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.