Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Take Away

It is very hard to make the point that hotels are environmentally friendly.
The facts of the construction in fragile environments, the trucking in and out, the observation of tourists cavorting in the rain forest make the concept oxymoronic.

Attempts to "green" new hotel construction, don't compute the consequences of the construction itself, the fabrication of the concrete, the milling of the steel. We "certify" buildings as if they arrived on the earth fully realized.

The Proximity Hotel owner argues in his advertising: "But we think that a hotel is about luxury — especially a luxury hotel — not about using less energy."

The eco arguments are challenged by the realities of travel, and the apparent frivolity of discretionary, temporary housing, none of which is necessary, argue against my insistence that we reexamine these institutions as models.

Maybe Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) was a bit acerbic when he wrote:
"We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same." But I don't think that we can deny the essence of his observation. If we are condemned to emulate the rich then it is within their behavior that I want to find examples that, were they to become widely adopted, would be truly eco friendly. Which takes me back to the reconsideration of the hotel.

Lets start with long term stays. It is a fact that many of the wealthiest among us chose to live permanently within a hotel environment or when on business assignment are accommodated in hotels designed specifically to suit their needs. Have a gander at the Waldorf Residence in Florence, It. If you drill down into the web site you will learn that for approx. $5000 a month a guest can enjoy a 540 square foot apartment. The point is not that only the privileged can afford it, but that people are willing to pay that kind of money and consider it a luxury to be housed this way.

I have heard the counter arguments: It is a temporary situation. It is not suitable for a family. It doesn't apply to my needs. One of the best selling children's book series of all time is enjoying another media blitz. The Rose Suite referred to in the ad is 625 square feet.

Neither of these suites has a laundry, a dining room, a study, and most importantly from my perspective, a kitchen.

I mentioned in a previous post that the success of small spaces is contingent on off loading to the surroundings the little used functions we build into our conventional spaces. In the case of the kitchen it is also the most expensive from a construction cost basis and if you calculate the environmental impact, the most inefficient.

Many of you are not cooking, period. The growth of MREs; frozen entrees, pre-cooked meals ready for pick up at your super-market, carry-out, and home delivery testify to the change in life style that is so prevalent as to render the kitchen obsolete.

Let's do a little math. The construction of a kitchen obviously ranges widely, but you will be hard put to find a quote for less than 50K. That's above the ground cost. Now introduce what money people refer to as "opportunity costs". In this formulation you theoretically burn the money (what it would have cost to build the kitchen) and calculate what the 50K would otherwise earn you, say if you invested it at a rate of return of 6%. The 3K figure then has to be understood to be after taxes so add 25% on top and we now have an annual money stream of $3,750 to buy meals with. That is just the kitchen costs. Add the implements, the food, the energy to prepare it, to clean up, and the time factor, and you start to appreciate having others do the cooking is not a luxury. For foodies who love to cook, and I count myself as one, we retain the DIY option. But, it ought to be just that, an option, and not the pattern of what constitutes housing. If one takes away nothing else from the organic experience of an eco vacation, let it be that you shared the kitchen.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Green Guide

New Zealand lambs

With so much greenwash filling the media, we need a definitive guide to help us cut our carbon production


Research shows almost all of us want to be green - to try and do the right thing by the planet. But in many cases, it seems you're damned if you do, and damned if you do the opposite.

The confusion between good and bad can be overwhelming: we see what seems to be a green light, which then becomes orange - or even red.

For example, we'd all say it must be better to buy local food than have it flown in: because (as Team Britain confirm) if you consume just 15 bags of Californian spinach in the UK, you'll create more carbon than an Afghan does in his lifetime.

On the other hand, the University of Lincoln calculates that because of the way New Zealand produces lamb, apples and dairy foods, even flying them 11,000 miles to us here produces four times less carbon than buying British. That's Lincoln, New Zealand, by the way.

Surely buying local farm shop produce is preferable to food from a supermarket? Not necessarily. On average, one huge lorry transporting mass deliveries to a supermarket chain produces 3lbs of atmospheric carbon. The same delivery size picked up by individuals from farm shops would produce 3.4lbs. And in case you imagine this research was carried out by Tesco, let me tell you it was conducted by the government's Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory reform.

