Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category

Carnival of the Green

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

So, this evening on my way home from class, I tune into WETA. Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news show, is airing and the host, Bruce Gellerman, is interviewing Nick Aster about McDonald’s inclusion of toy Hummers in their Happy Meals. Apparently the Hummer toy caused quite a blog furor.

Nick Aster writes a blog called Triple Pundit. So, when I get home, I google the blog (which is quite interesting) and this leads me to discover the Carnival of the Green, a blog carnival that Triple Pundit and another blog, City Hippy, started last October.

City Hippy lists all the green blogs that have or will be hosting the Carnival of the Green and I would bet there is a lot of great content on all those blogs. Check it out.

LEED and GreenGlobes

Monday, August 21st, 2006

The tide seems to be turning for sustainable building. Government projects require it, private clients are increasingly demanding it, and the popular press is spreading the word (see USAToday, CNN, SF Chronicle). Discussion continues, however, as to how best to encourage green building and assess the sustainability of projects.

The most-used system is the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Green Building Rating System®, a “voluntary, consensus-based national standard for developing high-performance, sustainable buildings,” developed by the US Green Building Council (USGBC). Here is how the USGBC describes the program:

LEED provides a complete framework for assessing building performance and meeting sustainability goals. Based on well-founded scientific standards, LEED emphasizes state of the art strategies for sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. LEED recognizes achievements and promotes expertise in green building through a comprehensive system offering project certification, professional accreditation, training and practical resources.

The USGBC has developed rating systems for new construction, existing building operations, commercial interiors, core and shell projects, homes, and neighborhood development. Standards for retail are in development. Projects that accumulate a certain number of points under the LEED standards can apply for LEED certification.

Some believe that LEED is too expensive, too cumbersome, and unfairly favors certain industries over others. Take a look at Auden Schendler and Randy Udall’s November 2005 article in Grist Magazine entitled LEED is Broken: Let’s Fix It.

In response, alternative rating systems for green building are springing up. The Green Building Initiative‘s Green Globes program is an example. Originating in Canada, the system is billed as “an interactive, flexible and affordable approach to environmental design” and includes an “assessment protocol, rating system and guide for integrating environmentally friendly design into commercial buildings.” Here’s how GBI describes its rating system:

The Green Globes™ system is questionnaire-driven. At each stage of the design process, users are walked through a logical sequence of questions that guide their next steps and provide guidance for integrating important elements of sustainability.

Builders complete the questionnaires to collect points for their projects. Points are verified by a third party before a final Green Globes rating is granted. Ratings are based on the percentage of points achieved, not on a point count as with LEED. Proponents of Green Globes say the system is cheaper, more flexible, and easier to manage.

Green Globes is not without its critics, however – some aver that it is less credible than LEED (for one perspective, see Forest Ethic‘s article Green Buildings Standards Factsheet: Green Globes’ Lack of Environmental Credibility), so the controversy continues. Here is a factsheet from the Wood Promotion Network comparing some aspects of the two standards.

Whether LEED or Green Globes is the better standard is beyond the scope of this post, but having standards and rating systems in place plays a big part in bringing sustainability into the public eye. Competing standards may be confusing, but in the long run the competition will force all standards to be improved – and that is a good thing for the environment.

A few of the many other websites that help builders and designers understand and meet green standards:

Paper countertops

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006

I recently visited an exhibit called The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. The exhibit’s goal is to demonstrate “the emerging collaboration between stylish architecture, interior design, and environmental responsibility” through hands-on exploration of a full-size house containing sustainable products and materials, case histories and models of sustainably-built structures, and material samples. The exhibit helped me understand that good looking products are now readily available that give homeowners “the power to set a new course for a more sustainable future.” You don’t have to be a designer to incorporate sustainable products into your house – it’s a matter of knowledge and choice.

