Monday, June 29, 2009

Learning from the Gecko's Tail_Nature & Biomimicry

I was driving in today and was listening to this fascinating Podcast by Richard Full: Learning from the Gecko's Tail featured recently on Ted Talks. It offers a great example of applying the power of nature and natural approaches to design thinking to challenges we face, such as how to climb up walls like Gecko's. Can we do it? We sure can. Watch and see how.

Another site which is relevant is Ask Nature.Org which is a more general site tapping into this which offers a broad range of tools and resources to pursue further.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Microgrid Houses, energy independance and giving back to the grid

In this summer's July / August issue of Fast Company Anya Kamenetz wrote an article an Why the Microgrid Could Be the Answer to Our Energy Crisis .

It identifies how the microgrid which is small scale consumer, commercial developer and municipality driven is at odds with the large scale smart grid, renewable energy industrialization efforts of large regional or national energy players. What's fascinating and powerful is how both together large and small can help provide needed renewable energy sources to all scales of users. And, the economic oppourtunity for redefining our troubled economy through the conversion to greener energy sources can only or the other but both together which is powerful. It's not Smart Grid vs. Microgrid but both, 1 + 1 = 5 etc. With multiple ways to deliver renewable energy in a more complex interdependant system we are all better off.

As she says "The microgrid is all about consumer control -- aligning monetary incentives, with the help of information technology, to make renewables and efficiency pay off for the average homeowner, commercial developer, or even a town. The name of the game is to scale up renewables big enough, fast enough, to bring the cost down to parity with conventional resources. "

Here in Vermont, one of our local energy companies, Green Mountain Power they have a 10,000 panels in 1,000 days program in their Choose to go solar campaign. They are committed to transforming the energy landscape in Vermont business, homeowners and municipalities and exemplify microgrid efforts on a more local scale. I believe we're in the midst of a viral consumer driven renewable energy revolution. Smart companies which realize this are stepping in like Green Mountain Power to help make it easy for consumers to green up their energy usage and create more energy independance on a local scale. It's the Wiki distributed and nimble consumer driven approach to change rather than old style large scale 1,000 acre wind or solar farm.

One thing however, the Microgrid house from the article which I include here falls short as an example but is worth including to get the conversation going. I agree the house can be a small power plant generating electricity but what's missing in the example are additional flyouts identifying smart choices for low use water fixtures, recycled materials in construction and finishes. Having a garage in the front helps make the case for the electric plug-in visually but speaks to broken conventional development patterns and attitudes. This is an incomplete picture at best.
Anyway, that's all with this post. I think I'd better offer some ideas about the ideal microgrid house in future posts. But please read the linked articles and information. And, any feedback or comments are welcome.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Workplace Design Thoughts - Part 2 of 2

Workplace Space Organization & Collaboration: Thoroughly examine work processes and interdependencies, workplace demographics, cultural attitudes and organizational preferences. Examine the continuum of open versus closed offices, collaborative workspaces and common areas. Gather information from users and team leaders, provide presentations to educate users about alternative workplace spatial organizations and how different ways of working, teaming and interacting increase effectiveness.

Consider LEED or other Third Party Rating System Usage: Select a LEED Rating Systems or another system more appropriate to the project type to assist in measuring project performance against environmental design goals. Doing so reinforces organizational and project specific environmental, social, financial goals and objectives. Helps create a common roadmap with benchmarks to identify and reach. (Do this whether or not going ahead with certification.)

Establish a Design Brief: As an outcome of the design charette and early goal setting, establish together as a team the project design brief and design intent early in the process. The Brief should reinforce overarching project strategic values, goals and objectives. And revisit the Brief again at beginnings of each successive phase of work for continuing resonance to core values. create a simple statement summarizing the best intentions of the project. Keep it simple and flexible and it will help everyone stay on focus throughout the project life.

Integrated Design Thinking/ Action: Think and act collaboratively in an integrative and inclusionary manner rather than sticking to tried and true rules of thumb and silos of disconnected expertise. Encourage client staff and key stakeholder participation in the process to support design team efforts and increase organizational acceptance.

Living Systems & Art Integration: Examine key natural systems and regional ecologies for adaptability in exterior and interior applications such as living walls, planted areas and water features. Integrate with critical thinking art / environmental design strategy and building design to reinforce corporate values and principles.

