Thinking holistically

In the context of the green engineering movement, I’ve been lucky. From the first moment of my exposure to the engineering profession, the need to practice it with an eye toward environmental stewardship has been a given. William Coad, PE, said to me in 1976 and wrote in an ASHRAE Journal article: “[We need] to practice our profession with an emphasis upon our responsibility to pro...


In the context of the green engineering movement, I’ve been lucky. From the first moment of my exposure to the engineering profession, the need to practice it with an eye toward environmental stewardship has been a given. William Coad, PE, said to me in 1976 and wrote in an ASHRAE Journal article:

“[We need] to practice our profession with an emphasis upon our responsibility to protect the long-range interests of the society we serve and, specifically, to incorporate the ethics of energy conservation and environmental preservation in everything we do.”

What Bill means is that we have an ethical responsibility toward environmental stewardship, a far broader concept than financial or technical responsibilities.

How does one go about fostering such an ethic? I think it begins by getting a sense of how we personally interact with and impact the environment, then extrapolating that sense into an understanding of how the buildings and systems we design and operate do the same. As we integrate environmental sensibilities into our way of thinking, they will become the foundation for delivering environmentally conscious engineering to our clients. This is important because if engineers and other key players in our industry don’t develop a sense of environmental stewardship, then these sensibilities will not be reflected in our buildings. That may be why buildings have become such resource hogs.

The following insights gave me some perspective about how decisions I made in my daily life impacted the environment. As I began to own them, they began to impact my work on commercial buildings.

• It’s not that easy to achieve and then hold 100 W on the exercise bike at the gym, which is about how much power the lights I accidentally left on at home are using.

• All of the weight in the gas I can haul back from the corner gas station to use in my lawn mower becomes atmospheric emissions when I burn it.

• It would take a lot of effort to haul the water from the river—several miles away and 100 ft below me that I then run down the drain while I’m brushing my teeth—to a tank that is 10 ft above me.

The resource-driven conveniences we have at our disposal, which make life so much easier than what two or three generations before us, make things too easy. As a result, we tend to take them for granted on small scales, as above, and large scales, such as when building a new airport or office building.

Bottom line: I wholeheartedly agree with my mentor, Bill Coad. Engineers have an ethical responsibility to honor and protect the environment as we practice our profession. And we have a responsibility to lead the charge. I think we probably know how to do this if:

• We listen to our minds but we trust our hearts above all (spoken by Native American Elder William Commanda).

• [We recognize that] we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them (spoken by Albert Einstein).

When applied to green engineering, this means that we need to start thinking holistically, not just technically. The problem at hand is far more than a technical one. Technology might have a place in solving it, but no matter what we do or how we do it, we will not make progress until we learn to think and do in a manner that respects the earth and its resources, including recognizing that we are all resources and a gift to each other.

Author Information

David Sellers, PE , is senior engineer with Facility Dynamics Engineering, Portland, Ore. and a member of CSE’s Editorial Advisory Board. He regularly brushes his teeth with the water off. Sellers is a frequent blogger for the magazine. Look for his blogs, “A Field Guide for Engineers,” at

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