Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nine Books of 2008 to Prepare You to Change the World in 2009

November was a month of travel and discovery for me. My bags remained packed from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference in Raleigh, to Greenbuild 2008 in Boston, to an interview for a net-zero-energy library gig in Phoenix. All that conferencing and traveling and networking revealed some more great books as well as providing time away from my computer to catch up on my reading.

As I reflect on the important books of 2008 and begin to prepare myself for the tsunami of change coming in 2009, I wanted to share my book recommendations with you and I hope to hear from you about the great ones I may have missed.

Seth Godin wants to you to change the world by leading a tribe and he gives you examples of people who have and how they did it. Especially useful is his illumination of Web 2.0 social networking tools that can help us create and stay in touch with our tribes. This is Godin's best best-seller yet. Welcome to my tribe.

The Necessary Revolution: How individuals and organizations are working together to create a sustainable world.
by Peter M. Senge, Bryan Smith, Sara Schley, Joe Laur, Nina Kruschwitz

This is the most important book of 2008. Senge taught us how to create "learning organizations" in his systems theory classic, The Fifth Discipline. This is the how-to book to read after Godin has inspired you to lead your tribe. Like Godin, Senge is trying to catalyze grass roots leadership by providing examples of how others managed to turn their organizations around, even from their positions deep down the org chart. Senge's strategies and tools for transforming organizations are well-tested and proven. He walks us through the transformations of GE, Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Nike, Costco and BP and shows us how ordinary people accomplished revolutionary change that will be required by all organizations if we are to achieve a sustainable world.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America
by Thomas L. Friedman

Climate change, globalization and growing populations that are trying to catch up with our levels of consumption are problems of historic proportions, but, as Friedman points out in a way only he can, this is also a time of historic opportunity, IF we take action now. A multiple Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist and author of The World is Flat, Friedman provides a very readable account of the fix we are in, but more importantly he argues for a way out that may also provide the jump start we need to revive our economic woes.

Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Third Edition
by Lester R. Brown

This is the deeper, broader, more detailed version of the books above. This is the one to read when you are snowed in at the airport and no planes are leaving until tomorrow. This is the textbook version of how to reboot our civilization by a man who has devoted his life work to the topic for the past four decades. I was inspired by his work as a college student at Indiana University in the seventies and he continues to teach me essential principles we all need to master now. I would love to teach a semester course using this text to return the favor. If you can only read one book on this list, for the sake of your future and mine, this should be it.

Strategies for the Green Economy: Opportunities and Challenges in the New World of Business
by Joel Makower, Cara Pike

Joel Makower, executive editor of has been advising companies on green strategies for twenty years and he has written more than a dozen books on the topic. As President-elect Obama prepares to unleash a "green economic recovery plan" this might be a good time to get familiar with Mr. Makower if you don't already follow his blog - Two Steps Forward. For Fortune 500 business captains, Makower is a seasoned consultant with a balanced, hype-free view. For environmentalists, he is a leading crusader in the war against greenwashing. If you are in business, subscribe to his blog and read this book.

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything
by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

For people who understand how dramatically the world must change in the next few years, it can be extremely frustrating to be in an organization that is highly resistant to change. But it is in these change-resistant organizations where change agents are most valuable. If you study plane crashes or medical malpractice cases, you often find that somebody lower in the chain of command failed to elevate their concerns about something they saw going wrong to the level necessary to prevent disaster. They were conditioned not to question authority or authority was conditioned to ignore them. Patterson's team, also the authors of the previous best-seller Crucial Conversations found in a hospital study that "fewer than one in ten respondents said it was politically acceptable to speak openly about what was going wrong." In a study of project managers, they learned that 88 percent of those surveyed were currently working on projects that they predicted would eventually fail - or what some called a "slow-motion train wreck." If you find yourself rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, this is the book that will help you turn the rudder. The authors describe danger of the serenity trap. "Every day you ask for the serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Somehow that gets you through. There are actual people out there who - instead of continually seeking the wisdom to know the difference - have sought to make a difference. And they have found it. They've discovered that when is comes to changing the world, what most of us lack is not the courage to change things, but the skill to do so." They proceed to explain Six Sources of Influence based on a firm foundation of behavioral science, but in simple terms that anyone can master, but not in a single reading. This is a book you will keep coming back to as you begin to discover how it can change your life.

The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems
by Van Jones

Few people embody influence more so than does Van Jones. He was a hit as a speaker at AASHE and Greenbuild and he has the ear of President-elect Obama. But this Yale Law grad cannot be accused of all talk and no action. He has shown how to "repower America" by combining retrofitting and weatherization of dilapidated housing in inner city neighborhoods with training programs for the unemployed. He has linked the solution to climate change with the solution to poverty and unemployment and social injustice. This is an eloquent and powerful voice offering practical solutions you need to hear.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future
by Daniel H. Pink

I had the pleasure of hearing Daniel Pink speak at Butler University shortly after I read his delightful book. He describes learning to draw by taking a week-long class that used the approach described by Betty Edwards in her excellent book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Designed to suppress the verbal left brain, this technique allows the more intuitive right brain to truly see, freeing the student to draw what is seen instead of a generalized left-brain concept. If you have never tried this drawing technique, get the book or take a class based on the book. Pink extends this phenomenon to a much wider discussion of what kinds of skills a hot, flat and crowded world will value and he comes to the conclusion that creativity will rule. He notes that easily repeatable left-brain skills (tax preparation, writing wills, drafting, engineering) are increasingly turned into computer programs or outsourced to firms overseas where the salaries are lower. He suggests, for example, that an MFA will be more valuable than an MBA in the near future because creative minds will be in high demand and that skill is very difficult to computerize or ship overseas. This lacks the scientific heft of some of the other books on this list, but it is certainly an entertaining and thought-provoking read. If you are among those considering a return to the classroom during these turbulent times, this would be a good read over the holidays as you peruse the course catalogs.

Outliers: The Story of Success
by Malcolm Gladwell

This is yet another hit by the author of The Tipping Point and Blink that continues the theme of those two to look for the hidden patterns in everyday phenomena. Like Pink's book, this one is more entertaining than scientifically rigorous, but it will likely become a part of our language used to describe those holistic phenomena most people miss. Outliers are people like pro athletes and concert pianists that seem to be from another realm when it comes to talent and skill. What made them so different? What do Mozart and Bill Gates have in common? The answer surprised me, but it also made me look at the world in a different way, as did his previous best-sellers.

