Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mike Rowe's Good Job

I have always been a big fan of Dirty Jobs. I worked in the trades. I want to go back one day and work in them again. There is a link to Mike Rowe's Trades Hub on the site and its good to know that for him his dirty job means doing more than showing America what it is like to do an honest day's work in America and be underpaid, under appreciated and ignored.

On May 11, Mike testified before Congress. I urge you to read his outstanding Testimony to them via the Discovery website. We need more like him. I wish more would take to the street and stand up for all Americans who struggling in this horrendous economy.

I know it takes courage and time. But I have to wonder with over 15 million unemployed and more even underemployed why there hasn't been a larger sound. When a few thousand (and yes only a few thousand) older Americans don silly hats and announce they are the "Tea Party" and receive hours and hours upon news coverage while our working brothers and sisters in States such as Wisconsin and Michigan whose ongoing protests go ignored you have to ask does it take a silly hat to be heard?

What does it take to be heard? To be recognized? The largest affected by the ongoing recession are workers over 55 - the "boomers". The same ones who stopped a war and brought down a President, who changed Civil Rights and opened the door to realizing the issues of Gays and Women in society.

Where are they now. Mike Rowe is speaking up. Are you?

Transcript of Mike Rowe's Testimony before Congress. Thank you Mike.

Friday, May 27, 2011

1099 or Bust

I have genuine concerns for the Economy and the likelihood again today shows it will not be rebounding anytime soon.

Today, David Leonhardt's column in the New York Times has another article on the current state of employment and green shoots its not. Given that jobs that are being created are at less wages and benefits than the predecessors don't look to major growth to the GDP soon. Additionally demand for goods is also down as I wrote in a recent blog. This has been tied or "justified" as due to the problems with the Japanese tsunami and is perceived temporary.

And on that note of temporary that is another type of employment which will become the norm - be that one working for a Temporary Agency (as I did in 1981 a parallel time economically and was my main professional work for nearly a decade) or as a 1099Contracted employee.

Governing wrote a great article regarding the author's recent graduate daughter who finds herself facing an uncertain job market. Not ready like many in the tech field who jump into "entrepreneurship" she is becoming increasingly her own boss "temping" herself to companies taking advantage of a great loophole and tax advantage.

Economic Development in the 1099 Economy
Temporary work is becoming the norm. Economic developers must change their focus if they want to create jobs in this new economy.

BY: William Fulton | May 2011
My daughter's just about finished with college and has started the job search. It's both exhilarating and frightening at the same time, of course. Yet it's yielding a few surprises: First, there actually are jobs out there. Second, they're not exactly, well, jobs.

Most of the entry-level jobs she’s running across in her field are "1099 jobs." In other words, you don’t become a full-time employee with benefits. Rather, you simply enter into a contract with your employer to provide work. Maybe you have regular hours and maybe you don’t; maybe you have a workstation and maybe you don’t. In any event, you are a contractor, not an employee -- so at the end of the year you get a 1099 form from the IRS, not a W-2.

Having watched both her parents work in the 1099 economy throughout most of her childhood, my daughter isn’t particularly afraid of 1099 jobs. But she, like everybody else in the so-called Millennial generation, is a little uncertain about where this will lead. How stable is 1099 work? Will she ever have a full-time job? What will she do about medical insurance once she turns 26 and is no longer eligible to be on my policy?

These questions boil down to this: Is the 1099 simply a temporary situation because employers are skittish about the future? Or are we seeing a permanent change where most people freelance and only a few have full-time jobs?

This is a good question for economic development practitioners to ask because the answer will shape the future of the business. After all, economic development usually revolves around the whole idea of "jobs" -- growing them, stealing them, adding them to the local economy and making sure constituents have them. Oftentimes, economic development success is measured in terms of the number of jobs created or saved, and economic development deals between government agencies and private companies are based on jobs as a metric.

What happens when there really is no such thing as a "job" anymore? How do you practice the art of economic development?

The answer is that even though there may not be jobs in the conventional sense, there is still work. That's the whole idea of the 1099 economy. It's just a different way of organizing the economy. Businesses need economically valuable work to be done, but instead of employing people full-time and permanently, they contract with individuals to do the work temporarily. The work ebbs and flows, the businesses come and go, and the 1099 employees work for a while and then move on. It’s a lot more fluid -- and seemingly uncertain -- than the traditional economy.

What this means is that economic development efforts become much less about individual businesses and much more about the underlying infrastructure -- the dynamic flow of business growth entrepreneurs, financiers, public infrastructure) as well as the labor force (skill levels and the density of the labor supply). The "ecosystem" of economic growth becomes more important because a fluid economy requires this system to be operating at all times -- and most of it is in the community or the region, far beyond the factory gates.

Some of America’s most prosperous economic sectors operate this way. The entertainment industry functions this way not only in Los Angeles, but in New York and other cities as well. Everybody’s a "jobber," moving from project to project. Silicon Valley works in a similar manner, with highly skilled employees floating from startup to startup.

As a result, savvy economic developers who want to tap into the 1099 economy must recognize that they must focus on a different version of the basics. Visiting existing large businesses in the community remains important because your largest businesses are probably where your future entrepreneurs currently work. But you also have to know the subtle ebbs and flows of your local economy, especially where the clusters of small business activity are located. You have to stay in touch with your educational community, especially your community colleges, to understand what skills your labor force has and needs. And, of course, you have to read all those Craigslist ads that my daughter is reading.

It’s a much more ear-to-the-ground approach than traditional economic development because the 1099 economy is basically an ear-to-the-ground economy. Traditional statistics may tell you that no jobs are being created and unemployment is high, but somewhere in your community, somebody’s doing work.


The phrase NIMBY is taken to mean "not in my backyard" as a way of discouraging change to a local community or neighborhood.

In Seattle we recently have changed our zoning laws to encourage small backyard cottages as a way of staving off suburban spread, meet better density levels to encourage city living and basically assist in keeping homes and communities vs ones with large multi family dwelling units dotting neighborhoods.

I live in the neighborhood where this has been quite successful, mostly due to the fact that it has larger yards and and was an underdeveloped part of the city for many years. Mostly as it was also the most diverse in a city with very little of it. And with our new light rail commuting at least into the city is accessible and easy.

There are negative aspects and this is a model still in development. But with many pre-fab designs that focus on cottages, including passive haus or the idea of modular and the box cars in which I wrote about earlier as options its possible to add a structure to an existing lot that will not distract from the main home nor be unappealing to a prospective tenant.

