2013 in Review

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,800 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 47 trips to carry that many people.

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Healthcare Design

The Park: New York City, NY

I grew up in a rural town where most people take Google Definitions seriously when it says interior design is ‘synonymous’ with interior decorating. Thus, explaining one’s desire and intent to work in the field of interior design can be a taxing venture. Anyone who has ever tried to explain a concept model or a spatial planning diagram while home from college for the holidays probably knows what I am talking about. By now, I have had a good deal of practice with this type of conversation, and over time I have boiled down my explanations of my career choice to the ideas represented in the image above.

While I am all in favor of keeping things simple, the reality is, interior design is so much more complex. Various specialties, sectors and focuses make the field a diverse and constantly evolving occupation. My passion and area of interest resides in the healthcare sector of design, and I would love to introduce you to the reasons why.

The Armory: Portland, OR

• I want to know that my work matters, and will make a difference. While in university, my only project that made me feel as though I had made a difference (hypothetically, of course) was the healthcare project I completed during a senior term studio. The prompt surrounded the design of a healing and wellness center for Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake, Washington. Due to the unique nature of care and rehabilitative services provided at this hospital, the project required detailed research, efficient programming, and purposeful design decisions. Presenting this design was my most proud moment at university (aside from graduating of course), and I will never forget the sense of accomplishment I felt.

Basement floor plan of my design proposal for a wellness center at Eastern State Hospital; senior term studio 2010.

• The medical field is constantly evolving, advancing, and growing. Translating these needs for the client means recognizing the constant need for creative and innovative solutions for highly specific needs. While design decisions for healthcare projects will affect and influence one another, no two will ever be the same.

While my boyfriend was in surgery, I, like any supportive spouse, decided to tour the facility. I was fascinated by the center’s solutions for wayfinding issues, one of which is picture here. Cues in flooring patterns are the same on every floor; the wood laminate designates ‘waiting room’ areas, the light grey carpet occupies space immediately adjacent to departmental reception, medium grey carpet designates circulation, and dark carpet leads patients back to treatment areas. The Group Health Medical Center in Bellevue, WA.

• The utilization of Evidence Based Design is paramount in healthcare design. I’m a nut. I love research. I might even list it under recreational hobbies. Healthcare facilities are a highly specialized and technical client; because of the subject matter, design decisions need to be implemented with sound reasoning behind them- and cue Evidence Based Design. Perceptive and insightful design strategies have the power to create measurable difference in quality and outcomes. In the healthcare field, this means the ability to provide better care, and an increase in successful outcomes for patients.

Speaking from my own experience of hospital stays (this one marked by an abundance of pirate themed ‘get well’ materials), I appreciate knowing that the odds are in my favor for a quick recovery. Skagit Valley Hospital, Mount Vernon WA.

• Spatial planning and infrastructure are key aspects of designing for healthcare. There’s nothing I love more than solving a good puzzle, and space planning to me is the most engaging puzzle of all. Successfully implemented designs create spaces that successfully and seamlessly flow into one another, allowing for ease of usability in the environment. When the built environment of a medical facility works for the practitioner, they’re able to do a better job in their work which translates to better patient outcomes.

Spatial planning is a fascinating process, and everyone does it a little differently. Diagrams from my senior term studio for Eastern State Hospital, 2010.

• Sustainable design and healthcare environments make a great couple! After all, does it not make sense for built environments promoting health and well-being to be healthy themselves? I think so.

Sustainable materials are a focal point at The Group Health Medical Center in Bellevue, WA.

I find healthcare design to be a diverse and fascinating field; at this stage of my career, I am excited at all there is yet for me to learn.


Filed under Awareness, Built Environment, Curiosity, Design, Dialogue, EBD, Emma Fox ∙ Design, Environmental Sustainability, Evidence Based Design, Healthcare Design, Pacific Northwest, Sustainable Design, The Built Environment, Uncategorized

Lunch With An Architect

I recently attended Bloom! Seattle V, a fascinating seminar discussing various sustainable initiatives that were born from the grass roots level. Topics ranged from addressing urban food deserts to utilizing biomimicry in the built environment, and were presented by leaders in the field who are currently addressing these various subjects in their work.

While at this event, I had the pleasure of meeting an architect whose commitment and ties to sustainability were as deep-rooted in childhood lessons and experiences as my own. She was a featured presenter at the seminar, and shared her innovative project of designing and creating sustainable schooling spaces that would inspire and engage students. The subject matter caught my ear, as her enthusiasm and belief in the project made for a dynamic presentation. (Additionally, I had a similar design prompt my sophomore year of college, and it was exciting to see the concept in a real life application). While I was able to introduce myself after her speech, the crowded venue didn’t leave much room for questions; I expressed interest in learning more about her project, and she agreed to meet me for lunch a couple weeks later.

My sophomore project surrounding the prompt of designing sustainable modular classrooms.

On the day of our meeting, I was treated to an in-depth explanation of her project, as she elaborated on her life-long commitment to the environment, the inspiration, and her previous work experience that led to the creation and development of this project. I found it fascinating to listen to the process, development, and hard work that had made her project a reality. Her dedication and enthusiasm was inspiring, and I left our meeting with the reminder that big changes start from seeds planted on the ground level, and the hope that I too will spark positive impact with my designs.

I would like to extend a big thanks to Stacy Smedley for sharing a look into her work with The Sprout Collective! Please follow the link to learn more about the project. To contribute to the Sprout Collective, please click here to donate.

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Filed under Awareness, Built Environment, Community, Curiosity, Design, Dialogue, Education, Environmental Sustainability, Sustainable Design, The Built Environment, Uncategorized

Autumn Job Hunt

A mossy lawn decorated with leaves.

After an uncharacteristically long encore of summer weather, autumn has fully set in throughout the Pacific Northwest, sweeping in with a poignant and crisp reminder of the cycles of nature. I can’t say that I mind; the ombre of leaves and abundance of hot beverages have long been symbols of my favorite time of year. The one shortcoming I find myself facing is all of my cold-weather clothing and supplies still lie in a storage unit since my recent move north from Portland.

It’s no secret that I have been on the job hunt recently. As my contract renewal date approached at my design job in Oregon, I made the decision to pursue opportunities more closely keyed to my specific interests in the healthcare sector of design. It was a difficult decision, but one I found essential to the development of my career.  Transition periods are rarely easy and this one is no different; yet with the challenges come lessons, and every enlightening moment brings me clarity in direction. I am seriously and actively focusing on my career goal of becoming a team member in a design environment saturated with knowledge, learning opportunities, and a commitment to sustainable buildings.

To integrate myself into the PNW design community, I have been participating in a variety of networking activities through various organizations, such as Cascadia Green Building Committee, Emerging Professionals, IIDA, and AIA in the Seattle area. In doing this, my aim is to become better acquainted with A) the sustainable design community, and B) the areas of focus of firms in the Seattle area. Attending these events has proved fruitful- I’m learning a lot, and I’m becoming more aware of current focus points in the design community.

When I am not busy networking during this interim of full-time employment, I have been quite fortunate to have Emma Fox ∙ Design occupy the rest of my time through freelance design opportunities (interior and graphic) with several companies in Skagit, Whatcom, and Snohomish Counties.  These opportunities have all been commercially-based, and an excellent opportunity for me to put my expertise in branding to work. And since I’m never above shamelessly promoting my services, if you or anyone you know requires interior or graphic design services, please feel free to give me a call.