Perhaps these books will encourage you to become an outlier at this tipping point in the history of our hot, flat crowded world when we need to lead our tribes of right-brain influencers in a necessary revolution toward a Plan B for a new green economy.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chicago's Climate Action Plan

Mayor Daley atop Chicago City Hall

You may have heard about Chicago's ambitious Climate Action Plan. I urge you to read it and then, perhaps more importantly, read the research it is based on. Of particular interest is the section on Adaptation to climate change. Chicago has invested substantial resources in research and implementation and they have provided a useful model for other Midwestern cities to follow.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Are Green Buildings Really Having an Impact?

So much new information is announced during the U.S. Green Building Council's annual conference that it is impossible to sort through all of it in real time, but now that I have had time to unpack from my trip to Boston, I thought I would try to illuminate some of the most important, one blog post at a time over the next few weeks.

Let's start with a report released by Rob Watson, who led the development and implementation of the LEED Green Building Rating system from 1994 to 2005. The Green Building Impact Report (GBIR) is the first integrated assessment of the land, water, energy, material and indoor environmental impacts of the LEED for New Construction (LEED NC), Core & Shell (LEED CS) and Existing Building (LEED EB) standards. Watson's team says that LEED Certified projects represent more than 6% of new commercial construction, but there has been an astronomical ramp-up in the past year of new project registrations, with new construction sector penetrations approaching a whopping 40%. On average, it takes approximately two years from Registration to Certification, with an attrition rate of 25% to 30%.

Among their other findings:

Environmental Impacts

Non-residential construction, the focus of the report, represents about 40% of the environmental burden of buildings.

Land Use. Between efficient location and the myriad of alternative transportation options supported by LEED, nearly 400 million vehicle miles traveled have been avoided by the occupants of LEED buildings. This grows to more than 4 billion vehicle miles by 2020.

Water. Water savings from LEED commercial buildings to grow to more than 7% of all non-residential water use by 2020. The equivalent of 2008 LEED water savings would fill enough 32-ounce bottles to circle the Earth 300 times.

Energy. LEED saves energy on many different levels, including energy related to operations, commuting, water treatment and the lower energy embodied within materials. In operational energy terms, LEED buildings consume approximately 25% less on average than comparable commercial buildings. By 2020, these energy savings amount to more than 1.3 million tons of coal equivalent each year, representing approximately 78 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) avoided emissions.

Materials and Resources. LEED has helped spur an entire industry in green building materials. Certified projects to date have specified a total of more than $10 billion of green materials, which could grow to a cumulative amount exceeding $100 billion by 2020.

Indoor Environmental Quality. Indoor environmental quality is the most important contributor to the productivity attributes of LEED. They calculated that companies with employees working in LEED buildings realized annual productivity gains exceeding $170 million resulting from improved indoor environmental quality, a number that will grow to nearly $2 billion of annual productivity improvements by 2020.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Three Gifts for you from Greenbuild 2008

Yesterday at Greenbuild in Boston I had the opportunity to hear from three of our most gifted thinkers; Bill McKibben, E.O. Wilson and Janine Benyus.

All three provided gifts in the form of web sites that have the potential to change the world.

Bill McKibben gave us
E. O. Wilson unwrapped the Encyclopedia of Life
Janine Benyus handed us

Spend an hour with each one this weekend and you will never see the world the same way again.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

USGBC Turns Fifteen in Boston

Greenbuild 2008, underway in Boston this week, marks the 15th year of the U.S. Green Building Council, one of the world's fastest growing non-profit organizations. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu was giving the keynote address this morning, I could not help but reflect on the amazing history of this organization.

In 1993, USGBC founders David Gottfried, a developer, and Rick Fedrizzi, then with Carrier Corporation, presented their idea for a non-profit industry organization to promote green buildings to the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (COTE) National Steering Committee. COTE was founded by the likes of Bob Berkebile, Greg Franta, and Bill McDonough with help from non-architects Amory Lovins and Bill Browning from the Rocky Mountain Institute, among many other pioneers. Due to several twists of fate, I was then the first student member of that committee.

I recall thinking that Gottfried and Fedrizzi had a good idea, but it was a risky proposition. How would they prevent it from becoming overun by self-serving corporate interests? Would Dow Chemical really be interested in sustainability or would they just use the organization as a cover. How would they define green building and how would they make sure the definition was applied fairly so as to prevent greenwashing (which was not yet in the lexicon)?

It was clear, however, that these two were sincere and that they had an understanding of the underlying issues of sustainability. AIA COTE continued on track to produce the science-based Environmental Resource Guide and began to delve into the complex world of life cycle analysis of building products while conducting seminal demonstration projects like the Greening of the White House. But many members of AIA COTE also became increasing intrigued by the USGBC's burgeoning efforts to engage a broader coalition into the green building movement and several AIA COTE founders later became active USGBC board members and advisors. The founding COTE board will be honored tomorrow night with a USGBC award for organizational leadership at the dazzling new Institute of Contemporary Art.

The first USGBC meeting I recall had less than 100 people present. By the time they got around to their first Greenbuild International Conference and Exposition in Austin in 2002, the numbers had climbed to almost 4000. Today, we had 10,000 at breakfast listening to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who stated, "there's enough in this world to satisfy everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed." The final tally may exceed 30,000, in spite of a dismal economy that canceled many travel plans.

You can catch many of the keynote and master speaker addresses from Greenbuild live and free on Greenbuild365. You won't want to miss the unveiling of LEED 2009 tomorrow!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Colleges Tackle Climate Change at AASHE 2008 in Raleigh, North Carolina

When I attended my first U.S. Green Building Council event in 1994, less than 200 people showed up. At the last Greenbuild International Conference in Chicago, more than a 100 times that number showed up to crowd McCormick Place. Next week, Greenbuild descends on Boston for what promises to be another record attendance that will probably approach 30,000.

Today, I am midway through another organization's conference that has some of the same feel of the exponential growth of the U.S. Green Building Council. The second conference of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) more than doubled its attendance from their first conference to almost 2000 attendees from 48 states and 7 Canadian provinces representing over 400 colleges and universities.

One thing that made the Greenbuild conferences so popular was the quality and utility of the presentations in rooms packed full of very eager learners, who each had their own lessons to teach. AASHE has six parallel tracks going with the constant dilemma that there are several at any one time I want to hear. One after another, the heroic stories are told of faculty, staff and students across the country tackling the defining problems of this century. Together, they tell the story of a massive retooling of colleges and universities to equip students for a whole new world. Nearly 600 colleges and universities are signatories to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, which commits their institutions to achieving climate neutrality and to publishing their progress toward that goal. Many of the institutions here are not yet signatories, but they are learning a lot from those who are further along the path to campus sustainability.