That said the article puts the average of costs at much lower than realistically approachable but if you do go to the comments sections you see one of the owners commenting on his structure as well as former tenants and others who have been involved in these developments of late.

While I see them all the time and currently live in a semi detached townhouse I can assure you that having no shared walls is by far more desirable than thinking my landlord is next door meaning less privacy.

And affordable housing is the biggest crisis we face with more losing homes and the increasing decline in income making it difficult for many to rent homes that offer a better quality of living than unfortunately affordable aka "low rent" apartments and homes offer.

Seattle Looks to Cottages for Affordable Housing

Cities are struggling to increase residential density without destroying single-family neighborhoods. That means the return of the backyard cottage.
BY: Zach Patton | May 2011

It’s chilly, gray and raining.

In other words, it’s an utterly unremarkable spring day in Seattle, as the city’s urban planning supervisor Mike Podowski pulls up to a home in the Columbia City neighborhood southeast of downtown. The large clapboard-and-cedar house is a charming two-story Craftsman, but Podowski’s not interested. Instead, he makes a beeline for a freestanding structure in the backyard. “This is great!” he says, as the homeowner ushers him through a gate. “It’s an ideal set-up.”

Podowski has come to check in on one of Seattle’s fastest-growing new modes of housing: the backyard cottage. Since 2006, the city has allowed homeowners to build stand-alone cottages -- officially known as “detached accessory dwelling units” -- behind existing single-family homes. At first, the zoning change only applied to a few neighborhoods on the city’s south side, including Columbia City. But in November 2009, Seattle expanded the pilot program throughout the city, to any residential lot of at least 4,000 square feet. In the 18 months following the expansion, 57 backyard cottages have been permitted, and roughly 50 of those are either completed or nearly finished.

Like other mid-size cities that came of age in the first few decades of the 20th century, Seattle is made up largely of compact neighborhoods filled with single-family bungalows. Today, almost two-thirds of the city is zoned for single-family homes, so it’s harder for Seattle to accommodate its growing population -- the city swelled from 563,374 residents in 2000 to 608,660 last year -- without spreading farther and farther into the forests of the Pacific Northwest. That’s partly why the city saw backyard cottages as an attractive new alternative, a way to add affordable housing options without a wholesale redesign of the city’s signature neighborhoods.

These structures are small: Seattle’s code limits them to a footprint of 800 square feet, and they max out at 22 feet tall. Construction costs typically range from $50,000 to $80,000, although more elaborate units can cost upward of $140,000 to build. Some homeowners use the freestanding cottages as home offices, or as extra room for when relatives visit. Others are building them as in-law apartments for aging parents, or as crash pads for post-college children who can’t yet afford their own place. But a large number of homeowners are actually renting the cottages to tenants. (City law requires that the homeowners live on the property at least six months out of the year.) In some cases, the owners themselves have moved into the backyard cottage in order to rent out the larger house facing the street.

Seattle isn’t alone in its experiment with accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Localities everywhere from California to Minnesota to Massachusetts are re-examining their zoning laws and considering the role that ADUs can play in the makeup of their urban design. To be sure, there are plenty of critics who say backyard cottages are a bad idea, that renting out tiny apartments to strangers will destroy the character of a neighborhood. “We’re seeing both a continued resistance to [ADUs], but also a recognition that they provide a level of moderately priced housing,” says John McIlwain, a senior housing fellow at the Urban Land Institute. The “growing driver,” he says, are elderly parents who can’t afford nursing care, or who simply would rather age in place with their families. “That’s hard for a community to rally against,” he says. “And once you cross that threshold, it’s hard to exclude other uses for backyard cottages. We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this style of housing in the next several years.”

Backyard cottages are actually a throwback. Stand-alone in-law apartments, or “granny flats,” were common neighborhood features a century ago when multiple generations of a family lived together. By the 1950s, however, Americans were decamping for the suburbs, pursuing the dream of a single-family home on a large tract of land. Many urban zoning codes of the second half of the century essentially banned the construction of new backyard cottages.

But as attitudes toward urban density have shifted in recent years -- and as affordable housing has become scarce in many places -- more and more cities have reconsidered the granny flat as an important part of a neighborhood. Portland, Ore., and Santa Cruz, Calif., both have strong backyard cottage programs. Chicago and Madison, Wis., have considered relaxing their prohibitions against ADUs. Denver last summer revamped its entire city zoning code and now permits stand-alone ADUs in certain neighborhoods. California in 2003 passed landmark legislation essentially forcing localities to allow ADUs. (However, because cities were allowed to design restrictions as narrowly as they wanted, the law hasn’t had as much impact as it could have. Pasadena, for example, only allows ADUs on lots larger than 15,000 square feet, and mandates that an ADU have its own two-car garage. Only one backyard cottage has been built in Pasadena since the 2003 law took effect.)

Not everyone is pleased. Critics say the additional residents put a crunch on available street parking. Some neighbors worry about privacy with a two-story cottage looming just over the property line. But the biggest concern tends to be the notion that allowing backyard rental cottages will irrevocably change the feel of a neighborhood. While Seattle was debating the cottages in 2009, one real estate agent called the city’s proposal a “de facto rezone of the entire city,” adding, “There will no longer be single-family neighborhoods in Seattle.”

Podowski acknowledges that vocal objections from some critics made it “challenging to get the legislation passed. People are very protective of their single-family neighborhoods, and they weren’t sure this was something that was going to fit in.”

But after the city’s three-year experiment with ADUs in the southeast part of town, Podowski’s office conducted a survey of residents living near a permitted backyard cottage to gauge the impact the units had on neighborhoods. What the city found was something of a surprise. Eighty-four percent of the respondents said the ADUs hadn’t had any discernible impact on parking or traffic. What’s more, most people didn’t even know they lived near an ADU, says Podowski. “More than half of them didn’t even realize there was a unit next door. It really helped us to show that a lot of the fears people had about these were not going to be realized.”

That positive feedback helped encourage the city to expand ADU zoning citywide. Council members also eliminated a cap on the number of backyard cottages that could be built in the city, and they rejected a proposed “dispersion” requirement, which would have limited the number of ADUs in a given neighborhood. The city prepared a design guide for homeowners, tips on being a good landlord and ideas for how to best respect neighbors’ privacy. Since then, the 57 new permits for backyard cottages number “in the ballpark” of what the city had predicted, says Podowski, and they’re evenly spread in neighborhoods across Seattle.