Though I find that the job search can be tedious and albeit very stressful, I’m holding firm to the vision of a career path that allows me contribute to my community and built environment through designs that truly understand the triple-bottom line of sustainability. The next opportunity for me is out there, and I’m going to find it.


Filed under Autumn, Built Environment, Community, Design, Dialogue, Pacific Northwest, Responsibility, Trible Bottom Line

Sustainable Nuclear Energy is an Oxymoron

Forsythia from my folk's yard.

It seems, after much anticipation and waiting, that spring has finally arrived. The breeze flows in through the open patio door, and a branch of Forsythia blossoms on the windowsill. Aside from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons playing in the background, I am struck by the quiet that settles around me; the apartment is clean, and outside there are flowers blossoming. Lazily, I sip a cup of tea and scroll through the CNN newsreel, and I come across a figure that makes my heart stop: “Japan quake toll stands at 10,151, over 17,000 missing.” I look out the window, and try to comprehend the unfathomable nature of the horrific earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11th, 2011. I try to imagine the feelings of those in Japan who have lost everything, who now must pick up the pieces of their lives in an attempt to recover, and move on from pure devastation. It saddens me to my core, and I am even more disheartened when I think of the ongoing struggles that are being faced as a result of the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. So much of this situation I can’t comprehend, or even begin to understand; the movements of nature are one thing, but the affects of man’s endeavors and ‘prosperity’ are quite another. Some would discuss nuclear energy as a testament to mankind’s capabilities; after all, we’ve learned to split atoms, some of the smallest components of matter- a truly astounding feat. However, I would argue the very simple point- that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant: http://www.thepunch.com.au

In the days that followed the quake and tsunami, people across the globe watched in sadness and horror as the reality of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant began to sink in. With the countless hardships inflicted by two natural disasters of incomprehensible proportions, now came the effects of a compromised and terribly dangerous man-made system. First, the Pacific tsunami knocked out all power to the plant, which crippled the cooling of the fuel rods. When the backup generator didn’t work, pressure built up within the reactor vessel, which was then reduced by venting out steam. This steam contained hydrogen, which then reacted with oxygen, causing multiple explosions. As talk of radiation hitting the west coast of the United States spread, countless individuals scrambled blindly to get their hands  on potassium iodine tablets in hopes of protecting themselves from the unthinkable consequences of radiation. As Japan began to pump in seawater in attempts to avoid a nuclear meltdown, so many sat in silence and fear as Japan tried to combat and control one of mankind’s most dangerous creations. The harsh realization is that the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant will not be fixed by a simple clean up; they will continue to exist, they will continue to spread, and they will continue to cause problems. The latest development came on Friday, when scientists announced that water samples collected a quarter mile off the coast of Japan contained levels of radioactive iodine that were 1,250 times higher than normal. The fact that any level of radioactive substance was considered ‘normal’ troubled me enough, but 1,250 times that amount? I couldn’t even begin to figure out what that looked like. Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear Safety Agency, had this to say about the findings: “This figure means that if you drank 500 millilitres of water containing this level of iodine it would reach the limit that a person can take in in one year, which is one millisievert.” In case you’re like me and can’t convert metrics in your head, 500 millilitres is equivalent to about 16 ounces- the same size as your morning grande from Starbucks. Whether via water or air, the understanding and knowledge that nuclear fallout and radiation will continue to spread has many in fear of the aftermath, and they should be. Though the severity of this disaster have been dramatically downplayed, the truth is coming to light: on March 18th, Japan announced that radiation was leaking at high enough levels to cause death. On March 19th, spinach grown 65 miles away from the plant was found to be contaminated and inedible. on March 24th, the tap water in Tokyo was deemed unsafe to drink- for pregnant women. As terrifying as this all is, I implore everyone to wake up and open their eyes- because we’ve all been here before, multiple times. If you’re in the United States, you’re likely right in the middle of a lot of it.

Nuclear Reactors in the United States: http://www.nrc.gov

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about the ins and outs of nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. I am embarrassed to admit that my reference matter of the subject lies somewhere between Homer Simpson and K-19: The Widowmaker. Still, even with a a fundamental lack of understanding, the utilization of nuclear anything to me is a big no-no. Although to argue this point, I wanted to learn more about it. Luckily for me, someone I admire very much also finds the subject troublesome. Intrigued enough as she was, she focused her graduate studies on nuclear testing in the United States. I’d like to introduce you to my sister, Sarah Fox. Sarah graduated with a masters in history and folklore from Utah State University. The focus of her thesis work surrounded the testing and development of nuclear weapons in the American West, which she is currently turning into a book entitled Yellow Monsters and Mushroom Clouds: A Folk History of the Nuclear West. I’ll be sure to let everyone know when it comes out. Sarah was nice enough to discuss the topic with me, and answer some of my questions surrounding nuclear energy, and just how not sustainable it truly is.


My sister Sarah and her husband Ryan in front of a cooling tower at the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant in Oregon.

I’ll be honest, I don’t really ‘get’ nuclear energy. Can you lay it out for me in laymen’s terms?

First of all, let me clarify: I’m a historian, not a scientist, so the finer points of nuclear science are out of my realm of expertise.  But I’ll share my basic understanding.  Bear with me for the science-y part. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power operate on a principle called fission.  At the most basic level, every substance on earth is made of elements (remember the periodic table?), and those elements are made  up of atoms.   If you think back to high school chemistry, you’ll remember that atoms have a center, called a nucleus, and that nucleus contains protons and neutrons.   About 90 years ago, it occurred to scientists that if they could somehow split the nucleus of the atom, that the component parts of the atom would be released, bumping into other atoms, theoretically causing them to split, and so on.  Scientists realized that this process—fission— (aka, a nuclear chain reaction) would create a phenomenal amount of energy, which could either create an insanely powerful explosion, or theoretically, fuel a power plant.

You can’t just manufacture a chain reaction out of anything—you need fuel, a particular element that is volatile or unstable enough that its atoms will continue splitting and bumping into other atoms, causing them to split.  Now, most elements are too stable to sustain a chain reaction, and early attempts to create such a reaction stalled out until scientists figured out that a particular isotope of uranium worked very well.  So, uranium became the ideal fuel for nuclear chain reactions in nuclear weapons and later, nuclear power plants.

So, when you say that you need an element that is ‘volatile or unstable enough’ to be used as fuel for nuclear energy, what does that say about uranium?

Uranium is an element found in the earth.  It’s found in rocks which you have to mine for, and then extract the uranium from them; this process is called milling.  Because uranium is such a volatile, or unstable element, it emits radiation as it decays.  Anyone mining or milling the uranium will be exposed to this radiation, and much of the material leftover after the process is complete—called tailings—remains highly radioactive.  Tailings are usually discarded near the mines or mills, where they continue to emit radiation, which historically, often made its way into the water table and food chain.  A major nuclear accident happened in 1979 when a tailings damn broke and released many thousands of gallons of radioactive tailings sludge into the Rio Puerco River, which then flowed into the Rio Grande River.

While there are some safety precautions that people working with uranium can use, most of the early uranium workers (from the 1940s and 1950s) weren’t informed about the risks, and consequently, many of them suffered radiation-related diseases and died of cancer, as did many of their family members who lived in proximity to the mines and mills.  Many of their children were born with severe birth defects, and their families continue to suffer health problems from the still-radioactive debris that remains where former uranium mines and mills existsed.  The federal government, which was the only authorized purchaser of uranium for many years, was aware of these risks, but felt the imperative of obtaining a nuclear weapon for national security purposes was paramount.

