Interview with Ed Earl – Mindfulness and Sustainable Design
Ed Earl is the principal of Priority 1 Projects, a construction project management firm. Ed has 25 years of construction experience and an MBA from Stanford university. He is pioneering a new approach to construction project management he terms “collaborative construction” which is based on open communication, trust and shared objectives – aspects that are often absent in the construction industry. Ed has been a regular meditator for over 20 years and has been attending meditation retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh since 1997. Ed is currently the project manager for the construction of a new nunnery complex at Deer Park Monastery in San Diego which incorporates sustainable design and green building techniques including straw bale construction.
What brought you to a meditation practice?
About 20 years ago in his 30’s Ed went through a period of exploration. He was raised as a catholic. Ed was looking for meaning, and exploring spiritual traditions, in particular Eastern religions. His wife and him spend time in Nepal taking meditation and Yoga classes.
He found a book by Thich Nhat Hanh on walking meditation before his trip to Nepal. Thich Nhat Hanh was having a retreat in Santa Barbara in 1997. That was his first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, and Ed has since gone on a lot of retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh or in the Plum Village tradition. So most of Ed’s practice is in this tradition/lineage.
Was there anything in this new spiritual practice that you didn’t get from your wisdom tradition that you were brought up in?
He read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh , Living Buddha, Living Christ, which gave him a much deeper understanding of Christianity and Catholicism, that he didn’t get from 12 years of education. Thich Nhat Hanh does a great job of explaining Christ consciousness, putting Christianity and Catholicism in a context that was much more meaningful to Ed.
It’s more about becoming more deeply grounded and connected and strengthened to your root religion or faith.
So at some point in your practice you wanted to apply these mindfulness trainings into your daily life, your career, and this “right livelihood” was a bit of a struggle to integrate right?
Ed took the 5 mindfulness trainings in 1999, they’re guidelines, not commandments that you try to live by. No one can commit to them 100%.
Right livelihood was always a struggle for Ed. He was in construction for 20 years. He was not necessarily in a career that was harmful, or completely out of alignment. Just not necessarily incorporating his mindfulness practices in his profession.
So let that dissonance sit there, and not resolve it as much. It wasn’t until about 2014, where he was asked to help and get involved in a construction project at Deer park monastery in Escondido, a monastery that was created and directed by Thich Nhat Hanh. That was able to show him a way to bring and incorporate right livelihood into his daily life, and his professional career.
Maybe you can explain this a bit more, how you bring mindfulness into your construction job?
One of the mindfulness training is about mindful communications. It’s about deep listening, and loving speech, or mindful communication. And much of construction is not necessarily about deep speech and listening (laughs).
With this project, Ed felt he had the freedom to practice these concepts, since the clients are the monastics who follow the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, so this was a good opportunity for me to practice deep communications.
Normally, when you have a bid meeting, you meet with each of the candidates privately, and then have them prepare a proposal.
This time they wanted a more collaborative and cooperative meeting, so they invited all the contractors together, not privately or competitively. So they invited 5 or so of them and arranged them in a circle, and began the meeting with a mindfulness bell in the center of the room, and rang the bell. Ed explained to the contractors how we use this bell to go back to our breath, and re-center yourselves. Don’t need to do anything, when you hear the bell, just close your eyes, follow your breath in and out a few times. Any time that a bell rings, we invited them to bring their mindfulness back to their breath.
And bells go off in the monastery, and they invited them to stop and go back to their breaths.
This was interesting with burly contractors with boots, and a bit skeptical. Some of them really took to it, and went inward, and saw this as a useful tool for them. Especially for contractors, where there is a lot of pressure, working against deadlines, stress, unanticipated circumstances, etc.
We all wanted to have everyone work together, incorporate more than one contractor in the same project. Each of them had their own special strengths to contribute. If anything and they didn’t want to go through it, they’d have a new method of stress reduction out of it.
One of the contractors invited was a high-end custom home contractor, and he didn’t think his bid would work. Because his level of quality would not result in a low cost bid.
Ed told him that the perspective of Thich Nhat Hanh and the nuns and monks, they don’t look at things in terms of expedience, months and years, and how cheap can we do it. They are looking at the project in terms of generations from now, 50 years from now. What’s in the best interest of the monastery as a whole. They’re looking at the longer-term perspective, looking at the cost of the environment, the surrounding areas, and really the impact on the entire word. That’s looking through the lens of interdependence, and inter-being.
So they’re not looking for cheap, they want it to last, and craftsmanship. So Ed encouraged him to bid on it, with his approach. So the contractor submitted his bid, and he ended up with the job. This was the first introduction to incorporating mindfulness concepts, not just in the way the meeting was structured, but in the way the bid proposals were invited and evaluated.
