Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

For benefit companies

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

Fast Company almost always gives me something interesting to chew on. In its December 2007/January 2008 issue, the magazine presents its 2008 Social Capitalist Awards. In his article covering the awards, Keith Hammonds talks about how promoting social good is no longer the sole province of non-profit organizations. He applauds a number of endeavors attempting to integrate financial returns with social good, calling them “for-benefit” companies. The enterprises he praises yield market returns, but don’t make profit their top priority – instead they put environment and people at the top of the list. Among the recipients of the Social Capitalist Awards are firms that facilitate micro-loans, teams that work with disadvantaged children to distribute books or further their educational opportunities, and organizations that provide housing and other services to homeless and disabled people.

For-profits are also getting in on the action. One of the for-profit organizations identified as having a strong social purpose is Herman Miller, a large manufacturer of office furniture. Herman Miller has a “design for the environment” philosophy aimed at creating no operational environmental impact by 2020. Make no mistake, Herman Miller makes money, and if they can do it environmentally, so can other corporations. Why is this important? With resources dwindling and environmental problems increasing, we’ll eventually run out of raw materials and our fouling of the environment will reach untenable levels. There is clearly a long-term connection between social good and corporate success and the prevailing focus on short-term profit at the expense of long term social issues will ultimately fail. Companies figuring out how to reuse materials and cut their pollution now will be ready.

Used to be only non-profits tackled social issues and they struggled with low funding, lack of clout, and transient leadership, with the result that much of what actually got done was talk. For-profits occasionally launched social initiatives, but mostly they were beholden to their shareholders’ demands for maximum profit at any environmental cost. Things appear to be changing. Now some for-profits are making social good a core value and still profiting. Non-profits appear to be adopting capitalist dynamics in ways that make them more effective in accomplishing their missions. The appearance of a new level of organizations with values falling somewhere in between widens the possibilities and presents terrific new opportunities for creative but achievable solutions. I join Fast Company in applauding these organizations.

Studying for the LEED exam

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

When I was in my 20s, my friend Mark and I had went back to the land, settling on a 20-acre plot in north Idaho. To make ends meet, when summer ended we left our little utopia to find jobs. One year we went to Missouri to work as field hands in my parent’s apple orchard. Our job was to prop up the fruit-laden branches to keep them from breaking under the weight of the ripening apples and, as we walked from tree to tree, we saw vast black flocks of birds migrating south across the river, heard the song of the autumn cicadas in the unmown grass, and smelled the fragrance of the sweet apples as they ripened to juicy perfection. Overly poetic perhaps, but the experience made me an environmentalist.

Now I’m a designer and I’m still passionate about how we treat our environment. Sometimes it feels as if I’m too small to do anything that might help, but I do what I can, and right now I’m studying for the LEED exam. Some of the others studying with me confess to being overwhelmed and baffled by the material, but it comes fairly naturally to me. Although I know there is disagreement about whether LEED is the most effective way to encourage sustainable building, the rating system has good intent and I applaud it. Perhaps it’s not perfect, but it’s a start and I want to learn the system and teach my clients.

I’d like to think that if enough of us designers learn all we can about the need for sustainable design, we can eventually turn our clients’ heads and, perhaps over time, the message will spread and become part of the way business is done. We need it. The cicadas still emerge, but I’ve noticed that the endless skies of birds are gone and the apples are largely tasteless. I don’t know if we can get them back, but we have to try.

Motorhead Messiah

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

The November 2007 issue of Fast Company has an article entitled Motorhead Messiah by Clive Thompson about a Kansas whiz mechanic named Johnathan Goodwin who tricks out Hummers and other gas-guzzlers to get upwards of 100 miles per gallon of fuel and with radically increased horsepower. He does this by switching out the standard Hummer engine with various motors, turbines, and kits of parts to enable the car to burn a variety of different fuels – hydrogen, diesel, biodiesel, corn oil – and to do so with minimal emissions. Goodwin uses parts mostly made by General Motors. He says, “Detroit could do all this stuff overnight if it wanted to.”