Through my research surrounding sustainability, I’ve come to understand and define the term as it relates to the sustained well-being of three factors: the environment, the economy, and communities. It is my opinion that they are tremendously inter-related, and the sacrificed quality of any one of these factors largely harms the others. Hearing that uranium mining, the essential element to nuclear energy, devastates landscapes, that it’s volatile enough to lead to fatal diseases, I just don’t understand how people can argue that nuclear energy is a sustainable choice.

The health of uranium workers and the environmental degradation which results from the uranium industry is a serious and completely unsustainable cost, particularly in the early part of the nuclear power cycle.  While companies interested in resuming uranium mining for nuclear power insist they have new safety standards and improved methods that reduce environmental damage, it is seriously questionable whether it is actually possible to mine and mill uranium cleanly and safely.  This reality deals a major blow to the idea that nuclear power is sustainable for communities. Additionally, uranium is a mineral which exists in the natural world in finite qualities, which means that even if we could mine it cleanly and safely, we’d eventually run out.  So, that’s a major blow to the claim that nuclear is environmentally sustainable.

To address the third factor, what would you say the affects of nuclear energy are in regards to economic sustainability?

The next step in creating nuclear power is constructing and operating a nuclear power plant.  Nuclear power plants are highly complex and expensive to build, so much so that most private banks have refused to finance them in recent decades, leaving the federal government as the only entity willing to guarantee the massive loans needed to construct nuclear power plant infrastructure. Nuclear power plants also tend to go bankrupt, because their operating and security costs remain high even when the price they can get for the electricity they generate fluctuates.  Clearly, constructing and operating nuclear power plants is not economically sustainable.    (Here’s an article on the subject with links to a study on the economic feasibility of nuclear power done by Citybank: Nuclear Does Not Make Economic Sense Say Studies). And, in the case of the unthinkable nuclear disaster caused by human error or environmental event such as earthquake or tsunami, the costs of handling that disaster can be exorbitant, particularly if the disaster (i.e. a meltdown) cannot be contained.  Meltdowns aren’t out of the realm of possibility; there have been several serious meltdowns in the last 30 years—at Chernobyl, at 3 Mile Island, and now at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan.

Through casual chats I’ve had recently about nuclear energy, the subject of it being a preferable option to coal due to it being ‘cleaner’ has come up a couple of times, but from what you’re saying, nuclear energy doesn’t sound clean at all.

Many current advocates of nuclear power argue that it is “cleaner than coal” because it operates without the dense clouds of smoke or nasty runoff typical to other forms of energy production.  Nuclear power plants do create waste; the average consumer just doesn’t see that waste.  Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive, dangerous, and difficult to store safely.  These qualities also make it exorbitantly expensive to deal with nuclear waste.  It is so dangerous that many politicians have actively opposed nuclear waste facilities being sited in their states, because of the risk of a traffic accident and ensuing nuclear crisis during the transportation of nuclear waste to the facility.  Nuclear power plants also create emissions, they’re just invisible to the naked human eye.  Dr. John Gofman, one of the nation’s leading experts on radiation and medicine, once estimated that a nuclear reactor in an urban area would create adverse health effects “equal in the opposite direction to all the medical advances put together in the last 25 years.” So, once again, nuclear power isn’t sustainable for communities in terms of its real and potential impacts for human health, and its not environmentally sustainable either, when the question of nuclear waste is considered.


Is this really what we want to subject our children to? Radiation testing in Japan: http://www.news.nationalpost.com

I’m really grateful to Sarah for shedding some light on the subject, one that I now find all the more horrific. (For the record, I think understanding the truth means being able to look it head on. I looked at images to include regarding the horrible affects of radiation on humans and animals [i.e. two headed animals] and it broke my heart. Normally, I’d show you the ‘not pretty’ stuff, but I couldn’t bear to put it on here.) What is evermore frustrating to me now, is that so many seem to view the selection of nuclear energy, coal energy, or fossil fuels as a lesser evil, that ultimately, we have no better choice, something we know to be fundamentally untrue. What I’m so terribly puzzled about, is why we’re consciously selecting these forms of energy when we know the harm they cause, particularly to ourselves. Why do we subject ourselves to such danger and hazardous conditions? Why do we subject our children to living on such a ravaged planet that we continue to compromise? Though pessimistic as this may sound, if the world hasn’t decided from the numerous disasters that we’ve experienced that nuclear exploration is not worth the costs, I fear we’ve condemned ourselves and our planet for a grim future.

However, if I may take the liberty of adding a post-script to this essay, the one thing that wasn’t affected by the quake in Japan was their wind turbines. Even the offshore Kamisu Wind Farm that lies only 186 miles from the epicenter of Japan’s largest quake in history, remains unharmed; and that my friends, gives me a glimmer of hope.

Turbine in Yokohama, Japan: http://www.grist.org


Filed under Ask Strategic Questions, Awareness, Curiosity, Dialogue, Environmental Sustainability, Ethical, Renewable Energy, Responsibility, Social Implications, Social Sustainability

Let There Be Light

The view outside my window.

Spokane is currently blanketed with an abundant amount of snow; Thursday and Friday brought me the gifts of glorified collegiate snow days. Holed up in the apartment, I enjoy the slow pace with which life is running this weekend, both in and outside my front door. As snow falls silently outside the window, I ponder Water Water Everywhere, Not a Drop to Drink, Nor any Drop to Spare, and take pride in how I’ve conserved water this last week, only to become aware of (as I open my monthly utility bill) how many lights are currently on in my apartment.

Lights in the living room.

To my left, a lamp glows from the corner table; to my right, a desk lamp illuminates a surface I’m no longer working at. A pole lamp with two bulbs shines over my shoulder, while two strands of Christmas lights circle the living room. An overhead light is on in the kitchen, and there’s a strong possibility that lights are on in the bedroom.  All window shades are tied away, and a candle burns on the sill; at 1:00 in the afternoon, natural light pours in from the west.  For heaven’s sake! This is surely unnecessary. I stroll around and turn four lights off, and I feel as if I am consumed in darkness. Changing my mind, I decide that all lights are indeed necessary, and flip them on again. Much better.  Yet still a quandary remains in my mind, regarding the lighting in my home. It is hardly sustainable, but I have little grasp on how.  In all reality, the use and overuse of electric lighting touches many issues; from energy consumption, to the health and well-being of people, all these issues can find relief through lighting design.

Ouch! Not only is my light bulb from another country, it's an incandescent. For shame.

According to data from the Buildings Energy Data Book, lighting consumes the highest amount of the United State’s total energy at 35%, followed by space cooling at 16%, electronics at 12%, and all other factors ranking at 9% or less (with regards to last week’s essay, water heating consumes only 4% of total energy usage). Research indicates that we spend 90% of our time indoors; it is also indicates that in industrialized countries, buildings are responsible for up to one half of total energy usage. As lighting signifies the largest factor of energy consumption in buildings, it is imperative that fundamental changes be made in the way buildings use and acquire their energy; our continued overuse of the resource is expensive and wasteful. Building designers play a leading role in this dilemma; as their work impacts the life of structures, their decisions will continue to affect how it uses energy (and the associative costs), for potentially fifty or more years to come. Through informed design and innovative thinking, designers have the ability to reduce a building’s energy consumption by significant amounts, ultimately sustaining the resourced for further use.