To hear Podowski tell it, the benefits of an ADU are relatively prosaic: They’re good for aging parents, or the rental income can help offset a homeowner’s mortgage. But in some ways, backyard cottages represent a bigger shift than that. “Cities are struggling with, ‘How on earth do you increase density in a suburban neighborhood of single-family homes?’” says Witold Rybczynski, an urbanism professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Makeshift Metropolis and other books on urban planning. “The backyard cottage is an easy first step toward densification,” he says. Unlike high-rise residential towers or even mid-rise apartment buildings, Rybczynski says, backyard cottages “are an effective way to increase density without a radical change in neighborhood standards.” With the twin challenges of accommodating an aging population and providing diverse housing options to an ever-growing pool of residents, an increasing number of cities may find a solution right in their own backyards.

Can Joplin be Greensburg

In 2007 a Tornado leveled Greensburg, KS. The town given its name committed itself to rebuilding entirely using Sustainable principles. After the tornado, the city council passed a resolution stating that all city buildings would be built to LEED - platinum standards, making it the first city in the nation to do so.

Greensburg is rebuilding as a "green" town, with the help of Greensburg GreenTown, a non-profit organization created to help the residents learn about and implement the green living initiative.

The story of Greensburg's commitment led to several television shows; a documentary on its reconstruction, called Greensburg, aired on Planet Green, a sister network of Discovery Channel.

Another documentary, Earth 2100, drew attention to Greensburg as "the green town" that was built after the devastating 2007 tornado. The ABC film suggested a fictionalized, future Greensburg as a model showing how American towns can successfully implement green technology, and become a beacon for hope on a planet doomed to destruction from climate change and overpopulation.

And already this morning in Builder was a notice calling all Contractors to head to Joplin for work. Like Greensburg, like New Orleans there is nothing that a little devastation to getting people back to work. But like them both there are genuine problems and issues in the success of rebuilding what is total devastation.

I thought the article in the Kansas City Star discussing the parallels and between Greensburg and Joplin is worth reading. As in the aftermath of any disaster getting people working and rebuilding is a herculean effort and one that takes on a multitude of partners - some with conflicting and often confusing interests.

And the irony is that in this age of "austerity" and "deficit reduction" and a demand for Government reduction in services I question what this means for the towns of Joplin or the next Greensburg. We have a lot to learn from their experience, from New Orleans and from each other. Can we all just get along in order to do so?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rich Get Richer

Despite a stubborn employment rate and housing foreclosures sill on the rise the profits of major U.S. Corporations continue to rise and the compensation and bonuses of the CEO/Executives and Shareholders do as well.

Wages have risen on average for the rank file worker approximately 2% this past year and most of that has been eaten away with inflation due to the rising costs of fuel.

When business is making money there is no imperative to change the model if its successful. Banks are not compelled to lend as they received large no strings attached funds from the varying Government bailouts and despite the large number of homes underwater it furthers the bank's resistance to loan on credit.

The only way to get out of our current financial stranglehold is via building business and building wages and jobs that encourage people to fuel the economy. But that is not on the agenda of our current Corporate climate as it has little affect on their bottom line.

The low U.S. dollar and the still emerging and growing markets of particularly India and China have offered a safety net for those businesses that work abroad. From outsourcing to selling there is a large source of income. If and when the dollar rises however the demand will decline as our goods will not be competitive. And as fewer domestic customers begin to hold off making purchases the green shoots of growth will wither and die.

For now there is no imperative no directive to change the status quo. And finding this article in Truthout the other day explains why this practice of business is finding traction.

For America to be sustainable it must be economically viable. I don't see this as a means of viability or sustainability at all.

Why the Rich Love Unemployment
Mark Provost: Truthout

Christina Romer, former member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, accuses the administration of “shamefully ignoring” the unemployed. Paul Krugman echoes her concerns, observing that Washington has lost interest in “the forgotten millions.” America’s unemployed have been ignored and forgotten, but they are far from superfluous. Over the last two years, out-of-work Americans have played a critical role in helping the richest one percent recover trillions in financial wealth.

Obama’s advisers often congratulate themselves for avoiding another Great Depression – an assertion not amenable to serious analysis or debate. A better way to evaluate their claims is to compare the US economy to other rich countries over the last few years.

On the basis of sustaining economic growth, the United States is doing better than nearly all advanced economies. From the first quarter of 2008 to the end of 2010, US gross domestic product (GDP) growth outperformed every G-7 country except Canada.

But when it comes to jobs, US policymakers fall short of their rosy self-evaluations. Despite the second-highest economic growth, Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press (AP) reports: “the U.S. job market remains the group’s weakest. U.S. employment bottomed and started growing again a year ago, but there are still 5.4 percent fewer American jobs than in December 2007. That’s a much sharper drop than in any other G-7 country.” According to an important study by Andrew Sum and Joseph McLaughlin, the US boasted one of the lowest unemployment rates in the rich world before the housing crash – now, it’s the highest.[1]

The gap between economic growth and job creation reflects three separate but mutually reinforcing factors: US corporate governance, Obama’s economic policies and the deregulation of US labor markets.

Old economic models assume that companies merely react to external changes in demand – lacking independent agency or power. While executives must adapt to falling demand, they retain a fair amount of discretion in how they will respond and who will bear the brunt of the pain. Corporate culture and organization vary from country to country.

In the boardrooms of corporate America, profits aren’t everything – they are the only thing. A JPMorgan research report concludes that the current corporate profit recovery is more dependent on falling unit-labor costs than during any previous expansion. At some level, corporate executives are aware that they are lowering workers’ living standards, but their decisions are neither coordinated nor intentionally harmful. Call it the “paradox of profitability.” Executives are acting in their own and their shareholders’ best interest: maximizing profit margins in the face of weak demand by extensive layoffs and pay cuts. But what has been good for every company’s income statement has been a disaster for working families and their communities.

Obama’s lopsided recovery also reflects lopsided government intervention. Apart from all the talk about jobs, the Obama administration never supported a concrete employment plan. The stimulus provided relief, but it was too small and did not focus on job creation.

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities. In the first Great Depression, President Roosevelt created an alphabet soup of institutions – the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) – to directly relieve the unemployment problem, a crisis the private sector was unable and unwilling to solve. In the current crisis, banks were handed bottomless bowls of alphabet soup – the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) and the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) – while politicians dithered over extending inadequate unemployment benefits.

The unemployment crisis has its origins in the housing crash, but the prior deregulation of the labor market made the fallout more severe. Like other changes to economic policy in recent decades, the deregulation of the labor market tilts the balance of power in favor of business and against workers. Unlike financial system reform, the deregulation of the labor market is not on President Obama’s agenda and has escaped much commentary.

