In the second article of this series, Constructing Our Niches: Evolution’s Relevance to Modern Human Society, I demonstrated some of the insights evolutionary theory can provide in understanding our contemporary social/cultural worlds, using the history of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) in the U.S. as an example (the first article in the series is available here – Constructing Our Niches: How Evolutionary Theory Is Useful for the Building Industry). Now I’ll begin discussing how evolutionary theory can guide decision-making and the development of policy that benefits more of us collectively, for longer periods of time. Such collective, sustainable behavior is partially dependent on maintaining higher levels of cooperation among those involved, from the boardroom to the global stage.

In the building/construction industry, the success of the design/construction process, the operations of our facilities and the general functioning of the organizations housed within these facilities all hinge to a degree on achieving cooperation among the relevant parties involved. For example, a significant amount of cooperation is needed among the commissioning agent, design/construction team members and the building owner during the peer review process of enhanced commissioning. Cooperation is needed to ensure the owner’s project requirements and building occupant needs are met while also minimizing negative environmental impacts and meeting budget constraints.

Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist and 2009 recipient of the Nobel Prize for economics, identified eight design features (Ostrom 1990) that are the hallmarks of groups able to successfully cooperate. Ostrom’s work originally focused on understanding how groups avoid the tragedy of the commons phenomenon by increasing their ability to cooperate in the shared objective of managing common pool resources. These are resources important for the long-term viability of the larger group but are at risk of inequitable access, overuse and/or depletion by individuals and smaller groups. The “tragedy” occurs when those resources are over-exploited to the shorter-term benefit of individuals or smaller groups at the expense of the larger group (usually over the longer term).

Below is a list of the design features Ostrom found to be necessary in some form for cooperation among group members to achieve a shared objective (whether that’s avoiding the tragedy of the commons or another objective). The specific wording is taken directly from Wilson et al. (2011), but see Wilson et al. (2013) for a more thorough discussion.

  1. A strong group identity, including understanding and agreeing with the group’s purpose.
  2. Benefits proportional to costs, so that the work does not fall unfairly on some individuals and unearned benefits on others.
  3. Consensus decision-making, since most people dislike being told what to do but will work hard to achieve their own goals.
  4. Low-cost monitoring, so that lapses of cooperation can be easily detected.
  5. Graduated sanctions to correct misbehaviors, which begin with friendly reminders and escalate only as needed.
  6. Conflict resolution that is fast and perceived as fair by group members.
  7. Sufficient autonomy for the group to make its own decisions without interference from other groups.
  8. Relations among groups that embody the same principles as the relations among individuals within the group.

It’s important to point out that these design features are “ultimate” in nature, in that they’re functional to our species, having solidified as adaptive in the smaller scale human societies that have dominated most of human history. They’re still functional in our modern, larger societies, though some nuances relative to a multi-level selection framework are required (Wilson et al. 2013). Successful implementations of these design features, however, will look different in different social/cultural and physical environmental contexts. They will have “proximate” manifestations contingent on the relevant local contexts.

Let’s further explore this by looking at the process of integrated design. This holistic process involves bringing all the relevant key stakeholders of a project together in collaboration from the earliest phases of planning through the eventual occupancy and use of the facility. Ideally everyone provides their perspectives and expertise in the establishment of the project’s vision and goals, determining how to reach those goals, enacting those goals, and verifying the goals have been met. The degree of involvement of any specific stakeholder will vary throughout the course of the project, but they should be aware of how the process unfolds and provide input when warranted. For example, the bulk of the general contractor’s (GC’s) effort occurs during construction, but the GC’s perspective and varying degrees of involvement is still needed throughout the process to help ensure success. And in fact, when the Construction Manager at Risk (CMAR) method of project delivery is used (a specific proximate manifestation of an integrated design process), the GC is more heavily involved during the planning and design phases.

