Many claim that the single most important aspect of green building is integrated design, the interactive process of bringing together all the right team members at the right times to address the right questions. This fundamentally differs from the conventional approach, in which the architect first creates a concept and then asks consultants to work with (or around) it, resulting in familiar horror stories about engineers shoehorning equipment into impossibly tight spaces. Truly changing the process means more than just letting more people join the conversation; it demands that architects fundamentally alter their role.

But giving up control goes against everything architects are taught. One of the undying myths of modern architecture is that of the lone creative genius. The most popular expression of this image, of course, remains Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead (1943), whose protagonist, Howard Roark, famously inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, is both the hero and villain of architecture. Think about it: Possibly the most enduring tale about our profession concerns an architect defending his right to dynamite a building because it wasn’t built to his specifications. Architecture’s most famous literary character is a violent, sociopathic control freak, yet we wonder why our public image is less than warm and fuzzy.

Credit: Peter Arkle

Can architects learn to play well with others? One way is to “stop thinking like architects,” says nuclear-engineer-turned-architect Michelle Addington, a Yale professor. Because designers see themselves primarily as authors or artists, Addington explains, they often present a design concept as a done deal. “The value of the work is self-anointed, self-proclaimed,” Addington says. “It’s going to be heralded, reviled, or ignored, but it’s not open to real criticism, the kind of critical evaluation that brings real innovation. There’s no rigorous method of design and no shared basis for judging it.”

In other fields, however, cooperative intelligence has become essential to innovation. Open-source programming, in which anyone, anywhere, can tinker with format and content, has made Linux possibly the most elegant computer operating system available. “[U]nder the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them,” writes James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds (2004). “Groups do not need to be dominated by exceptionally intelligent people in order to be smart.” No one knows who invented the igloo, but it definitely wasn’t just one really smart person. A brilliant example of material efficiency, structural integrity, thermal control, and bioregional beauty, the igloo evolved from the collective wisdom of countless Inuits living and learning in one region for untold generations.

Of course, innovation doesn’t just magically happen when a crowd gathers; two heads can be better than one, but only if you put them together well. “No one goes into the process not wanting to collaborate,” Fred Dust says, “but not everyone has the structure to facilitate it.” Dust runs the Smart Space practice at IDEO, the design and innovation consultancy whose diligent process has become the stuff of legend. Its unique brand of collaborative brainstorming created the original Apple mouse and the Palm handheld, among many other landmark products and systems. “Design thinking,” as IDEO calls its approach, “enables us to collectively tackle problems and ideas that are more complex than the lone designer can imagine.”

Applying design thinking to spaces and environments, Dust’s team finds that the most effective approach is to consider process first and “backfill” content second. “We have a structure that allows for collaboration and gives us the flexibility to work at any scale.” The best results, he says, occur when designers work directly with clients and customers to develop a concept. “What really excites me is how deep collaboration with clients can break through to new arenas of innovation. Everything we see now shows us that their participation in the process is essential to success.”

Working with Marriott on a concept for its TownePlace Suites extended-stay hotels, IDEO experimented with new methods of rapid prototyping that allowed guests and staff to shape the right environment more quickly than the design team members could have by themselves. Full-scale mock-ups became great design and sales tools and gave the customer a sense of ownership before the hotel was even built. Streamlining the process saved tremendous amounts of transportation energy and construction waste—and cost about one-hundredth of the typical expense, Dust estimates.

Designers need not hold the pencil to create great places. In an inclusive environment that encourages and embraces collaborative innovation, good ideas seep up from anywhere and everywhere, like countless wellsprings feeding a raging river. The Fountainhead is dead. Let it rest.