Labor-market deregulation boils down to three things: weak unions, weak worker protection laws and weak overall employment. In addition to protecting wages and benefits, unions also protect jobs. Union contracts prevent management from indiscriminately firing workers and shifting the burden onto remaining employees. After decades of imposed decline, the United States currently has the fourth-lowest private sector union membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

America’s low rate of union membership partly explains why unemployment rose so fast and, – thanks to hectic productivity growth – hiring has been so slow.

Proponents of labor-market flexibility argue that it’s easier for the private sector to create jobs when the transactional costs associated with hiring and firing are reduced. Perhaps fortunately, legal protections for American workers cannot get any lower: US labor laws make it the easiest place in the word to fire or replace employees, according to the OECD.

Another consequence of labor-market flexibility has been the shift from full-time jobs to temporary positions. In 2010, 26 percent of all news jobs were temporary – compared with less than 11 percent in the early 1990′s recovery and just 7.1 percent in the early 2000′s.

The American model of high productivity and low pay has friends in high places. Former Obama adviser and General Motors (GM) car czar Steven Rattner argues that America’s unemployment crisis is a sign of strength:

Perversely, the nagging high jobless rate reflects two of the most promising attributes of the American economy: its flexibility and its productivity. Eliminating jobs – with all the wrenching human costs – raises productivity and, thereby, competitiveness.

Unusually, US productivity grew right through the recession; normally, companies can’t reduce costs fast enough to keep productivity from falling.

That kind of efficiency is perhaps our most precious economic asset. However tempting it may be, we need to resist tinkering with the labor market. Policy proposals aimed too directly at raising employment may well collaterally end up dragging on productivity.

Rattner comes dangerously close to articulating a full-unemployment policy. He suggests unemployed workers don’t merit the same massive government intervention that served GM and the banks so well. When Wall Street was on the ropes, both administrations sensibly argued, “doing nothing is not an option.” For the long-term unemployed, doing nothing appears to be Washington’s preferred policy.

The unemployment crisis has been a godsend for America’s superrich, who own the vast majority of financial assets – stocks, bonds, currency and commodities.

Persistent unemployment and weak unions have changed the American workforce into a buyers’ market – job seekers and workers are now “price takers” rather than “price makers.” Obama’s recovery shares with Reagan’s early years the distinction of being the only two post-war expansions where wage concessions have been the rule rather than the exception. The year 2009 marked the slowest wage growth on record, followed by the second slowest in 2010.[2]

America’s labor market depression propels asset price appreciation. In the last two years, US corporate profits and share prices rose at the fastest pace in history – and the fastest in the G-7. Considering the source of profits, the soaring stock market appears less a beacon of prosperity than a reliable proxy for America’s new misery index. Mark Whitehouse of The Wall Street Journal describes Obama’s hamster wheel recovery:

From mid-2009 through the end of 2010, output per hour at U.S. nonfarm businesses rose 5.2% as companies found ways to squeeze more from their existing workers. But the lion’s share of that gain went to shareholders in the form of record profits, rather than to workers in the form of raises. Hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, rose only 0.3%, according to the Labor Department. In other words, companies shared only 6% of productivity gains with their workers. That compares to 58% since records began in 1947.

Workers’ wages and salaries represent roughly two-thirds of production costs and drive inflation. High inflation is a bondholders’ worst enemy because bonds are fixed-income securities. For example, if a bond yields a fixed five percent and inflation is running at four percent, the bond’s real return is reduced to one percent. High unemployment constrains labor costs and, thus, also functions as an anchor on inflation and inflation expectations – protecting bondholders’ real return and principal. Thanks to the absence of real wage growth and inflation over the last two years, bond funds have attracted record inflows and investors have profited immensely.

The Federal Reserve has played the leading role in sustaining the recovery, but monetary policies work indirectly and disproportionately favor the wealthy. Low interest rates have helped banks recapitalize, allowed businesses and households to refinance debt and provided Wall Street with a tsunami of liquidity – but its impact on employment and wage growth has been negligible.

CNBC’s Jim Cramer provides insight into the counterintuitive link between a rotten economy and soaring asset prices: “We are and have been in the longest ‘bad news is good news’ moment that I have ever come across in my 31 years of trading. That means the bad news keeps producing the low interest rates that make stocks, particularly stocks with decent dividend protection, more attractive than their fixed income alternatives.” In other words, the longer Ben Bernanke’s policies fail to lower unemployment, the longer Wall Street enjoys a free ride.

Out-of-work Americans deserve more than unemployment checks – they deserve dividends. The rich would never have recovered without them.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fair? Trade

I am a voracious lover of coffee. I live in Seattle what do you expect. But while much is made about the need for organic and fair trade coffee that we are encouraged to buy how much do we really know about what the means.

I recently met a student who went to work on one such plantation in Central America. She said that we have no idea how difficult the work is and the costs and complexities involved in growing organic certified trade coffee beans.

As I complain about the costs associated with LEED buildings and their no more superiority with regards to Construction I asked if I was applying fair standards here?

I share with you an article I recently read that discusses the difficulty to really growing and trading "fair" coffee beans. And let the debate resolve those questions.

Lawrence Solomon: Fair-trade coffee producers often end up poorer

Coffee is one of our guilty pleasures, and not only because of the calories that can be packed into a double latte. Many of us feel guilty that our pleasure is coming at the expense of the Third World coffee farmer, so much so that we gladly pay more for “fair-trade” coffee, which certifies that farmers receive more revenue for their crop.

Saturday, on World Fair Trade Day, we have something else to feel guilty about. That fair-trade cup of coffee we savour may not only fail to ease the lot of poor farmers, it may actually help to impoverish them, according to a study out recently from Germany’s University of Hohenheim.
The study, which followed hundreds of Nicaraguan coffee farmers over a decade, concluded that farmers producing for the fair-trade market “are more often found below the absolute poverty line than conventional producers.

“Over a period of 10 years, our analysis shows that organic and organic-fair trade farmers have become poorer relative to conventional producers.”

These findings do not surprise me. I speak as someone who has had contact with various Third World producers in my capacity as president of Green Beanery, a company I founded seven years ago to raise funds for Energy Probe Research Foundation, a federal charity that I manage. Green Beanery sells more varieties of coffee, including fair trade and organic coffees, than any other company in Canada, giving me occasion to witness the nature of the fair-trade business, and hear first hand of its impact on small producers that supply us.

The fair-trade business is filled with contradictions.

