Steve Jobs’ Legacy

Steve Jobs embodied a lot of what I respect in people, and what I aspire to. I believe in following your passion. I believe in not quite sticking to the rules. I believe in tenacious effort toward your goals. I wish I could emulate Steve Jobs’ power of creativity and leadership.

I have to admit I have not been a devotee of Steve Jobs. I had a Mac in college but wasn’t an Apple Afficionado. I’ve never been very technical and most of the conceptual battle between platforms has been lost on me. I did get a smart phone a while back and upgraded to an iPhone 2 when it came out. But I don’t even have any playlists or music on it. Only a few months ago, my father forwarded Steve’s 2005 Stanford Commencement speech and I really believe in his exhortations. Find and champion the beauty in things. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick: don’t lose faith, continue to work in your passion. And let me quote more extensively:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” – Steve Jobs

I want to see his pattern of style, user-friendliness and innovation transfer into the green building industry. Who will be the Steve Jobs of Urban Planning? Of house design? Of workplace creation? There are surely candidates, but no one has seized the mantle. Let’s try to find solution-oriented visionaries and get them funded, get them to market. We need an Apple, Inc. for the built environment.

Channeling Steve Jobs will be a good effort for me and anyone who wants to make a difference in the world. Thank you for setting the example, and raising the bar, Steve!

Accolades to Grey Lee!

I have just been selected as one of 16 members of this year’s New England cohort at the Environmental Leadership Program, based in Washington, DC.

Their mission is to “Inspire visionary, action-oriented and diverse leadership to work for a just and sustainable future.”

Their project is to create a broad and diverse group of professionals throughout the country to serve as a network of peer-mentors in the environmental field.

I am pretty psyched. I already know a few past fellows through my various work in sustainable ag, socially responsible investing and green buildings. I’m looking forward to meeting the new group and going through the trainings and being part of the network. Thanks Heather and Garth for your letters of support!

Thanks for being part of my network. I’ll keep you all posted!


New Energy!

In the next couple of weeks I’ll be rolling out some changes to the website, reflecting an evolution of our business model. We are creating two parallel streams for our work:
1. Integrated sustainability plans and strategies, and
2. Traditional capital asset management assessments and planning for clients.
Most sustainability work entails buildings and facilities transformations. We will work to focus on the property management needs of our clients, and if that also results in a more enterprise-wide sustainability strategy, so be it. We can use one to help the other, to help our clients embrace sustainability and benefit from new practices.
More to follow!

Graphics Down!

Sorry to say, I did an update to a plug-in on the site and it took off all the fabulous graphics I had as page banners. I’ll be working on putting them up, maybe even updating a few of them over the weekend. Thanks for your patience. At least the place-holder graphic is sorta eco…

Creating Shared Value

The latest issue of the Harvard Business Review announces it has figured out “How to Fix Capitalism” in an article by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer. They have re-discovered how productivity, and the potential for profit, have an essential connection to the communities in which business activity proceeds. They describe capitalism, which they use interchangeably with other terms connoting “business as usual,” as experiencing a crisis since the global recession started a couple of years ago. The crisis of poor signals from markets to financiers which resulted in various enterprise collapses and the housing bubble was due, in part, to a separation of corporations from their host communities.

Many corporations are able to operate with a focus on short-term gain because a) they can get away with it by surfing the globe for opportunities to dump externalities and b) their shareholders reward this casino-style of investment, continuously looking for a less-prepared client/host, rather than really competing on even playing fields. The precarious game of musical chairs hit a hiccup in 2008 and we continue to observe the repercussions.

A stronger potential for value creation in any firm can be achieved by looking at generating shared value, beyond profits for shareholders. Shared value can be created by re-conceiving products and markets, redefining productivity in the value chain and building economically supportive clusters wherever the firm operates.