One product that caught my eye was the kitchen and bathroom countertops, which were made of paper, but looked and felt like stone. This composite material is currently produced primarily by two manufacturers, Richlite and Kliptech Composites, using slightly different processes and ingredients. Both manufacturers claim the material is stain resistant, scratch resistant, heat resistant, sanitary, strong, and durable. Prices seem to be roughly equivalent to solid-surface engineered products – in the mid-range, cheaper than stone, but pricier than laminates.

Richlite samples Paperstone installation

The material is not new, however. According to Richlite, paper composites have been “used for decades by the aerospace industry for tooling, the marine industry for fiberglass reinforcement and the action sports industry for outdoor skate ramp surfaces.”

Here is how the Environmental Home Center, an on-line source for sustainable home building products, describes the manufacturing process for Kliptech’s product, Paperstone:

Paperstone has pushed the envelope to develop a lower toxic countertop using recycled materials. Instead of using a phenolic resin, they use a 100% water-based resin that acts as a binding agent for the paper in the product. Paperstone impregnates paper water based based resin, heats and dries it, and then presses and again heats it to yield uniform sheets. Original PaperStone is made from a minimum 50% post-consumer recycled paper, while PaperStone Certified is made from a 100% post-consumer recycled paper.

Richlite, another manufacturer of the product, states:

Richlite® is made primarily of paper purchased from managed forests throughout North America. The paper is treated with resin then pressed and baked to create solid sheets.

I’m encouraged to know that choices like this are becoming more available and better known. Though it will take some time for kitchen and bath designers and retailers, contractors, and homeowners to become familiar with their green choices, I think the trend is toward sustainability. The National Building Museum exhibit is a great way for people to see this product, and the others featured in the exhibit, in a full-size installation. Perhaps if more people learn that green products are now every bit as beautiful and functional as less environmentally-friendly alternatives, there will be greater demand and more innovation.

If I ever have a chance to remodel my kitchen, I’ll know what to do.

Links and resources:

Resources: Sustainable hardwoods

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

Links to websites that pertain to sustainable forestry and hardwoods in North America:


  • Canadian Sustainable Forestry Certification Coalition. The goal of this organization is “to promote the use and acceptance of internationally recognized sustainable forest management certification standards in Canada in order for Canadian producers to continually move towards sustainable forest management, secure a sustainable supply of raw material, and to ensure marketplace acceptance of Canadian forest products.”
  • Forest Stewardship Council. The FSC “sets forth principles, criteria, and standards that span economic, social, and environmental concerns. The FSC standards represent the world’s strongest system for guiding forest management toward sustainable outcomes.” The FSC certifies forests and forest products and has a logo program for identification. For a list of companies in the US with chain-of-custody certificates, click here.
  • Rainforest Alliance‘s SmartWood certification program.
  • Roundtable on Sustainable Forests. “The Roundtable is an open and inclusive process committed to the goal of sustainable forest management (SFM) on public and private lands in the United States.” The Roundtable has implemented criteria and indicators reflecting current forest conditions which are meant to serve as a baseline for assessing future progress toward sustainability.
  • Sustainable Forest Initiative. The SFI “is a comprehensive system of principles, objectives and performance measures developed by professional foresters, conservationists and scientists . . . that combines the perpetual growing and harvesting of trees with the long-term protection of wildlife, plants, soil and water quality.” The SFI creates standards for participation and principals of sustainability, and has a labeling program for participants, retailers, manufacturers, and publishers.
  • US Department of Agriculture Forest Service Sustainable Development whitepaper.