Not too long ago, I watched Who Killed the Electric Car, a documentary released to DVD in 2006. The film follows the history of the EV1, an all electric car developed by GM in the early 1990s and released under lease in Southern California following the passing of a state air quality mandate. Automobile manufacturers, oil companies, and the Republican administration fought the California mandate tooth and nail and the mandate was eventually reversed. Although the vehicles performed well and were popular, GM recalled every one of them and sent them all to the junkyard where they were crushed. Protests and offers to buy the vehicles were simply ignored. The film explores various explanations for this fiasco and provides food for thought that is particularly pertinent in light of today’s resurgence of interest in environmentalism. It’s worth seeing.

So what is wrong with Detroit? They lose market share to foreign companies year after year, yet they persist in cranking out gas hogs. If they can produce a fuel efficient car, why aren’t they doing it?

It can’t be because they’d lose money. So far as I know, Toyota hasn’t lost money on the Prius and other companies are realizing that good environmentalism can mean big gains to their bottom lines. The same issue of Fast Company has another article entitled 50 Ways to Green Your Business by Mark Borden, Jeff Chu, Charles Fishman, Michael Prospero, and Danielle Sacks, which lists 50 companies who are embracing sustainability in innovative, effective, and cost-saving ways, from conserving and recycling materials to coming up with clever means of saving energy.

I own a Prius and I won’t ever accept a car with lesser MPG ratings. I’m hoping enough people will insist that the cars and other products they consume have the best sustainability story possible. Maybe a little public pressure will encourage GM to pay attention to Johnathan Goodwin.


Sunday, October 14th, 2007

All right! The National Geographics are gone, picked up by a nice young man from Illinois, and I just sold my radial arm saw to a neighbor who is moving to the country. He says he can take a lot of my old building materials too – hinges, rolls of Romex, fiberglass batts, and so on and so on filling my basement – and either use them or donate them to the Habitat for Humanity in his new neighborhood. He also told me of an organization not terribly far from my house that will take building materials for reuse. I can load up my van with whatever my neighbor can’t use, take it to this place, and these usable things will find a new home. This makes me happy – I can’t stand it when things go to waste. But it sometimes puzzles me – where does this compulsion to rescue usable things come from?

I grew up in the Midwest in a house built in the 1880s by my grandfather, who sailed to America from Germany to flee the Revolutions of 1848. In 1913, just before the First World War, my father was born in the upstairs bedroom and, though I burst forth at the local hospital, I lived in the house until I went off to college. Now, there was a park catty-corner from the house that my father had donated to the city in memory of his father, the German immigrant. We kids spent a lot of time in that park, playing on the swings, building huts in the tall grass down at the bottom of the hill, trying to smoke cigars in the lilac bushes. I think this park may hold a clue to my packrattery, for engraved in a massive limestone step at its entry was my grandfather’s motto: “Avoid waste, vice, tobacco and booze, and you will have health, honor and plenty.”

Perhaps simply reading this motto all summer long throughout my childhood really burned the message into my brain, but maybe these sentiments are bred into my bones in some deeper way. Surely the immigrant families in the late 1800s had to make do with what they had and my father, born during a time of world turmoil, living through the Great Depression in the 20s and fighting in WW2, must have had a deep sense of the fragility of material prosperity. But, my father did prosper and I grew up without want.

I think about this history and am struck by how the lives of my parents and grandparents formed me. I have a glass of wine now and then, but basically, I live by my grandfather’s motto. Now it’s become clear that avoiding waste isn’t just a personal peculiarity – it’s got to become a way of life for everyone if we are not to destroy our planet.

So, saving everything under the sun and now feeling the need to get rid of much of it doesn’t really relate to saving the planet. Still, I’m not tossing things out on the curb for the garbage collector. Now that environmentalism is enjoying a resurgence of interest (thank you, Al Gore), maybe, just maybe, more people will start to approach their material accumulations and consumption habits with a wider understanding of the consequences of continued waste and a greater willingness to contribute to a solution.