Planning Grant Funding for Vermont Communities

I recently discovered funding opps for Vermont communities for much needed projects for front end planning and feasibility studies to test viability of needed projects. This might be common knowledge but in talking to Economic Recovery officials the program I"m about to mention isn't well known or well taken advantage of.
The next round of application deadlines are July 28th with bi-annual Workshops for interested applicants, with one held June 3oth. I don't know if there is still space but it might be worth checking, and won't be offered again for some time.

Planning Grants provide funding for technical services ranging from $3,000 to 30,000 to help communities examine needed projects and get the ball rolling to later implementation. An important criteria which must be met is demonstrated value to 51% low and moderate income residents from the related planning work. A small in-kind contribution by the grantee is required to be included as mentioned below. Because there is federal funding involved traditional RFP's are required even if you're already working with consultants. Discuss this with your community development specialist.

The below detail is copied from the 2008-2009 Planning Guide found on the Vermont Community Development Program site found within the VT Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs overall site.


Planning Grant (PG) - Application Instructions

Provides funding for community development planning activities and/or pre-development activities in preparation for implementing a project in one or more of the program areas (housing, economic development, public facilities or public services). Planning grant funds allow communities access to the technical expertise and professional resources needed to test ideas, propose strategies, develop plans, establish policies and procedures, and conduct organizational activities. It is important to remember that the successful funding of a planning grant does NOT guarantee or imply that VCDP funding for the project at implementation will also be successful- the project must stand on its own merits and receiving VCDP planning dollars does not make the implementation proposal more competitive.

Grant Range: $3,000 minimum to $30,000 maximum or $40,000 maximum. A 25% match of cash or cash-in-kind goods or services is required for all PGs. The maximum funding request for a single municipality PG application is $30,000 and for a required consortium PG application, it is $40,000. For an explanation of a consortium, please see below.

NOTE: If a community has an open PG, it will bear on the competitiveness of an application for an additional PG. Applicants will need to explain in the application their capacity to manage an additional PG and explain why the open PG is not completed and provide the timeline for completion.

Other Grant Types Offered besides Planning Grants
  • Implementation Grants
  • Accessibility Modifications Grants
  • Home Access Grants
  • Technical Assistance
  • Micro-enterprise Development

Types of Projects

VCDP funds are able to assist communities with a wide range of projects, because the funds can be used for many types of expenditures. The VCDP is a resource for housing, economic development, public facilities, public services, and planning. Types of activities within these project areas include:

  • Housing rehabilitation and acquisition, lead abatement, home ownership assistance
  • Economic development loans to businesses
  • Water, sewer, and roads serving economic development or housing
  • Rehabilitation or acquisition of public facilities; senior, child care, assisted living, or homeless facilities
  • Handicap accessibility modifications
  • Planning
  • Disaster assistance
Link to Example Awards to Projects


To learn more, go to the website and find out who your regional Community Development Specialist is by county to speak with them about your questions or help needed. If you need any technical services such as preliminary feasibility studies, masterplanning, architectural programming I can help you. Please contact me at the Maclay Architects at 802-496-4004 or

Monday, June 22, 2009

What lies beyond Corporate Responsibility

I was reading Jeffery Hollendar's Inspired Protagonist which I've been following for a while now and he was speaking about what's "Beyond Corporate Responsibility". The business world as we knew it a year ago has dramatically shifted. Different values have become apparent as old ways fall away replaced by new understandings and recognition of their inadequacy. There is an urgency to really take care of People and the Planet. They're both hurting. By helping to make a difference in those two areas it becomes Profitable, albeit broadly interpreted as so.

My take on what he was sharing was it's critical to embed corporate responsibility into the DNA of your organization not because it's a trendy idea but it truly offers a path to positively impact your consumers, customers, stakeholders and world at large. He shares examples of the business case for doing so which seem pretty clear and grounded in performance data.

I also believe as he does and others like him it's better to conduct business based on a corporate responsible values driven model with utmost sincerity and a view to the impact on generations to follow. Doing so comforts my anxiety about the kind of world I'm helping to create in my business interactions in architectural design and planning and what legacy I'm leaving behind for my children and theirs to follow.

On Father's Day Barack Obama so eloquently described the importance of setting high expectations as parents for our children by being role models of that excellence. So goes the idea Jeffery discusses in his blog post. We have so much more to do and so far to go with our efforts in corporate responsibility and the idea of doing well by doing good. This goodness is difficult; this thinking of the greater good rather than the needs of the individual. While it's hard, it's also very mature. In a way, maybe that's what he's speaking to. The corporate responsibility movement on one hand is maturing, plateauing even, in transition into something else.