From an environmental sustainability perspective, Porter and Kramer’s theory strongly supports ecological responsibility. They note that poor understanding of social costs of a firm’s operations often result in internal costs such as wasted energy, accidents, and remedial workforce training and health issues. A number of leading firms are cited for their re-designing of energy use and logistics, process resource consumption, procurement, distribution and employee productivity issues. Creating shared value bridges the falsely competing notions that incorporating externalities costs businesses profit and that social concerns are “someone else’s issue,” not business’. I note that some of the strongest community partners are private and small, local, businesses which inherently respond to their communities more significantly than larger, more distantly directed firms. And that some of the firms who experienced the worst of the global recession are larger firms which were out-of-touch with the conditions of the communities they preyed upon – like Countrywide (now in Bank of America).

The authors describe how shared value is going to transform business models – and capitalism – to meet societal needs at the same time as shareholder imperatives for profit. One can already see the growth of “bottom of the pyramid” projects like microfinance and consumer goods moving into rural India and China. They describe fair trade efforts as a dimension of CSV, but that businesses investing in capacity building and clusters of enterprises can increase small farmer and small entrepreneur incomes even more than the redistribution effect of fair trade.

I have come across a lot of ideas similar to their idea of a broader, more sensitive capitalism. Patient capital, slow money, social entrepreneurship all approach the faults of stingy capitalism. Well, stingy isn’t the best term, perhaps short-sighted capitalism is more appropriate. Progressive taxation, social finance, local currencies, even tithing and the Islamic finance zakat protocols all all means that communities have embraced to ensure the benefits of commerce. Business profits naturally accrue to fewer and fewer beneficiaries through trade frictions and the inevitability of imperfect information in markets. Communities thrive when profits move back into hard-to-market realms like education, infrastructure, legal norms and research & development.

Porter and Kramer have put together a great argument for businesses to embrace the broader concept of value which includes benefits to non-market participant community stakeholders. They believe that businesses supporting social goals, not merely as CSR window-dressing or eco-efficiency stunts, will improve relations with governments and reduce regulations, freeing up business resources for greater investment in innovation, creating a virtuous cycle of socially (and corporately) beneficial profit. I hope more businesses interested in long-term enterprise survival will look at how they can enlarge their concept of profit and value to incorporate more of the communities in which they operate. Indeed, I hope the principles of global sustainability will echo and harmonize with frontal firms and enable this “fix” for capitalism, fixing the all-too evident (across the globe) failings of capitalism as well.

An Ecology of Expertise

I just came across a very cool article about experts and how sustainability experts, like myself, compare with more traditional technical experts like various types of engineers.

“The Ecosystem of Expertise: Complementary Knowledges for Sustainable Development” by Ralf Brand and Andrew Karnoven in the journal Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy from the Spring of 2008 can be found here.

Sustainability is inherently broader than most traditional science and expertise categories. Part of this is that our science and engineering training infrastructure is based on a “techne” aspect of knowledge: quantitative and remote. The dis-assembly of the subject matter of the world into various disciplines has enabled the elaboration of our modern civilization, with all the benefits and costs we now experience. Much of the integration of ecological science and systems theory which support sustainability work is based on “metis,” an alternative ancient greek term for knowledge, which expresses the emotional and ethical dimensions of knowledge and the way some knowledge is best based on practical experience and intuition.

The authors identify new types of experts, out of the traditional discrete scientific silos of disciplines, who support sustainability work. These are: Outreach experts who can communicate effectively with non-experts, Interdisciplinary experts who understand the overlaps between technical purviews, Meta-experts who can broker the multiple claims between competing expertises (a regular situation in environmental impact negotiations and LCA), and Civic experts who are adept at engaging a democratic discourse with technical experts and non-experts alike, crowd-sourcing new ideas and solutions.

A very interesting read about ontological assumptions, epistemological approaches, power inequalities, and practical issues in the effort toward sustainability. Of course all these post-modern experts listed above are necessary to support sustainability planning and implementation. At RSI, we support our clients with this type of ecology of expertise to uncover the value that sustainability can bring to your organization. Please take a read through the link above if you want to consider this more.

Commissioning for Building Performance

Performance measurement will become the next big thing  in the real estate sector, in order to quantify the advantages of various green buildings. Actual energy usage, water, materials intensity, and related environmental damage ratios can and will be measured. I would like to follow the growth of commissioning and retro-commissioning in order for owners to understand how their buildings operate. I suggest a new regulation: 3rd party commissioning at the sale of a building to know the energy performance of a structure, just like MPG ratings on cars or nutritional information on packaged food. Let the markets respond to real metrics!