Those working in the building/construction industry would recognize that Ostrom’s first design feature, a strong group identity, including understanding and agreeing with the group’s purpose, is critical to achieving a successfully integrated design process. Bringing the key stakeholders together early, from the architect and contractor, to building owner and facility manager, and to the occupants themselves, is critical for establishing buy-in of the project vision, scope and goals, as well as binding the group together in pursuit of these common goals. The proximate manifestation of this design feature will vary, though, depending on many factors.

For example, the number of key stakeholders, their socio/economic and educational backgrounds, the types of disciplinary expertise represented, the project delivery method, and the scope of the project (small renovation to a new facility) will all impact how a strong group identity is established and maintained. The more disparate the above factors, the greater the effort required to generate understanding among the different perspectives, needs and values, and then coalesce and remain united in pursuit of a single vision and set of goals. If a particular stakeholder or stakeholder group feels their perspective was ignored during the early meetings, planning charrettes, interviews, etc., the cohesiveness of the overall project group may be negatively impacted, affecting the quality of the integrated design process and eventual success of the project.

Ostrom’s fourth design feature, low-cost monitoring, so that lapses of cooperation can be easily detected (further ensuring that cooperation takes place), can take many proximate forms throughout an integrated design process. One form is the owner’s project requirements (OPR) document, which details the project’s goals, performance requirements, and success criteria. Ideally established at the beginning of planning, this document holds everyone accountable to the project’s vision and goals throughout the design/construction process. Any additions, modifications, or deletions to the design that impact the vision and goals require that the OPR be updated, and the reasons for those changes documented and dated. One of the reasons it’s effective as a form of monitoring is that it provides transparency (e.g. Wilson et al. 2011, 2013) of 1) the nature of the project’s vision and goals, 2) design or construction changes that impact the vision and goals, 3) who instigated the changes, and 4) why the changes were made and what impacts they’re estimated to have.

Forte Building Science, a division of M.E. GROUP (the firm I work for), is currently providing commissioning services for a banking client in the process of building a new headquarters. As part of the services provided, we worked with our client and the design/construction team to develop the OPR document early in the process. One of OPR’s requirements (listed below) agreed to by every stakeholder set a minimum ventilation rate at 30% above the minimum recommended by ASHRAE 62.1 (a ventilation standard produced by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers):

  • Target LEED EQ cr2 (ASHRAE 62.1 + 30%) for IAQ [indoor air quality] pertaining to existing buildings in terms of ventilation rate and outside air requirements. The design/construction team will consider the impacts of higher ventilation rates relative to design and operational budgets.

Requiring a ventilation rate above 62.1 was driven by a growing body of research indicating that CO2 levels impact cognitive function at lower levels than previously thought, impacting the productivity and performance of occupants. In fact, some of the more recent research (Allen et al. 2015) recommends maximum interior CO2 levels significantly closer to the levels found in exterior environments. That’s not surprising, considering our physiologies and psychologies evolved in predominantly exterior environments.

Throughout the design process (the project is now in construction), the OPR document and the transparency associated with making changes to that document contributed to maintaining the OPR’s goals and specific requirements by helping to hold everyone accountable. Increased ventilation comes at a cost through potentially increased sizes in mechanical equipment and ductwork (and therefore increased construction costs), as well as increased operational (utility) costs. But the resulting increases in productivity/performance benefits the occupants, as well as the organizations they belong to.

However, these benefits can be harder to quantify and won’t show up until after the building is occupied. In the pressure cooker that sometimes develops towards the end of design, as deadlines loom, budgets tighten, and the overall group identity and unity of purpose is stressed, such design goals are often value-engineered out of a project without accountability measures in place like an OPR.