For starters, it discriminates against the very poorest of the world’s coffee farmers, most of whom are African, by requiring them to pay high certification fees. These fees — one of the factors that the German study cites as contributing to the farmers’ impoverishment — are especially perverse, given that the majority of Third World farmers are not only too poor to pay the certification fees, they’re also too poor to pay for the fertilizers and the pesticides that would disqualify coffee as certified organic.

Their coffee is organic by default, but because the farmers can’t provide the fees that certification agencies demand to fly down and check on their operations, the farmers lose out on the premium prices that can be fetched by certified coffee.

To add to the perversity, it’s an open secret that the certification process is lax and almost impossible to police, making it little more than a high-priced honour system. Although the certification associations have done their best to tighten flaws in the system, farmers and middlemen who want to get around the system inevitably do, bagging unearned profits. Those who remain scrupulous and follow the onerous and costly regulations — another source of inefficiency the German study notes in its analysis — lose out.

The study, published in the journal Ecological Economics, recommends that policy “move from certification schemes to investments in the farm and business management skills of producers” — in other words, phase out the certification fees.

Most merchants of certified coffees are aware of these contradictions, but most won’t be aware of other problems in the certification business. For Third World farmers to qualify as fair-trade producers, and thus obtain higher prices for their coffee, farmers must join co-operatives. In some Third World societies, farmers readily accept the compromises of communal enterprise. In others, they balk. In patriarchal African societies, for example, the small coffee farm is the family business, its management a source of pride to the male head of the household. Joining a co-operative, and being told when and what and how to plant entails loss of dignity.

The contradictions are acknowledged even by many fair-trade merchants, who often refer instead to anecdotal reports of less quantifiable benefits such as better health care or schooling in a village or even, most tangentially, improved habitat for birds or wildlife.

The contradictions extend to consumers of coffee in the West. Several years ago, I received a call from a church in Kingston, inquiring whether Green Beanery could supply it with freshly roasted fair-trade coffee on a weekly basis.

Along the way, the church officer mentioned that the parishioners wanted to do what they could to help poor farmers in the Third World. I replied that I’d be happy to supply the church, but I also advised him that fair-trade coffee would not help the poorest of farmers — these smallholders are actually hurt when Western consumers forsake them for coffee produced by better-off farmers who can afford the certification fees.

I also mentioned that various coffees produced by small farmers in some of the neediest parts of Africa would taste superb while costing the church less, allowing it to spend the difference on some other worthwhile cause.

After a long pause, the church official replied something like: “I still think the parishioners would feel better knowing that they were drinking fair-trade coffee.”

Some believe that certified coffee is superior in some way. It is not. The small-scale farms whose local ecologies produce distinctive, niche coffee beans can’t operate on a scale that would justify official certification. As the German study notes, “Certified coffees have distinct production and marketing systems with different associated costs than the conventional system.”

Neither is certified coffee different at all. In fact, at Green Beanery we have received bags of coffee, some labelled fair trade, some not, grown on the very same farm and identical in every respect. The fair-trade certified farmer himself can’t tell which beans will be sold as fair trade and which not — that decision is made by the higher-ups.

Because the fair-trade associations are intent on keeping the price of fair-trade coffee up, they limit the supply of coffee that can be labelled as certified. To the certified farmer’s chagrin, most of his fair-trade certified crop could end up being sold as uncertified conventional coffee.

And in this well-intentioned price-fixing game, the fair-trade farmer is the pawn and the joke is on the customer.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Solar Easy

This just in: Homeowners interested in installing solar power can now get a quick quote at their nearest Lowe’s home improvement store. Residential solar company Sungevity signed an agreement to offer its iQuote program in Lowe’s locations in eight states beginning this summer.

Additionally, Lowe’s invested an undisclosed amount in Sungevity.

The iQuote system utilizes satellite images and aerial photography to calculate a same-day, installation estimate, eliminating the need for a home visit. The companies are heralding the agreement as a significant step in the mainstream adoption of residential solar.

As part of the interactive, in-store experience, consumers will be able to view a rendering of the proposed installation and get an explanation of the typical cost-savings associated with Sungevity’s solar lease program, which includes monitoring, maintenance, repairs, insurance, and a money-back performance guarantee.

Patti Price, senior vice-president for merchandising at Lowe’s said the retailer is seeing increased demand for solar.

The partnership will begin with interactive Sungevity-branded displays in select Lowe’s stores and continue to roll-out at all Lowe’s stores in states where Sungevity provides services. Sungevity currently operates in Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Proposition B

I found an interesting article via Reuters about a new concept in Business called a "B Corp."

In response to the seemingly unrelentless drive the free market economy and conventional capitalism has caused to the global economy - particularly in the United States which unlike its other Western European and Asian counterparts saw the top 1% income rise over 40%. No other CEO or Executive in any country with equally globally successful businesses (Ericsson in Sweden or Sony in Japan)paralleled. To think that the American Executives were that far superior and better and meeting the shareholder demands seems naive at best hubris at worst, there has been a re-examination by some who want to build business and economy without such a negative impact - Economically and Environmentally.

B Corps and Fixing the Broken System of Shareholder Capitalism By Marc Gunther at Greener World Media

Wed May 4, 2011

Is shareholder capitalism broken?

Few would argue that it's working well. Business as usual has us on a path to climate catastrophe. The housing/banking industry collapse threw the world into recession. We've seen Fukushima, the BP oil spill, the Massey coal mine deaths. Growing income inequality has become a persistent worry.

The conventional response to all that -- indeed, the one that I share -- is that smarter (though not more) regulation is needed. But a growing number of business people say the problems go deeper. They say a new kind of corporate legal structure is needed to require companies to operate for the good of society, not just for their shareholders. These new corporations -- they're called B Corporations -- are growing in number, and their structure has been enshrined into law in four states -- Vermont, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia.

Here's what B Lab, the nonprofit behind B Corp, says on its website:

Our vision is simple yet ambitious: to create a new sector of the economy which uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. This sector will be comprised of a new type of corporation -- the B Corporation -- that meets rigorous and independent standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

And in its annual report:

After the latest round of economic and environmental crises, it's clear we need systemic solutions to the systemic problem that places the interests of shareholders over the interests of workers, community and the environment.

Interesting, no? A couple of months ago, I heard Jay Coen Gilbert, a founder of B Lab along with Bart Houlahan and Andrew Kassoy, talk about B Corp (it stands for Benefit Corp.) at a GreenBiz conference; afterwards, we caught up by phone to talk some more.