You also mention mindful consumption, how would someone understand that in terms of building a house with corner cutting vs a house that sustainable designed with health and long-term well being in mind?
The sisters wanted a straw-bale structure (part of 4 structures). Which means it is using straw-bale for insulation. Straw Bale is an environmentally sensitive and in tune material. First of in the materials it uses. The walls inside are made of straw which is different from hay. It wheat or rice farming by-product.
First aspect of a straw bale building:
These are the dead stalks, baled and stacked up, and that is what is used inside the walls. Straw is an agricultural waste product, and you’re just re-purposing it, as well as recycled wood and other green building materials.
The second aspect of a straw bale building.
If designed properly and in a sustainable way, you can minimize your energy consumption. Because you now have this super-insulated structure. Hubble and Hubble is the architect, using sustainable design, very well known in Southern California. Sustainable design looks at building structures in a different way.
I’ve build very high end homes, and typically when you build a fancy custom home, you clear a piece of ground, and just place the building where you want it to be. Then you make the surrounding serve the building.
Whereas with green sustainable building, you look at it completely differently. Looking at the way the sun comes across the land, the way the prevailing breezes come and go. The structure is laid down in a way that is compatible with the structure and it’s surroundings. That is the way a straw bale building is build.
Using passive solar design techniques, you build it with large overhanging eves roofs, to prevent the heat from building up, and the sun from getting in during the summer. Whereas in the winter the sun helps heat the structure, using south facing windows. The winter sun comes in through, and warms the building. The super insulated straw bale walls then help to keep the warmth in, using a lot less heating and cooling costs.
Heating and cooling cost way down right?
Yes, lot of less energy usage. And there’s also lots of natural lighting, so not as much need for electrical lighting. You’re causing a much smaller foot print for the building. Lots of solar tubes, and sunroofs. Then there is a solar array on the property as well, so that the electricity that is used, is being generated from the sun.
How does inter-being fit into this construction work?
Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term inter-being that everything in the world, and in life is interconnected. TNH tells, when you drink a cup of tea, you’re connected to the clouds and the sky. Because the water in your cup came from the water in the sky. So when you’re drinking tea, you’re in a sense drinking your cloud. Everything is inter-related.
In sustainable design and architecture, you also see that everything is also inter-related as well. You realize that your building structure isn’t just sitting on an island by itself, but it inter-relates with all of the natural conditions that are around it. And is designed accordingly.
Another example, we’re using rainwater catchment system and gray water system that re-uses the waste water. Everything is designed currently to drain off into storm drains into the ocean, to prevent flooding, as though water is the enemy. But the fact is that water is precious. Water is a commodity that we want to respect, and utilize.
Especially here in Southern California where we have a big drought going on. We want to capture and reuse the water, and recycle as much as we can. Because we realize it’s connected to our environment, connected to our land, something we need to realize. To inter-be with that water. Not just to treat it as this foreign substance, and get rid of the water as quickly as possible.
For the residents there must be a great benefit in terms of well being and comfort, and health that you get from this natural building?
Yes, you have this symptoms of sick home syndromes due to these man-made materials that we have in our homes today. Whether it’s the off gassing from VOC paints with lots of aromas, fiberglass isolation, sealants etc. All of that is sending fumes into our homes. And we’re indoors spending a lot of our life, breathing all these pollutants.
With building straw bale homes, you eliminate so many of these man made materials. You don’t put gypsum Sheetrock and Portland cement stucco on your inside and outside walls for example. Instead you use earth and clay plaster, that allows the moisture to escape, which allows the walls to breathe.
The walls are colored with different earth and clay plaster, with different color clay’s, so there’s no paint on the walls either. No, stucco, no sheet-rock, no fiberglass insulation, that causes indoor poor air quality.
Think about what it takes to manufacture all those materials! The carbon footprint you create by manufacturing these materials. Now you’ve eliminated all that.
We’ve gone back to building like we did 2000 years ago, where homes were also built out of mud and straw. At the end of the day, you can easily take it down, without big consequences, it will just be re-absorbed by the earth.
What about it being washed away by rain?
Yes you have to design the buildings in a way to protect it with large overhangs. And you can easily patch it with earth and clay. It’s actually easier than re-patching drywall holes. You just sponge it back into it, it’s a self-healing plaster.
Another benefit of straw bale homes. These walls are 18 inches thick with solid dense straw. These are not just amazingly insulated well from a thermal standpoint, but also acoustically from a sound standpoint as well. There’s a stillness and quiet that is created by these structures.
At some primordial level, when we walk in such a room, I also believe that our body senses that our bodies are surrounded by natural materials. And so our body subconsciously relaxes. It just really puts itself at a calmness.