Perhaps as a younger person, I am part of the crew of folks who need to work on their actions and behaviors of goodness and build this philosophy as insperably as possible into the DNA of doing business. We must aspire to better our fathers and mothers, our elders who paved the way in corporate responsibility and social and envrionmental activism. It's a hard act to follow.

In his post, Jeffery describes ten steps to take which provide some very clear strategies to stay on target to serve the needs of the greater good and help mature our business processes and impact on our world. Consider them for your business. They may or may not all resonate with you, but some likely will. If you have others that do, please share with me. I'd like to learn about other approaches.

Workplace Design Thoughts - Part 1 of 2

Ideas or strategies to consider in Workplace Design:

· Embrace Organizational Ecology... The Workplace as Holistic Living Organism:

Organizational ecology examines the work place as an ecosystem with a set of inter-related systems. Recognize buildings and space as organizational tools and assets to support teamwork and cross-departmental collaboration. Consider multiple hard and soft strategies to integrate organizational values and philosophies into the corporate culture through design choices. Embrace interdependencies between work processes, physical settings and delivery of information technology.

· Think Big Together and Set up the Process: Set up the overall process, meetings rhythm and get buy-in and acceptance from an executive team and key stakeholders before proceeding further into implementation of the process and its steps. Establish challenging goals to differentiate the organization to its staff and its customers. Be ambitious. Do it and help change the world!

· Charette: Set the Vision & Framework: Establish a vision, goal & objective setting charette with key project stakeholders. Whether a small executive team or an all hands company meeting or something in between, tailor it to needs of the organization, cost and schedule. Visualize together in a brainstorming conducive setting. Examine organizational core principles and values. Prioritize these principles and values and how they might or might not influence workplace design. How do environmental, social and corporate responsbility concerns fit in? Does transparency matter to your workplace, key stakeholders, consumers or outside customers? What implementation strategies naturally cluster around the goals and principles to facilitate them?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Observing NEOCON 2009

Neocon is ironic for me. I live in Vermont. Chicago is skyscrapers and hard materials. I live in a horizontal place with softer textures and cuves. Face it, we're close to the land in Vermont. Not here though. They are close to the water. It's different.

Much of the furniture, equipment and building materials, finishes on display here don't resonate with where I come from with our homespun progressive values, mud season and blackflies socio-cultural themes.

However, what is totally great about attending are the aesthetics and the style of everything here. Most everything is built or configured with clean crisp lines and or combinations of interesting organic materials, patterns and finishes. It's kind of an aesthetic tune up if you will. This is always helpful in design. This place is inspirational.

Also, there are great glasses here as designers including myself where somewhat unusual eyewear. It's like a holiday for eyeglass designers. I can laugh at myself can't I? Matt Penney a talented metal designer and bike builder in Burlington, Vt helped me rescue my Gaultier Glasses which broke a nose bridge a few years back. He did a bang up job reinterpreting the bridge with skinny threaded rods.

Aesthetics aside, what's been truly rewarding is meeting a wide variety of people who share similar values about the need for increased efforts in sustainbility and green thinking coupled with more effective work place design. I continue to remain interested in redesigning and reimagining behavior dovetailing with with those interests. Highlights include:
  • Attending Steelcase's Green Giants presentation Monday, June 15 where Public Architecture, Charity and Bill Strickland of the Manchester School presented their efforts to redefine public spirited pro-bono architecture, water scarcity and system solutions with a conscience and finally the story of school system helping inner city kids with their education with facilities designed with Steelcase beliefs in mind.
  • Attending Thomas Kostigen's Luncheon Seminar on You are Here and The Green Book.
  • Meeting industry systems furniture representatives from Steelcase, Herman Miller among others to continue our conversations about bettering the planet through our mutual work spheres and continuous improvement of our efforts. It's heartwarming to carry on these conversations. Also, they help me grow in my desire to learn about work place strategies and organizational behavior and how these interact with sustainbility notions.
  • Dan Pink's key note address on his new work seeking to understand new notions regarding Motivation and what does or doesn't get us going, to act or not to act.
  • Paola Antonelli's address on the wide lense of design thinking she sees at the MOMA in New York. Lots of unsual suggestions of inspirations to look up and write about. She's also a TedTalks speaker.
So that's my brief set of observations. There's more but I've run out of writing and thinking energy. I'll be back though. You can count on me.