"We can't have a new economy unless we have a new type of corporation," Jay told me. "Corporate law actually works against sustainability." Current law, he argues, require company executives to put shareholder's interests ahead of everyone else's.

Jay is himself a business guy. After graduating from Stanford grad, he joined McKinsey & Co., then spent a couple of years working on child welfare issues for the government of New York City, and in 1993 founded with a shoe and apparel company for basketball players called And1. "We were very much the upstart, street ball brand," he says. The company, which grew sales to $250 million, was sold in 2005, giving Jay the freedom to think about what to do next. He'd been inspired by socially responsible companies like Patagonia, Body Shop and Newsman's Own, each of which, he said, was "very cool and inspiring in its own way, but all of the power and energy was diffused."

How, he wondered, could the power of responsible business be harnessed?

"There was a clear need for a unifying brand that could help project the voice of this very compelling marketplace, from fair trade to clean tech, from microfinance to organic and local," he says.

B Lab is the result, and he explains that the nonprofit is trying to do several things at once.

First, it's a certification effort, aimed at helping consumers identify responsible companies that meet rigorous and independent standards of social and environmental performance. "You can think of it as a LEED for business," Jay says, referring to the system for rating green buildings.

More than 400 companies in 54 industries have been certified as B Corps. Most are small and privately held. Total revenues are under $2 billion. Among the early adopters are Seventh Generation, Method, Numi Organic Tea, New Leaf paper and Sansko. One of the bigger firms to be certified is Cascade Engineering, a $250-million Michigan plastics firm, which is profiled in the current issue of Inc.

These companies get actual benefits, along with the right to use the B Corps brand. Salesforce and Intuit offer them discounts on software. Graduates of the Yale School of Management get favorable treatment of their student loans if they work for B Corps. The city of Philadelphia gives them tax breaks.

Second, B Lab is working with private equity investors to use its performance standards to help them make better-informed decisions about private companies. Its ratings are part of an initiative called the Global Impact Investment Rating System, or GIIRS, which provides data on the social and environmental impact of companies to investors who want to put their money into companies that are doing good. B Lab is beta-testing the GIIRS methodology with fund managers who have about $1.2 billion in assets under management.

And third, B Corps is pushing for new laws. The Benefit Corp legislation passed in four states creates a new corporate form which "redefines fiduciary duty, and holds companies accountable to create a material positive impact on society and the environment as measured by an independent, transparent third-party standard." Fundamentally, the idea here is to shield companies from shareholder litigation when they made decisions that could negatively impact short-term profitability. Corporations operating in any state can, in theory, re-incorporate in these states to, in effect, redefine their purpose.

This is where I part ways with B Lab, but not before saying that what Jay and his colleagues have accomplished in a few short years is nothing short of remarkable. They've catalyzed a movement, developed a sophisticated set of metrics around the corporations and the public good, won over hundreds of entrepreneurs and changed laws in four states. They're onto a big idea, and we can only hope it gets bigger.

The trouble is, the idea of business for the public benefit is not going to get big enough or important enough so long as it remains on the sidelines of shareholder capitalism. The world's big companies -- the Walmarts and GEs and McDonalds -- would find it very hard, if not impossible, to re-incorporate as B Corps. If nothing else, they'd have to concede that there's something fundamentally wrong with shareholder capitalism. They're not going to do that -- because, in my view, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with today's model.

While there are undoubtedly tensions between maximizing short-term profits and building long-term shareholder value, the job of a leader is to navigate those tensions and choose long-term value. Competitive markets also drive businesses to externalize their costs, but that problem is best addressed with regulation -- starting, importantly, with a price on carbon. Corporate governance, too, needs fixing, so that managers are accountable to shareholders in fact as well as in theory.

There's no doubt, in other words, that reforms are needed. But it's my firm belief that companies that make the world a better place -- by serving their customers, enabling their workers to flourish and giving back to their communities -- will, in the long run, will be rewarded in the market and deliver superior returns to the owners. That will drive the change we want to see, at a scale that matters.

Go Green Go Bust?

The downturn in the real estate market has affected even Green Building projects.

This from Chapel Hill, NC a ground zero in green development has found a massive project in significant financial trouble.

While I don't think this forestalls green I do think it shows that luxury projects regardless of color are not doing well..period. The grab your credit card and finance a home for zero down and zero interest for the first 3 years are over. Projects built and finished after the 2008 decline are in decline which will mean an overall re-examination of how we build green in the future.

Pioneering green building hits old-style financial snags
By Ned Barnett

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina | Thu May 19, 2011 2:50pm EDT

CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina (Reuters) - The energy-scrimping efficiencies of a new $58-million residential and commercial space in the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, create what might be the greenest condo building in America.

But for all its savings on electricity, water and raw material costs, this project of the future has become mired in the problems of the recent past.

The 217,000-square-foot building, known as Greenbridge, came in $1.6 million over budget in a market weakened by the national real estate bust. Designed by William McDonough and Partners, one of the nation's premier advocates of green buildings, the recently opened complex now faces foreclosure.

If such a building can't succeed in progressive Chapel Hill, home to the University of North Carolina and part of a regional economy driven by high-tech research, can large-scale green designs succeed anywhere?

"I would be afraid that the broader market, regional or national, would think this project is in foreclosure because it's green. That would be a mistake," said Chris Wedding, who teaches about green building at the university's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Wedding, who attended Greenbridge's groundbreaking and has followed its financial troubles, said the project faces foreclosure mainly because it went up during a recession and developers made costly design and construction decisions.

Tim Toben, one of five local partners who own the building and collectively face $15 million in losses, said Greenbridge had found a market and was briskly selling units.

But while Greenbridge pushed the envelope in design, Toben said its principal lender, Bank of America, still practices one-size-fits-all lending: pay now or lose everything.

"We certainly have not been treated any differently than a Miami condo project," Toben said.


Named one of the top 10 green housing developments in the U.S. by Natural Home magazine, Greenbridge has roof surfaces planted with vegetation that provides wildlife habitat and reduces stormwater runoff.

Recycled products were used throughout the building, and more than 50 solar thermal panels on the roof of its 10-story tower will provide over 15 percent of its hot water demand.

The development, which includes mostly vacant office and retail space, has 97 condominium units ranging from $250,000 to more than $1 million for penthouses atop its two towers, the second of which is seven-stories.

Before the project broke ground in April 2008, then-Bank of America President Ken Lewis cited Greenbridge as an example of his bank's commitment to green building.

But in August 2010, with 37 units sold and another 15 under contract, Bank of America refused to pay contractors for cost overruns. That triggered what Toben called "a death spiral."