Hubble and Hubble have developed and designed this as well, using organic proportions. Because nature designed this way as well, with straight walls and 90 degree angles, no, nature designs with curves. Not only are these natural materials, but the form is natural as well. So your body naturally relaxes in these places, and feels more calm and centered. I can’t imagine building a more supportive structure for these monastics.
And also in a way you’re combining 21st century technology with primitive building techniques? By for example still keeping it up to date with latest building requirements, such as earthquake protection?
Yes, it is. Here in So Cal, because we have such seismic activity, most buildings are build on post and beam construction. So you don’t have wood studs every 16 inches on center like you typically would. In this case we do have to add some steel reinforcements to make the structure seismic (even though they are single story structures). But in other parts of the world where there is not so much seismic activity, you can build them without the steel reinforcement.
Please explain collaborative vs competitive construction?
My focus is on the entire process of building the home, or project that we’re working on. Typically this is a very competitive process in traditional construction. There are sealed multiple bids, everyone is secretive. The owner doesn’t feel like he can trust the contractor so he/she has to get multiple bids.
It is basically designed in a way that is lacking trust. It’s build to minimize conflict. Then there is the blame game, who’s responsible, so when something goes wrong, “we know who to sue!”
Because of my practice with mindfulness and meditation, I felt like I should walk the talk. I wanted to incorporate those into construction. Is there a different way that we can approach construction? In the process of working and managing I developed this new approach, which I call collaborative construction. In stark contrast to competitive construction.
Collaborative construction is based on the mindfulness training of open communications:
- Open communication
In order for people to develop an open relationship, it really requires really good communication. Where people can feel they can really express themselves in an open way. Like that conversation I had with that contractor who didn’t think his bid would work. That brings us back to our mindful practice, really listening when the other person is speaking. Processing that, and responding in a mindful way. It all comes to trust. That we are all working together on the same team, taking joint responsibility. So when things go wrong, we minimize finger-pointing and blame. Instead, let’s figure out how we can best work out, and solve the situation.
So making it a win-win for everyone.
Really really good communication is very important. He discovered while on the project, a cloud-based construction management system. All the information related to the project is stored in the cloud and accessible by the entire team all the time. Blueprints, plans, budgets, or correspondence regarding finish selections, and changes along the way etc. Everyone can access it. Myself, as the construction project manager, the architect, the clients, the monastics, the general contractors, the sub-contractors, etc. So that when there is an issue or question, it comes up on this cloud based solution, and everyone can bring this up and contribute, and find the most mindful solution to this issue.
That sounds better than having all that separated out.
Yes, it is a high-tech, low-tech approach. Mindfulness and meditation have been around for thousands of years but with the combination of the technology and mindful concepts, we can use both these technologies, to achieve these deep communications, deep listening, and open communication goals that we’re trying to achieve.
Is this going to be difficult to bring this mainstream, since the current construction and client demand is not necessarily in alignment with what your’e talking about?
It’s not for every client. It depends on the client’s preferences and values. It’s particularly interesting for folks interested in green building and sustainable design. Because these clients have a much broader perspective on their project anyway.
These are people who want to be mindful of their own impact on the environment, and society and how much energy I consume, and afterwards. They also want to be concerned about the building process itself, and the impact that that will have on all the people and environment involved in this. So in the same way they want to minimize the harmful impact and foot print. By taking a collaborative approach, they can also minimize the negative effect of the construction process itself.
And at the end of the day, you will feel much better when your home was build in a collaborative cooperative way. And when it was done, everyone feels that they all contributed together as part of a team, and it wasn’t this divisive competitive process. Where some lost, and others gained.
Would you have any advice for someone who is struggling in their job, in another line of work, what tips or advice would you have for that person who wants to bring mindfulness into their livelihood?
I used to think I would have to quit my job in construction, change careers, and join a non-profit, to make a meaningful difference.
Instead, I had to just look at the same things differently, not get a new job, but look at things that I did day in and day out, and find a way to do them in a different way. To incorporate my mindful practices into my construction management.
Once I realized, how can I communicate in a more mindful way, how can I create in a more collaborative way. Then all these things showed up, like the cloud based collaborative solution, and other new ways to communicate in ways that are more open and trusting. I was able to communicate with other contractors in a more mindful way.
So I would encourage those listening to look at what you’re doing currently, on a day to day basis, in a new way. Find small ways to incorporate your mindfulness and meditation practices in your regular daily life, and your profession.
Once you start to look at things in different ways, what you look at changes as well.
And different doors open then before..
Yes, exactly, because your’e looking at things in a different way, and so different opportunities are going to come your way. You’ll see doors that you never saw before.
- View Ed Earl’s presentation titled BUILDING ZEN: Mindfulness, Sustainable Design, Green Building and Collaborative Construction https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnBiSLeZafM