Thursday, December 31, 2009

Getting to Zero: Aspiring to the Zero Energy Home

Going into the new year I'm naturally in a reflective mood. What can I do to impact the greater world as we head into the unknown promise and potential of a new year? Sharing ideas which matter is a place to start!

What if more Zero Energy Homes became more prevalent in the coming year? What's a Zero Energy Home you ask? It is a home which produces the same or more energy than it uses over the course of a year. The specific design and make up of the Zero Energy Home adapts to its regional and micro-climate, siting and the needs and budget of individual homeowners. There is no single solution but rather a common approach to design which starts with shifting behaviors and motivations of all those involved.

A Zero Energy Home is valuable for a number of reasons. It can be an extremely comfortable, healthy and pleasant place to live. It can be carbon-neutral and good for the environment. It also can deliver future energy cost predictability by committing to upfront investments in a super-insulated building envelope, high performance internal heating / cooling systems, renewable energy sources, energy star appliances, lighting and healthy interior materials/ furnishings. As we head into the new year we don't know what our energy costs will be going forward but know intuitively they will continue to escalate with fossil fuel scarcity and growing demand. (See IHS Data, DOE calculator). There will be no magic energy solution I believe. Just hard slogging...

Thus, Zero Energy Homes can form part of the solution going forward, reshaping how we think about our homes into long-term investments which steady-state our energy costs into the future. Their lighter footprint on the earth and in our communities can only be an asset to strengthening them.

How and where does one start?

Read as much as you can: Visit informative web-sites such as....
Hire and Organize a Great Integrated Design Team: Contact your local American Institute of Architects (AIA) and Homebuilder's Organizations and look for standout professionals who have experience designing and building low-energy use and/or zero energy homes. They can assist you in early stages of site selection, construction strategies and project delivery methods which best adapt to your needs, budget and schedule. Depending on your project's complexity and your goals your Architect may suggest hiring an Energy Consultant and other specialized sub-consultants/ team-mates to really look at your needs and help optimize building envelope, heating-cooling systems, lighting, building controls and interior design.

Be Prepared to Learn and Grow Over the Course of Your Project: It's a journey with lots of learning along the way and exposure to new ideas and concepts. With the right team, it will be an enjoyable and never dull experience!

Investing in the Future: Remember, you're doing something which will benefit generations to come by looking beyond the present!

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2009

What I want for the New Year: "The Green Workplace", Leigh Stringer's new book

Two Greenbuild's ago in Boston in November 2008, I saw Leigh Stringer, the Author of "The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that benefit employees, The Environment, and the Bottom Line." who participated in a social media oriented seminar with other green luminaries of the blogosphere. I blogged about it in November of 2008. It was a fascinating session.

Last August her book named after the blog she originated and oversees became available. It's what I want going into the New Year. Apparently The Green Workplace Blog provides much of the material she and others cultivated there into a transformative book about the ins and outs of greening your workplace. Reading reviews of it on Amazon indicates usefulness to workplace sustainability managers, human resource personnel, designers of all kinds among others.

I'm going to sample some of the review words and phrases I saw there to tantalize.
"alternative work options"
"replacing destructive behaviors"
"a good compilation of the issues facing corporations today"
"help(s) businesses improve their ecological footprints"
"(the book) informs, educates and inspires..."
"illuminating, accessible, and comprehensive"

What I'd like to know is how others who have read the book used it in their workplace design and sustainability efforts in the last couple of months? What effects do resources like this have on workplace culture and facilities management, design process, materials selections and operational effects, user satisfaction etc.? What kinds of changes has this inspired for others? Do people who bought the book use the blog and vice versa? At Maclay Architects we're always on the look out for inspiring ideas to help us with our work with our environmentally and socially conscious clients and partners.

Of course, I've got to go read the book and I'll let you know how it folds into our work and design process as well.

In the meanwhile, tell me how this book has affected you. Or, if you have other books or articles you suggest I take a look at and perhaps share with others, please let me know. I'm happy to take a look.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Apply Now for 2010 Top Small Company Workplaces

Winning Workplaces, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps small businesses, is teaming up with Inc. Magazine to recognize "Top Small Company Workplaces." This yearly competition attracts the best of the best of small business entrepreneurs, especially those active in the socially responsible business sector.

Applications for 2010 are now being accepted at: Winning organizations will be featured in the June 2010 issue of Inc. Magazine.

Winning Workplaces says a benefit of applying is the opportunity to think about your employee practices in a formal way, to help develop a people strategy that aligns with your business strategy.

Learn more about Top Small Company Workplaces 2010 by reading Winning Workplaces' FAQ at:

Monday, December 14, 2009

Green Headquarters Delivers 375% ROI for SAS Canada

I read today in the second digital edition of HQ, a collaboration between McGraw-Hill and Architectural Record some interesting articles. One article on HQ was about how SAS Canada's headquarters which turned four recently has been a very good financial investment and on other levels too.

Please see the link to the article originally published on Canada Newswire. Please comment!

I'm always on the hunt for information about the effectiveness of green building and sustainability on workplace design / business performance.

Here's also a link to a digital version of the first inaugural issue as well.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Value of Design Thinking

Design is an active participatory and collaborative process. It is a verb not a noun. Design is really design thinking applied to problem solving or creatively surmounting challenges we face in business. Design and design thinking equals value creation. It's participatory because the design process does not operate in a vacuum.

The design thinking and doing process means engaging with others in value setting conversations and active design sessions of brainstorming, sketching, prototyping, pricing. These cycles of design move from the fuzzy blank paper stage to the implementation, creation, building, roll-out stage and finally into the living and using stage which is why it's so much fun.

It's also why it is so much work. So many factors effect design thinking on one hand it seems extremely complex and the other it is beautifully simple. The idea of honing down, clarifying, editing of design concepts into functioning, attractive and sustainable realities keeps me coming back for more. It is a process which builds upon itself. Good ideas become richer for it. So does the conversation and the learning!

If you think about it the action of design involves identifying something missing, whether it is designing a new workplace or home or better yet, redesigning an existing one, re-purposing and renewing it for a new chapter of living or working.

Marry the design thinking process with sustainable green design and game changing results can happen. A new re-energized future awaits you.

Address wherever you can in your process consider energy flows and usage, water conservation, resource conservation and recycling, creating long-term effective behavioral interactions, create and preserve healthy indoor air quality. Re-direct choices people make when using your product, service, building or software into greener more long-term value's driven decisions.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seeking and Sensing the Sacred In Jerusalem_Part 2

Continued from the Part 1, 10/24/09 post....

Friday, Saturday, Sunday.....

...I also visited

each of the sacred sites during their weekly holy days. Each called the faithful to prayer and worship through sound. Five times a day the call to prayer of the Muslims rang out around the city. Fire-raid sirens shrilly whistled at sunset on Friday, not to blow again until the next night, signaling the beginning

or end of Sabbath, the day of rest for the Jews. On Sunday morning bells from church steeples rang all over the Old City heralding the holy day services of the Christians.

Together, their sounds indicated the coming to an end of the week and the beginning of yet another within the context of each religion’s holy year of festivals and sacred time. The calls to prayer, horns and bells all reached out and defined the sacred territory of their

neighborhood or section of the city in a sound net. Often, during the week, confusion and tension would result from overlaps in calls to worship where calls to prayer would occur when bells were being rung for Christian services.During these moments the heterogeneous nature of the city became apparent.

I befriended an Imam or teacher at the Mosque of Omar near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian Quarter. I asked if I might accompany him to Friday services at the great Al Aqsa Mosque adjacent to the Dome of the Rock within the Haram esh Sharif. This Mosque served all of the Muslims of East Jerusalem and the Old City, and was the equivalent of a great cathedral or synagogue which serves an entire city. He was delighted.

That Friday I met him at his small mosque, ritually washed myself at the wash-basin and walked with him towards the larger mosque area. We joined thousands of faithful pouring through the streets of the Old City towards the many gates which surrounded the mosque sanctuary space. Because it was Summer it was an outdoors service with everyone lined up facing the entry of the Aqsa Mosque in a great mass of humanity. From there the hour-long service was given. At different points, in unison, the many thousands of people prostrated

themselves on prayer mats directing their bodies and uttering their intentions towards Mecca to the south. My hair rose on my neck in reaction to the expressive sounds of unity.

By participating in this ritual, I suspended my fear of another faith and culture, willfully projecting myself into the service. The clapping and chants of thousands of people at once during different point of the service reinforced the sense of unity and harmony I felt in general between Islam and the Old City. The market areas or Suqs, as they are throughout the Islamic Middle East are the belly of the city, the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Friday Mosque, the spiritual heart. Together with nearby housing, they formed a hierarchy of large outdoor rooms connected by narrow canyon like streets.

Here also, the joy of movement and connection to the Land were of equal importance in serving and shaping sacred space and place. The sites were reached by walking through the Old City along proscribed routes each with their own quality of movement and path. To enter a succession of thresholds and interlocking spaces had to be passed through before gaining access to the innermost sanctums. Instead of the topography being shaped by the layout of the Old City, the hilly terrain and system of valleys and ridges radically affected the design of the city.

To gain access to these special places, one must ascend or descend in an almost choreographed or deliberate manner through narrow and dark streets. Some streets were like dark tunnels, burrowing below streets and housing above, with narrow skylights and ventilation shafts providing dusty air and sharply focused light striking the cobbled streets. Others were wider with more of a sense of the sky above.

All paths which led to the three great shrines, ended with a sense of wide expansion of space in contrast to the strong sense of compression felt earlier. Usually this was preceded by entering a gate and passing through a threshold. In this way, the sacred sanctuary differentiated itself from its profane surroundings. The cardinal directions of north, south, east and west in conjunction of the rise and fall of the sun and the moon contribute to the design and layout of the Holy places and shrines. Each employs movement in proscribed ways through their spaces in relation to these forces.

If asked where and what was my most sacred place and space in Jerusalem I would answer an earthwork sculpture by James Turrell located in the garden of the Israel Museum situated in West Jerusalem. There a large unobtrusive mound is sighted, the visitor descends along a path winding around behind the breast-like form to the single entry of the space to the west. It was named Space that Sees. Like much of the work of the Turrell, it presented a frame upon the sky above. You experienced it from below in a very simply detailed chamber of stone with seats located along the four walls of the space.

Unlike all of the other historically sacred places in the Old City, this one was devoid of all narrative imagery, decoration and cultural conflicts. Instead of being focused on an altar or inner sanctum, the changing qualities of the sky above dominated the space. On hillsides near the Old City, similar older sepulchers or burial chambers and deep cisterns punctuated the landscape. Turrell’s earthwork captured a primordial element common to these spaces, framing nature and its forces in a peaceful, yet spiritual manner.

Playing my harmonica and singing softly, I played an ode to the primordial spiritual forces of the Land pervading the place, enframed in the sky-frame above. My harmonica and voice activated the space, inert before my sounds, into a place of celebration and joy. I participated with and made a place sacred through my own self-made ritual. By doing so, I experienced how these places are mere instruments whose walls, ceilings and roofs stand inert until engaged by action of the people using it. I could make up my own narrative in this simple, abstract space strikingly modern, yet of the earth and sky, endearingly primal to its core.

I finally found my own sacred place and space.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The importance of constant communication with clients

It's important to constantly talk and interact with clients, manage their expectations, requests and yes even their demands. Doing so helps keep the flow going on projects and keeps you in their mind's eye on an ongoing basis. I'm reminded of this everyday. Usually because I'm not as effective at this as I can be and suffer somewhat from not doing this as effectively as can be.

Avoiding interactions, not talking or deferring to a later time, especially in this economic climate, is not a good idea. Being direct, communicative and clear is essential to being effective. Plus it makes it easier to do business. Go figure.

Am I great at this. No way! But, I am learning how to do this better. It is certainly going to be a lifelong passion as far as I can tell. Hey just think of all the great conversations that haven't been had yet...and relationships to be built...this sounds like good business and good fun!

