Sunday, May 31, 2009

Walking the Talk

On May 23, my tweet and reference to an article from Environmental Leader was oriented towards evidence that links responsible and sustainable corporate actions or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with building positive brand reputation, and then market differentiation. The article cites research by Natural Marketing Institute which found that lifestyles of health and sustainability consumers look for proof to back up product or service claims. This demand for product or service evidence of facts, like in medicine or design, must be backed up by some type of third party assurance process, like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval but at the ‘global house’ scale.

The current understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility recognizes some form of Triple Bottom Line (TBL) reporting, based on UN Global Compact Principles, Ceres Principles and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines, now regarded as the international standard. The TBL measures of organizational success are commonly referred to as environmental or planet, economic or profit and social or people. Since late 2006 and the introduction of the GRI G3 process, international corporations have embraced, at a rapid rate, sustainable principles and the TBL protocol. Ceres has tracked the corporate adoption of GRI from its initiation in 1997, noting a growth to 50 companies in 2000, 400 companies in 2004 and 1500 companies now. That equals a growth rate of 375% in 5 years, but there still remains a long way to go to meet global climate change initiatives.

The need for CSR is present in all corporations, large and small, international and regional, but is particularly appropriate to the design professional service corporations which already have an environmental responsibility by nature of licensing and practice. Clearly TBL should already be embedded in their cultures and vision statements, but the question is are they? And if so, how many actually have adopted the Ceres Principles and GRI and or TBL reporting? A review of the Ceres Companies shows only two architectural, engineering or planning firms listed, yet a review of the Architecture 2030 website would indicate that this type of sustainable commitment is much more common.

But why aren’t more large corporate architecture and engineering firms committing to Ceres Principles and GRI reporting? There are over 100 large, that is greater than 200 person, architectural and engineering firms in the US, so why are so few adopting this approach? Is it time and effort, fear of exposure of confidential information, the lack of true measurable goals, cultures of limited information sharing even within their own organization, or the clash of private firms and issues of public interest? Perhaps a review of one firm, Haley and Aldrich, which is a Ceres Company, would be useful to see what they say and what information they share. On their corporate website they have posted their 2008 sustainability report - People , Planet and Profit. The report is organized, readable and graphically well presented. Their vision is stated, success measures defined, a lean, increased value and decreased waste strategy presented, and a Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) process stated to control implementation. The report has a simple four part structure, consisting of goals, recorded progress/metrics, assessment/grade and adjustments for 2009. The format follows the PDCA model and contains an open measurement of performance without the loss of confidential data.

To me it is an example of CSR that provides evidence of sustainable practices and creates differentiation from other peer professional firms - a disciplined, self regulating approach that, as Haley and Aldrich states, is “walking the talk.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

Every Rooftop is a Power Plant

In the past couple of months, two solar power articles approach the topic from different perspectives yet result in similar conclusions. The Boston Globe covered the recent MIT Energy Conference in April and described the perspective from a large utility, Duke Energy, one of the top CO2 emitters in the United States. Duke Energy generates 97% of its power from coal and nuclear power, and wants to significantly reduce its carbon emissions. Jim Rodgers, who runs Duke Energy, is seeking the emission reduction through the development of solar power and increased energy efficiency. He was quoted as considering "every rooftop as a power plant", and noting the need for changes to the rules governing power companies to allow them to benefit from solar power by "moving beyond the meter". This means a power company would not only provide energy to a customer but would also share in the cost/profit from energy produced by a customer, leading to increased large scale investments in solar and ultimately reduced emissions from fossil fuel energy.

Selling the Sun by Michael Behar in On Earth Magazine features a story about Jigar Shah and Sun Edison, North America's largest and most successful provider of solar energy, a private business which has grown so quickly over the past five years that it could almost be considered a small utility company. Sun Edison's growth and success was created by their no up-front cost, power purchase agreement (PPA) business model.

Through a PPA, Sun Edison provides solar electrical power at a set price for a minimum of 10-years, with no capital cost to the customer. The PPA's are then used as collateral for investment funding to install and own the solar array. The investors benefit from a constant income stream on debt payment, depreciation and investment tax credits. The early adopters of this approach have been large scale retailers like Staples, Whole Foods, Kohl's, Ikea and Walmart. The avoidance of up-front capital cost with its longer term payback and a stable long term energy cost have created a large market place stimulating the whole solar industry. It is reported that Sun Edison has about 200 commercial installations with a 60-megawatt capacity, or enough to power 48,000 homes. A recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory noted that investment in solar energy in the last three years grew by a compounded annual rate of 145%, and it's clear that the PPA model is substantially the cause of this growth.

