Systems thinking – How design teams can up their game in the climate emergency

Focus on the health and vitality of whole systems rather than just the parts.

Consider for a moment the design of water systems in a building. In most cases, an architect selects the flow and flush fixtures, the hydraulic engineer designs the plumbing and water storage, the mechanical engineer specifies water-based cooling, the landscape architect lays out the vegetation and irrigation, the civil engineer assesses the stormwater requirements and so on. While this specialised work is required, this approach fails to consider the design of the water system as a whole; its performance, resilience and cost.

Systems thinking can be a game changer for design teams, unlocking the potential for design integration that drives performance, innovation and cost savings. In addition to project design issues, a holistic approach also considers the larger impact on social and ecological systems. 

As architects of our built environment we are called, over this next decade, to deliver a profound level of transformation to address the climate and biodiversity emergency.

ClimateWorks Australia states in their recent report Decarbonisation Futures that greenhouse gas emissions from buildings need to decrease by 73% by 2030 to be consistent with 1.5C of warming. Design teams who don’t shift gears to design buildings based on a systems approach will have little chance of delivering outcomes to match the pace and scale of these expectations.

No need to reinvent the wheel

We already have a robust process for systems thinking known as integrative design which, despite being around for over a decade, has largely been ignored in Australia. The process is well described in this American National Standards Institute Guide, or for a more in-depth description read The Integrative Design Guide to Green Building, written by the 7group and Bill Reed. It states “The Integrated Design Process is a journey of project discovery that optimises the interrelationships between elements, encourages whole systems thinking and creates the potential for regenerative design”. In a nutshell the process consists of an alternating process of workshops, research and analysis to build the capacity of the project team to question assumptions, create alignment and foster iterative design. If ever there was a design process that was fit-for-purpose in a time of climate emergency this is it.

Unlocking potential

The real magic of systems thinking is the opportunity to shift from problem solving to realising the potential to create value for people and nature.

In The Systems View of Life, the authors Fritjof Capra and Pier Lugi Luisi put it this way “systems thinking means a shift of perception from material objects and structures to the nonmaterial processes and patterns of organisation that represent the very essence of life”. 

A practical example of this would be a façade engineer who designs a building envelope in response to its relationship to human comfort, building energy performance, the social and ecological impacts of the materials, potential to provide habitat for local species, water capture and reuse, and the opportunity for construction skills development in the local community. 

While that is a daunting challenge for one person alone, a design team that takes a system approach has the capability to navigate these kinds of more complex design questions. The benefit is the potential to generate significant social, economic and ecological value.

A sustainability rating as the outcome not the goal

The best systems thinking will come from setting the right goals and direction for the project, not from targeting rating tool credits.

So, at the beginning of a project, park the rating tool and instead have the design team work with the client to build alignment around a set of project specific principles and goals that will foster and encourage the right questions and design effort around systems performance.

If there is early stakeholder agreement on carbon neutrality then this frees up the design team to look at the entire carbon lifecycle and test alternative system designs.

Cost the whole not the part

Designing at the systems level means our approach to costing projects should follow suit. 

In the early stages of a project, wouldn’t it make more sense to cost alternative systems designs rather than isolated technologies or components?

Rather than comparing the cost of one mechanical technology with another, why not compare the cost of one conditioning system (building massing, shading, insulation, airtightness, natural ventilation, internal loads, occupant behaviour, mechanical services) with alternative conditioning systems. 

This approach to costing would better reflect the complexity and interrelationships of how a building conditioning system performs and avoid poorly informed value management decisions. 

This should also include evaluation of life cycle costs, often talked about but rarely considered in project cost discussions.

More energy in the room

When we have the opportunity to develop the capability of a system that contributes positively to people and planet, it brings a sense of meaning and purpose to our role that can energise everyone on the team.

As architects, engineers, project managers, builders and cost estimators, we should all start asking; In this climate emergency, how can we work collectively to design for the health and vitality of whole systems and create real value for our clients, the community and our planet?

Article first published on

Photo by Martin Rancourt on Unsplash


Associate Sustainability Manager
Chris Buntine

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