If we plant trees, they'll absorb CO2 and pump out oxygen - everyone knows that. But trees also absorb light - and more importantly heat. In subarctic regions such as northern Scandinavia, the earth benefits from a cooling effect caused by snow reflecting heat from the sun back into space. This 'albedo effect' means planting trees in these areas is worse than doing nothing - a point made by, would you believe, treehugger.com.

I may go to an office and hoover up electrical power every day, but I try to ensure the PC goes to screensaver. However, howstuffworks.com says screensavers use more electrical energy than just leaving the appliance on. And doing that uses more heat energy, making the air conditioning go into overdrive.

On and on it goes. There are 6.2 million pages devoted to green misconceptions on Google - and every piece of apparently conflicting information or scientific disagreement hands the initiative to climate change deniers.

The main problem is that the media tend to oversimplify issues. For instance, focussing on 'green miles', when one should look at every aspect of every item individually: how and where it was produced and transported, how much energy it uses, how long it lasts and whether it works well enough.

(UCDAVIS has produced a carbon diet guide)

Solar garden lights made in China offer a classic example of this dilemma for wannabe greens. They use clean solar power, have high transportation output, conk out with irritating frequency, save electricity, but require lots of them to make an appreciable difference to the darkness. In short, they're a sort of clean, dirty, efficient, inefficient, small, major recycling nuisance.

Trees in the subarctic aren't as green as you think
Boreal forest

However, there is a way for greens to make their case more consistently - and a simple parallel makes the point. While different dieticians disagree about methods for losing weight, nobody thinks that a regime of big meals combining high fat and complex carbohydrate will achieve that. That's because every known combination of fat points, Glycemic index scores, carbohydrate levels and daily allowance is available as clear guidance (health issues aside) to anyone.

The climate change lobby needs just such an oracular guide. At the moment, simplistic carbon measurements allow climate change deniers to point up the contradictions and make a mockery of the green case.

The production of such a guide will, of course, mean chopping down trees in order to print books, and creating websites which themselves produce further CO2 output via the electric power which runs them.

But if we chop down the trees in Sweden - and use its hydro-electric power to drive the websites - then such a solution would be about as near as any of us will ever get to a carbon-neutral guide to carbon neutrality.



Monday, July 20, 2009


The most recent interview with Ezio Manzini ends with the following statement: The need is great. Now is the time. "We need radical change; increasing consciousness is not enough."

Ezio Manzini and François Jégou are the creators of The Sustainable Everyday Project.
One element of their project is Scenarios. An example follows:
How can we take care of our houses and things?

The Handyman Shop is a local multi-service centre that combines aspects of a neighbourhood convenience store and a do-it-yourself shop such as “wardrobe service”, “object clinic”, “mutual help”. On the web site you can "Clic" on each solutions to download a short movie presentation and post your comments…

Another component of the Sustainable Everyday web site is a record of cases that are exemplary of some aspect of behavior that we might consider prototypical.

Mr. Manzini was asked in an interview if he really meant it when he suggested we might actually share housing. He emphatically answered we could. He documented the following example in his home town, Milan:
Prendi a casa uno studente – Lodge a student at homeIntergenerational house sharing helps students find cheap, family-style accommodation, while giving lonely, but independent, elders help, companionship and financial support.

I offer another example where house sharing works to every ones advantage. Seniors share housing in NYC, facilitated by a city service.

At any given minute millions of students in residence around the world are also sharing housing. I believe they accept the rather spartan housing because of the wealth of services they have access to. Theirs is one of the richest environments imaginable.

As individuals they could never assemble the resources they share collectively.

Sharing, the new commons, as a practice, is gaining momentum. I think those who are documenting and writing about it feel they must go to great lengths to avoid the stigma attached by association with the failures of communism. If the current rhetoric surrounding Obama's policy initiatives is any indication they are politically correct. The writers for the Sustainable Everyday Project use the phrase "colab services" when referring to opportunities for sharing, while Treehugger identifies what they call "product service systems".

However you name it, the process remains the same. We are all made richer by refining the definitions of "mine" and "ours".

Vertical Neighborhood

This image from a Dwell Blog re. the proposal by Axis Mundi for a new tower in NYC suggests these ideas are taking hold. Comments on that posting demonstrate how difficult it is to break with conventional thought.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Several times a year a major city paper publishes a story about the coolest small space in the city. The latest entry is too cute to boot. The article leaves some questions unanswered. Where, for instance, is her storage? How does she entertain? Does the small space make her feel claustrophobic in foul weather.