Global environmental impacts of lighting and its associative energy use far surpass the bearings of any individual building. However, collectively, industrialization has amplified mankind’s aggregated energy consumption to a level that causes significant environmental impacts, such as air and water quality degradation, substantial resource depletion, and global climate change. If the design of energy systems within buildings continues unchecked, the potential repercussions are significant and disconcerting: health impacts from further environmental pollution, a continued threat of resource wars, failure of large-scale agricultural systems, and a growing threat to coastal cities as sea-levels rise. This is not to imply that a single light left on is going to end the world: but it is intertwined with a variety of larger issues that might. To understand the larger picture, it is imperative that we understand the smaller factors.

Light as comfort.

Additionally, lighting design in buildings bears significant effects on the psychological and physical well-being of users. We idolize light for its comforting presence in our lives, and its imagery fills our language; phrases such as “in the spotlight” and “light at the end of the tunnel,” all utilize light as an illustrative tool for its positive qualities.  As I find comfort in my home from the type and placement of my lights, the same is true for occupants of larger settings.  Too often, we settle for lighting systems are generic, boring, and leave no capability for occupant control; this can result in lighting levels that are drastically high, or disappointingly low. I’ll offer the design studio at my school for an example: it is illuminated by the never-ending annoyance of HID lamps (aka- High Intensity Discharge Lamps- the kind that are put in street lights). They’re incredibly unattractive, ridiculously noisy, and the bulbs change color when they begin to die. The studio consequently is constantly humming (a source of countless headaches), and is covered in various shades of light (from pure white to extreme yellow). Without capabilities to control the amount of light they emit, it’s one level for all, a wasteful and ineffective strategy. As they are hung so high on ceiling, inadequate light levels reach the surface of our desks, resulting in an additional lamp on every table. Having spent countless days (and many nights) in studio, I have come to truly despise the lighting, to the point that I seek out excuses to work anywhere else in an attempt to avoid headaches, eye strain, and general fatigue. I would happily wager that if this system were different and more appropriate for the space, it would create a more pleasant atmosphere that sustains the working students within it, likely sparking higher rates productivity. Instead, it’s most often empty and wasting space, save for classes.

When it comes down to it, ‘good lighting’ isn’t how much light you have, but rather having the right amount and quality of light in the right place; such a task is solely achieved by intentional and informed design, through which, we can address all of the issues we’ve discussed. A variety of sustainable design methods exist surrounding lighting design; ideally, the best solution is one that integrates daylighting into the overall electric design to achieve a dynamic composition appropriate for the use of building occupants. Let’s examine various design strategies that address the energy, environmental, and psychological affects of lighting.

Exert from my 2010 daylight study on classrooms. Click to enlarge.

In examining solutions intended to counter the energy consumption of electric lighting, we’ll find that reducing energy usage is the number one strategy for addressing global environmental impacts. In this case,  lighting design remedies for energy and environmental affects go hand in hand. Arguably, one of the top priorities in this issue is increasing the built environment’s dependency on renewable energy sources. Tapping into local and abundant energy sources is essential in reducing a building’s life-cycle impact by providing reliable and quality energy. Renewable sources are those gathered from the sun (solar energy), wind (wind energy), flowing water (hydro power), and the ground (geothermal energy). These various supplies of energy offer huge potential, yet so many millions of buildings choose not to harness their capabilities. It is true, these forms of energy are more expensive, but they require different technologies than those we currently rely on. As a consumer, when you purchase renewable energy from ethical companies, you’re supporting the development and construction of additional technologies to harness these sources. The more support we show, the more inexpensive these forms will become. Secondly, to maximize the efficiency of any energy source, we need to design and utilize more energy efficient fixtures, all the way from the tiniest light bulb to the biggest piece of equipment; a renewable energy resource would only be squandered on equipment that utilizes it ineffectually.

Springtime sunlight.

Lastly, I would argue what I feel is one of the greatest weapons of interior design specifically: the constant consideration of daylight as a contributing factor of a lighting plan. We, as humans, love sunlight- we thrive off of it. By incorporating daylighting into the plan of a building, we achieve a more pleasant interior environment, and we lessen our dependency on electric sources. This can be achieved through the following methods: 1) Top-lighting: clerestories, roof monitors, sawtooth roof lines, and skylights; 2) Side-lighting: designing windows as luminaires, allowing the size, shape, and placement to specifically respond to year-round sunlight and daylight patterns; 3) Operable controls: such as operable electric light fixtures, window blinds, louvers; 4) Incorporation of interior windows: allowing daylight to penetrate as much of the building as possible; 5) Running electric lights parallel to window walls: this allows us to turn off specific banks of lights that would otherwise illuminate a day-lit zone. These design strategies are merely a handful of many. Extensive and ongoing research surrounds the affects of daylighting on design, and it’s a fascinating discussion. To further highlight the subject, I’ve attached a PDF of a light study I did in 2010 on classroom models:Classroom Daylighting Report, By Emma Fox, 2010.

In the discussion of sustainability, it is easily argued that the effects of lighting on building users are equally as important as the energy fueling it; after all, what use is a building if it does not sustain its occupants? The quality and presence of light has always been a prime consideration in my personal living spaces, and I find that it strongly affects my design work. In addition to the incorporation of daylight, intentional and informed planning of a built environment’s electric lighting is essential to creating a pleasant atmosphere of visual comfort. The best lighting strategy for creating a comfortable and productive environment addresses specific uses of space, and accommodates them through a variety of light levels. This is a theory I learned in the Fall of 2009, and it’s a tried and true method; through the collaborative use of ambient lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting, a more dynamic interior environment is possible, one that people actually want to use. By avoiding the standard ‘one light level for all’ in buildings, more functional and enjoyable spaces are possible.


Filed under Awareness, Built Environment, Curiosity, Design, Dialogue, Economic Sustainability, Environmental Sustainability, Ethical, Geothermal Energy, Mind of the Consumer, Renewable Energy, Responsibility, Sick Building Syndrome, Social Implications, Sustainable Design, Uncategorized

A Spot of Humor

For everyone that has ever told me sustainability is an unnecessary concern, or that climate change is a myth, I would have you read this poignant tale of what happens to non-believers.

The Alternative Energy Revolution: http://xkcd.com/556/

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Water, Water, Everywhere Nor Any Drop to Drink, Not a Drop to Spare.

“Water seems to be everywhere. We skate and ski on it, we sail over it and we fish in it. We use it to refresh our spirits, transport our goods, and lure our tourists. We baptize our children in it, and dump our sewage into it. And, of course, we drink it in order to survive. When there is too little water, we suffer drought. When there is too much, we suffer floods.” – Tom McMillan

Photo by Andrea Fuentes Diaz

I’m a college student, which means I’m thrifty by nature. Ask anyone close to me, and they’ll tell you I avoid turning the heat on at all costs, which, during a Spokane winter, is foolish. Instead, every night when I am at home, I bundle up to do homework, waiting until I absolutely cannot stand the temperature anymore. I then jump into a steaming shower, and stay there until the water runs cold. Last night, after a solid fifteen minutes of this, I realized a couple of things. First, what I wasn’t spending on heating the apartment, I was spending to heat my water. Second, given the fact that my shower head is outdated, the rate at which I’m wasting water is astronomical. It got me thinking about how much we use water; we drink it as if it’s going out of style, we water plants with it, wash clothes with it, cook with it, swim in it, and we idolize it as an exotic vacation destination. This is why, I realized, it’s shocking how much we ignorantly abuse it.

Solar System quilt reflecting through my water glass.