In addition to the standard sessions and poster presentations, the keynote speakers have been outstanding. Lester Brown, author of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization led things off with reminders about the limits and daunting obstacles we face and the "race between tipping points in climate change and political change." Later he also described the hope embodied in a long list of success stories from around the world that illustrate how far we have come with wind and solar energy. He called the attendees to action and noted that "saving civilization is not a spectator sport."

This morning, Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix our Two Biggest Problems, outlined how our country had recently seen the "floor fall from under our feet with the economic collapse, but also how we had seen the ceiling begin to fly with the election of a new president." A gifted speaker, Jones outlined three actions needed to "focus the nation" to transform our economy to "take America back and take America forward." He called for 1) putting a price on carbon, 2) retrofitting our existing building stock and 3) repowering America with renewable energy and a new national power grid.

This evening's keynote speaker was Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and the new book, The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. Senge called for a new way of educating with more variety and less factory-like regimentation to unlock creativity and innovation. He noted that the future will not likely look back on our age of "digging up stuff and burning it" with the mindset that finite resources are somehow infinite, but he also noted that "nobody is working hard to heat up the planet, they are just not aware of the consequences."

This theme of the need for ecological literacy and opportunity for change was common in all of the keynotes, which approached the theme in different ways, but with the same conclusion. There is no time to waste in transforming our interaction with the natural world which sustains us and the college campus is a good place to start that transformation.

Friday, November 7, 2008

College Campuses Going Climate Neutral

Raleigh's new LEED-Registered Convention Center will host AASHE 2008

When a relatively new national organization sells out its second annual conference, you have to think they may be on to something. Such is the case for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. AASHE 2008 has been sold out for a couple of weeks but I was lucky enough to get off the waiting list so I will be blogging from the conference starting this weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina, along with many of the other 2000 participants. Carbon offsets are being purchased to make the conference carbon neutral, including attendee travel.

Founded in 2006, AASHE is an association of colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada formed, according to their web site, "to promote sustainability in all sectors of higher education - from governance and operations to curriculum and outreach - through education, communication, research and professional development. AASHE defines sustainability in an inclusive way, encompassing human and ecological health, social justice, secure livelihoods, and a better world for all generations."

The long list of member institutions probably contains your alma mater. Among those are over 588 whose presidents have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Change Commitment, representing about 25% of all college students in America, with the goal of achieving climate neutral campuses. Is your college among the signatories?

Speaking climate change, The Pew Center on Climate Change has a number of excellent resources on the topic, including likely policy changes with a new administration and a new map that shows the climate initiatives in all states, by state and by initiative.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Energy vs. Water

Bellagio Hotel Fountain in Las Vegas

This morning I addressed the New England Library Association in Manchester, a lovely New Hampshire mill town ablaze in autumnal colors. My talk was about Future-Proof Design as a response to dramatic change. I picked up the current issue of Scientific American Earth 3.0 in the airport on the way here, a new magazine devoted to "Solutions for Sustainable Progress." It is full of important articles, but the cover story, "Energy vs. Water: Why Both Crises Must Be Solved Together"made me add another slide to my PowerPoint.

I was aware that one of the major energy bills for most cities is the one for pumping drinking water and sewage. What I had never thought much about is the amount of water used to produce that energy. The premise of the article, by Micheal E. Webber, is that as clean water or what he calls "liquid gold" gets more scarce it may cause us to rethink alternative energy sources that use huge amounts of clean water in their production. He points out, for example, that an ethanol vehicle that travels 100 miles also uses 130 to 6,200 gallons of water (depending on the source of the ethanol and whether it came from an irrigated field), while the same car using gasoline would use 7 to 14 gallons of water. An electric car would use 24 gallons of water to go the same distance, due to the water used in cooling the power plant. Power sources like wind or solar use virtually no water which could reverse that math.

Lake Mead Water Intake Structures near Hoover Dam
Where Las Vegas gets its water and power

Webber points out the intimate connection between energy and water in Las Vegas, where Lake Mead water elevation would only need to drop another 50 feet before Hoover Dam and the electric power it produces to goes off-line. He reports that recent droughts in the Southeast set up situations where nuclear power plants were nearly shut down due to lack of cooling water from rivers that were suffering from drought and the growing demands for irrigation and domestic water use. Such situations are causing conflicts among states that share water resources and between protectors of wildlife and industrial, agricultural and development interests. This Special Issue contains some other articles that make it a "must read." Fortunately, it is available on line.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Google Headquarters putting its money where its roof is.

Tired of all the bad economic news? Could you use a 121% return on your investment dollar right now? Looking for a safe place to invest your money? Then pull yourself away from your doom and gloom TV for a while and take a look at these good news videos.

Probably the best summary of the business case for high-performance green buildings was presented at Greenbuild in Chicago. This video, orchestrated by my friends at the Rocky Mountain Institute Built Environment Team is a collection of case studies where the strategies and the cost/benefit analysis are revealed for a range of building projects from residential to high-rise office buildings. They have a link at the bottom of the page for direct links to high-definition versions and shorter clips about particular building types. The common thread to all these stories is that high-performance green buildings don't have to be more expensive up front and their return on investment is often spectacular. Be sure to check out the clip on Adobe HQ if you are thinking you can't afford to upgrade your existing building. Their project had a less than one year payback and a 121% return on investment.

If you think the payback on alternative energy systems stinks, you may find this talk by Google CEO Eric Schmidt (formerly with Novell and Sun Micro Systems) of interest. Schmidt spoke recently at the Corporate Eco Forum event about Google's expected 2.5 year payback on their new $5 million solar photovoltaic installation. But he also noted that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste," referring to the opportunity for positive change that accompanies any deep crisis. He goes on to outline his plan for 100% alternative energy in the U.S. by 2030. While you are there, you may want to learn more about the Corporate Eco Forum and who showed up there last month.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008

When President Bush signed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which you may know as the 'bailout bill," new incentives went into effect that may advance green buildings and renewable energy that will ultimately help move the economy in a better direction. Thanks to Paul Jones, Jr., a green tax attorney and Co-Founder of INSA at Ice Miller, LLC for providing the basis for my summary. Any editing errors are my own.

I will give you a brief list of the incentives in this post. For the full text of the bill, go to the Thomas Register (H.R. 1424) and download the PDF file.