"It feeds on itself. The liens begin to scare the real estate community and the number of showings decline and you can't close anything." he said.

Now the bank has moved to foreclose, with a sale set for June 27. In addition to the $28.7 million mortgage it holds on the property, Bank of America is seeking $456,000 in back interest and is adding interest at the rate of $3,400 per day.

Bank of America said it has already increased the mortgage once, and the borrowers failed to pay a $1.6 million equity deposit as required by the terms of that increase.

"We have been working with the borrowers for some time to help them resolve their financial issues," says Shirley Norton, a bank spokeswoman. "We continue to be in discussions with the borrower and are hopeful of resolving the matter."

State Senator Ellie Kinnaird, a Chapel Hill Democrat, welcomed Greenbridge's plans to limit its carbon footprint and bring more residents downtown.

She thinks the developers should have been given more time to work out their finances, particularly in light of the federal bailout of banks, including Bank of America, that overextended themselves during the housing bubble.

"How can these people who drive the economic bus into the ditch and then get $10 million bonuses not realize what they are doing to our community?" Kinnaird said. "What good does it do to have a big building in foreclosure?"

Supporters of efficient buildings said the Greenbridge story is ultimately more about greenbacks than green design.

"All real estate ventures carry risks, and we do not think that sustainability attributes make projects more risky," McDonough and Partners said in a statement.

Wedding, the professor, said Greenbridge was on the right track at the wrong time.

There is a growing demand for green buildings. A 2010 report by McGraw-Hill Construction, a leading source on design and construction trends, said the green building market size is expected to double to $135 billion by 2015.

Despite the recession, the value of green building construction starts grew by 50 percent from 2008 to 2010 and represented 25 percent of all new construction activity in 2010, the company said.

"When you look at national trends, you would easily understand why developers of this project would believe there was a market," Wedding said.

Toben, who made a fortune in 1999 when he sold his share of the data mining company, KnowledgeBase Marketing, for $10 million after taxes, stands to lose most of it in an investment that was supposed to be about savings.

"I've ridden the roller coaster of capitalism," he said. "I'm ready to get off."

To LEED or Not - That is the question

I have always struggled with the monopoly or dominance LEED has on the current green build marketplace. And given that it is NOT the panacea of green build or energy efficiency there are always issues when you prescribe one dogma over the other.

As a proponent of Green Build and Energy Efficiency I have seen one and/or both in a building they are not mutually inclusive. But to fully integrate a building and make it green it should have both. Without measurable performance, without quality Eco friendly building materials and a commitment to recycling and waste reduction it is not fully green. And that life should extend post construction in the overall life cycle and purpose of the building. Ideal perhaps? But not unrealistic.

I found this article in the Smoky Mountain News discussing the pros and cons of what it means to build LEED.

To build LEED is on thing to build SMART can be ultimately the same but even more so.

The price of being certifiably ‘green’
Written by Colby Dunn
Wednesday, 18 May 2011 14:44

Go into any store and you run into the term “green.” Bags of chips, detergents, new cars and fluorescent-light bulbs — all are bedizened in alleged greenness.

But what, exactly, does green mean? And who should get to declare themselves green? Should low-flow toilets get the same credit as solar panels?

In the building industry, the question isn’t academic — it’s critical to the bottom line. Green buildings and homes command a higher price tag. But the cost of true, environmentally friendly building is also steep. So how green is green?

That’s where LEED comes in. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a third-party green-building rating system that certifies buildings based on their merits as environmentally sustainable structures.

There are various incarnations of LEED — LEED for homes, for existing buildings, for retail, for health care, for commercial interiors — and different levels within each: certified (basic level), silver, gold and platinum, and the ranks are handed out based on points in five categories.

LEED is fairly customizable from building to building; which is a plus, given that what might be a massive, energy-saving measure in one structure would create trivial benefits to another. Builders can pick which categories they want more points in, and then which measures and materials they want to use to get them.

Paying a green price
But it’s costly. The price of LEED-style building over traditional methods is about 2 percent, said Scott Donald of Padgett and Freeman Architects in Asheville. About a quarter of Donald’s business is in LEED projects.

Fees vary, depending on size and which LEED program is giving the award, but for a large commercial building, a construction and design review can run as high as $27,000. And when it comes down to the bottom line, sometimes the merits of being certified don’t outweigh the costs — especially when all the environmental elements can be built in without certification. So property owners who might have come in liking the ranking may opt to sidestep it, building a LEED building without the LEED name.

“It actually occurs a lot,” said Donald, “because they don’t want to pay for the actual certification and the energy models, and the design is pretty much the same.”

That fee? It pays for extensive documentation. And in return, LEED provides an outsider arbiter, making sure everything is done properly.

“That’s where you lose by not doing LEED is during the construction process,” said Donald. “The end product is very similar, but the process is not at all. That’s part of what LEED does.”

But the real treasure that LEED has to offer is its name — a recognized brand of environmental friendliness.

“The value of a certification comes in when you’re trying to sell a building. That’s where that brand comes in,” said Maggie Leslie, the program director for the Western North Carolina Green Building Council, which helps builders navigate the LEED process.

“For someone who’s trying to sell a home or a building, instead of trying to explain all the terms, it’s a marketing program. It’s to help people communicate the value of these things.”

A trend that keeps on growing
George Ford, an assistant professor at Western Carolina University, teaches construction management. Recently, he’s been teaching a lot more about LEED. From the contractor’s perspective, the view is the same as from the owner’s; knowing green-building practices isn’t the same as knowing LEED building practices.

“A lot of times, that could be the difference between them getting the job and not getting the job,” said Ford.

Because of that, the professor has seen an increase in LEED certifications over the last several years.

In a tough construction industry, any edge is a good edge, especially if it offers true legitimacy in a quagmire of faux green.

And, for a quick bit of history, that’s why it was created.

“LEED has been around for 10 years, and it was created out of a response and a cry from the building community saying, ‘We want to stand out. There is no standard, and how do we separate ourselves from anyone else who says that they’re green?’” said Emily Scofield. She’s the executive director for the Charlotte region chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, the third party in third-party ratings system. They’re the ones that give out LEED badges.

Scofield views LEED as less a selling point and more as a mark of quality. She said the benefits of adhering to the system’s high standards are self-evident and good for health, the earth and the bottom line.

A 2010 McGraw Hill study found that, for new buildings built to LEED standards, operating costs dropped by just over 13 percent — eight for existing buildings that were retrofitted — while the value of new LEED buildings rose nearly 11 percent, compared to what it would’ve brought traditionally.