California’s AB32 is a type of law which lays the groundwork for the building industry to begin to assess the GHGs of their operations. Specifying commissioning into the real estate industry (as in the trade of buildings, not just their creation) will help owners and operators to have real knowledge about their buildings’ energy and materials requirements.

Commissioning comes from the shipbuilding industry, to ensure proper functioning of a vessel. Ships are built with complex coordination of multiple trades, similar to buildings, with plenty of potential for the final product to vary from intended design. Although most buildings aren’t at risk of sinking, with the increasing performance requirements of ever-greener buildings, commissioning makes sense to achieve the best safety and health standards of the design.

US Dept. of Energy’s “O&M Best Practice Guide, Release 3.0 Chapter 7″ has some studies which show commissioning to cost between $1-3/sf for commercial office space, and retro-commissioning (of an existing building) can cost $.05-.40/sf. The results can be used to implement projects to save 5%-30% on energy costs, with the average simple payback period of less than 2 years, sometimes less than six months!

Commissioning results in energy efficiency, extended life of equipment, increased air quality and space comfort (which means better tenant/user satisfaction), and reduced costs of emergency calls to O&M personnel. Although there are some costs to implementing commissioning broadly, the ROI is positive in a short timeframe. The resulting knowledge of the building systems crystalizes management’s institutional knowledge of a facility. This improves the building’s management efficiency and also improves the efficiency of the real estate market due to the improved information about the asset in trade. And, it helps the building become greener and more environmentally benign.

Mandating building commissioning would be a simple regulation, extending the scope of building inspections that already occur, and improve the asset as a class in the markets this regulation is implemented. Building performance information will benefit all parties. Commissioning would be similar to other requirements which are a minor inconvenience but a broad social benefit, like seatbelts, fire & safety codes, and timely financial disclosures. Building users, building owners, and communities and hosting environments will all benefit from commissioning.

High-Performance Workspace

I enjoy looking at things from a systems perspective: considering the ongoing activities of a situation, and how any present arrangement is the always changing. Systems dynamics and analyzing the flows of resources through activity clusters is one very useful tool to help us understand how sustainable a system is. When stocks, for whatever purpose, like water, reams of paper, or attention, are replenished in synch with their rate of transformation past usefulness, there is the potential for sustainability. Of course, the maintenance of a system usually impinges upon other systems. In the broadest sense, because of thermodynamics, all systems decay and eventually collapse as materials suffer and diffuse into chaos and energy dissipates into entropy. On a planet like Earth, in the timeframe of humanity, we can foster and maintain systems using the energy of the sun, which for our purposes is permanently available as an input to our systems. Lucky us.

But I digress. Let’s look at a more mundane system: the commercial office place. Millions of people spend their days in various forms of office space. Enterprise managers are always looking for the potential to improve worker productivity in the office environment. All things being equal in terms of managerial ability and worker skills, the physical layout and general office environment can have an effect on worker productivity. Office space also does have an effect on the environment outside of the workplace due to the resources marshalled to support the building’s operations and work processes.

How does an office space or other built workplace affect the workers? Providing safety and comfort from the weather is one major feature. Enabling peaceful concentration to focus on tasks is another. Facilitating collaboration, creativity, and monitoring of work processes is important, as is ensuring workers (at all levels) and clients can communicate effectively to trade. Commercial workplaces are where the average north american spends  20-30% of their life!

From the sustainability perspective, there are three major features of workplaces which connect users to the surrounding environment: energy use, air and water quality, and habitat disruption. Energy is used for lighting and space conditioning, and is embodied in all the materials to build and maintain the space, and all the materials used by the enterprise as well. Transportation of people, materials and products is part of the energy dimension. Similarly, there are cross-over effects on air and water quality caused directly by workplace activities and secondarily by energy requirements. Habitat disruption as a concept includes the actual footprint of the workplace but also the disruption of natural systems to bring materials and energy to bear on the structure the work processes within.