General information

  • Ancient Forest Initiative. The AFI “facilitates landscape-level forest conservation projects in northern California and internationally.”
  • Forest Certification Watch. FCW is an “independent news provider” that is engaged in “providing decision makers with the latest relevant news and helping them navigating through the complexities of all recent developments,” including “sustainable forestry, public and corporate forest policy, forest certification, illegal logging, responsible procurement, corporate social responsibility, carbon forestry, bio-energy and related matters.”
  • Forest Directory contains links to all aspects of the forestry industry, including forest product certification and sustainability links.
  • Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Research, education, publications.
  • GreenBiz. An “information resource on how to align environmental responsibility with business success.” Sustainable forestry section identifies players and provides links.
  • Hardwood Forestry Fund. The Fund is “dedicated to establishing sustainable hardwood forests” through a tree planting program that promotes “hardwood timber growth, management, environmental education, and wise use of our nation’s renewable forest resources.”
  • Institute for Sustainable Forestry. The Institute “promotes forest management that contributes to the long-term ecological and economic well being of forest-based communities” with particular emphasis on “forest and watershed stewardship, community economic development, and sustainable forestry certification support.”
  • Southern Center for Sustainable Forests. SCSF “provides innovative research and practical applications for enhancing sustainable forest management on industrial and nonindustrial private forest land in the South. . . . ranging from sustainable production of wood fiber to extensive management of nonindustrial private forest land to the broad management of forested landscapes for non-market values.”
  • Sustainable Forests Partnership. “The Sustainable Forests Partnership’s mission is to document and promote innovation in sustaining forests and communities and assists others to integrate this innovation into policy and practice.” Consortium of universities provides research, education, and extension services.
  • Sustainable Hardwoods Network. The Sustainable Hardwoods Network “consists of locally-owned wood products manufacturers, contractors, retailers, and non-profit organizations sharing a commitment to ecologically sustainable forest practices that support the long-term social and economic well-being of our north coast communities.” Site contains a business directory.
  • Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UN General Assembly, Rio de Janeiro, 1992. Sets forth “principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests.”
  • Virginia Tech, Moving Toward Sustainable Forestry: Strategies for Forest Landowners. Handbook for foresters.
  • World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development. Recent report with recommendations and some maps.


  • Forest Stewardship Council’s list of companies in the US with chain-of-custody certificates.
  • EcoTimber. “A complete line of ecologically sound flooring.” FSC certified, reclaimed, bamboo.
  • Green Mountain Woodworks (Oregon). “Sustainably produced solid wood flooring.”
  • Natural Home Products. Sustainable flooring imported from Denmark.
  • American Inlays. Eucalyptus flooring.

Other countries have similar organizations. See the comment to my post on sustainable retailers for one.

Brigid’s Paradigm

Wednesday, July 5th, 2006

Sheryl Stringer, an ASID partner in Texas, in a comment to my post on designing with waste, pointed me toward her blog, Brigid’s Paradigm. Brigid’s Paradigm is a low-income housing project sponsored by Brigid’s Place, a Texas non-profit that has various programs for women. The project was developed in conjunction with builders Dan and Marsha Phillips and their company, The Phoenix Commotion.

The Phoenix Commotion builds houses for low-income individuals and families using free, salvaged, and recycled materials. The company finds the materials, creates a unified house design, employs and trains a crew of unskilled laborers to do the work, and arranges for financing for low-income buyers. The houses are small and funky, but their occupants own them for monthly payments of less than or equal to what they were previously paying out in rent. Everyone wins: the company is for-profit so Dan and Marsha earn a living, low-income families who would never be able to buy a traditional home can now do so, previously unskilled laborers gain skills that enable them to move on to higher-paying jobs, and materials that would otherwise be trashed find new life.

Brigid’s Paradigm combines Dan and Marsha’s approach with the Habitat for Humanity notion of owner-supplied labor to enable homeless or low-income women to build their own houses. The women do the work under Dan’s guidance and end up with small, but highly livable homes of their own.

We need a lot more projects like this.

A smart generation

Thursday, June 29th, 2006

Here’s an email exchange I had with my 23-year-old daughter that gives me a lot of hope for the future. She is working in internet marketing and full of ideas about harnessing the power of the internet for business, and she is considering an application for post-graduate study in business.

Charlotte: I was listening to NPR this morning and heard two features I thought interesting. One about a site called YouTube where people post their videos for sharing and the other about a gamers’ convention in NY where the game designers are trying to incorporate social awareness into their games. It stirred some thoughts in me that somehow, though I can’t quite articulate it, relate to what you are thinking about regarding using the internet to do business in different ways.