Planet Earth truly is, the water planet, and we have reaped the benefit of this for centuries. Water has been, and continues to be, the single most important resource for human society. Historically, some of the most famous indigenous cultures have thrived due to their proximity to major waterways, as they provide sustenance, means of transportation, and cultural significance. Even modern day cities, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and New York City, have prospered as a result of being a major port. As technologies have advanced, and we’ve discovered ways to direct and manipulate water, we, in the United States specifically, have become complacent to the extent that we utilize it as a resource. While it would seem abundant given that the earth is 72% water, it is truly a scarce entity in its fresh, liquid state, which is when we depend on it most. A human might survive a month without food, but without water, a week at best. What makes the lack of clean water worse is that it is located in concentrated areas, making it unavailable to millions in need. Jason McLennan highlights this issue in The Philosophy of Sustainable Design: “Of this tiny fraction [of available fresh water] an almost unfair amount can be found in three countries- Canada, the United States, and Russia, a fact that makes our wastefulness even more irresponsible.”  As water is essential to our survival, this means that countless people around the world are dying due to their lack of access to potable water.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at water usage of ‘typical’ household activities in the United States:

Two Gallons per Minute: Photo by Andrea Fuentes Diaz

It is estimated that in a family a four, 400 gallons of water can be easily used in one day. Now you might be brushing the issue off at the point of not being able to comprehend just what 400 gallons looks like, so try this on for size: imagine buying four hundred gallons of milk from the grocery store, and then pouring them all onto the ground. Now do you get the picture? Because minus the milk, that’s kind of how it works. Believe it or not, there is not an indefinite supply of water living in your house; rather it is transported to your home, at your expense. Now, it is easily argued that every activity listed on the above table requires necessary use of the resource. We need water for bathing, grooming, washing dishes and clothes, general cleaning, and flushing the toilet. One could argue whether we truly need to water the lawn every day, or wash our vehicles as often as we do. However, while we argue what is or isn’t necessary, it is estimated that 42% of the world’s population lacks proper sanitation, and when this is paired with a lack of safe drinking water, it accounts for the deaths of thousands of children every day. The bottom line is, in the United States, we waste an excessive amount of water by simply not paying attention to activities that we deem necessary (case in point- when I take showers).

In addition to wasting the quantity of the resource, we disrespect it’s value by abusing its quality. When I speak of ‘fresh’ or ‘clean’ water, I’m differentiating from non-potable water, specifically that which is polluted. While waterways may become polluted through a handful of ‘natural’ causes, the bulk of the blame resides with human activity. Legislation does regulate activities deemed ‘harmful’ to water, but it only regulates point source pollution (it is worth noting that the protection and safeguarding of clean water is much less than it once was- the Bush administration spurred the creation of significant loopholes in the Clean Water Act by “declaring that 60 percent of the headwaters of America’s rivers were not waters of the United States,” meaning we carry no responsibility for the pollution of these waterways [Huffington Post]). Point source pollution is a term that refers to pollutants emitted into water from a single, identifiable source. Unfortunately, non-point source pollution is an unregulated source of runoff. Examples of non-point source pollution might be animal waste, landscaping chemicals, or trash that was thrown onto the ground. The problem is created when rainfall comes into contact with these items, diffusing the chemicals within them, and carrying them away. In Larry Sweiger’s article A Law to Safeguard the Nation’s Waters, he illustrates how this issue goes from bad to worse: “Water flows downhill. From that law of physics follows that anything dumped into water — including pollutants — will eventually wind its way downstream through the interconnectedness of wetlands, tributaries, streams, rivers, ponds and lakes.” Common household fertilizers and pesticides are two of the biggest problems in non-point source pollution. Fertilizers are known to run off of loose soil; when the two end up in water, they encourage algae blooms that then decompose, depleting rivers and tributaries of the oxygen needed by fish. Not only do these pesticides deplete beneficial soil life (such as worms or fungi), but when in contact with water create unsafe levels of toxins for aquatic life. Such chemicals then travel downstream to our oceans, and into the marine wildlife that we eat (and if anyone is interested in what is really in the fish that you eat, or the ‘fish’ that you think you’re eating- please watch The Cove). This poisoning of clean water is unsustainable on a variety of levels.

Photo by Andrea Fuentes Diaz.

With this plethora of issues surrounding the depletion of fresh water, the topic is troubling: desertification, man-made pollutants, salinization, deforestation, starvation- ultimately, these issues all result in a supreme loss of biodiversity. Likely the scariest result of all is the ever more common prediction that water will soon become the next cause of global resource wars. The socio-political implications of the issue only make the matter more dire. Small-scale effects can are already visible. Of the water distributed in the United States, 15% of it is privatized, meaning… Someone owns the water? According to the State Environmental Resource Center, “While municipal water in the United States has been traditionally viewed as a public resource, private management and ownership are on the upswing.” A frightening thought- meaning more and more private institutions are becoming ‘owners’ of water. Meanwhile, people across the globe are dying from going without the resource. This makes no sense to me.

The current exhaustion of water as a resource makes it a supreme concern in the design of the built environment, and rightfully so. According to the California Council of AIA, commercial buildings across the United States use upwards of 47 billion gallons of water every day. There are two primary methods of water conservation practiced in the design of buildings today. First, the amount of consumption is lessened through the utilization of water efficient equipment. In 1992, the Energy Policy Act enacted minimum standards of water consumption for a variety of technologies, such as shower heads, faucets, toilets, dish washers, and washing machines, just to name a few. Development of low flow fixtures also spurred the research and design of dual flow fixtures. Despite the invention of these efficient fixtures, water consumption practices tend to be based within behavior, not the technologies- which means that a flow-efficient faucet left on too long is really just a leaking waste of water. The second method of water conservation in buildings resounds around the practices of collecting and reusing water. Reclaimed water can be collected from domestic wastewater, rainwater, industrial process waters, or agricultural systems. In a state of reuse, water is then referred to as either grey water or black water, depending on its use before collection; it can be redirected for a variety of uses, such as toilet flushing, landscape irrigation, or energy collection. Both of these methods are highly effective in reducing water consumption, yet their reception is not always shed in the best light.

While people are often resistant to new technologies, they are even less favorable to the idea of reclaiming water. Many are under the belief that this practice is unsanitary, unsightly, and not worth the effort, all of which are whole-heartedly untrue. I find at this point, it is the ethical responsibility of designers to educate the masses of the benefits of conservation systems.  We need to design a more alluring appearance to the process, inspiring people to look upon it, and celebrate it; after all, as designers, it is our job to be creative, and if we can’t accomplish this, who can? On a smaller scale, this means designing environments that encourage water conservation practices, be it through the use of efficient fixtures or by applying a more attractive face to the act, because let’s face it- if people think it’s sexy, they’ll do it. For example, in La Grange Illinois, the La Grange Business Association and local artists donated time, money, and materials, to create a set of fun and artistic water barrels that will are now placed around the city, in hopes that citizens of La Grange will consider their own practices at home. On a larger scale, designers have the opportunity to exhibit broader thinking regarding the handling water. For a couple of reasons, I very much enjoy considering design on a larger scale. First, there is the increased potential to create more impressive gestures of design. Secondly, there is the opportunity to make statements to the general public, educating and potentially influencing their decisions. In San Jose, California, Jackie Brookner’s contributions to the Roosevelt Community Center take a creative spin on the traditional methods of handling water runoff. Not only is her sculpture ‘pretty’ to look at, it’s highly functional. Its unusual appearance engages those that walk by, and successfully creates conversation about a topic normally hidden within gutters.