Any feedback from you cultural creative designer types? We're not always wired to do this well out of the box. Effective communication isn't a typical course in design or architecture schools.

So, to sum up, try to be in constant communication as much as possible with your clients and folks in your network. It really matters to be in touch. Especially as we all move together organically into our quasi social / professional networking sites like LinkedIN and Facebook, Plaxo etc. It's important to be alive on the internet and to be alive in face to face communication.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Images of the Imaginary City and Waste Oil

A few years ago I painted this blue on blue image of any imaginary city with various levels of clarity. It's haunting blue coloration has stayed with me with it's simplicity and striking mood. When I was making it I was imagining how I felt during 9/11 which certainly wasn't very settled or happy, but rather downcast and confused, although now I can see I was trying to structure and control the uncontrollable with a composition of four figures against the sky.

Contrast this with the following more expressive painting of oil cans I made demonstrating the alternative and eirie beauty of painted words found on oil cans in Rutland, VT leaning against a Garage wall. I wanted to create a message with the piece causing the viewer to reflect on the
idea of beauty from such a ordinary and ugly fixture of our oil dependent society.

What are your thoughts or readings?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Good Design Takes Time

Good design is exhausting. It's rigorous. It demands communication on all levels.

Good design is relentless and not for the faint of heart or for those who need lots of sleep!

Design matters, so does honest and open, clear communication, setting realistic expectations and maintaining them internally and externally.

Good design is taking care of your customer as best as possible.

Good design listens and learns. It also takes time. Time to think, time to make, time to explain and clarify, time to produce...and then time to enjoy and reflect......

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Check Out "Global Warming: Are Brtitains' TV Ads too Scary For Children?"

The Christian Science Monitor had an interesting article on recent TV ads shown in Britain about Global Warming and shifting to greener behavior. I often ask myself how dire versus how optimistic a message or mood to share with people when discussing Global Warming.

My friends and family seem to be divided on whether they believe or not and often it brings up difficult but necessary conversations. Is the CSM right on with their assessment of the ads and the questions they raise? How do you deal with explaining Global Warming to others? Are what the Brits doing helpful or not? What do you think? Should we air TV ads like this here in the US? Maybe we already are? If so, send me links or information. Thanks, Steve

Sunday, November 1, 2009

DOE Solar Decathalon Winners_Let the Sun Shine on Innovation

When I was in graduate school in the the early 1990's sustainable design was just getting off of the ground in the way we know it now. (I know it's been around since Mesa Verde, but the current generation of thinking)

I wish programs such as the Solar Decathalon held each year in the fall in Washington D.C. were around then. It is sponsored by the US Dept of Energy and teams from universities and colleges from all across the world compete in it. It provides an oppourtunity for pursuing design innovation and experiential learning on a small solar home scale. What a fantastic all around oppourtunity!

The program has six-goals worth noting. The basic premise is to invigorate interest, research and developing marketable technologies able to be brought to the market-place. Another one is to help develop zero energy homes which is something many of us want to know more about.

The winners this year, especially the top three, offer a wide ranging view of how to solve the design challenge. Check out the winners! I wonder if teams from Norwich University or Yestermorrow Design Build School have ever entered? It seems like this program would be right up their respective areas of focus. I'll have to check with friends who teach there.

See photostreams of the homes on Flickr and Hi-res Gallery of Homes on the DOE site.

Enjoy seeing what the next generation of design leaders are up to!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Seeking and Sensing the Sacred in Jerusalem_Part 1

Originally published in the July 1998 Newsletter from the "Colorado Architect", the journal of the American Institute of Architects state wide Colorado chapter. This is a two-part blog article. I traveled to Israel and Jerusalem specifically as mentioned in prior posts in the summer of 1994. I had received a small travel grant from AIA Colorado. It was an especially troubling time with much strife between Israelis and Palestinians. This article isn't about that though. It's about searching for the sacred in one of the holiest places. There I learned how ironic it was that as sacredness increased so did the intensity of the profane.......

It was one o’clock in the afternoon. Since early morning I had been sitting in the tall belfry of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, located in the Muristan or Christian Quarter of the Old City. From this high point I could see the roof-tops of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters, the Mt of Olives and Western and Eastern Jerusalem beyond the walls. My dreamy reverie was interrupted by the minaret of the nearby Mosque of Omar, crackling into life with the mid-day call to prayer. Soon, its sound was joined by minarets of other mosques. What began as a single voice, slowly grew into an amazing chorus of Arabic readings from the Koran blaring loudly all over the city, until a single sound formed which penetrated the very pores of my skin. People emerged out of their homes, offices and stores walking to their neighborhood mosque to pray and gather in community with one another. Slowly, the single voice started to break apart as the calls to prayers ceased and all was silent again but for the doves cooing in the vaulted steeple above my head.

All of us have experienced sacred places and spaces in our lives. Whether they were the special hiding places of our childhood, the kitchen table or campfire, the concept is clear. They are places which provide sanctuary, a sense of respite from the harsh forces of life. They are also found in our places of worship, the temples, mosques and churches which form the center of spiritual and cultural life for many. For others, natural spaces and places have the same kind of personal and collective power.

For two months in the summer of 1994, I traveled to Jerusalem and various parts of Israel and the West Bank on an AIA Colorado Fisher Traveling Scholarship. In preparation, I read much about the region, its history and texts about sacred place and space. I was most interested in experiencing these places outside of their dry academic context. To describe them I would sketch, photograph, interview others and write about what I was experiencing. As a maker of space and place, I felt much of which I lived in and experienced at home was devoid of spiritual depth.. I sensed studying sacred places and spaces in their context would help me to design more meaningful and unified communities back home. Thus I sought out Jerusalem.

As one of the longest continually settled places on Earth, the city presents an incredible richness of cultures and urban conditions to experience and study. Digging down into the Old City one finds a tightly woven mesh of physical, spatial and mythological relationships unparalleled in complexity and significance. I sought to compare and contrast the differences between the physical design and cultural use of space and notions of place exhibited in the Old City by the Western or Wailing Wall of the Jews, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher of the Christians and the Dome of the Rock of the Muslims. Surrounding each Holy Place lay a district or residential area which supported the sacred activities within. As sacred precincts, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim quarters exhibited profound differences and similarities as compared to one another. Each revealed essential qualities of how space and place were culturally perceived and expressed through their design and history.

In numerous conversations with others and through my experiences, I concluded that without those who use the spaces, the places themselves can not remain sacred. The continuity over four millennium of the presence of people practicing the rituals and traditions within the monuments and holy places, saturates them with sacredness. These holy shrines and places are mere instruments or containers which promote and enable the rituals to be practiced and engaged in. Without this human imprint of activity and use they would stand inactive and forgotten, hence not sacred. It is in the remembering and renewing of the great stories of the Talmud, Old and New Testaments and the Koran which enlivens the silent monuments with a sense of narrative space and sacred time.

A favorite memory was walking the ramparts of the great stone wall surrounding the Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim Quarters within the Old City. One traverses each area without actually entering them. From the ramparts one could also see the different sections of Western and Eastern Jerusalem and the outlying hills and valleys beyond, each with their own rich layers of physical design and symbolic qualities. From this high place it was easy to assess the physical and symbolic aspects of the city, drawing relationships impossible to arrive at on the ground. I spent a number of afternoons slowly moving along the walls, sketching, thinking and taking photographs, trying to unravel and make sense of what I saw. The city and its history awakened before my eyes and under my pen.

end of part 1 - to be continued

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Sacred Threshold in Jerusalem, an overnight at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Nightly the door of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher shuts to visiting pilgrims and tourists. At nine o’clock in the evening, after the final Pilgrim is ushered out its private side emerges out of the mysteries of its inner spaces. Many years ago, in a Summer visit to this Holy City, I had the opportunity to experience this sacred place due to the persistence of a new friend met while staying at a Hostel in the midst of the Old City of Jerusalem.

To stay overnight at this, one of the most holy of sacred places in Christianity, individuals or small groups may ask to remain in the church after-hours to worship and mingle if they make the request to the attendant at the entry. Doing so, sets in motion a complex ritual interchange between the various factions residing in the Church to gain its approval. Latin Catholics, Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Coptic and Ethiopian together share the Church. Each has their own distinct sacred precinct whether in the nave, the apse, side galleries or up on the roof or in the bowels of this most sacred place. In order to approve entry after-hour a representative of each faith must be asked and the issue debated together with final approval by the Latin priest. This is evocative of the collaboration and friction felt daily while experiencing the Church’s holy spaces.

After much bantering in a variety of languages, they granted our request. We settled into old wooden next to the doorway to observe the ritual closing of the great wooden doors. Four men from various faiths work together. An Armenian pushes the door closed. It is locked by a Greek Orthodox from the outside. A small hatch in the massive Medieval door is opened and a ladder used in locking the door is pushed through from the outside. A Latin receives it and leans it against the aged., pockmarked wood where it lies until being used again to open the door later in the evening. I drew the door from the inside while watching the ritual of closing the door for the evening.

My friend and I split up to pursue our own personal explorations within the Church. The darkness of the night amplifies the candlelit shadows and eerie quiet due to the absence of the hordes of visitors wandering its spaces. The lights are turned off. My footfalls echoed off the ancient stone columns and walls disappearing into the vaulted darkness above. I walked around the various shrines alone with quiet thoughts feeling the cloak of silence and darkness so different from the day.

A quietude settled into my own thoughts as I sat watching candlelit icons and statuary set upon altars waver and flicker in their shadows. I drew only a little and thought deeply about my mother whom I lost to a valiant struggle with cancer a few years before. Sitting in prayer-like reverie in the wavering candlelight, I slowly realized I had traveled so far to not only chart and describe sacred place and space in this holiest of cities, but also to come closer to the soul and memory of my mother whom I dearly missed. I came to mourn her death while loving her life.

Somehow, I felt, coming to Jerusalem, I could come closer to her here due to its sacred and mysterious qualities and the direct physical connection to the holy in this sacred city. The primal spaces of the Old City, built of stone and standing for so many millennium, stood for me outside of time while fully of my time and place. Walking the narrow streets and pathways in and around the Old City, I imagined the many lively histories gracing these doorways and ancient surfaces layering over one another.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Does being deep Green include Corporate Responsibility?

I wonder if being deep green can include believing in corporate responsibility and people, planet and profits together? I was listening to NPR driving home. They were discussing a recent Time article, "The Responsibility Revolution" published recently. I know living in Vermont this isn't necessarily breaking news. We know corporate responsibility efforts and green behavior have been tightly linked for over a generation with early adopters and maturing companies in the Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility( sphere. It seems just like good business sense.
The more I practice archtecture the more I believe in the importance of respecting and sustaining natural systems revolving around energy, water and waste in the creating of buildings and places. The USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED program now maturing and gaining mainstream acceptance around the country, offers a framework for aligning the goals of respecting natural systems. Conversation involving sustainability should also include discussing social and cultural systems intertwined with the natural. Thus the corporate responsibility movement offers a wider promise, a deeper more inclusive platform gathering elements such as Green thinking and design together. Organizations, for example, such as Winning Workplaces examine the nexus of building positive workplace culture and operations. The idea of respect permeats both the natural as well as the workplace ecosystems, albeit in differing ways. I think it is interesting to bring this idea into the design of green workplace where natural systems and social and organizational systems collide with delightful oppourtunity for productive cultivation into a more sustainable whole.
It's not easy though...That is why it is so fun to be a green architect and design strategist. It's also like being a gardener where you never really have the "right" answer, but only ones which are relative to the soil you till and the weather and climate surrounding you.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Iconography and weathervanes

I found this weathervane a few years ago atop a barn in Vermont where I live. It is a truly unique object. I appreciate the multiple readings it provides. Yes it is a weathervane. Yes it identifies rather strongly its place from other places. It could be an owl, a wizard, a frog. But no it is a cow in silouette. The strong graphic character is unmistakable against the sky. It is both weathervane, symbol, utilitarian object and storytelling device. The visual onomonpheia of the image and implied function and connection to farming is exact and unmistakable.

By learning to look at the everday object such as this and wonder why it is so powerful, we can use this lesson in seeing to communicate meaning and symbolism intrinsic to creating design which connects to the emotions and resonates with the subconscious.

Another reason not to look down at your feet, but rather up to the sky, out of your ordinary field of view.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Newsweek Green Rankings_Top 500 Companies

Newsweek just published an article and first ever Green Rankings of the top 500 companies in the USA. It's an interesting list of who's who in corporate america and has a distinctly Main Street focus. I did a quick scan of the list and found companies absent I'd expect to see somewhere on it. This gives me pause to reflect about the companies I'm aware of here in Vermont and in our region. Pretty much none of them showed up. You know the one's you'd might expect in the Corporate Social Responsibility space.
Be that as it may this is an interesting effort. Ratings such as these will most definitely provoke controversey and discussion. And if this mainstream media ranking takes hold perhaps it could be a driver of sorts to move sustainability forward. I know of no other truly mass media ranking like it's a beginning at this larger scale.
Newsweek has an article explaining its methodology and the partners it consulted with to assist them in measuring and verification leading to the ranking. You should check it out. One interesting anecdote, I listened to a recent Treehugger radio podcast where they interviewed a deputy editor who helped manage the effort at Newsweek. She said if they knew how much work it would prove to be they might have reconsidered the article and ranking effort. They learned a ton along the way but it was very, very hard work and difficult to figure out how to measure efforts, compare and rank companies. This is no surprise. Green isn't easy. When you tackle systems based issues with all of their interconnectedness it's hard slogging. Kudos for Newsweek to jump into the fire pit along with the other less well known dancers who've been there for a while already.

The top 10, then 100,200 etc... are as follows:
1. Hewlett-Packard
2. Dell
3. Johnson & Johnson
4. Intel
5. IBM
6. State Street
7. Nike
8. Briston-Meyers Squibb
9. Applied Materials
10. Starbucks
100. Marathon Oil
200. Costco Warehouse
300. Shaw Group
400. C.R. Bard
500. Peobody Energy

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Seeking an intimacy with the Natural World

As fall in Vermont meanders its way through September there is much to see and ponder in the everyday landscape outside Montpelier where I live. Templeton road intersects with County Road which leads to Calais and Maple Corners. Bursting from a dark tunnel of maple canopies into a large open area of pastures, a pond and hay fields one moves from the darkness of the forest into the light of the clearing.

In the early morning fog a magical time awaits an eager exploring eye. Here in the break of morning you really feel the transition from the coolness of night to the heat of mid-day. Atmospheric conditions present themselves unlike any other time of day to stimulate creative compositions derived from the mysterious qualities of fog. If I could express photography in terms of watercolor it would be seen in the quiet of this time of day amidst the breezy moisture. Mid-day precision dissolves for a while in fuzzy disorientation and otherworldly diffusion. This leads to a reflective intimacy with the natural world. For the world is waking, stretching and rising to meet the new day.

Why is seeing this way important to an architect? The buildings and places we design must connect to the land. The land must also connect and relate to the building. Building and land come together to create a sense of place. Blending the horizontal forces of the landscape with the vertical urges of buildings and structures is a lifelong quest. It's important to seek a balance between both to create a more powerful presence of place. By actively looking for this sense of balance around me whether here where I live in Vermont or wherever I go is instructive. By learning to look I see and feel the mood of a place. The fog teaches one how to see mood and symbolism in everyday things, bringing a sense of wonder to the ordinary, turning mere things into the extraordinary.

Our work in our building and design teams involves visualizing how and where and why to put and place structures in the land, in cities and villages. Do they blend in? Do they create a sense of contrast? How does this new place present itself visually in the land? Is it sited to invite discovery or be hidden from on-lookers? How can we turn the ordinary into the extra-ordinary?
Cultivating such abilities to see and interpret helps to produce a sense of mood, narrative and experience contributing richness and beauty to otherwise functional design. That's why it's important to keep learning how to see.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Toward Collaborative Interactive Meeting Spaces: Surface & Media:scape

Last night I visited Business Interiors in Williston, VT, a local systems furniture / space solutions company affiliated with Steelcase among other manufacturers. They hosted area Architects and Designers in a mixer celebrating surviving the tumultuous last year and introducing Mediascape and the Combi Chair. Jim Baker, BI President, shared some encouraging words and that he was feeling more optimistic about the economy and business activity.

Later while sitting around the Mediascapes interactive table and screen environment, talk turned immediately to collaboration and how it offered an effective resource to enhance group effectiveness and dynamics. Dave McGill, a visiting regional Steelcase Market rep from the Boston area shared how he seems to use it more and more when he visits showrooms and client in meetings. For him, it really jump starts information sharing and cross-collaboration between others at the table. Meeting participants plug in their laptops, adaptive mobile devices into the table to be able to share interactively on the common heads up screen whatever relevant info they need. Whether powerpoint slides, websites, spreadsheets, pictures or videos any content is fair game. Up to 4 screens can be seen at once. It can be web camera enabled to allow for video conferencing so different locations can see each other.

A sales team could come together and present mini-reports about their sales work with each other. Because of how visual it is, info can be rapidly shared and given the multiple screen capability, cross-connections between information, click-throughs to interesting websites etc. Sometimes the best conversations are a little less linear and more dynamic. Or a design team could have a shared 3d model saved on a common site and interactively manipulate it individually around the table. Reflecting on the experience, one downside I saw or limitation was how much wires were strewn around the table and how everyone were tied to separate laptop devices or screens while sharing one large common one. The table wouldn't really work for those of us who like to work with the table, lay drawings down and draw and interact that way. Like for instance, sketching or editing design ideas together, marking up documents collaboratively etc.

At the Media Scape table last night, I shared how last year I watched a briefing scene from the Quantum of Solace James Bond film and saw a highly interactive computer table used at the cinematic version of M1-6, the British equivalent of the CIA. (I may have reported on this in an earlier post) Owen Milne, Business Interiors Marketing and Environmental Resource shared he'd seen a something like that called Microsoft Surface. Ironically, he typed it up and it came up on the media scape screen where we looked together in excitement.

Surface provides a flat table interface where like Media Scape people can gather around the table top. I want Steelcase to design and produce a 2.0 version of Media Scape using this technology so we can do away with our individual laptops and roll up our sleeves around the collaborative table together.

Here's how Microsoft Surface really stands out (4 Key points from the website)
  • Direct interaction. Users can grab digital information with their hands and interact with content on-screen by touch and gesture – without using a mouse or keyboard.
  • Multi-user experience. The large, horizontal, 30 inch display makes it easy for several people to gather and interact together with Microsoft Surface - providing a collaborative, face-to-face computing experience.
  • Multi-touch. Microsoft Surface responds to many points of contact simultaneously - not just from one finger, as with a typical touch screen, but from dozens of contact points at once.
  • Object recognition. Users can place physical objects on the screen to trigger different types of digital responses – providing for a multitude of applications and the transfer of digital content to mobile devices.
You can set down your I-phone or other enabled smart device and its screen becomes an icon on the surface! I can envision a time in the near future where these kinds of interactive tables become common place in conference rooms or specialized media oriented meeting spaces. I looked at the site, right now it's glass table top which sits on a very large grey box which contains the souped up computer enabling the interactive magic above to happen.

Another regional Steelcase rep (Anita?) said her biggest challenge is getting potential customers excited about Mediascape and its merits and integrating it into their work styles. For so many, 30 to 50 somethings we're used to meeting around tables with laptops or other devices open some of the time but we're mostly still face to face. Based on past life-experience technology will only get more effective with time. The screens will continue to get larger, the supporting computing more powerful and smaller. This is the kind of collaboration environment, my children who are 9 and 10, will be using in their College libraries, cafe's, student activity centers. Eventually, it will become common place in their workplace's meeting and collaboration spaces.

For now, can the R&D people of Steelcase and Microsoft get together and start working towards developing better, easier and more affordable to use products? It would make a world of difference!

Meanwhile, it's going to be a while until I visit my son's at college so please keep the innovation going...

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sketching the Vernacular of Vermont

A couple of years ago I drew this sketch of a twisting, yawing barn outbuilding in downtown Waitsfield, Right off of the small park by the library. It was a sunny that day but very comfortable sitting under the shade of the maple trees above.

Over time, the building sagged, curving to meet the impress of time. Beguiling asymmetry of the short facade with small square windows and an attic doorway. The roof is tin and reflected the sun intensely.

This was sketching as meditation.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Acre, Israel - Travel Sketches

In the summer of 1994, I also traveled into northern Israel to the coastal city of Acre. It was a former crusader era city in one of its many lifetimes. The jumbled up sketch records the impression of the very confusing but really interesting old city area with minarets, crenelated fortifications, smooth stone streets and aromatic smells of turkish coffee....interconnected Souks or interior narrow shopping streets lit from above with small holes for smoke in the domed roof.

Acre is a city for Sound. The city vibrates with the daily calls to prayer from mosques dotting the city....sounds of the ocean surf, arabic music blaring and amidst the calls of street vendors......

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Brews up 100KW of Solar Power

Today, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters mentioned here in a press release just issued, turned on it's new 100 + KW solar array comprising of over 500 solar electric panels in Waterbury, Vermont.

Our friends in Waterbury continue to amaze and astound in their very visible leadership in sustainability trailblazing. Of putting their coffee cup where their mouth is, all puns intended. GroSolar, headquartered in White River Junction did the installation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Gift of Fall - Nature's Design

I walk alot and picked up these two leaves the other day. They caught my eye. One large leaf. One small. The large leaf is a cacaphony of variegated colors from summer green to autumnal reds and yellows. The small one more a dull reddish purple with hints of green. What I like is the organization of the leaf structure with primary veins descending to smaller sized capillaries. In both, there is a true sense of center and a parts to the whole relationship which is stunning.

The larger is more rambunctious. The smaller much more subtle. Take a look for yourself and tell me what you see and how these connect with you.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

on Lightening Up (And doing something different)

This fall brings many things. There is heaviness and there is lightness. It brings return to familiar activities here in Vermont and elsewhere, the end of summer, the beginning of fall and whispers of winter's approach. It's back to school time for many, a time to buckle down and stack firewood, preparing for the cold. For others it is time to refocus and dig into one's endeavours with a seriousness to match the season. It also is a time where the leaves float and swirl into piles and crackle beneath your feet, where giddy laughter of children and adults jumping into leaf piles echo in the trees and parks.

This sense of ritual and patterns of time and season bring peace for some and stress for others. It is hard to forget a year ago to almost the day the sky was literally falling into itself with the splintering apart of Lehman brothers, Merrill Lynch and our financial system as we understood it. If feels like ten years ago rather than a mere 12 months. Many are left with their world changed for what seems like forever. It feels heavy, very heavy.

Pema Chodron, buddist teach and author of small but powerful book "Comfortable with Uncertainty", published in 2003 by Shambala, offers 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion of which I'd like to share but one. The chapter called "Lighten up (And do something different) speaks to me more so than others.

So often in these times it's really difficult to be light when faced with such dire seriousness. It's important to find space to loosen up, to play and to laugh. Without such, anxiety and stress overwhelm, consume. Especially so for the cultural creative types who strive for inventiveness and inspiration in unlikley places. It's hard to summon when you are down, scared, anxious. Given our economy, general strife and society chaos, these feelings will be with us for a while I believe. Thus it's imperative to learn how to lighten up something different...make a different choice...intentionally don't do what's familiar and welcome the unknown, the untried.

Pema writes, "Being able to lighten up is key to feeling at home with your body, mind, and emotions, to feeling worthy to live on this planet"....."When your aspiration is to lighten up, you begin to have a sense of humour. Your serious state of mind keeps getting popped. In addditon to a sense of humour, a basic support for a joyful mind in curiousity, paying attention, taking an interest in the world around you. Happiness is not required, but being curious without a heavy judgemental attitude helps....Curiousity encourages cheering up. So does doing something's sometimes helpful to change the pattern."