Return on Design

Friday, July 27th, 2007

We designers believe that good design is a good return on investment, not only in product design and branding, but in facilities design as well. But quantifying this in hard numbers has, so far as I know, pretty much eluded us. In part this is because the power of design is complex and subjective, making it difficult to quantify. In part it’s because we are designers, not accountants. In part it’s because the idea that design matters from a business perspective appears to be a relatively new thought, at least in a world driven primarily by balance sheets.

Bill Breen posted an interesting discussion on this topic on Fast Company’s website on July 26th. He reports on a conversation he had with Rob Wallace of Wallace Church Inc., a package-design company that works with large companies. Arguing that good design represents a good return on investment, Wallace says:

I’m confident that if the ROI on design was truly measured, design would come out quite well, and it would be treated by the finance side as the adult it now wants to be. The ROI on design is not only a tool for showing design’s true value, it can also show how and when design can be most critically used as a tool to continually generate the highest profits.

I’m confident of this as well, instinctively. I can’t boast the 15 or so years of experience trying to quantify the effects of design that Wallace and others can, but I somehow know it to be so. Think about being in a place where you wish you could work. Is it a uniformly-lighted beige box put up at the lowest cost or does it have interesting lighting, shapes, and color? Why is the Apple iPod the market leader when competing devices deliver similar functionality? Good design speaks quality and dependability and this image is bound to positively impact a company’s bottom line.

Wallace goes on to note that designers aren’t stepping up to play the corporate numbers game and, as a result, are missing an opportunity to convince corporations of the value of design. It’s true that when designers do step up, they can accomplish a lot. Look at what visionaries Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart were able to accomplish by convincing corporate giants of the value of sustainablility. Yes, we designers are overworked and hardly earn a living wage, but we can do a better job of helping our clients understand how our designs improve their bottom line. Designers – make convincing clients of the value of design part of what you do.

But, it’s a two-way street, so I also challenge corporate leaders to explore the power of design and to use their resources to develop the hard numbers to back it up. Design can make a difference – to your employees, to your clients, and to your bank accounts.


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.


Sunday, April 15th, 2007

A recent feature entitled “Skyfarming” in New York Magazine described Columbia University professor of environmental science and microbiology, Dr. Dickson Despommier‘s idea to grow fruits, vegetables, and grains in 30-story urban skyscrapers. “Vertical farming” would not only produce food for the growing population, but would also generate energy, output purified wastewater, and counter global warming. Here’s a schematic designed by Gordon Graff (for other designs click here):


Dr. Despommier’s website, Vertical Farming, states:

It took humans 10,000 years to learn how to grow most of the crops we now take for granted. Along the way, we despoiled most of the land we worked, often turning verdant, natural ecozones into semi-arid deserts. Within that same time frame, we evolved into an urban species, in which 60% of the human population now lives vertically in cities. . . . . The time is at hand for us to learn how to safely grow our food inside environmentally controlled multistory buildings within urban centers. If we do not, then in just another 50 years, the next 3 billion people will surely go hungry, and the world will become a much more unpleasant place in which to live.

Some of the advantages of skyfarming that the Vertical Farming website lists are:

  • Year-round crop production (1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more)
  • No weather-related crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests
  • Ability to grow food organically with no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
  • Elimination of agricultural runoff through the recycling of black water
  • Return of traditional farmland to nature, restoring ecosystem functions and services
  • Reduction of infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface
  • Conversion of black and gray water into potable water by collecting the water of
  • Methane (energy) generation from composting non-edible
    parts of plants and animals
  • Reduction in fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping.)
  • Conversion of abandoned urban properties into food production centers
  • Creation of sustainable environments for urban centers
  • New employment opportunities

Solving the world’s environmental problems will require innovative approaches – solutions derived from outside-the-box thinking – and Dr. Despommier’s vertical farming proposal is a perfect example. Skyfarming may or may not deliver all the benefits Dr. Despommier claims, but the approach is sensible and worth implementing. Achieving a sustainable planet will require a multitude of small steps – product improvements, capturing energy in increments, choosing green building materials, recycling carpets, green roofs, hybrid cars – that together can add up to significant improvements and real solutions to the environmental crisis.