Ben Franklin said long ago, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Our well is running dry, and rapidly. It is past time to start practicing the precautionary principle for water, and take care of it before it’s too late.


Filed under Ask Strategic Questions, Awareness, Built Environment, Consumption, Design, Dialogue, Education, Environmental Sustainability, Ethical, Mind of the Consumer, Social Implications, Uncategorized

A Sustainability Primer

The other day on a chilly February morning, I was working on the Sustainability Primer in the corner of Starbucks; the sun was about the rise, and I was cradling my hands round a teacup to keep them warm. An elderly gentleman took the seat next to me, and we shared a glance. A few moments later, he leaned over and looked at a photo from the primer and said, “Well that’s not very pretty.” Sigh. I wasn’t quite sure how to take his comment, so I gently smiled and turned the computer. I guess if sustainability were ‘pretty,’ more people might pay attention to it. I’ll have to work on that I guess.

Keep in mind as you read over these- the goal here is the acquisition of awareness, not to point fingers at right and wrong. I’m diving through information to come to my own conclusions, and I’m leaving you to dive through this primer and do the same.

Resulting from the 1992  United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Brazil, Agenda 21 is a plan regarding local, national, and global action for major groups to combat negative environmental impact through sustainable development.


While Je-Hyun Kim’s biodegradable grass phone might not quite be the ticket, I applaud him for investigating biodegradable product design. The majority of products we use do not safely bio-degrade, some not at all. For an example, take a look at the amount of plastic just chilling indefinitely in landfills. Believe you me- it’s not going anywhere.


Defined largely by the work of William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the concept of cradle to cradle emphasizes the need for healthy product designs that are part of a continuous cycle, acting as ‘technological nutrients’ to the next generation of products. This model makes great progress from the more typical cradle to grave pattern of consumption.


A catchphrase from my favorite book, Douglas Adam’s  acclaimed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Stamped in ‘big friendly letters’ on the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, the phrase ‘Don’t Panic’ is offered as words of encouragement through times of peril. The story begins when Arthur Dent discovers his house about to be demolished to make way for an automobile bypass. The fact becomes superfluous rather quickly, as he soon discovers Earth is scheduled to be demolished by the Vogon alien race, who intend to construct a hyperspace bypass in its place. I guess this is an appropriate time to say: what goes around comes around.


The principle of embodied energy encompasses the amount of commercial energy invested in a product from its birth to its death; this includes the energy surrounding harvesting raw materials, developing a product, transferring a product to market, and the energy that surrounds disposing of the product.


In case you’re wondering, ‘F’ is the letter that my Starbucks neighbor told me wasn’t ‘pretty.’ I agree with him, and that’s why I’m showing it to you- I feel that these pictures speak for themselves.


The word geothermal is derived from the Greek geo (meaning earth) and thereme (meaning heat). Heat supplied to us from the earth’s core can be tapped into through capturing steam or hot water. This method of renewable energy is a viable option for heating buildings.


A collaborative experiment between the University of Sheffield, the London College of Fashion, and the University of Ulster, Herself is a fashion sculpture from the study Catalytic Clothing, which explores the possibility of textiles as vessels to purify the air.


By re-directing water supplies to artificially water crops, irrigation constitutes the largest use of fresh water in the United States.


I find the job market to be a highly interesting aspect of community sustainability. In the United States, we are still experiencing the effects of a recession. Countless individuals are out of work and struggling to feed their families; meanwhile, we are outsourcing a significant amount of our production to third world countries, and all so we can buy things at a reduced cost- but does this pay off? I often have the discussion regarding the purchase of products made in the United States. People argue that such products are too expensive, and over-priced. Maybe so, but in purchasing local products, you’re sustaining the economy of your community, and ensuring the ability of your job market to prosper.


The Kyoto Protocol is a protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It became effective in 2005, and was the first international agreement to fight global warming by stabilizing the release of greenhouse gases. Out of the roughly 195 countries in the world, 141 countries signed the protocol. The United States was not one of them. Thank you George W. Bush.


LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A division of the USGBC, or United States Green Building Council, LEED is an outlet for designers to acquire ‘sustainable certification’ for their buildings. While a nice idea, the format of acquiring such certification is up for debate. The system operates when designers apply sustainable attributes to their buildings to achieve ‘points.’ The more points you have, the higher the certification you get. The catch is- it’s expensive to certify, and you can purchase (yes I said purchase) a certain amount of additional points to achieve a higher status. While I applaud the intent and the ideas, the system has its faults. Designers often treat LEED points as a significant achievement, when in reality, they’re minimums benchmarks. All I can say is: we need to challenge ourselves to do better. Auden Schendler and Randy Udall discuss such perils with LEED in their article LEED is Broken: Let’s Fix It.


The term microclimate traditionally describes natural phenomenons; ‘mini-climates’ are created surrounding small naturally occurring features, such as lakes or forests. These ‘mini-climates’ often differ drastically in comparison to adjacent land. However, microclimates also occur in cities. When in this context, the phenomena is referred to as an ‘urban heat island.’  The extent of concrete and asphalt in the city is astounding; as it heats up, it re-radiates the ambient air, sometimes drastically affecting the natural climate. To combat this, it is essential that urban developers pay specific attention to landscaping within the city. Trees that can shade sidewalks and streets, as well as rooftop gardens are all key tools in combating urban microclimates.


Next time you’re mulling over what you’re thankful for, consider a non-governmental organization. I fear we give them far less credit than they deserve. While sometimes controversial in tactic, NGOs speak truths that governments would not always share with us. Through the dedication of volunteers and advocates, these organizations have sparked significant change, and more importantly created awareness to key issues. I am reminded of Margaret Mead’s famous quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”


I quite like this cartoon- ‘Dr. Smith’s Quick Fix Mind Trick Co.’ Carbon offsets are a nice idea, but they go along with Cradle to Cradle’s ‘Why Being Less Bad is No Good” chapter. Purchasing credits from a third party as a method of offsetting your negative impact is lazy and a cop out. Everyone, be they the individual or a corporate organization needs to be more aware of their impact on the release of greenhouse gases. For some, this means driving less. For others, it means re-shaping business methods.


The precautionary principle is now standard sustainable jargon, and encompasses the idea that if an action is known to cause environmental harm, or has the potential to cause environmental harm, you don’t engage in it. This concept is simple enough, and would ask that we take notice of what’s around us, and take care to protect it before it’s too late.


Albert Einstein once said, “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation,” and I have to hand it to the guy, he had a point. While ‘business as usual’ has appeared to work thus far, it is an inevitable fact that planet is rapidly becoming unable to sustain exorbitant lifestyles that so many are accustomed to. It is past time that we question our traditional thought processes.


R-value is a term utilized in construction that refers to the thermal properties of domestic insulation. The higher the R-value, the less heat flow is permitted through the insulation, which means that heat stays out in the summer, and in in the winter, making for an energy efficient home. Thermal imaging is a useful tool in determining where a house is leaking heat the most.


Buildings get sick just like people do. In fact, sick buildings can often be the root cause of human illness. Dryrot, mold, and asbestos release harmful particles into the air that often lead to respiratory illness. For the safety and wellbeing of the built environment, it is absolutely essential that we design healthy buildings. This requires informed awareness on the part of designers.


Utilizing thermal masses in construction is a smart way to build. Strategically placed near large expanses of glass, a thermal mass absorbs heat, reducing the need for artificial healing and cooling. A thermal mass may be constructed out of brick, adobe, concrete, or utilizing rammed earth construction.