So instead of walking the way you always walk home, walk another way and remember to look up in the sky and not at your feet. Do one less thing which you normally do each day and see what opens up in the space left over. It might be nothing at all, silence. However, that nothing might lead to inspiration, a long-percolating creative connection or something you forgot to do which was really important or meaningful for yourself or someone else.

Smile and be light. Make funny faces in the mirror. Loosen up, don't take yourself so seriously. Practice this skill often, learn how to shift your perspective, change your point of view, walk in other people's shoes. Doing so will help navigate the uncertain future gracefully with poise and balance.

(The image is from a recent family trip to Mt. Philo which when climbed, offers lofty views of Lake Champlain and the expansive valley surrounding)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ecological Intelligence and the Good Guide_Parallels to Design and Architecture

Earlier this week I listened to a Treehugger Radio Interview of Daniel Goleman, Author of the new book Ecological Intelligence and the key issues surrounding the book advocating greater transparency about the food and products which we use everyday. He also advocates for a systemic view of nature, health concerns, environmental and societal or cultural concerns. He advocates for greater transparency and life cycle assessment by companies to provide missing information to complete the puzzle of "how Green is my organic cotton bag anyway?" etc. Time magazine recently said his was one of the top 10 ideas. It was world changing Idea number 10.

As a green architect I often want to know more about the products and materials we use on our building projects, especially if we're doing a LEED certified Green Building and to tell you the truth there doesn't seem to be much discussion in architectural practice about Life Cycle Assessment in parallel with the LEED Green Building process.
I think this is a missed oppourtunity, or one in it's beginning stages of integration and development. Daniel Goleman was extremely persuasive especially in relation to the products we touch everyday, eat, drink, wear, drive, ride on etc. He mentioned a website called the Good Guide which examines the three major categories identified above, scores them seperately and then averaged overall. I visited the site and was it easy to use. I looked up cold cereal and it was fascinating! I'm going to buy Dora the Explorer Cereal, surpisingly well-rated.
That's in comparison to the unwieldy unfriendly data driven techy interfaces available through the USGBC's website for LCA tools and links. I challenge the Building design community to make a LCA system as simple and helpful to use as Good Guide's. It would so help us in our efforts to confirm the viability of material and systems selections in our projects. The last thing I want to do is fill out wonky forms and track down myriad details about products in a spreadsheet application.
Industry should work with independent third party vendors like Good Guide and others such as and more, put their information out there for all to see in a transparent and easily accessible way. Companies which do this will no doubt be leaders and innovators in their field, and, find a great deal of profitability and market acceptance by being so open. What I like most about the criteria used by Good Guide is the big picture systems based approach to information. Clarity and ease of access, a beautiful interface are priceless for the designer who wants to be credible and authentic in offering clients "Green Choices" with backup behind them.
I'm going to see if my local library can order Dan's book so I can check it out and so others can enjoy it too.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tips for the Green Higher Ed Workplace_Shifting to Green Behaviors

I was reading recently about Green Workplace Tips and here is a Green Workplace Checklist to use in your office whether it's just yourself or a work "Green Team" or something in between. I found it originally at the University of Vermont's website in it's sustainability area. It's tilted to the higher education crowd but many of the tips are applicable to businesses of all shapes and sizes.

The focus is on small and larger actions which can be taken by individuals, work teams and whole offices. It's not really metric based but it has lots of well organized suggestions and offers a road map of sorts with links to additional information to check out at the end.

It also lists the "Top 5 Actions you can take in your workplace". Why not start there and then tackle the comprehensive checklist. It is set up to assess where you are today and then future goals to accomplish.

The biggest thing I think you can personally do, which admittedly I can do a better job too, is carpooling to work or to school. Transportation related energy use and the related carbon footprint is one of the largest problem areas and sometimes one of the easiest to fix. Depending on where you live and how far away work is there may be other healthier choices such as walking, biking, razoring or skateboarding, taking the bus or using a campus shuttle bus system. Oh yeah, cutting down on air travel is also an obvious but sometimes harder behavior to change. It's nice to visit family or attend interesting conferences. As an alternative consider video conferencing, Skyping (is that a verb now?) or some online cloud computing meeting software instead. There are numerous virtual meeting choices of varying sophistication available now making it easier then ever before.

Friday, August 28, 2009

CEO Panelists Set for Wall Street Journal Chicago Insight Exchange

Readers in the midwest might find this upcoming conference of interest to high-performance workplace designers and others interested in improving their space and operations. The keynote address that kicks off the conference, by Rackspace Chairman Graham Weston, might be of special interest. Graham will undoubtedly discuss the company’s ongoing move into an old San Antonio mall they now call “the castle” (see his blog), and the innovations they’re undertaking in the space to make it an attractive place to work and boost productivity. There are videos worth watching telling the story in a couple of parts. How do you take really vanilla unwanted industrial space and turn it into something innovative? Check out the videos and check out the Insight Exchange Breakfast hosted by the Wall St. Journal at the ROI of Great Workplaces Conference hosted by Winning Workplaces in Chicago in early October.

This tip came from Winning Workplace's Blog Author Mark Harbeke. You can read more about this and other interesting innovation focused writing there for the high performance workplace. Thanks Mark!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The New Energy Economy, Vermont and Colorado Parallels

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter at the 6th Annual American Renewable Energy Day (AREDAY) in Aspene last weekend recounted how he helped Barack Obama last year on the campaign trail to see the possibilities of a 'New Energy Economy' based on Colorado's success with it. Apparently it is due to 'marriage of sorts' between environmental and economic policy. He went on to discuss various success stories in the public and private sector since attaining office in 2006. His main focus was how to use the 'transition to clean energy as an economic engine'.

Last week Bernie Sanders chaired a Green Jobs Hearing in Montpelier, at the statehouse where he asked experts from private green oriented industry and similar Vermont public entities to speak about their work and vision integrating energy efficiency, sustainable energy and green jobs development together under the Green Collar economy umbrella. Sanders goal was to collect testimony to spread the word about clean energy job development policies happening in Vermont and how what we're doing is applicable for others nationwide.