Ms. Biosic's small space is typical in that it enjoys a high ceiling and as the picture reveals she sleeps in a loft space. In this case, and to be fair, we ought to calculate cubic feet as she lives within a volume. The sleeping loft is a design that appreciates the fact that the occupant doesn't need headroom when she occupies it and makes her space livable.

I am going to guess that the most important piece of furniture in her space is the table. It serves a multitude of uses. It is a dining table when she eats, a desk when she works, a prep surface when she cooks, and a board when she irons. Her satisfaction with her space is dependent on maximizing the surfaces she has by putting them to multiple use.

I believe that the key to the success of this and other small spaces is that the occupant offloads to her surroundings the support systems that round out her needs. Typically she does her laundry at the Laundromat, picks up a variety of meals at anyone of hundreds of new venues catering to her, works out at the health club, keeps her excess stuff in a rental storage space, uses public transportation, and arranges her Thanksgiving Day guests overnight accommodations at a nearby hotel. She gets her reading material at the library, maintains a very basic wardrobe which she can update regularly, and the art she views hangs on the walls of nearby galleries.

This life style is served up like a bauble, fun to read about, and reserved for the "bohemians" that exist like curios in a gallery. The facts are that most of us continue to move to the suburbs and house scale continues to grow. But the current housing crisis might give that momentum pause and allow many to consider the lessons learned in descriptions of small spaces to be more generally applicable.

The primary factor in determining housing cost is scale. Builders build and price on a per square foot basis. If we calculate the "value added" that Ms. Biosic enjoys by living in a dense urban area, she can more than offset the higher per square foot cost that she pays to live there. The smaller house movement is most relevant within an urban context. If we apply the additional environmental benefit of having a smarter, more efficient dwelling, then small spaces become less an art object and more a critical piece in solving our global problems.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gimme Shelter

Allison Arieff in her review of the Buckminster Fuller exhibit at the Whitney last fall highlighted the following quote:
“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.”

If you accept no other aspect of this man's work you have to admit he was great at naming the problem. Fuller was obsessed with how people were housed. You will read how he wanted to maximize efficiency and was concerned with how compact we might live.

WE have a shelter crisis. It exists at all levels of the economic spectrum: We have the obvious problems of intractable homelessness, we have the new homeless that have been foreclosed upon, and we have the ironic situation of huge scale housing being wildly inappropriate for its intended purposes, while millions can't afford to house their most basic needs.

The solutions that are most often posed to these problems involve the design of yet more housing, most often single family variants as pointed out in Ms. Arieff review of Home Delivery in the same blog post above.

I don't believe we can build our way out of this problem. Nor do we have to. I think Bucky was on to something in the above quote and yet he never addressed it; the psychological imprint we place on space that limits it use. An office is an office, a bedroom a bedroom, a gymnasium, a classroom, a church, are all fixed in their use because we have assigned them an identity. When they are not in use for their intended purpose, they are vacant.

The Sears Tower, the biggest office building of them all, is about to undergo a massive renovation to "green" the building. 350 million dollars are going to be spent retrofitting this massive structure. To comprehend the scale consider The Sears Tower’s 4.56 million gross square feet (3.8 M rentable) would cover 105 acres if spread across one level. This is the equivalent of 16 city blocks in Chicago. This building has become the ultimate potential new monopoly board space and has changed hands many times in the last decade. The economic fact is that the building has never been more than 2/3 occupied since it was built.

The Sears Tower, and many like it, enjoy a "mixed use" zoning designation. It allows owners to rent lower floors to retail tenants. It does not include residential uses. In the early days of loft conversion in NYC, occupants had to blanket their windows else they might be discovered living in commercial spaces. When they hit critical mass, enough persons were in place, the blankets came down and the city was forced to accept the fact of this new use. Lofts were retrofitted for safety and other smart conforming changes and the model is now established. The zoning regulations in most cities prohibit the integration of residential land office uses within the same structure. A quick read spells out the problem and though the cited organization is directed to affordable housing options, their solution is applicable across a broad band of housing price points.