  • one-year extension of the production tax credit for energy from wind and a two-year extension of the credit for energy production from other renewable sources
  • new clean energy renewable bonds (CREBs) to finance facilities that generate electricity from wind, closed-loop biomass, open-loop biomass, geothermal, small irrigation, qualified hydropower, landfill gas, marine renewable and trash combustion facilities
  • allows employers to provide employees who commute to work by bicycle limited fringe benefits to offset the costs of such commuting (e.g. bike storage, shower rooms)
  • qualified energy conservation bonds to finance state and local government initiatives designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • eight-year extension of the tax credits for residential solar projects, including removal of the $2,000 credit cap on investments in residential solar electric installations and the inclusion of small wind energy (credit cap of $4,000) and geothermal heat pump projects (credit cap of $2,000) as qualifying installations for tax credits
  • long term extension of the 30% investment tax credit for solar energy property and qualified fuel cell property, as well as a 10% tax credit for microturbines
  • five-year extension of the tax deduction for energy-efficient commercial buildings (up to $1.80 per square foot)
  • one-year extension of the tax credit for the construction of new energy-efficient homes
  • one-year extension of the tax credit for qualified energy-efficiency upgrades to existing homes
  • an extension through 2010 of the tax credit for the manufacture of energy-efficiency appliances
  • three-year extension of the authority for state and localities to issue tax-exempt bonds for green building and sustainable design projects
In addition to these Federal incentives, you may have access to other incentives from your utility, your city or your state. You can check that out at this national incentive database.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Real Life LEED Publishes Full LEED EB Submittal From University of California

Real Life LEED, an essential blog that details the trials and tribulations of a fellow real life LEED consultant, reported this week that the University of California has given all of us green building certifiers a great gift, a complete set of LEED for Existing Buildings documentation for their 1111 Franklin Street facility.

While this is for the older version of LEED EB (the new LEED EB - Operations and Maintenance is easier to achieve), this set of crib notes will save certifiers countless hours of time and it can also help building owners get a good idea of what the process is like and allow them to better estimate their time commitment to make their existing buildings certifiably green

Kudos to Real Life LEED. If you want truly useful information on LEED certification nuts and bolts, this is the place to bookmark. Kudos to the University of California for this generous donation to the cause of turning brown buildings green. May other universities follow their LEED lead! 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bored with the Ice Cream Swirl CFL?

Until recently, not much changed in the light bulb world since Thomas Alva Edison invented a carbon filament that burned for forty hours in 1879. Compact fluorescent bulbs were a giant leap forward in energy efficiency and long life that first appeared in the mid 90's when they were very expensive due to the difficulty of manufacturing the swirling glass tubes that have now become so ubiquitous.

But it looks like we may not be doomed to endure over a hundred years of the same ice cream cone twist form. Inhabitat reports on new Plumen lighting forms from Hulger that you probably will not be able to obtain at your local hardware store any time soon, but point to a future of diverse and even artistic forms that suggest that energy efficient lighting does not have to be boring.

Don't fall too far in love with CFLs. Solid State LED lighting is even more efficient and long lasting and can do some dynamic effects with color and form. As with Edison's bulb and the first CFLs, prepare to be shocked when you check the price tag on LED lighting. But be sure to do the math on energy savings and longevity (and less maintenance labor in commercial settings). Even with the high initial cost of these early entries, if you want to do net-zero-energy buildings or experiment with unlimited color, go with LED lighting. You may be able to downsize your alternative energy systems to offset the higher initial cost of the bulbs. For your typical home use, you may want to keep your twisty CFLs for a while and wait until the production volume ramps up and the costs for LEDs come down.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Greenest Cities in the United States

A passenger train enters the eastbound platform of Portland, Oregon's Washington Park MAX station.

SustainLane's just announced their new US City Rankings 2008, which ranks the nation's most populous cities in terms of their green score. Portland ranks #1 while my city, Indianapolis, comes in at #44. In other words, if your mission is to change things "from brown to green," this is a much better place to start than in Portland, where the job is already done. We plan to catch Portland while they rest on their organic laurels. Columbus, Ohio provides a role model since they moved from #50 in 2006 to #30 in 2008, the biggest mover.

Lists apparently help sell books and magazines, especially if they list the best cities for whatever. Magazines like CountryHome (Portland #2, Indianapolis unranked), Move (Portland #1, Indianapolis unlisted) and even Popular Science (Portland #1, Indianapolis unranked) also rank green cities all hoping to become the leading green city ranker. All have different methods for gathering comparative information, which is a problem if you are a city like Indianapolis intent on making sustainability progress.

All that may change with an attempt to create a meaningful, measurable third-party-verified standard called the STAR Community Index, that's about to go into pilot phase now with test cities and will be available in final form in 2010. Then the real race will begin. There is also a STARS rating system for college campuses which 90 colleges and universities of all sizes are piloting now. Of course institutions of higher education are also challenged by a plethora of magazine greenest campus rating systems.

Senate Shines Light on Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008

After eight attempts, the Senate finally passed H.R. 6049, the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 with a resounding bipartisan vote of 93 to 2. It now returns to the House, which is expected to act quickly reconcile the Senate provisions and send the bill on to the President for signature. Obviously, there are enough votes for an override of a potential Presidential veto.

Among other things, this bill:

  • Extends solar tax credits for eight years for commercial and residential customers, eliminates the $2000 cap for residential installations and allows utilities to use the commercial credit. Extends the Production Tax Credit for wind for one year and the PTC for solar, biomass and wave and ocean projects for two years.
  • Businesses would get a 30 percent tax credit for investing in wind, solar, geothermal and ocean alternative energy equipment for eight more years.
  • Provides a tax break for buyers of plug-in hybrids of up to $7500.
  • Homeowners can get a tax credit of up to 10 percent of the cost of home energy improvements, such as new windows, insulation, energy efficient heating and cooling equipment and water heaters.
  • Residential energy-efficient property credit would be extended through 2016 and the definition of qualifying systems is extended to include wind and geothermal heat pumps, which would get 30% off, with a cap of $6,667.

For full text of the bill go here. For news and commentary: Bloomberg or Solar Energy Industries Association or Associated Press or CleanTech.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How to Combat Higher Home Heating Bills

This morning's Indianapolis Star had a front page headline stating "Heating bills to rise 15% to 25% this winter." In reaction to higher wholesale natural gas prices, utilities all over America are raising their rates, again. Natural gas prices have doubled since 2000 and, in spite of what T. Boone Pickens might want to sell you, they will probably continue to do so.

So what can you do about that? Since the stock market is a roulette wheel right now, I suggest you invest in personal energy security and declare some small measure of independence from your gas bill. You have a few weekends between now and when that furnace really starts firing up. If you are not yet ready to achieve net-zero-energy, here are some simple, do-it-yourself things you can do to get your 15% to 25% back this winter. You will gain greater physical, fiscal, and psychological comfort along the way.

