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