My sense is that your generation has an amazing opportunity to change the way a lot of things are done. The internet has freed you from some of the constraints of the that’s-the-way-it’s-always-been-done business mentality, allowing you to create new approaches. Not only new ways to reach people, but also new ways to do business (and make profit) without destroying the world in the process. It reminds me of Bill McDonough‘s book, Cradle-to-Cradle, a really interesting, highly sensible, and fairly radical approach to manufacturing (design products and industrial processes so they create no waste). I’m sure plenty of people are thinking about this from other points-of-view as well. We also went to see An Inconvenient Truth, which is definitely worth seeing, and since then I am reading and hearing lots of references to the movie and to the reality of global warming. I have a small feeling that something may be tipping in the public’s awareness of the environment (at least the educated public), but perhaps I am too hopeful.

Seems like there is a common thread to all these things, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Maybe it is connectedness. Maybe the internet has so thoroughly connected us that we’re finally beginning to realize that what happens in one place affects everywhere else and that resources aren’t finite. What you are working on is clearly based on connectedness too. Maybe the thread is creativity. Casting aside old assumptions and approaching problems from a completely new (and technologically enabled) viewpoint.

Kate: YouTube is just one of a zillion examples of social networking and self-publishing (self-proclamation?) exploding all over the internet, fueled primarily by people of my generation. The result is a LOT of garbage, but every now and then, you find the occasional individual gem. And that bit gets spread around social networks like Word-of-Mouth on speed – to the point that within a week 60% of all internet savvy 20 – 25 yr olds will have viewed the same video, read the same email, or visited the same site – to the point that the original piece of content becomes a pop cult reference. In a week! Popular culture trends change faster today that they ever have, because of the internet’s unfathomable speed of accessibility. But more importantly, with “web 2.0” programs like YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Blogger, WordPress, Photobucket, etc, that make content creation and sharing extremely easy, accessibility to internet promotion is becoming increasingly unbiased. Anyone can make a home movie, upload it, and become a popular icon in a week. Did you know that [two friends’] spoof music video to Call on Me ended up getting over 4 million hits and became a brief Asian pop cult phenomenon?

The result is that people of my generation have an over-inflated sense of self importance. With the internet as our media channel, its like everyone is the star of their own reality TV show. But at the same time, there’s a hightened sense of closeness to people who may not be physically accessible. Thanks to email, blog comments, cell phones, etc, you can get in contact with pretty much anyone you want to. And furthermore, there are people always looking to get in contact with you.

On top of HOW people are creating social networks, I’m really interested in WHAT people congregate around. The best way I can describe it is a Cult of the Ridiculous. The stuff that becomes pop-culture reference material is always the same thing: Hilarious. Debauchery, wit, silliness, and sarcasm. I love that humor is our point of commonality and not stupid humor or slapstick jokes, its always smart person humor – because my whole generation is smart.

That’s another thing! For the most part, everyone in my generation was raised to be smart, active, and in some way or another, excellent. How else did we expect to get into college? Everyone is a valedictorian, everyone is a team captain — AND right now, everyone is coming out of college with a captain’s attitude, but no one knows exactly what to do about it. It’s not like college where you go to an activities fair and pick one, and start being excellent. Most people waste a year (or several) figuring out where to be and what to do, because its not listed out for them in an orientation packet.

So… what we’ve got is:

1) Everyone is accessible
2) Information is easily shared
4) One person can start a pop-cult revolution
5) My generation is universally linked by a specific type of humor
7) My generation is smart and active, but unguided
8) At the end of the day, everyone wants an excuse to be social

So…. It seems like the potential to create change on a massive scale is huge for my generation. But people just need a little direction. Fortunately, good-will business practices, sustainability, and general humanitarian moralism are super trendy. But still, no one knows what the hell to do about it. No one wants to go door-to-door handing out fliers or any of the traditional non-profit B.S., but everyone would love to be involved, if it meant, say – getting together for an improv event, or going on a massive bar-crawl, or something that is both social and activist. You just have to look at the cost-benefit from a new perspective. Cost is about time, benefit is about sociability.