A future article will explore the application of evolutionary theory, and specifically Ostrom’s design features, to the planning, design, construction and operations processes in more detail. For now, I’ll return to how well the environments we create function for working, living, playing and learning in. I propose that with regards to the design, construction and operation of our built environments, the nature of Ostrom’s design features and other ultimate design principles, and their most appropriate proximate manifestations, depend on understanding the following:

  1. How the physiological and psychological constraints that result from our evolutionary history, in turn, have shaped our individual and group needs, behaviors and decision making in various modern group settings (e.g., Halpern et al. 2010; Henrich 2016).
  2. How our evolutionary history spent primarily as hunter/gatherers has shaped the social/cultural tools we have available for living and interacting in group settings (e.g., Henrich 2016; Wilson 2015).
  3. How the appropriate proximate manifestations of these ultimate design principles are determined by a) who the specific individuals and groups are (and how they’re nested together) (e.g., Brown et al. 2011; Wilson 2015; Wilson et. al. 2013), b) what their physiological and psychological needs consist of (e.g., Brown et al. 2011; Halpern et al. 2010; Wilson 2015) and c) what their social/cultural and physical environments currently and/or need to consist of (e.g., Brown et al. 2011; Halpern et al. 2010; Wilson 2015).

I’ve emphasized the physical environment because if it isn’t aligned with physiological and psychological needs or the social/cultural environment that’s been designed based on the proximate implementations of the relevant design principles, then the ability to cooperate in pursuit of shared objectives will be negatively impacted.

A second example will briefly illustrate how Ostrom’s design features and other functional design considerations were implemented in a very different setting—the Regents Academy, a school for at-risk 9th and 10th graders in Binghamton, New York (Wilson et al. 2011). The design of the school program (housed within a larger high school) was informed by an evolutionary understanding of cooperation and learning. Ostrom’s design features were specifically addressed in the development of the program to help the Regents Academy “group” pursue the shared goal of improving student performance.

To address design features 1 (strong group identity) and 7 (autonomy), as well as help facilitate 4 (monitoring), 5 (graduated sanctions), and 6 (conflict resolution), the program was developed as a self-contained unit with its own principal, teachers/staff and physical location. These functional considerations were implemented in a proximate sense by assigning a number of adjacent rooms for the program and creating a schedule that kept the students largely isolated from the other students and programs occupying the same building. This helped provide a stronger group identity as well as a measure of autonomy for the program separate from the rest of the high school.

Bringing an awareness of evolutionary theory to the table, the “designers” of the Regents Academy deliberately attempted to contextually align the physical environment’s capabilities with the requirements of these ultimate design features. They also recognized that the proximate implementation of these design features required constant monitoring to see if they were working and tweak them when necessary. The results by the end of the year were so successful that not only did the students outperform a comparison group of at-risk students in a randomized design, but they even performed on par with the average high school student in the school district.

For any design/construction project, it’s critical that the physical and social/cultural environment’s proximate manifestations be aligned with the requirements of the ultimate design features relevant to the project’s occupant, organizational and facility operational needs. Misalignment results in varying degrees of failure, and the next article will explore this in more detail.


Allen, J. G., P. MacNaughton, U. Satish, S. Santanam, J. Vallarino, and J. D. Spengler. 2015. Associations of Cognitive Function Scores with Carbon Dioxide, Ventilation, and Volatile Organic Compound Exposures in Office Workers: A Controlled Exposure Study of Green and Conventional Office Environments. Environmental Health Perspective 124(6): 805-812.

Brown, G. R., Dickins, T. E., Sear, R. & Laland, K. N. 2011. Evolutionary Accounts of Human Behavioural diversity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 366: 313–324.

Halpern, D., King, D., Vlaev, I. & Hallsworth, M. 2010. Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy. Report by the Institute for Government for the Cabinet Office, United Kingdom.

Henrich, J. 2016. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, D. S. 2015. Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Wilson, D.S., R.A. Kauffman, Jr, M.S. Purdy MS. 2011. A Program for At-Risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27826.

Wilson, D. S., E. Ostrom, E., and M.E. Cox. 2013. Generalizing the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32.