The two articles however raise a couple of questions. Will the large scale utilities move into the micro scale, thousands of rooftops, model? Will a business like Sun Edison become more like a utility? When will the cost of solar and utility power, grid parity, become equal? On the last question, many experts project somewhere between 2012 and 2015, but in many parts of the U.S. it is happening now. The same experts note that the real issue may be scale more than subsidies. As Michael Behar's article states, "The formula is simple: the more solar installed, the cheaper it gets; and the cheaper it gets, the more it's installed". There is no doubt about that equation.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Turbocharge the Wind Industry in Massachusetts

Last week the Boston Globe first reported the receipt of significant stimulus funding for construction of a large wind turbine blade testing facility in Charlestown. The Wind Technology Testing Center will be the nation's first commercial large blade testing facility capable of handling blades as long as 90 meters. While the majority of current testing occurs at the National Wind Technology Center in Boulder CO, no facility in the U.S. is capable of testing blades longer than 50 meters.

In a visit to the proposed site, which has both rail and critical shipping access, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Governor Deval Patrick noted the importance of developing renewable energy systems and insuring that the best, most efficient turbines are built in America. "Testing the next generation of wind turbines here will make Massachusetts a hub for the fastest growing energy source in the world" said Governor Patrick as he announced the funding. Since the announcement, much enthusiasm has been generated by the plan to have the facility completed and ready for testing in late 2010. One government official was quoted noting that the facility would "turbocharge the wind industry in Massachusetts". For me, I've gotten much closer to large blade testing that I could imagine as I live about a half-mile from the site.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Really Big Sustainable Idea

Today Zerofootprint has launched an innovative International Building Re-Skinning Competition at the Discovery 2009 Exhibition in Toronto. The focus of the competition is the development and advancement of the state of the art in retrofitting thousands of post war buildings, improving their energy efficiency and reducing their carbon footprint. The Z-Prize of $1 million will be awarded to the retrofitted building that achieves the most reduction in energy cost per square foot as measured and audited over a three year period following the retrofit.

The basis or catalyst for the competition is an ongoing project sponsored in 2007 by the Mayor’s Office of the City of Toronto, called Toronto Tower Renewal. This project is an outgrowth of ongoing research by E.R.A. Architects and the University of Toronto Faculty of Architecture, regarding the value and reuse potential of over 1,000 primarily residential high rise buildings. The initial investigations are well presented in the book , Concrete Toronto, and the background on reuse opportunities is described in the article 'A Suburban Future of Concrete and Gardens-Nice. Right?'

The outcomes of the Tower Renewal Project: The Sustainable City and the Re-Skinning Competition are very clear and further demonstrate the point that the most sustainable building is a reuse of an existing one. Here their goals include the reduction of green house gas emission through building and site retrofit (sustainable structures); introduction of mixed use new construction to build complete communities (sustainable lifestyles); and creation of technology, materials and industries to launch an increasingly cost effective approach (sustainable industries).

This is one really big sustainable idea with large scale benefits and major global impact. We in the United States should be following the City of Toronto’s lead in implementing such multifaceted sustainable renewal plans.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Well the forces have finally aligned and the Earth Day message from USGBC President and CEO, Rick Fedrizzi, made to point loud and clear. The economic crisis has forced everyone to reconsider priorities and make decisions that conserve resources, primarily money. The slowdown/stoppage of new construction brings the realization that there are hundreds of thousands of existing buildings and homes in need of energy reconstruction and reuse. USGBC sees the green movement as thriving and migrating toward conservation of resources, the essential sustainable activity, whether money, water, energy or jobs. Restore Media's President, Peter Miller, carried a similar message in his article "Why This Recession is Good for Traditional Building, Part II".

At the same time the preservation movement, which has also had its share of shifts since the first Earth Day in 1970, has reinvented itself from initial focus on landmarks, to adaptive reuse and then to emphasis on social and communal values. In the mid 70’s in the midst of the first sustainable design years, the preservation movement began to push forward the concept of embodied energy which linked the two movements. The studies of BTU value of existing built environments created an understanding that our older buildings were in fact fossil fuel repositories, and if we extended the life of these buildings we wouldn’t have to use the energy again. The January/February 2008 Preservation Magazine, Green Issue, in the article “A Cautionary Tale” ties the two movements together and provides many interesting facts and figures to support the arguments.

So one can say the nexus has occurred. Sustainability begins with preservation, whether social, cultural or economic and many have said the most responsible way to build is to recycle an old building. So per USGBC, more than 120 million buildings and homes await our action. The economic crisis has refocused our attention on these critical issues.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Here goes! This blog will cover a wide range of interests, both professional and personal, primarily related to the creation of a more sustainable built environment. I would expect topics to include policy, planning, design, research, architecture, engineering and construction. Perhaps the central focus will be the knowledge and understanding of both the creation and design of the built environment, and whether those designs achieve their intended goals.