The Power of Perception

By: Evan Hughes
Sustainable Building Associate

“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s something we’re taught at an early age that reminds us to keep an open mind and try new things. It may be a trite phrase, but it’s still a valuable piece of advice.

Having said that, it can be difficult to avoid forming judgments based on a quick first impression. It’s why you refuse to try the weird appetizer your friend recommended (it’s actually delicious).  Or why you might assume that the guy in the coffee shop wearing a scarf in July is insufferable and pretentious (he’s actually really down to earth). Or why you might assume that the pretty girl in your marketing class is out of your league (she totally is, I’m sorry.) Research conducted in the United States and Africa has shown that similar negative assumptions can influence the materials people choose when building a new home. One such material is rammed earth, an earth-building technique that involves compressing a mixture of soil, lime, and other additives between large wooden molds to form monolithic walls. A survey distributed to construction professionals in Kansas found that, while the appearance and environmentally friendly nature of rammed earth was perceived positively, its adoption had been limited by the assumption that it was antiquated and structurally unsafe.

Courtesy of greenupgrader.com

In Africa, similar surveys have revealed an association between earthen homes, low social standing, and poverty. The same surveys also show that people associate modern materials like concrete and steel with wealth and high performance. These associations create a vicious cycle where only the poor build with earth. Many of these people have no training in earth building and no background in engineering, so their homes may be more susceptible to erosion or structural failure. When these problems inevitably arise, it simply fuels the preexisting bias against earth, and the cycle continues.

Overcoming these negative assumptions takes time. It also requires that people, particularly contractors and material suppliers, work to understand the advantages and disadvantages of non-conventional materials. Knowing when, where, and how to implement environmentally friendly materials and methods can help increase the public’s awareness of their economic and environmental benefits, particularly in the residential construction market. Effective marketing is also critical to increasing awareness and market penetration of non-conventional materials. Tell a client that they should build with a certain material because it’s “the right thing to do,” and you may end up in a debate and possibly a fist fight, depending on where you are. Tell a client that they should build with the same material because it will save them money, lower their energy bills, and will make their home a more pleasant place to live, work, or raise children, and their response will probably be less combative and more inquisitive. It’s easy to label another person’s opinion as stupid or inconsequential. It’s more difficult to argue with the financial and material savings that sustainable materials have to offer.

Courtesy of bee-inc.com

No one material is perfect for all climates and agreeable to all tastes. But by increasing awareness of alternatives to concrete, timber, fired brick, and steel, contractors can go a long way toward reducing the environmental and ecological impact of the construction industry. By doing research of their own, the public can better understand the advantages and disadvantages of non-conventional materials and make informed decisions based on hard data, rather than assumptions and first impressions.

References
Kraus, C. (2012). On perceptions of rammed earth. Rammed Earth Conservation, 157-162

Zami, M. S., & Lee, A. (2011). Inhibitors of Adopting Stabilised Earth Construction to Address Urban Low Cost Housing Crisis: An understanding by construction professionals. Journal of Building Appraisal, 6(3), 227-240.

Gooding, D. E., & Thomas, T. H. (1995). The potential of cement-stabilised building blocks as an urban building material in developing countries. ODA report, School of Engineering. UK: University of Warwick.

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