Archive for May, 2007

Consumption

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

At some point, it has to turn around. I’m thinking about consumption – the buying, using, and reckless discarding of things – a thought triggered by a headline in the May 2007 issue of Dwell (p. 41), Room to Consume? Editor-in-Chief Sam Grawe says, “Without things (or more accurately, things in excess), I would hazard to guess that any one of us could live graciously in a space smaller than the average American family room (that’s 300 square feet). Give us more room and we’ll just fill it up with more stuff.” Ain’t it the truth!

When I was a 20-something, I lived on $400 per year. This included a mortgage payment of some $35 per month (can you believe that?), divvied up with my fellow land-owner. Mind, this was the early 70’s. We owned 20 acres of woodland in North Idaho and mostly lived in a customized Econoline (top sawed off and raised roof built from scavanged concrete forms). We mortgaged a purchase price of $7,500 for the acreage, had time for the flora and fauna of our larch-covered forest in the summer, and worked at whatever we could find in the winter to earn that collective $800. Later, we built a teensy (150 sf?) house of slabs (the first cut taken off a log at our neighbor’s sawmill). Our possessions were few and our staples lentils and rice. We had no utilities and few expenses other than an occasional tool or package of seed. We were happy as clams.

Since then, I’ve managed to amass an enormous number of possessions that fill my 3,500 square feet suburban house to the brim. Books, plants, kids’ artwork, ratty old furniture, leftover building materials, electronics, 40 years of National Geographics that I just can’t part with (what is this about?), closets of linens, toys now being saved in anticipation of eventual grandchildren, hand-me down memorabilia, and a tool for about everything you can imagine. 27 years is a long time to collect.

I’m starting to long for more simplicity, but how does one part with 27 years of child rearing, project making, and random acquiring? It would take a month of days, working steadily, to make any sense of it, and if I ever managed to get rid of something, I’d be sure to need it the next day.

The scary thing is that it’s not just me. It’s no secret that in the US, an awful lot of us have way too many things. Things that jam our houses and our spirits to the point that we have no space for a quiet moment, things that require resources to be snatched from the earth and soon tossed aside in an ever-growing mound of irretrievable junk.

As much I’d love to give it, this is not so much a sustainability lecture as an expression of bafflement. How did I get here? How did we all? I love being able to rummage through my basement storage room and finding the precise bolt or patch of denim I need for a repair or a project, but wouldn’t my life be a lot more breathable if I had fewer possessions demanding so much attention? Same goes for our societal getting and spending. We are facing a global environmental crisis and we are finally beginning to know it, but wouldn’t we have been just as happy if we hadn’t been so greedy?

From fitting everything in the back of a van to today’s excess has been quite a journey – it’s definitely time to put it in reverse.

Bad offices

Friday, May 11th, 2007

One of my pet peeves is badly designed, uncomfortable office environments. Creating an office environment that’s built for its users – pleasant to be in, comfortable, efficient, attractive – seems like such a no-brainer. I just don’t get why every office has to be white or beige, why office chairs and computer set-ups are so darned uncomfortable, and why only some people get to have windows and views and others are crammed into artificially lit interior spaces. Here are basic needs: some degree of privacy, opportunities for both quiet and collaborative work, enough space to efficiently do the job, good lighting and temperature, furniture that doesn’t send you to the chiropractor, a glimpse now and then to the outside, and some modicum of individual control over the environment.

So why is this so difficult? Paint, carpet, and upholstery with a little color have got to be the same or nearly the same price as beige paint, carpet, and upholstery. Workers freed from furniture-induced neck cramps and given a view of nature, will, without question, be more productive. What I am itching to have is the freedom to design decent office environments and really workable workstations instead of punching out cookie cutter traditional spaces.

This outburst is triggered in part by the fact that my office is moving us from cubicle pods of four or five people (which are actually pretty nice, dispite Dilbert) to rows of workbenches all lined up in one big white room. About a third of the people have moved into the new space and the rest of us will move as soon as the retrofit is accomplished. I’ve been watching and listening and, so far, I haven’t heard anyone say they like the new arrangement. Some are diplomatic, saying “we’ll get used to it” or “that’s just the way it’s going to be”, but others are more frank, noting that the space is too bright, too noisy, and too public. I’ve heard complaints about lack of storage space, wobbly worktops, too-high desktops, distractions, and layout inefficiencies.

Although this space was designed before I started working at the firm, my impression is that the new arrangements were instituted mostly to fit more people into the real estate. Perhaps real estate is so expensive in DC that crowding is an economic necessity, but I really think there might have been some other way to achieve the same end. It’s possible that the new space is also meant to foster collaboration and innovation, but I haven’t heard anyone even mention these words.

I’m trying to reserve judgment until I have a chance to try the space out myself, but frankly I’m a little shocked. I know change isn’t easy and it’s possible that people are reacting more to the change than to the actualities of the new space, but from the sound of it (and the look of it), this new arrangement is not working.

I hate to admit it of my new profession, but sometimes practicality seems to take last place in the race to design something trendy. In this case it appears that the committee that designed this new workspace forgot to consider how architects and designers actually work and forgot everything they knew about privacy, distraction, and lighting. Chalk it up to a learning experience.