And umbrella skirt! Upcycling is a more specific interpretation of recycling: that when recycling a product, one should ‘upcycle’ it to a use of equal or greater value, rather than investing energy to re-design something into a product of lesser value.


A common acronym, VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds, aka- the smelly stuff in adhesives or paint that make you nauseas! VOCs are particularly hazardous as they continue to release toxic fumes into the built environment long after installation, which often leads to occupant’s development of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Contractors bypass these negative affects by scheduling ‘bake-outs’ between the completion of construction and when users are allowed to move into the building.  An even better way to avoid contact with VOCs is to never use them in the first place. Many companies now make products with no VOCs whatsoever. And yes, the price of no-VOC paint might be a little higher, but what’s going to cost more- the paint? Or the medical care for your kid who developed a respiratory ailment as a result of growing up around harmful toxins?


Whenever I drive home from university for holiday, I drive past the Wild Horse Wind Farm, pictured above. I am always filled with awe as I drive through the hills that are covered with some 150 wind turbines. Though individual blades are a massive 120 ft. in length, they quietly and gracefully slice through the air, harvesting energy from a renewable source with every turn. Though completely ‘unnatural’ in appearance, over the years I’ve come to think of the turbines as an integral part of the landscape.


Xeriscaping is a method of landscaping that designs with water consumption as the primary concern. Through strategic planning that responds to the site, landscapers are able to eliminate the need for irrigation.


You know the one guy who lives on your street with at least ten cars in his driveway, and nine of them are rusting and grown over by weeds? Junk yards come in all shapes and size, but the fact is, junk yard waste in the United States contains astronomical amounts of used vehicles. While some may be utilized for salvaged parts, the bulk of the car will sit and fester with no hope of proper disposal. Ever heard of ‘car fluff?’ It’s a term used to describe the upholstery that covers the ceiling in your car, and in some models, the doors and floors as well. Due to negative chemical impact, it is illegal to dispose of ‘car fluff’ in the United States. So instead we truck it all the way to Mexico.


As an effort to reduce ‘carbon footprints,’ many business now focus on reaching zero carbon levels within their buildings. An ambitious but necessary goal, companies aiming to reduce carbon emissions are creative and innovative in rethinking the ways in which they do business.


Image Credits:

A: http://mavba.blogspot.com/2009/09/quando-comecou-agenda-21-de-feira-de.html

B: : http://focusorganic.com/strange-green-products-biodegradable-grass-cell-phone

C: http://www.ecowonk.com/waste-equals-food-dutch-documentary-cradle-to-cradle-william-mcdonough-michael-braungart-video

D: http://www.sehsc.org/flu/index4.asp

E: http://facesofdesign.com/report/cradle-cradle-design-part-1-how-be-good-instead-of-less-bad

F: http://www.oilspillnews.net/oil-spill-claims/atlas-marine-systems-assists-in-oil-spill-recovery/


G: http://naturalsciences.org/microsites/education/Yellowstone/2008/pages/.html

H: http://www.catalytic-clothing.org/

I: http://teachers.egfi-k12.org/lesson-way-to-flow-water-irrigation/

J: http://www.teenvogue.com/connect/blogs/soundoff/2009/10/the-real-world.html

K: http://bullard.esc.cam.ac.uk/~rwalker/photos/japan/japan.html

L: http://www.belsondesign.com/sustainability.html

M: http://www.case.rpi.edu/projects/uhi.html

N: http://www.benbunan.com/2006/03/22/greenpeace-y-su-marketing-de-guerrilla/

O: http://www.good.is/post/carbon-offset-caveat-emptor/

P: http://www.hawaiipictures.com/pictures/index/module/media/category/gallery%7Canimals%7Cwhales/pId/102/id/1552/


Q: http://jdedwards.wordpress.com/2009/12/18/just-for-fun-the-20-dumbest-questions-on-yahoo-answers/

R: http://www.eeci.info/

S: http://www.cfbinspect.com/mold_inspections_testing.html

T: http://greenarchitecturenotes.com/2009/04/challenges-and-opportunities/

U: http://dornob.com/upcycled-skirts-umbrellas-converted-into-colorful-clothes/

V: http://www.rescuegreen.com/Resources/Blog/tabid/97/BlogID/15/Default.aspx

W: http://www.ginkgowinery.com/links.html

X: http://ecohomeresource.com/2009/04/xeriscapes.html

Y: http://www.superchevy.com/features/sucp_0905w_gm_supports_federal_scrappage_program/photo_01.html

Z: http://coolexcooling.com/2010/04/03/carbon-capture-from-the-atmosphere/


Filed under ABC's, Ask Strategic Questions, Awareness, Biodegradable Products, Community, Cradle to Cradle, Curiosity, Design, Dialogue, Don't Panic!, Education, Embodied Energy, Emma Fox ∙ Design, Geothermal Energy, Irrigation, Job Market, Microclimate, NGOs, O, Renewable Energy, Sick Building Syndrome, Sustainability Primer, The Built Environment, Uncategorized, Upcycling, Waste Equals Food

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Then What?

My Mum is a pretty awesome person. I know that I am biased, but it’s just a fact. I have learned a great deal from her- she taught me to weave a basket, how to use a loom, and how to be a stellar researcher. She also taught me that there is a way to recycle pretty much anything- and if you can’t recycle it, you shouldn’t be buying it. This was a message that she’s taught me for as long as I can remember- indeed, I have vivid memories of driving to school belting out the Aretha Franklin spoof ‘R-E-C-Y-C-L-E’ with my mum. (Growing up in Washington, I watched a lot of Bill Nye the Science Guy as a kid- ‘R-E-C-Y-C-L-E’ was one of his best music videos- from the soundtrack of ‘Science Not that Bad.’ In fact, I suggest you stop whatever you’re doing, and watch it right now: Bill Nye’s R-E-C-Y-C-L-E). I sang that song so many times as a kid that it is literally ingrained into my brain. And now, as a result, I wash out my disposable coffee cups and recycle them, and to me, that seems normal.

Growing up, I’ve realized that are so many more facets to recycling than I understood as a kid. This owes some thanks to design school, some to my chronic consumption of literature. I now realize that my actions of placing a soda pop bottle into the recycle bin at night will not give me a brand new soda pop bottle in the morning. Now, maybe this is common sense, but it is common sense that begs us to question the process of recycling in and of itself.  If you’ll recall from A Consumer’s Perception, this references the embodied energy principle. Now, depending on how the soda pop bottle is treated in the ‘recycling process,’ we can utilize one of two phrases to describe its experience: cradle to grave, and cradle to cradle. We’ll examine both.

The phrase ‘cradle to grave’ surrounds a very standard consumer mindset. In a cradle to grave world, products are utilized in a linear fashion- they are made, they are used, and they are thrown away, into giant graves more commonly referred to as landfills (little did I know, the world’s largest ‘landfill’ is actually in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; it’s known as the Pacific Garbage Patch, and at a whopping two times the size of Texas, it’s just floating there). It is in a cradle to grave world that the concepts of recycling and downcycling exist. Now, I realize that lumping the act of recycling in with the notion of a landfill could be considered overly harsh, but this I believe to be true: the current standard of design trends is creating products that, while they may be reused once or twice through the powers of recycling, will ultimately end up rotting on a forgotten face of the planet somewhere. Thus the crux with recycling: while many of our

The Pacific Garbage Patch: http://myecoaction.com/

products can be remade and redefined- there is a limit to how many times they can do so, before they start to break down, into minute, unnatural, unfriendly, and often toxic pieces that are not kosher to the planet. This encompasses the notion of ‘downcycling,’ the idea surrounding products that are recycled into a product of lesser value, until it can ultimately be reinvented no more. An example would be downcycling office paper into toilet paper- it’s been recycled, but it’s still heading for the trash. In addition to worries surrounding where and how a product will end up, one must consider the energy and chemical processes necessary to ‘recycle’ a product- often we’ll find they create additional environmental harm, when in fact, that’s what we’re trying to prevent.