To read Dr. Despommier’s essay on vertical farming, click here.

Harvesting energy in small steps

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

Sources of free energy are all around us. The trick is to harvest them. Take the sun for example. You know how high you hop when you step barefoot onto a black asphalt pavement on a sunny day in July. All that heat is energy – energy that simply goes to waste. Plants have evolved to capture the sun’s energy for photosynthesis, but for the most part humans have either ignored the sun or spent inordinant amounts of money trying to reflect it back into the sky in the name of cooling. Solar power has been explored for years with little commercial success, but from what I know of it, those efforts have been focused on trying to come up with add-on solar collector systems – pieces of equipment added on to whatever we already have (an array of panels perched on top of a house, for example) – or on the goal of generating massive amounts of solar energy from single facilities. Until recently, few people have tried to capture the wasted energy from everyday things like streets and the value of small collection points has been of interest only to what the political right labels “tree huggers.” [For the record, I am an avid tree hugger.]

This may be changing. Fast Company magazine features a technology from a company called Invisible Heating Systems in its March 2007 article entitled “The Fast 50.” Invisible Heating Systems installs underfloor heating systems, but the company’s owner, Henk Verweijmeren, noticed flocks of sheep warming themselves on a stretch of road in Scotland and had a brainstorm. So, he devised a system of placing pipes under roadways, pumping water through them, and capturing the heat of the road for snow melting or filling water heaters. Melting snow and filling water heaters doesn’t sound much like the solution to global energy problems, but what if we captured all the excess pavement heat as energy? Fast Company quotes Verwiejmeren: “In Holland, the government determined that if only 15% of the motorways were paved with this, it would produce more energy than all the utilities in that country combined.” Pretty heady stuff.

Think of all the paved roads, parking lots, and sidewalks in the world. What if we captured all that excess energy? For that matter, what if we captured all the solar heat from roofs (think cities), the tops of automobiles, window panes, walls – everywhere the sun hits and creates heat? Incremental bits of energy from all these sources could add up to a lot of free energy.

The problems are that the technologies are nascient or non-existent, the retrofitting costs exorbitant or environmentally worse than the solutions, and popular demand low. It appears that the public is beginning to catch on to the peril the earth is facing due to the mess we humans have made in designing and building all our systems, structures, and products. Hopefully, this increasing environmental awareness will encourage creative solutions to capturing available free energy without – and this is key – causing additional environmental problems. Governments, corporations, think tanks, universities, manufacturers – the time is now to step up research and development and to incorporate these technologies into new roads, buildings, automobiles, and other energy-ignoring products. Energy conservation is no longer a feel-good proposition – the survival of the earth may depend on it. There is certainly money to be made in the process.

Water hyacinth

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

Water hyacinth I started a new job three weeks ago and that, along with six credits of grad school, leaves me with little time to blog. Yesterday, however, I received the March 2007 issue of Fast Company, a magazine that rarely fails to inspire. I opened to page 28 and read a short piece about CA Boom, a design trade show in Santa Monica, California that runs from March 30 to April 1. Along with the usual cast of design-show characters, CA Boom makes a special effort to introduce “envelope-pushing independent designers”.

Pictured in the article was the Sushi Daybed, designed by Project Import Export‘s (PIE) Bannavis Andrew Sribyatta using the water hyacinth plant. The daybed is available directly from PIE or from Vivavi, InMod, and other vendors and was named one of Architectural Record‘s Product Reports 2006 winners. The daybed is gorgeous – sensuous, tactile, and soothing. That it is made from water hyacinth makes it especially intriguing.
Sushi daybed

Though it’s a pretty little plant, water hyacinth is billed as “one of the worst weeds in the world.” (See the US Department of Agriculture’s site for additional information and numerous links.) Here’s what the Western Aquatic Plant Management Society has to say about it:

Water hyacinth is listed as one of the most productive plants on earth and is considered one of the world’s worst aquatic plants. It forms dense mats that interfere with navigation, recreation, irrigation, and power generation. These mats competitively exclude native submersed and floating-leaved plants. Low oxygen conditions develop beneath water hyacinth mats and the dense floating mats impede water flow and create good breeding conditions for mosquitoes.