Start with an opportunity analysis. You can do your own home energy audit, or hire an expert to snoop for your biggest energy holes. If you do your own, you might want to play with some online tools like Home Energy Saver or Energy Star Home Energy Yardstick.

Opportunities you will likely find for saving gas include the usual caulking and weatherstripping; and adding insulation; tuning up or replacing old furnaces, water heaters and appliances. Some things you may not have thought of include sealing and insulating ductwork in unheated crawl spaces and attics (potentially getting your 15% to 25% back), changing to instantaneous water heaters, or installing low-flow faucet and shower heads (saves hot water and gas). Other simple do-it-yourself fixes include installing a programmable thermostat so you can automatically set the temperature lower when you are not around or when you are sleeping.

Depending on which state you live in and your local utility company, you may have opportunities for grants and tax incentives for home energy improvements. Check with the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. This is where you might find some significant cash for things like geothermal heat pump systems and solar hot water heaters.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Habitat for Humanity Goes LEED Platinum

Most people would not equate green buildings with affordable housing, especially when you achieve the highest level LEED Platinum Certification. Most people would not equate a Habitat for Humanity home as cutting edge design. But the first LEED Platinum Habitat for Humanity home serves to shatter conventional wisdom. This unique partnership with Drury University may inform more sustainable design for Habitat for Humanity homes everywhere.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hurricane-resistant Green Homes

With hurricane Ike potentially following in the path of hurricane Gustav, some people on the Gulf coast may be looking for housing that can take on a disaster and not only remain intact but remain habitable with it's own back-up systems for essential services. As I continue to do research for my own, future-proof, disaster-resistant dream home, I was directed to the StalwartBuilt Homes web site by a Florida Realtor.

StalwartBuilt homes are mostly factory assembled so on-site construction can be accomplished in 30 to 60 days. They feature well-insulated air-tight wall and roof assemblies with controlled ventilation, heat-reflective metal roofing, geothermal heat pump systems, unvented attic assemblies and a number of other features that qualify these homes for LEED for Homes and Energy Star certifications and make it possible to achieve the Architecture 2030 Challenge today. They are built with chases and other features to allow for the future addition of alternative energy systems, such as photovoltaic and wind. StalwartBuilt constructed the first LEED Platinum, net-zero-energy home in Florida. Hurricane-resistant construction considers wind uplift, wind-driven moisture, penetration by flying debris and flooding. A hurricane-resistant home on a barrier island subject to storm surge would also be up on pilings above maximum flood elevation, for example. Alex Wilson, editor of the indispensable Environmental Building News, introduced the concept of "passive survivability " as another important consideration for disaster-resistant construction which he defined as "the ability of a building to maintain critical life-support conditions for its occupants if services such as power, heating fuel, or water are lost for an extended period." A building designed to provide these services when municipal infrastructure is down may be a life saver. If you design for this potential with solutions like rainwater capture and storage and alternative energy systems, you will enjoy peace of mind, but also lower operating costs. The economics of this premium construction look better when you take into consideration potential savings from insurers, lenders, tax incentives, utility company rebates and lower monthly utility bills. As the cost of home energy continues to climb and storms continue to increase in frequency and strength, look for demand for this type of construction to grow faster than typically constructed new homes.

As a former homebuilder turned architect, I would prefer something a bit more custom and modern than the StalwartBuilt home offerings. My current favorite disaster-resistant building envelope is one that's been around since Roman times, concrete. Insulated Concrete Forms are a promising construction method that employs permanent insulated forms that facilitate placement of ample vertical and horizontal steel-reinforcement in the concrete pour. They provide an extremely wind-resistant, air-tight envelope with excellent thermal performance. A typical ICF home requires 50% less heating and cooling energy than typical construction. We've designed a net-zero-energy library with that system that bid at $200 per square foot in Southern Indiana this summer. This system is also very compatible with earth-sheltered and/or garden roof systems and also provides excellent resistance to fire, insects and noise. My current research is on finding forms and concrete mixes that are more environmentally sustainable. Cement manufacturing is currently highly energy intensive, and the typical plastic foams used in the forms have some issues. I am encouraged by development of alternative form materials and work to manufacture cement at low temperatures, mimicking the way marine animals make their shells and other research that suggests that concrete may be used to sequester carbon. More on those topics in a later post . . .

See also previous posts: Hybrid Power for Your Home, Future-Proof Buildings

Artic Meltdown?

Sarah Palin isn't the only hot history-making news out of the Arctic this month. While it hasn't made the front page or appeared in any convention speeches, the other news may have much more impact on our future. For the first time since the beginning of the last ice age 125,000 years ago, it is now possible to circumnavigate the Artic ice cap. Both the northwest and northeast passages are open. August is normally the month when the melting slows and cooling begins to re-freeze the ice pack. This August a record 950,000 square miles of melting occurred or just over 30,000 square miles per day (Indiana is 36,000 square miles in area). Some scientists suggest this rate of melting is evidence of a tipping point where the melting accelerates due to a feedback loop where open water absorbs much more heat than does reflective ice.

While most climate models predicted that global warming would make the Artic ice-free late in this century or early in the next, it now appears that ice-free state could be reached as early as the time of the next presidential election in 2012 according to some cryospheric experts.

Is this just an anomoly caused by a perfect storm of normal weather cycles? Mark Serreze, sea ice expert at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Denver, gives an excellent summary of the science behind this historic melt in a presentation last year (click on C24A) at the American Geophysical Union annual conference. Although a year old, the presentation accurately predicts what is occurring this month along with some implications for our near future. This richly illustrated and chilling presentation is worth pulling yourself away from the hot air of the political blogs for 45 minutes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

USGBC Chapter Leadership Retreat

My summer vacation began last Friday at a U.S. Green Building Council Chapter Leadership Retreat at the rustic National Conservation Training Center on the lovely wooded banks of the Potomac near Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The three-day event included 160 chapter leaders collaborating with national leadership and staff. The not-for-profit U.S. Green Building Council has grown by an average 50% per year since its founding in 1993. The Indiana Chapter is currently exceeding that growth rate (from 80 members at the beginning of 2007 to 355 now). Rapid growth comes with growing pains and growing opportunities, so the attendees had plenty to share.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of operating chapters, much of the discussion centered around the newly-revised and not yet final USGBC Strategic Plan. While I can't go into the details yet, two new areas of emphasis will be sustainable cities and social justice. In other words, this organization with 17,000 member organizations representing millions of employees has decided to expand its focus beyond buildings to encompass broader local and regional design and societal issues.

