we change location and what we are doing many times a day!

We went away and I left the temperature at 60. But that week I was travelling for five days – my husband wasn’t. When he got back he was “freezing” and turned the temperature up to 72. His theory of temperature is that if it is cold you turn it up past the temperature you want because that will speed it up. So I returned five days later to a house that was steaming – he of course never turned it down.  Lord, we’d wasted heat!  (Note: the emergence of a “waste” value.)

So I’m getting annoyed at my husband for not paying attention to temperature and I’m running around turning the heat up and down – being cold and waiting to be warm – until I become fed up. I just can’t be thinking about the temperature all the time – it is making me obsessed. And for what?  The overall difference in cost is negligible compared to being cold. And being cold is utterly unacceptable. What difference does my little heat experiment make to the invisible world of global warming or energy independence!?  What matters to me is being warm – if I can be warm I don’t care how I get there.  I don’t care if the room is unheated when I’m not there – I only care that if I’m there I’m warm – right away.

And don’t tell me to wear sweaters – you can’t work when your nose and fingers are too cold to focus. Or that I should get fancy programmable thermostats. I have those at the office where I still have a space heater to keep warm. No matter what we do at work we can’t make the heat or cooling work in all the rooms – why would I put those unusable devices in my home?

This is a technology challenge.

Experiment Two: I gave up on heat and I turned to shopping.

I decided to try to become more conscious of what I bought. So I started to look at the stores. How can I be conscious of garbage and plastic when I have no control over it? I looked around and realized that all the packaging is HUGE.  There are boxes inside of boxes. There are boxes that are half full. There is plastic molded around everything ( Isn’t everyone frustrated by that shrink wrap plastic anyway—who can open it!?).  I generate garbage because manufacturers generate garbage. What am I supposed to do – look for things I can buy with little packaging?  Buy only recycled paper packaging?  I want to shop in my regular neighborhood store and, like me, the mainstream person isn’t going to bring in their glass jars and hand-dip the fresh yogurt and cheerios out of a big vat in the middle of the store!

This is a technology challenge.

Experiment Three: I gave up worrying about packaging and turned to light.

What about light bulbs?  I have lots of those in my house. My husband’s light over the closet was burned out and we had no more bulbs.  Ah, an opportunity!

My mother taught me to turn out the lights (Whoops, that “waste” value again.).  So I always turned out the lights. But… well, we won’t discuss spousal behavior.

My husband’s office has two switches on the same panel, one for over his desk and one in front of the closet. He comes in, flips on all the lights without distinction. The closet light is always on even if he is at the desk. This – given my turn-out-the-lights value – annoys me.

So I’m at the drug store and see light bulbs. Okay, what if I just get one of those curly lights for over his closet?  At least then it will waste less energy, and it lasts longer. Changing the bulb – being short – is a pain, and $8 is okay for an experiment.

So I buy one. It says that it is a 65W bulb. But it isn’t really. A light over a closet helps you see to find your clothes. And this light doesn’t actually burn bright for five minutes—there is a lag. When you switch it on it is dull and looks like a night light. Sometimes it doesn’t turn on at all.

My husband is annoyed. He doesn’t want a light that doesn’t light!

Now the lights over his desk burn out and we still have no bulbs and no light over the closet. So I ask him to find some better green lights. Being a good guy, he does it. He comes back with halogen lights. But wait, they look like outdoor lights we put over the garage! They don’t have the smooth glass. “I’m not putting those all over my house,” I say, “they are ugly.”  And how do I know what they’ll do to my art. (Art is best with the white light most like the sun. Do they have “green” art bulbs?) ?

“Let’s just try them in my office,” he says. Now he has a halogen light with the wrong glass over the closet – but at least its bright and turns on fast. He has an incandescent bulb, a curly bulb, and a halogen bulb over his desk. The halogen burns bright white and forms a definite cone of light. The curly bulb – well, it is yellow and dull.  And the incandescent bulb? It is soft, wide-spreading, unobtrusive pleasant light.

Now my green friend tells me halogen isn’t green. But it says right on the box “Energy efficient, longer life replacement for standard BR30 bulbs.”  If that isn’t green how’s a person to know!

This is a technology and a messaging challenge.

Finding the Essential Requirement

My green experiment is not over.  But there is one thing I am sure of – we have a long way to go before everyday people will joyfully use energy-efficient products.

We could go the way of Wal-Mart who decided to make its brand equate with sustainability. Now it only sells energy-efficient lights – whatever that means.  Certainly if you only offer particular products people will have to buy them or go to a competitor. Or, the government could legislate it all.

But what about providing value? That’s the technology challenge.

In Green to Gold, Esty rightly says that environmental concerns will always be a tertiary sales point. What matters is the real value products provide. People don’t care about packaging – we care about what’s inside and the ease of transport.   We care about heat – not the thermostat. If the thermostats can’t be programmed for the life flow of real people we won’t program them.  If they are too hard to use – we won’t buy them. We care about light – and the quality of light. If the lights don’t light – we won’t buy them. And if products don’t make consumers happy our contractors won’t buy them either.

But if product makers can provide real value and reduce environmental impact – well I’d feel good buying that one – if it isn’t much more expensive.

Requirements gathering and design with green consciousness just makes design harder. Even the best and brightest designers confuse function with the technology to provide that function. If we want “heat” we think of the known technologies to get heat – and the way to push heat through the house. But the essential value to the customer is evenly heated rooms when they are present in those rooms. We don’t care about the mechanisms.

The funny thing is that I’ve been going to Frank’s house for over 20 years and I never knew how it was heated until I asked. Because I was never cold!

But old houses and existing houses aren’t built with that in mind. So product companies have an opportunity and a challenge. How can we get and distribute heat so that the whole house is warm wherever and whenever people are present?  How do we get the right kind of light with the right aesthetics?  What is essential to heat and light for people?  How do we provide what is essential and then deliver even more delighters?

We need to look deep inside what people do, and say; we need to look beyond what they are used to and what they expect from products. We need to find the source of core need and core value. We need to dig under the words and existing technologies to reveal the value in the quality of light – how it connects to task or art or the glow of intimacy, for example. Then innovative designers, armed with the essential requirements, will find new means and materials that “live lightly on the land.”

And they’d better. People can’t do this for themselves.