This weed has a dreadful reputation, so clearly any commercial use of the plant is an environmental plus. A quick Google search revealed several other manufacturers of water hyacinth furniture – some quite nice and others run-of-the-mill. What distinguishes PIE’s product, however, is its unabashed modernity. Besides furniture, the plant can be converted into the enzyme cellulase and is used in coffee processing, textile manufacturing, laundry detergents, the paper industry, for pharmaceutical and medical applications, and biofuels.

Kudos to PIE for making something beautiful from this noxious plant. As designers, we need to make a special effort to support sustainable efforts like these.

Green roofs

Friday, October 6th, 2006

Last summer I downloaded Google Earth so I could locate my daughter’s new apartment in New York City. Google Earth, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a free program that will take you anywhere in the world – plug in an address and you have a aerial photograph of that place in a couple of seconds. Zoom in or out for a smaller or larger view. So I did, finding my daughter’s neighborhood and her new apartment building right away, nestled in a fairly solid block of other 4-story buildings south of Houston Street.

The interesting thing about an aerial photograph of New York City is the sea of flat grey and black roofs. A few trees struggle up between the buildings providing a spot of green here and there, but mostly you see concrete, stone, and asphalt. Mile after mile.

So I was delighted when the September 2006 issue of Metropolis appeared in my mailbox. Its lead article features green roof technologies, highlighting several pioneering projects in Chicago, Long Island City, Washington, Boston, and Liuzhou, China. This is a technology that deserves a lot more attention. Picture New York City as a sea of green rooftops and you begin to see the potential.

One of the projects Metropolis zeros in on is Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, just across the East River from Manhattan. Silvercup has installed the largest green roof in New York, using a system of membranes and planting modules manufactured by GreenTech.

Long Island City was once heavily industrial, but its buildings are now being transformed into other uses. Apparently the city has lots of flat roofs, more than 26 million square feet of flatness that could be outfitted with green-roof technology – over 55% of the neighborhood. Move the idea across the East River and out to other cities and towns and you would have incredible benefits.

Ponder these facts, taken from the article:

  • Percent of 2005 population living in cities: 49
    In 2030: 60
  • Rise in average global temperature between 1900 and 2000: 1 to 1.5 degrees F
    Between 2000 and 2100: 3-5 degrees F
  • Fraction of U.S. energy that goes toward cooling buildings: 1/6
  • Temperature of a conventional roof membrane on a 95 degree day: 158 degrees
    Of a green-roof membrane on the same day: 77 degrees
  • Heat loss of green roof compared to conventional roof: 18 percent less
  • Reduction in summer cooling needed for a one-story building with a four-inch grass roof compared to one with a conventional roof: 25%
  • Stormwater retention rate of green roof compared to conventional roofing material: up to 6 times greater

Green roofs provide great insulation for buildings leading to lower energy consumption and they reduce stormwater runoff, but they also decrease the temperature of surrounding urban areas, clean the air, look beautiful, and create rooftop living spaces for people and wildlife.

Unfortunately, green-roof technology is just getting going. Metropolis Executive Editor Martin Pederson sums it up:

‘The Green Roofing of America’ certainly has a nice ring to it, but the idea remains more wishful thinking than reality. True, there are more green roofs in operation than ever before, but the bulk of new construction is built without any environmental considerations at all. Still, in this era of dwindling resources and rising temperatures, it’s worth noting that even the most banal green roof (think grass) offers real and lasting benefits. Like hybrid cars, green roofs look to us like an ecological no-brainer: an obvious solution to intractable problems.