The second phrase is a well-known concept, and standard jargon in the design world: cradle to cradle. Coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, cradle to cradle refers to products that are part of a continuous cycle. This concept was first explained to me utilizing the cherry tree as an example: the tree blossoms, and it is enjoyed for its beauty. When the blossoms die, they fall surrounding the base of the tree, decompose into the ground, and the tree’s roots soak up the nutrients from the blossoms to help it blossom again. Struck with curiosity, I dove into McDonough and Braungart’s book: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. (First off- the number one coolest thing about the book is that’s not made out of paper, it’s recyclable, and it’s water proof, which means I am able to read it in the bathtub. Woohoo!). Rolled in with the concept is the term of ‘upcycling,’ the idea that products can be easily recycled into something of equal value and benefit. An example of upcycling would be recycling tires into ‘re-tire,’ or recycled rubber flooring. McDonough and Braungart illustrate a convincing argument regarding  the issue of design in considering the eventual ‘grave’ that all products face, and understandably- nothing lasts forever. The authors discuss this on page 104 of Cradle to Cradle: “To eliminate the concept of waste means to design things–products, packaging, and systems–from the very beginning on the understanding that waste does not exist.” A profound thought- a world without waste; what would that look like? Quite simply, it would be a world where waste equals food. This model already exists for us to see in nature- where all designs function regarding a biological metabolism. That all things in nature are in some way alive, when they die and return to nature, they offer nourishment to the next biological generation. McDonough and Braungart suggest a similar model, appropriately named the ‘technosphere,’ where all engineered products can become, in a sense, technological nutrients that will safely offer nourishment to the next generation of product. If that’s too bizarre of an idea to wrap your head around, consider this: if at the end of a product’s life, you plant it in the soil, what will happen to it? Will it ultimately decompose and offer healthy nourishment to the creation of something new? Most likely not. It will probably sit for an extended period of time before it breaks into fragmented pieces that fester indefinitely throughout our planet’s existence, all the while leaching chemicals into the ground that we walk upon, live upon, and ultimately grow our food in.

Cheery thought, huh? Don’t resort to pessimism just yet: there are progressive individuals out there who believe in a cradle to cradle world, for example (my new favorite thing), Oat Shoes. Hailing from Amsterdam, Holland, they live by a simple mission: “The future of fashion lies in a reconciliation between nature and industry. OAT Shoes strives to lead the way to that future.” Oat Shoes are made from biodegradable materials, and are designed to have no impact on the earth whatsoever- and that’s what I’m talking about. I’m hoping to visit the studio in Amsterdam when I travel to Europe this summer.

When examining the act of ‘recycling’ and its various subcategories, I find that we return full circle to the issue of design. Acknowledging design as the source, and with an informed long-term understanding of it, we are offered insight as to how to remedy the issues of waste. At this point, I envision reader’s heads spinning, and I’m hearing you say, “But what can I do? I’m just one person!” Don’t let being overwhelmed compromise good judgement: whenever you find yourself at the garbage can, think twice about what you’re putting in there. As my mother has always taught me: chances are, there’s a way to recycle it, it just might take a little legwork to figure out how. In response to some questions regarding A Consumer’s Perception, I wanted to share some additional thoughts regarding the life cycles of clothing. Last week, as I looked at my closet, full of clothing from foreign countries, I found myself dreaming of a wardrobe filled with fabulous, local, ethical, and environmentally-friendly clothing. But let’s face it, I’m a college student, which is not a high paying occupation. I’m in a situation where I need to make do with what I have, and sometimes that’s all you can do. While progressive minds and dreamers would invent a world of industry where every product cohabits peacefully with the natural environment (which is a world such that I would love to see), the amount of production that has already occurred in the world requires us to not only design in innovative ways for the future, but it requires creative thinking for the designs that we have already surrounded ourselves with. And in my moral dilemma surrounding the clothing I already own, the best thing I can do is use what I own until I no longer have use for it, and then I relocate it so it can be reused by someone else in need of it. In this way, we can act ethically regarding social sustainability: by re-circulating that which we no longer need, so that it might sustain another individual around us. Below, I’ve included scans of an article about re-circulating clothing to various charities (I may or may not have ripped the article out of a waiting room magazine). I found this article particularly enlightening as it illustrates just how much you can give back by donating things you might otherwise throw away. I’ve also included some of my favorite links discussing sustainable fashion trends. Please share with a friend.


Organic Style, October 2005
Organic Style, October 2005
Organic Style, October 2005

Additional Weblinks: These are a few of many websites dedicated to ethical and sustainable fashion, but these are definitely my top favorites!

Excess Access: Excess Access links you and your donations with needs of local charities in your area.

Where Am I Wearing?: A reader turned me onto this site! Check out Kelsey Timmerman’s work, which aims to illustrate global issues to the individual. His book, Where Am I Wearing, was published in 2008 and is a global tour of factors that contribute to the clothes we wear everyday. I just ordered my copy!

Matter of Trust: Matter of Trust addresses the issue of manufacturing in the United States while trying to compete with international prices; through research and design, they explore the possibilities of design surrounding recycled materials.

Yiuco: Self proclaimed the ‘Upcycling Hype,’ Yiuco is an online market place to swap products, and shop recycled and reused products.

Fair Trade Collective: The Fair Trade Collective is an organization out of the UK that designs scarves which are only made from fair-trade cotton.

Eco Fashion World: Eco Fashion World is an online directory to shops, brands and organizations that engage in ethical fashion practices.

Sasha Hamilton’s Ethical Fashion Portfolio: Ms. Hamilton is a designer from Toronto that has a keen eye for high fashion. I’m a fan!

Coco Eco: This is my new favorite publication! A bi-monthly, online magazine, Coco Eco showcases sustainable high fashion. I just subscribed last night!

EcoConscious Market: EcoConscious Market it the associated online store with Coco Eco, featuring men’s, women’s, children’s, and home merchandise.

My Green Lipstick: Similar to the EcoConscious Market, My Green Lipstick is an online showcase of ‘ethical’ fashions.

Behind the Seams: This is a fantastic blog that discusses ‘ethical fashion.’ Highlighting brands and designers, Behind the Seams is a wonderful venue for consumer education.

Ecouterre: Originally launched to counter negative stereotypes regarding the appearance of ‘eco-fashion,’ Ecouterre showcases sustainable haute fashion at its highest.

Ecoaction: Ecoaction is a blog that introduces basic ‘green’ concepts to the consumer- a very handy guide!


Filed under Biodegradable Products, Consumption, Cradle to Cradle, Cradle to Grave, Curiosity, Design, Dialogue, Downcycling, Eco-Friendly, Eco-Minded, Ethical, Landfills, Mind of the Consumer, Moral Dilemma, Recycler, Responsibility, Social Implications, Social Sustainability, Technological Nutrients, Uncategorized, Upcycling, Waste, Waste Equals Food