Between Colorado and Vermont as green 'new energy economy' leaders there is a lot to learn other states can take away. The one thing that's hard to replicate however is the unique synergy of green thinking into the DNA of those who live and work in each State. This is partly due to long-held environmentally focused values, a culture awareness of the finitude of natural resources and willingness to have hard discussions together. Whether it's the lack of water for example in Colorado and rampant growth issues in metropolitan areas or stormwater versus acid rain in Vermont, aesthetic and visual impacts of Wind Energy vs. the Merits as renewable energy source and permitting reform, both States have a vital dialogue about these issues which spurs other conversations and intiatives such as the 'New Energy Economy' or 'Green Jobs' discussions.

This synergy of activism, involvement and innovation takes generations to develop. But with Colorado and Vermont's examples to follow among others, perhaps it might be easier for others to join in the conversation.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Green Walgreens in the Chicago Area - Logan Square

I'm excited about this Walgreens store in the Chicago area pursuing LEED Certification. Apparently it's their second Green store in the country and more are planned in the pipeline. It's awaiting certification at some advanced level which is likely to happen in 4-6 months. I know its mass market retail but if corporations like this don't take sustainability issues seriouusly how will we get the massive change to happen we all need, to achieve the kind of goals organizations like or www.2030.0rg aspire to?

It's such a wonderfully odd thing to consider doing business at a green Walgreen's where it is addressing numerous energy efficiency, sustainable sites, materials, water resources and indoor environmental quality issues in the design. I hope that the feedback and performance for the store is positive over the long haul and Walgreen's learns from this one, it's first in a colder climate, and builds more across the nation.

Obviously the stores are only part of the problem. It's the environments they're located in around the country which also needs alot of help. I'm talking about the suburban strip centers, mall parking lots and corner stores along major aterials where these retailers are often located. Sure, it's a complex auto based lifestyle puzzle but we've got to start tipping the scale in the other direction. Perhaps by companies like Walgreens initiating leadership such as this one store at a time, other retailers will catch on and postive effects will collectively be felt in time.

As someone who cares about high design and equitable design I also care about democratizing the green architecture movement and helping bring it into the mainstream. Doing so gives me hope for my children and the generations to follow.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Blog Feedback and the Importance of Adsense

Give me your feedback! Put it on the line!
I've been blogging for a while now and wonder if I could ask for some feedback from you, my loyal readers.

so here goes....
Ads.... how important, useful are the Ad-sense ads by Google on my blog? Are they helpful to you? Do you like clicking on them? Wish they weren't there? Are the Ad topics of interest to you?

From a content stand-point, are there other topics you'd like to see me write about or return back to which I haven't posted on recently?

In regards to ease of use, does this blog operate effectively for you when you navigate it? Is it easy or challenging? Fun, Annoying?

Are there any things I can do differently to make your time spent more engaging, interesting?

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated! Thanks, Steve

Friday, August 21, 2009

Does being or becoming Sustainable or Green benefit my business and bottom line?

Clients, Contractors and Business Partners often ask if becoming a more sustainable or green oriented organization is truly beneficial or just another buzzword which will fade in a year or so? It's a terrific question not be shied away from asking or answering. Based upon working with lots of public, private, for profit, non-profit customers I know the answer is evolving and relative to the situation of the business or organization asking. There is not one answer. First, do you have a set of core company values, a mission statement encompassing more than financial profits and success? If not, examine some Vermont examples where I live.

Working and growing up in Vermont I have luckily been exposed to some extraordinary companies with truly remarkable sustainable visions who have been models for others to follow over the last generation and mentors now for those following in their footsteps. Companies such as Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, King Arthur Flour, Seventh Generation, NRG Systems, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, National Life of Vermont, Small Dog Electronics, Efficiency Vermont...the list goes on an on. Year after year they show remarkable performance and a large part of their success lies in the different way they run their businesses. Their success is driven by their focus on a triple bottom lined approach to seeing the world, of focusing on "People, Profits and Planet". They are active members of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, a non-profit focusing on how businesses can accumulate social and environmental capital along with economic prosperity in Vermont.

Each one of these companies believes strongly in a socially responsible vision and are leaders in their industries. As successful as they are as businesses they also are often voted best places to work in Vermont, with lots of economic data supporting or reinforcing why it's beneficial to embrace sustainability. They have extremely dynamic and vibrant work cultures or communities with a strong sense of corporate identity and shared goals. In the cases where these companies publish Corporate Responsibility Reports, they measure among many factors worker productivity, quality and types of benefits, workplace comfort, relative health and wellness, absentism, community volunteerism. These measures go beyond the ordinary business performance factors often measured in traditional end of the year financial reports.

Secondly, to support the organizational aspects of the high performance workplace a critical physical step is to provide to employees a green, sustainably oriented building or office fit-out. To be a sustainable business I feel also means embracing green building fundamentals which directly impact worker comfort and well-being and indirectly help the environment, lower organizational exposure to fluctuating energy costs. Many companies and organizations over the last five or ten years have dramatically embraced the Green Movement and are no longer beginners but rather moving on to the second or third generation of integrating green building ideas into their workplaces. Seeing what works and what does not. In the process many have facilities which are LEED certified and are walking their talk in a very open and visible way.

Here is some information from the USGBC:

Benefits of Green Building & Sustainbility in Business (adapted from the
US Green Building Council [USGBC] website, See below

Environmental benefits:
1. Enhance and protect ecosystems and biodiversity
2. Improve air and water quality
3. Reduce solid waste
4. Conserve natural resources

Economic benefits:
1. Reduce operating costs
2. Enhance asset value and profits
3. Improve employee productivity and satisfaction
4. Optimize life-cycle economic performance

Health and community benefits:
1. Improve air, thermal, and acoustic environments
2. Enhance occupant comfort and health
3. Minimize strain on local infrastructure
4. Contribute to overall quality of life


Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility

Winning Workplaces - Helping to create the High Performance Workplace

US Green Building Council - Facts for Businesses

(Disclosure, as a long term team member of Maclay Architects I have had the good fortune of working with NRG Systems, Seventh Generation and Efficiency Vermont, VBSR among others in various capacities, you can learn more about that work at our website)