A steering group is in place for a certification system for sustainable cities, currently called the STAR Community Index, to be in pilot by January 2010. STAR is a collaborative effort involving USGBC, the International Conference for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which has 896 city members around the world (including Indianapolis), and the Center for American Progress. A LEED-like metric for sustainable cities may give us an alternative standard to the many different city sustainability rating systems springing from various magazines and books, including Popular Science's 50 Greenest Cities, CountryHome's Best Green Places, SustainLane's US City Rankings, Move's Top 10 Greenest Cities, and MSN CityGuide's 10 Greenest Cities in America. If there was a widely-respected and rigorous third-party metric for green cities, it may have the same transformative power as the LEED metric has had for green buildings.

Expect more tools, more data, more grants and more research coming from USGBC to enable more regional and local progress. The Playbook for Green Communities, developed in collaboration with ICLEI, is an example of the type of tools and resources that will be made available. This type of collaboration with other allied organizations is another aspect of the Strategic Plan.

A local resource revealed during the retreat by one of my fellow chapter leaders was the Georgia Conservancy "Blueprints for Successful Communities" program. As Indianapolis is moving forward on the Indy Greenprint, this would be a useful body of knowledge to access.

One of the participants noted that they don't call their leadership gatherings "retreats;" they call them "advances." Get ready for some major new advances from the U.S. Green Building Council and your local chapter.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How Can a City Measure Sustainability Success?

A group from several Indianapolis neighborhood organizations made a trek to the nearby college town of Bloomington, Indiana recently to learn from them about how they have tackled the problem of creating a more walkable, sustainable community through innovative planning and zoning initiatives. I will detail some of Bloomington's innovations in a later post, but I wanted to highlight an idea that I think is critical when we begin to talk about moving toward communities that are more economically-environmentally-socially sustainable. My first brush with indicators of sustainability success was at a conference held in Seattle in 1993. It has spread from there over the years and has become a critically important tool that hundreds of communities of all sizes have adopted since, but I had not yet seen it implemented in Indiana. Similar scoreboard techniques have been implemented by successful corporations, design firms, neighborhoods and even families. As the CEO of Interface Corporation, Ray Anderson, puts it, "what gets measured gets managed." What can you measure to manage how well you are doing?

When the city of Seattle decided to make their city more sustainable in the early 1990's, they developed a set of measures of sustainability to be their scoreboard; their measure of success. Any of us who have clicked a stopwatch after a run or stepped on the bathroom scale or had our cholesterol checked know that in order to change something, you need to be able to measure your success and track your progress. According to the Sustainable Seattle web site, good indicators have these traits: Relevant; Reflect community values; Attractive to local media; Statistically measurable; Logically or scientifically defensible; Reliable; Leading; and Policy-relevant.

To find out what 17 measures of success Bloomington, Indiana found to be relevant, have a look at their Commission on Sustainability web site. Some of them might excite your curiosity, such as the number of pedestrian and bike accidents per capita. Others will be immediately obvious, such as the crime rate. If you download their 2007 report (PDF), you can drill down into the detail and see how they are doing. Also of note is that the web site organization reflects Bloomington Mayor Mark Kruzan's rational move to place economic development and sustainability together under one staff person. This is a very basic synergy for quality of life and community success that is sadly lacking in some cities and some states. None of the problems in the chart below exist in isolation and org charts that promote isolation can be hazardous to a city's or a state's long term survival (sustainability).

A great resource for learning more about Measures of Success can be found at consultant Mary Hart's excellent web site. The chart above, from that site, shows how indicators of success are interrelated in a web of relationships.

Is your community or organization in the game? What is the score? Are you winning or losing?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

iPhone: A Most Dangerous Instrument

My loving family bought me an iPhone for my birthday, because they know I am a tech geek, and it is perhaps the most dangerous instrument I have ever owned (in terms of my budget).

In the ad for the iPhone above, you can see a blue icon in the second row from the bottom. This allows you to order applications made for the iPhone, from your phone. Within seconds, you are using the application. Since the phone is always hooked up to the Web, you can order software while waiting in line at the grocery store. I know this because I ordered Scrabble that way (you shake the phone to shuffle the tiles on your tray). Unfortunately, I can also order music and books and just about anything else with a few clicks. Fortunately, many of the killer apps are free.

For example, we have been big fans of Pandora since it came out. Pandora allows you to have your own collection of free radio stations customized to your tastes and moods, based on your favorite songs or artists. The algorithms behind Pandora analyze thousands of songs to come up with other music with traits similar to your initial example. No commercials. No charge. To have this on my phone for free makes me giddy. In theory, it may reduce my iTunes purchases.

Pandora thought I would like Leela since I liked Gravity by John Mayer. Correct!

As an architect, I use a lot of mapping and aerial photography software. The Google Maps application that comes with the phone is outstanding when paired with the iPhone's magical finger gesture interface. Since the phone has GPS, you can find your location on a map or aerial photograph, get directions and find nearby attractions. Saturday, I stopped to look at a site for sale, photographed it with the built-in camera, then saved the aerial map with a "pushpin", then looked it up on Zillow and Walkscore. There was no information on the yard sign.

I was able to locate the selling price on Zillow, find the agent contact information and see that it was a large site that backed up to the Monon Trail. I could have called the agent, looked up zoning information and checked for flood zones all while standing there.

Luckily, homes are NOT available for purchase through iTunes, yet.

My other essential app is weather data and weather radar. One of the best of those I have found for the iPhone is My Weather, which has the usual forecast information, but it also shows trends and most importantly, it has animated weather radar maps that can follow you based on your specific location.

One of the most bizarre apps I have discovered is Shazam, which can not only tell you the name of that song playing on the radio, by listening to it for a few seconds, it can show you the album cover and let you tag it to listen to it later or order it from iTunes. How do they do that?

Happily, I have just about filled up my three screen pages of applications and I will have to quit. At least until the next killer app comes along.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Award Winning Green Roof Designs: The Back Story - Part 2

You will recall from Part 1 that Oaklyn Library has more than a green roof, it is eased into a wet hillside and it supports a mesic or water-loving meadow on its roof that blends seamlessly into the natural meadow on the seven-acre site. Technically, it is an earth-sheltered building. It has an 18-inch-deep overburden containing a lightweight planting mix, ponding elements, a subterranean irrigation system, and an additional horizontal network of horizontal drainage pipes. Even with all this exotica, the project came in below budget and below average cost for public libraries, due to the simple construction of the three buried walls.

This sort of economic optimization is the key to affordable sustainable design. Green roofs are also not typically this deep or this "intensive," the most common being an "extensive" green roof with about 4 inches of lightweight planting mix planted with low-maintenance species that can survive just about anything. Either type of system, if integrated early in design, can show an excellent return on investment and they allow for full utilization of the real estate. Design schools are now calling the roofscape the "fifth facade" and it is a terrible space to waste. We can ill afford to let this valuable resource remain an inaccessible, uninhabitable black tar desert that heats up the neighborhood and adds to storm water runoff problems. The technology has arrived to make these systems good, conservative long-term investments.