I’m feeling really good about this new generation. Pay attention, Business. The 20-somethings have a lot to teach us.

Dark Sky

Monday, June 12th, 2006

If you were in a spacecraft looking back at the Earth at night, you would have no trouble seeing the evidence of habitation, for the earth glows with electric light. Although outdoor lighting serves security and economic purposes, its excessive use has created serious light pollution. The problem first came to public attention when astronomers working at observatories in the southwest United States noticed that their research efforts were thwarted by the light emanating from outdoor electric lights. But astronomers are not the only ones adversely affected by light pollution. Sky glow, glare, and spillover from outdoor lighting can create dangerous roadway conditions, and floodlight spilling onto personal property (“light trespass”) is not only a nuisance but can have adverse affects on people, plants, and animals.

  • Sky glow occurs in part from natural sources such as sunlight reflected off the moon, starlight, and atmospheric conditions, but most sky glow results from light that is emitted or reflected upward into the sky by unshielded or over-bright outdoor lights. Sky glow depends on weather conditions, the amount of dust and gas in the atmosphere, the amount of light, and the direction from which it is viewed. It is difficult to measure because it involves so many variables that change from moment-to-moment, but astronomers and lighting professionals are developing ways to record and evaluate sky brightness.
  • Light trespass occurs when light spills over into areas where it’s not wanted. For example, streetlights, floodlights, or advertising lights may shine through your window and right onto your pillow, making it hard for you to sleep. Like sky glow, light trespass is hard to measure because each instance is different and the whether it is “unwanted” is very subjective. Although light trespass has been largely ignored by modern lighting practices, it is coming under closer scrutiny and is the primary focus of many anti-light-pollution laws. In some cases, however, these laws are written by people with little or no professional lighting experience and often contain technical problems.
  • Glare is excessive and uncontrolled brightness that can be uncomfortable or disabling. Discomfort glare is annoying or painful; disability glare reduces visibility. In many commercial situations, premises are overlit with glaring lighting under the belief that an intense light level is required for security. In other instances, glare is created by advertising signage.

Unwanted light is a waste of money and energy. The International Dark-Sky Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing awareness and resolving the problem of light pollution, performed an analysis of the costs of the excess light produced by streetlights in the United States. The study, set forth in an information sheet dated in 2000, considered the 175-watt dusk-to-dawn mercury vapor lamp widely used for yard lighting, security lighting, and street lighting. It assumed an annual operating cost for this lamp of approximately $70 per year, based on average energy costs at the time. In Tucson, Arizona, with a population of about 600,000, the local utility had over 20,000 of these lights, costing nearly 1.4 million dollars per year to operate (this figure is surely higher in 2006). The population of the United States is 500 times that of Tucson, so the Association estimated that the annual cost of operating this type of fixture throughout the United States was as much as $700 million. Because 30% of the light produced by mercury vapor streetlights is directed up into the sky where it is not used or needed, these lights waste about $200 million per year in operating costs alone. This figure increases when the environmental cost of generating the electricity to power these lights is taken into account.

To rectify light pollution, research and development efforts are underway to develop technology to direct light where it is needed, in the amount needed. For example, manufacturers are designing luminaires that are fully shielded on the top, directing the light beam only toward the ground and that reduce light levels to the lowest required for the application. Click here for the International Dark-Sky Association’s list of manufacturers of sky-friendly products and other resources.

Other associations such as the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA), the Institute of Lighting Engineers (ILE), and the Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage (CIE) have developed or are developing classifications and guidelines for preventing light pollution. State and local governments are tightening their legislation controlling outdoor lighting, including requirements for shielded luminaries, lumen or wattage limitations, controlled operating periods, and the elimination of certain kinds of lighting.

Here’s an area where a little knowledge could go a long way. Including awareness of light pollution in all architecture, interior design, and engineering coursework and all lighting-related qualifying exams would help make more people aware of the issue. Let’s aim for a darker sky.

Here are a few more resources. A little research will find a lot more.