When a workplace is oriented toward sustainability, workers benefit and enterprises gain. It may be a stretch to assert that workers work better when relieved of karmic concerns about their business’s ecological footprint. But certainly, when non-toxic products are specified in a building and it therefore has improved air quality, workers benefit. When poorly designed and difficultly controlled HVAC systems are replaced with more interactive and passive systems, the workplace can improve. When workers have access to natural light, outdoor and vegetation amenities, and health is a focus in the design of the space, a business can see improved worker productivity. Not only are absences due to sicknesses diminished, but a firm can attract and retain better workers and gain client attention on the back of its environmental commitments, as demonstrated right in their workplaces.

Every activity in a workplace can be analyzed on these natural resource use axes: energy, fluids, and sources. Because disruptions of the surrounding ecosystem compromise sustainability, in the long-term, any enterprise should be able to identify and rectify its potentially ecosytem-damaging activities. Mapping the systems of supply and support and figuring out how to reduce energy use, the movement of compromised air and water beyond their bounds, and how and where habitats are affected are important for any firm seeking high-performance workspace. The firm benefits from improved capacity, and gains synergies and sympathies by improving its relationship to the surrounding ecosystem.

RSI partnering with Lee Partners!

Rapid Sustainability Integration will operate under the auspices of Lee Partners of New England, LLP, based in Waltham MA. Lee Partners is a full-service commercial real estate advisory enterprise, assisting clients to locate high-performance office space. Also in the portfolio of services is landlord consulting to transition standard space to green certification and supporting non-traditional green development projects. Lee Partners has been a member of the United States Green Building Council since 2005.

Rapid Sustainability Integration will serve as the “Green Practice Facilitator” for Lee Partners of New England until further notice, and LPNE will function as the fiscal agent and corporate framework for RSI. Lee Partners’ managing partner is Bruce Lee, Grey Lee’s father and long-term business collaborator.

Cheers for a good partnership and growing two businesses with one mission: to overservice the client and support value creation for enterprises!

An evolving definition of ecologically sustainable design

Sustainability cannot be strictly sustaining, but rather, must proactively rectify the global environmental problematique. The stronger concept of regenerative design is now central to my thoughts on how it is that we shall “take our world seriously” as Orr puts it. I appreciate Bill Reed’s bluntness about the design profession. We can make a lot of buildings but if each does not, on net, benefit the natural systems around it, the system of the built environment is still destined to fail us. This is powerful to consider, but hopeful as the design profession has a role in putting things to right, figuring out how to account for the impacts of human effort, and responding responsibly to the limits of the ecosystem. I can only hope this concern for net benefit moves from architecture to the design of consumer goods, transportation infrastructure, and the commercial media etc.A couple of other things have grown into my thinking about ecologically sustainable design. This is the importance of beauty, and that design foster a sense of inspiration and reverence toward all life, including other people. My concern has grown for designs which empower people and engage people to participate in the management of buildings, the governance of the ecologically-impacting activities of the place. I was thinking this is a nice thing to have but now would assert it is essential in order to have buy-in and compliance. Dissatisfaction with given goals and confusion because of unfinished knowledge extension leave people unmotivated to participate in a design’s expected behavior pattern. Governance is best when it is flexible, responsive and localized. The dynamic nature of buildings requires engagement of the users and thus governance, or at least management, of a building should be part of its design and implementation, not just the hardware and framing.

The last major feature of sustainable design which I had originally not much considered is ecoliteracy. Perhaps it was just too big and obvious for me to identify. Without a continuously evolving effort to understand the world around us, we are isolated from the ramifications of our actions, and unwittingly continue to abuse our ecosystem. Sustainable and regenerative buildings must support ecoliteracy in the users, and this is in Orr’s sense of an active cultivation of ecological intelligence, imagination and competence in relating responsibly to the world. Some features of ecological design can showcase this, like renewable energy installations, daylighting, green roofs and more. With the technologies now available, and a designer’s sense for communicating solutions and the ecological mindset, buildings can come to life and be educational for their users.