Overburden is a heavy word that weighs on one's mind, especially when it is your first green roof project and your seal will be found on the drawings when they drag them out of storage in anger. If the membrane leaks, everything above the leak, the overburden, has to come off to make the repair. This leads to several green roof design strategies I will outline in this post to make sure you don't have to do that prematurely and when you eventually do, it is a small portion, not the entire roof. Green roofs are typically designed to last at least twice as long as conventional premium roof systems. Part of the longevity of a green roof is due to the fact that an earth-sheltered membrane is not subjected to ultraviolet degradation or air pollution oxidation or extremes of temperature, expansion and contraction, foot traffic or other abuses that lessen the life of exposed membranes.

Modern earth-sheltered building design involves building something like a watertight upside-down inside-out swimming pool with the liner on the outside. In this case, after much research, we decided on an ultra heavy duty, fiber reinforced, heat-welded, 80-mil PVC waterproofing membrane that had been proven in Germany for thirty years in applications that included underwater tunnels.

We also added a second protection layer of similar material to protect the primary waterproofing membrane and separated the two with 1/4" thick felt. This second layer was also heat welded.

This system is designed to last for at least forty years, but Charlie Miller called it a "particularly robust system that will probably last for 50 years or more." Stay tuned. I hope to be retired by then and it is likely they will have added a second level to this building before the roof needs to be replaced.

In spite of that long life prediction, it is also a good idea to partition the roof membrane so an eventual leak can be easily located and repaired without digging up large areas. This is done with containment strips that divide the roof into distinct separate compartments and Oaklyn's roof has several. Another strategy is to place a leak detection system below the membrane. We also flood tested each section of the roof with 18 inches of water for 24 hours prior to covering (which is also a great test of the structural system).

Early in the design process it occured to me that the vast horizontal field of the membrane where welds were routinely machine welded was not likely to be an area of future concern. It was the edges and penetrations I would have to keep an eye on. If somebody screwed up a flashing detail on the parapet, the wall would get wet and the floor would get wet and somebody might assume the roof is leaking and start digging. So the roof system membranes were carried up over the parapets, penetrations were minimized and every typical detail was examined during design and construction to keep the contents dry for a very long time.

Ponding elements were formed in by encasing plastic pipe in protection membrane and a water retention fabric was laid over that. Then came a special lightweight water-retentive planting mix that was blown in place. Horizontal drainage pipe and drip irrigation systems were incorporated before the final depth of planting medium was reached. Sixteen varieties of native mesic meadow plants were planted by hand as plugs. We later found that the meadow grew better on the roof than on the surrounding earth. It requires mowing only twice a year with some additional maintenance to remove unwanted plants, such as tree seedlings, that might cause issues down the road. Like a natural meadow, the roof changes colors with the seasons and goes dormant during the winter. As the plants grow, they transpire water and cool the roof. Their photosynthesis absorbs carbon dioxide and pollutants and provides enough oxygen to keep 1100 neighbors alive. As a result of the earth-shelter construction and a high-performance HVAC system, this building uses about a third less energy compared to a typical library building its size.

To avoid the cave-like feel you can get in an earth sheltered building, this one opens up to the valley with 11-foot-tall windows across the facade and a "LightBridge" clerestory element that celebrates the entry and floods the main circulation area with daylight.

Because an earth-sheltered building has no back door, all utilities and uglies, like the chiller, are contained in a stealth service court hidden behind a roll-up screen at the far right of the facade.

For further information:

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities


Oaklyn Public Library

Award Winning Green Roof Designs

or email me by clicking on the envelope symbol below

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Award Winning Green Roof Designs: The Back Story - Part 1

A colleague sent me a copy of the new green roof coffee table book, Award-winning Green Roof Designs by Steven W. Peck, Founder of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities. The book features the first five years of the green roofs for healthy cities national award winners. 

It is the back cover that caught my eye. The roof of the first project I stamped with my seal as an architect, Oaklyn Public Library, in Evansville, Indiana, is featured there. Oaklyn was a 2004 Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Award Winner in the "intensive" (deep, complex) category. 

This book brought back many memories of that unique project and I thought this would be a good time to tell that story. How do you end up with a natural mesic (wet) meadow on top of a new 18,500 square foot public library on a tight budget in a conservative city in Southwestern Indiana? I will tell that story in this Part 1 and also give some detail about how it was built in Part 2. 

Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, which serves 170,000 people, embarked on a $44 million system-wide master plan to build a new $30 million central library, two new branches and renovate three existing branches. I was a junior partner at Veazey Parrott Durkin & Shoulders at the time (an Evansville firm, now VPS Architects) and I was the designated library guy. We formed a strategic association with Engberg Anderson, a nationally-known library design firm out of Milwaukee, and won the first two projects, the new main library and the new Oaklyn Branch. Engberg Anderson took the lead on the Central Library and we took the lead on Oaklyn. A couple of years later VPDS was selected for the second round of projects as well, including another new branch and three renovations. As the associate project architect for the new main library and project architect for the other five projects, I enjoyed a very concentrated learning experience in green library design and construction. The project that will always stand out in my memory, however, is Oaklyn. 

A "bargain" site was selected before the architect was on board and it was a real challenge. The seven-acre site was on a slope that dropped fifty feet from the street at the top to a swampy weed patch at the bottom. The hillside oozed water continuously. The program called for 20,000 square feet of library with room to expand and parking for 125 cars. When the design team got together on the first morning of a two-day community design charrette to map out some initial strategies to present to the public, we were at a loss for ideas. To carve out enough flat space for accessible parking and the building footprint, without creating something akin to a strip mine looked impossible. I threw out two suggestions to the team. One, it must be environmentally sustainable. Two, perhaps it could be built into the hillside as a "shining brow" for the new housing development in the Pigeon Creek valley below. So, as the community design charrettes began, we had two general concepts to present. One was a conventional green library built on the lower edge of the site and the other was an earth-sheltered library built into the hillside, with a evocative clerestory element (later dubbed the Light Bridge) visible from the street. Either would have to be built for less than the established budget of $3.2 million, including the site work.