Resources: Sustainability guidelines

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

Here is a list of organizations that provide online guidelines and standards for sustainable design. The list is just beginning – I’ll add to it as I learn about other sites.

Resources: Sustainable – Retail

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

I read an article in the New York Times entitled Earth-Friendly Materials Go Mainstream by Ernest Beck (January 5, 2006, page D8. You have to log in to read this article, unfortunately). The author features retail establishments that sell environmentally-friendly building materials and discusses the trend toward sustainable do-it-yourself retail products.

Here is a list, which I’ll add to as I find things, of companies that sell sustainable products to the public. These companies don’t all have on-line sales, but they are interesting because they contain a great deal of information on sustainability in general, list manufacturers of green products, provide detailed descriptions of specific materials, and often give prices. That these sites are appearing shows that environmentally-friendly building materials may be going more mainstream.

  • Eco Depot, a source for environmental and green building products.
  • Environmental Building Supplies focuses on “natural and renewable materials, like FSC-certified wood products, wool carpets, cork and natural paints.”
  • Environmental Construction Outfitters specializes in “environmentally responsible building products and systems.”
  • The Green Fusion Design Center is a “retail store, gallery and education center featuring green building materials and natural home furnishings, a book store, and a marketing galley.”
  • Greenmaker is “a wholesale and retail supplier of smart, efficient, and healthy building materials for commercial, residential, and mixed-use projects.”

I’m seeing more “green” materials in mainstream stores as well, and this is a good trend. Although the term “green” is imprecisely defined and overused as an advertising ploy, it does serve to educate the public on the issue of sustainability – an important step in turning the tide toward a more sustainable economy. It is my hope that all of us will do what we can to support sustainable efforts, even if the steps are small and the “greenness” of the product isn’t perfect.

Designing with waste

Thursday, January 12th, 2006

In his convincing book, Cradle to Cradle, Bill McDonough argues that we need to eliminate the concept of waste. In a nutshell, he states that everything we manufacture should be able to be returned either directly to the earth with no toxic byproduct or back into the manufacturing cycle with no loss in quality of materials. With such a system, nothing is wasted.

I was reminded of McDonough when I read an article in the New York Times by Jim Robbins, entitled New Uses for Glut of Small Logs From Thinning of Forests (January 10, 2006, page D4), which reports on the growing interest in using logs that previously were considered waste because they were too thin to be marketable. Generally such logs are simply burned. Recently, however, some small outfits have created a market for this “waste.” One company featured in the article, North Slope Sustainable Wood, markets small diameter larch for flooring and other building components.

Reusing waste is still a pretty radical idea despite years of environmental activism and growing environmental problems. Yes, we do have fairly wide-spread recycling, and companies are beginning to adjust their manufacturing processes to reuse or recycle their waste products, but by and large, our society is still a throw-away culture. It’s easier and cheaper to junk something than to get it repaired, assuming you can even find someone to repair it in the first place.

Consider the issue on a personal level. I have a big supply of old hinges and knobs, electrical wire, wirenuts, switches and receptacles, nails and screws, tools, scraps of wood, rolls of screening, tarpaper, insulation and plastic, and paint stored in my basement that I comb through when I need to build or repair something. I like tinkering with things and coming up with patches for the small problems that pop up at home. Fifty years ago, making do with what was available was common, but I don’t know many people who do this anymore, at least not in the metropolitan area where I live. What has become of the “handyman”? (Let’s call it the handyperson, even though the term seems a bit awkward.)

Perhaps we need to create more of a handyperson approach at a larger level, within the entire design/build community for example. Hopefully, more companies like North Slope will pop up, marketing useful products that were previously considered to be waste. Because designers are the source of product information for their clients, I believe we have an ethical obligation to spend time educating ourselves as to what’s available and consider recommending these products in our projects. Reusing a resource that would otherwise be tossed is just one aspect of sustainable design and one step toward eliminating the concept of waste altogether, but its an important one.

This is, in effect, designing with waste. It makes sense.