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Sustainability From the Ground Up

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Last month I toured Paris-Ouest Construction, where green innovations originate from the construction site. By Kelly Singer

Ten years ago,  Jean-Baptiste Bouthillon was working on a project that would forever change his company, Paris-Ouest Construction.  They  were building a low-income housing structure in partnership with a renown architect and the city of Paris.

In business since 1945, the company had completed numerous residential buildings and expected each project to have constraints.  But from the start, this project brought a unique set of challenges.

First, the French government had set new requirements for energy efficiency for residential buildings that Paris Ouest was obligated to meet.  Using the traditional French insulation methods, it would have been feasible to meet these requirements.  However, the architect’s design called for a natural finish to highlight the grain of the concrete facade.  The installation process using traditional insulation methods required an outside scaffoldings structure which left visible creases on the concrete and did not meet the quality standard of the design.  Additional solutions to insulate the building were available (like methods from Nordic countries with extreme weather), but they were rare in France and cost prohibitive since this was a subsidized building with a limited budget.

It was evident only one of the priorities of budget, energy efficiency, and design could be met.  But since they were all necessary, Bouthillon had to start thinking about the problem differently, and knew he would need the help of everyone on the team.

The first place he turned to was the gemba to brainstorm with his construction workers – the people who know the buildings first hand and work with the materials everyday.  They had a goal to identify and eliminate the constraint to insulate the building within the budget and design specifications.

This was a complex problem, and it needed simplicity.  The team began to think about what an infinite building would look like.  How would the walls connect and flow differently?  What waste can be removed to save resources and increase the flexibility of our building methods?  What is currently possible and what is not?

This simplified thinking led to breakthrough, but it didn’t happen overnight.  After four years of testing to get the layout right, Bouthillon and his team finally figured it out.  They created (and later patented) a design that delivered exceptional energy conservation and ease of installation at the same cost using traditional methods and materials.

Moving slowly and from the ground up, the solution came from the construction site and the worker’s willingness to try something new. Like the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play”,  Paris Ouest Constructions operates on the belief that first-hand knowledge is the highest form of information and it has the power to challenge the status quo to find truly innovative and green ideas.

From this success, Bouthillon continued to think about improving environmental performance in subsequent projects.   Through kaizen and experimentation led primarily by the construction team, they were able to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 47 percent between 2010 and 2014.  They have another audit coming up in two years and their goal is to decrease that number by another 20 percent.

Once trained on how to see environmental waste, no one’s better suited to innovate its elimination than those who work at the gemba.

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