As the neighborhood association and library staff and administration gathered for the two-day design charrette, I didn't hold out much hope for the earth-sheltered scheme. The more that scheme was discussed, however, the more it seemed to capture everyone's imagination, given the constraints of the site. Two very important questions were raised: How much more will the earth-sheltered scheme cost and how do you make sure it doesn't leak? The second question was the trickiest because library administration was well aware of water issues at a nearby earth-sheltered archabbey library and they were compiling a list of other leaky earth-sheltered libraries across the country. The first question was answered by hiring an independent cost consultant to compare the two concepts. Their study revealed the surprising answer that an earth-sheltered building would have lower initial cost, in spite of a much more expensive roof system, due to three low-cost plain concrete walls that are buried and only one that is exposed and finished. We already knew from our engineers that an earth-sheltered building would cost less to heat and cool, so having lower initial cost as well was very attractive to an organization with as long a view as a public library board. Library director Marcia Au, led an impressive board of progressive thinkers and they welcomed the idea of sustainable design, as long as it was a good long-term deal for the taxpayers.

To answer the second question, we launched into research on the state of the art in green roof design and, through investigation of Chicago City Hall's new green roof, we engaged the ultimate green roof expert, Charlie Miller of Roofscapes. Charlie had been researching German green roof technology and applying it to high-profile projects all over the United States. If you look through Peck's book, or any of the other green roof compendiums, you will see Miller's hand in many of them.

Concept site model of Oaklyn Public Library

With Charlie's help, we were able to show a number of very successful and very dry green roof projects and explain how it would be accomplished technically on this project. We were also able to provide some examples of non-leaky libraries and the most skeptical library administrator came around after visiting one of them. This exercise did not convince everyone, however. As soon as it looked like the earth-sheltered scheme would be developed, a senior partner called me into his office to suggest, in a break with firm tradition, that I stamp the drawings on Oaklyn. I gulped and said, "absolutely!"

All I had to do was to imagine every possible way that water could enter the building for the next 30 or 40 years, then we would have a good chance to keep everything dry, and I could keep practicing architecture. For months I layed awake at night "thinking like water," sometimes bolting upright to jot down notes or sketch details in the wee hours. That would continue through the construction phase, sometimes falling to sleep only to have nightmares of the whole thing gently sliding down the hillside. 

One of the interesting twists came from our landscape architecture consultant, Meg Storrow, who suggested, in keeping with my directive to go green, that the site wanted to be a native mesic meadow due to the constant source of water oozing out of the hillside. Her vision was that the entire seven-acre site, less the parking, could be a self-perpetuating meadow and the site and the building could thus become one.

We were going to ask the low bid contractor to bring a wet hillside onto the roof of a public library filled with moisture-sensitive books and media to keep what the neighbors like to call weeds alive. Charlie Miller's eyes lit up at the prospect and he invented an 18-inch-deep green roof that combined a series of "ponding elements" with a back-up subterranean trickle irrigation system from Germany that looked to me very much like a cattle trough water valve you could get at Tractor Supply. To add to the complexity, he included a series of rectangular horizontal drain pipes to make sure it didn't get too wet. My thoughts frequently turned to the question of the worse case scenario. What if you had to tear all that stuff off to find a leak? Who would pay for that?

Flood testing Oaklyn Library's meadow roof membrane prior to installation of overburden.

(To be continued in Part 2)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Drill, Drill, Drill or Conserve, Conserve, Conserve?

Should we open up currently off-limits Outer Continental Shelf and Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge lands to oil exploration or save those resources for future generations?

Is it all or none or is there some middle ground?

If you want to see that debate in-depth among oil industry insiders and scientists, check out this post by Robert Rapier on The Oil Drum that suggests a compromise and be sure to wade through the 130+ Comments. This popular blog regularly features energy experts and policy makers of all stripes and no statement is left unchallenged, but the exchange generally remains on a high intellectual plane, which is rare on sites that address this high-octane topic. 

Reading this blog, and especially the comments from experts, provides me with a healthy dose of humility about my level of expertise in terms of this extremely urgent but complex issue and it inspires me to learn more.

As Eric Hoffer said, "In times of drastic change, the learners will inherit the future, while the knowers will find themselves beautifully equipped for a world that no longer exists." These are indeed times of drastic change.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

America's Most Walkable Neighborhoods

A group called Front Seat, with help from heavyweights like the Sightline Institute, the Brookings Institution and Google, has ranked 2,508 neighborhoods in the largest 40 U.S. cities, with the goal of helping people locate housing in walkable areas and to promote the design of walkable communities. You may want to check out your own neighborhood Walk Score and see if you think it is scored correctly. Just type in the street address, the database knows what city you are from by your computer's address (a little creepy).

My Indianapolis neighborhood, which is about 5 miles northwest of Monument Circle, has no sidewalks, so I walk on the road each morning. My neighborhood, called Highland Kessler, scored a 14 (car dependent) while Downtown at Monument Circle scored 98 (walker's paradise) out of a possible 100. When I typed in addresses of other known walkable parts of Indy, the scores elevated accordingly. Popular Broad Ripple Village scored in the high 80s (very walkable). The walkability is a function of pedestrian ways and also useful places to walk to. If you are shopping for a walkable neighborhood, this will show you a score for a specific address with a map showing attractions within walking distance and you can also get a Google street view, as in the thumbnail above.

The message is that walkable communities are more desirable places to live, work and play and real estate values tend to support that, especially with gas above $4 a gallon. Chris Leinberger, author of The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream points out that a Brookings Institute survey he directed "shows anywhere from a 40% to 200% price premium on a price per square foot basis for a walkable urban place as opposed to a competitive nearby drivable suburban place." See his interview with CNN

An interesting way to check this out is to type your sample addresses into Walk Score and then Zillow to compare property values of your cities walkable verses drivable-only neighborhoods. Let me know what you find out. From my own virtual exploration, it appears we should be investing in sidewalks "complete streets" and changing zoning laws that prevent mixed use. The highest property values are in those walkable urban neighborhoods followed closely by those gridded neighborhoods that were designed before the 1950s with boulevards, sidewalks and garages in back off the alley. You know, those neighborhoods where for sale signs are never needed. Savvy developers have rediscovered this and the typical isolated "dead worm" surburban greenfield development may be on the way out, accelerated by rising fuel costs and a rocky home mortgage climate. When builders and developers retool and reload, look for more walkable mixed-use communities and more dense urban redevelopment with interesting, walkable streets with lots of unique local businesses.

Why should you want to walk? Walk Score gives the following reasons: better health, reduction in greenhouse gas, more transportation options, walking increases social capital by promoting face-to-face interaction with your neighbors, and stronger local businesses. The developers of Walk Score hope that someday real estate listings will tell you the square feet, the number of bathrooms and the Walk Score of the property. But you don't have to wait. You can get the Walk Score now.

Where can you find out more?