We can only imagine how much greener (and more economically viable) The Sears Tower would become if the full potential of this vertical city were to be realized. What if tenants had the choice of purchasing living spaces within their work environment. They would commute by elevator. What if those same tenants had educational opportunities available for their children throughout the building. What if the retail stores included the gamut of whole life products that satisfied tenants needs for food, pharmacy, and entertainment. Ironically none of these concepts is particularly creative. The developers of the Tower are proposing to build a 500 room hotel next door. If successful, we can imagine that all of the functions of an integrated living/working shelter we propose as an ideal will be achieved within the "imprint", hotel. People will be in residence, others will be at work in different rooms, still others will be dining, or working out, and still others will be attending seminars in banquet rooms. So we have de-facto zoning in place that accommodates our needs for maximized shelter for the 21st century. We simply have to declare that our structures are hotels.

A survey of the vacancy rate of our nation's city office spaces suggest that there are millions of square feet available for occupancy. The next shoe to drop in the ongoing fiscal crisis that is paralyzing our economy is the problem of high debt leverage in the commercial office market. We can foresee still higher vacancy rates and failed buildings as the debt cannot be rolled over. One way to head off that crisis is to maximize the affected buildings, helping them realize their rent potential. To achieve that goal we need to enlighten local governments to embrace creative new uses for these spaces and in so doing, go to great lengths to solve our "shelter" crisis.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Payload, Payload, Payload

Payload, the cargo and the weight of that cargo that can be carried by a vehicle is of enormous interest to the aviation industry when trying to calculate profitability.

As airplanes are thought to contribute about 3% to the problem of global warming their efficiency is also a consideration from an environmental perspective. What airlines are looking for is a "high density per seat mile". How airplane transport compares to other forms of transit might surprise you. An article in New Scientist; "Train can be worse for climate than plane" points to some interesting data.

Most of the results of similar research is counter intuitive.
Just in case you thought the prospect of lowering your carbon footprint got easy if you chose the public transport alternative consider the research that Brad Templeton has been doing.
His data is based on 1.5 passengers per car and even at that rate cars do better than lightly used rail for example.

The critical issue in any transportation mode is getting asses in seats.

The key to understanding the significance of any of the above is to realize that a hybrid Prius with one person on board is less efficient that a clunker like a Jeep Wagoneer with 4 persons in seats. The solution isn't getting the clunkers off the road, and forging new high mileage autos at great production expense and taxpayer cost.
The solution has to be improving the efficiency of the capacity we have, something like the 200 million car fleet that is on the road in America and not going anywhere.

Ride Sharing vs Car Sharing:

A conversation with Robin Chase co-founder of ZipCars looks to the future.
Now she doesn't say it explicitly but it is obvious that putting yet more cars on the road with car sharing programs is not where her head is at today.

GoLoco is the next iteration of Robin's attempt to suck up excess capacity.

One place that has been ride sharing for over 35 years is the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area. Their Slug-line program just keeps growing.

These are but two working examples of increasing efficiency by filling capacity and maximizing payload. They point the way to effective solutions to our transportation problems.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bread upon the waters

The world, well the NY fooderati, went a little nuts in November 2006 when Jim Lahey produced the following YouTube video:

Jim Lahey
(note; this video has but 450k hits while Guru Josh is screaming with 60 million)

Why would someone give away a prized recipe? Won't this hurt his business? It didn't hurt the NY Times which had more pass alongs of the print article for weeks following its publication than any other current story. And it appears that Sullivan Street Bakery is doing fine in its new location.

I think this move on Jim's part is important at many levels: It really works and takes away most of the excuses one might have for not rolling one's own bread, It is an example of the "new commons" where more and more evidence rolls in that sharing has become a new mode of affordable sustainable behavior, It is a critical part of a movement to take responsibility and DIY when it comes to nutrition.

You don't need an expensive pot to cook this bread in. Amazon has a casserole on sale for 60 bucks.

The recipe can be modified in many ways. I knock off my favorite from Amy's Bread by changing the flour mix to include a cup of corn meal, and two cups of semolina as a substitute for 3 cups of "all purpose". I soak two cups of raisins in 4 cups of water overnight, drain two cups of raisin flavored water off, and use it to moisten the dough. I then grind in a palmful of fennel seeds, and let the mix rise for 18 hours as directed. I roll out the dough into a flat rectangle and press the drained raisins along the surface, roll it up, wait for the second rise and plop the roll into the hot pot. This is but one variation. Different flour mixes and flavorings recipes abound.

Jim carries on. I read of his new pizza joint
and I hope it is a success. I know his bread recipe can be adapted to pizza.