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Green Building Public Education: Writing to Make a Difference

Recently, I sat down with Joanie Parsons and Kathleen Warren of Parsons Public Relations to discuss public education opportunities for Living Buildings. We’ve been tasked to share our collective experience and best practices on this subject with the International Living Building Institute in development of documentation for the Living Building Challenge V2.0

With nearly three-quarters of a century of experience between us, we had a lot to say! The strategies we discussed ranged from open houses, project websites, brochures, building & operations manuals, interpretative signage, and video. Complete documentation requirements for LBC V2.0 will be released at Greenbuild 2010, so you’ll have to wait until then for the whole enchilada. As an appetizer, however, I thought I’d share some guidelines that apply across the board to written educational materials:

  • Keep it simple. If you write it yourself, take it home to your family to screen it for user-friendliness.
  • Do not assume the reader is a professional. Do not use jargon. Do not rely on acronyms. Provide definitions of important terms (Be selective – what’s really important?)
  • Edit for grammar, spelling, and meaning, using Strunk & White’s principles. Better yet, use a professional writer. You wouldn’t hire an amateur to design the building!
  • Rely on friendly images that the learner will care about. This usually includes kids and friendly critters. (Sorry, but no snakes, spiders, or slugs).
  • Focus on unique features or project elements.
  • Emphasize benefits over features. Do not exaggerate these benefits however. Stick to the facts.
  • Address barriers directly. Provide solutions and examples of successful application.
  • Visuals should enhance the story, not clutter. But it is true that one (good) picture tells a thousand words. Use fewer words.
  • Be consistent: All written educational materials produced for the project should be internally consistent – telling the same story, using a consistent “look.”

Of course, nothing tells the story of green building better than a green building. In my experience, it wasn't until we had bricks and mortar to point to (our first demonstration projects) that we gained any traction at all. But it would be challenging if not impossible to achieve the level of understanding, acceptance, and action we need without the written word. Here's to that!

Kathleen O’Brien, President of O’Brien & Company, and Editor of the Building Capacity Blog, has been in the sustainable building industry since 1983. She is a prolific writer for both professional and public audiences, and has authored dozens of field guides, case studies, fact sheets, feature-length articles, and technical reports. For a good example of how to translate technical ideas for laypeople, check out The Northwest Green Home Primer

Did you enjoy this article?  You might also like these Building Capacity Blog articles:
Interview with Eco-Logica Magazine’s Stuart Vazquez
How Can Communities Accelerate Change Towards Green Building?
Creating Effective Energy Efficiency & Conservation Strategies Part 1
"Extreme" Collaboration: Crossing Boundaries to Achieve Sustainable Goals


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