That’s part of why Donald is so successful in convincing his clients to go for sustainably designed buildings, whether they get the LEED stamp or not.

“If you meet the goals that LEED establishes, you’re going to save a lot of money,” said Donald, pointing to one of his recent projects, the new Cherokee Central Schools complex, as an example.

“Right now, they’re probably saving over a quarter of a million dollars a year,” said Donald, and he projected that the tribe would save $10 million over the life of the buildings.

And that, of course, is the basic premise of good branding. LEED isn’t just a name. It’s a symbol of quality and a promise that green really does mean green. People know and trust it, and that’s got a good deal of intrinsic value.

But they’re not the only player in the game. There are more green ratings systems out there. Some, like Energy Star, work in concert with LEED; some are in competition with it.

Different programs have their own merits, including, for many, lower fees. But in this relatively young market, LEED is still the front-runner, the internationally recognized standard that serves as the benchmark.

“I think that competition is good, and ultimately we’re all trying to achieve the same goal,” said Scofield. “If their intent is true, we don’t mind the competition.”

And really, LEED will have to keep evolving, not only to stay ahead of the competition, but to stay in business altogether. The general consensus among architects and builders alike is that the standards that are LEED today will simply be the building code tomorrow, rendering LEED and its ilk obsolete, at least in their current forms.

Today, new technologies like solar power and geothermal wells are becoming the next wave of green trends, but in five years time, the leading edge of the green movement will be somewhere else entirely, which will always leave LEED, and the professionals who follow it, somewhere greener to grow.

Energy Mark

Seattle is leading the way in requiring all Commercial buildings in Seattle to assess and improve building performance. What is called in the facilities trade as "benchmarking" it requires the building manager to compare the results and processes of those studied (the "targets") of a buildings energy use and costs from year to year.

As a part of my SEED grant I received last year Energy Accounting is a part of our course work and it will become increasingly part of most Construction - both residential and commercial - in the future.

Understanding basic energy needs and how a building uses energy throughout the year can tell you how to reduce use, what improvements need to be made to reduce costs and enhance efficiency. And while not a perfect measure as weather demands and needs change due to extrinsic factors (such as building use declining) it can provide a fairly accurate record of a building and its energy needs.

I also believe that in a market where commercial leases are down providing energy information that can be cost effective in determining leasing spaces and incorporating those savings into square foot leasing rates can be an enticing offer to a prospective tenant.

Seattle, WA - May 11, 2011 - (RealEstateRama) — The City of Seattle sent letters to more than 800 large commercial property owners and managers today informing them about a new citywide program designed to help owners and managers assess and improve building energy efficiency and spur the market for building energy retrofits.

“Seattle’s buildings provide one of the greatest opportunities to generate energy savings and boost economic development for the city. This new program will help building owners take a key step toward increasing building energy efficiency, which, in turn, helps lower operating costs, makes buildings more competitive and creates good local jobs,” said Department of Planning and Development Director Diane Sugimura.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, buildings consume more than 70 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. and could be made 30 to 50 percent more energy efficient with currently available products and services. But many property owners and managers don’t know how well or poorly their buildings use energy or how their building’s energy performance compares to similar buildings. Also, consumers have no way to compare the energy performance of buildings they hope to buy or rent.

Under the new program, all commercial and multifamily residential buildings larger than 10,000 sq. ft. will be measured or “benchmarked,” for their energy performance using the U.S. EPA’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager. Building energy ratings will also be provided to the City and to prospective buyers, tenants and lenders upon request during real estate transactions. The program first applies this fall to nonresidential buildings 50,000 sq. ft. or larger and extends to both nonresidential and multifamily residential buildings 10,000 sq. ft. or larger next April 2012.

Energy benchmarking is becoming a common practice among many large property owners and managers working to lower building operating costs and make buildings more competitive on the real estate market.

Managers of the historic Dexter Horton building in downtown Seattle have been benchmarking and rating the building’s energy performance for several years.

“The more aware you are of your building’s energy use and work to rein in energy waste today, the better positioned you’ll be in the future as energy costs continue to rise. By benchmarking the Dexter Horton building and making energy efficiency improvements, we are able to compete with buildings that are 60 years younger,” said Andrea Benvenuto of CB Richard Ellis, the company that manages the building.

Numerous studies show that energy-efficient buildings - in particular those with green certifications - out-compete inefficient buildings in terms of higher rental and sales prices and building occupancy levels.

“Our clients are looking for energy-efficient buildings because they understand these properties cost less to own and operate, hold their value, and make for better and more productive working environments. Having access to building energy information helps prospective buyers and tenants find energy-efficient buildings and reduces their exposure to the risks of owning or leasing in a less efficient building” said Dave Low, Director of Sustainability Practices, Kidder Mathews

Energy Star has information on how buildings can move forward to reduce energy and in turn the carbon footprint and become an Environmental leader on their website.

Boxcar Family

My favorite books as a kid was the Boxcar Family series where a small family of children lived. They were industrious clever and independent. Would I want to live in a boxcar most likely no. But work in one yes.

I noticed down by our Design Center an office set up in two well placed boxcar/container cars. Then I discovered The Box Office in Providence, RI that has created a magnificent 12 site space in a former Lumber site.

Using 32 recycled or should I say "upcycled" shipping containers they created what I think is a fantastic demonstration of urban renewal.

Already a trend that London embraced with their Container City. The idea was to use already available building materials, update them and alter them to accommodate live/work spaces in a city where affordable housing was near to non-existent.

As with pre-fab its a matter of faster build times, less waste and more affordable construction methods. As in pre-fab it requires a good deal of open land space and the ability of access to construct the homes. There are some individual homes being built but in a smaller residential neighborhood I am not sure how well the logistics would work as it also limits design capabilities. I would have to see side by side comparisons of cost analysis to determine if a custom build with a similar design (or as I call it the Lego box) is any less or more in return. Fundamentally the containers are just that Lego's.

But as office space that is bot flexible, affordable and interesting it beats any strip mall or Active Space you see dotting most cities landscapes.

This is thinking outside the box and that is what design needs to further the ideas of what Green Build really means.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Freshen Up

As it approaches summer I am ridding my home of a few of the doldrums of winter by doing light redecorating. Mostly I am doing so via painting focal walls and changing accessories to accentuate the change.

I am starting in the smallest and therefore easiest space - The Bathroom. With some bright color and sleight decor changes I plan on making the master bath and the powder rooms new spaces without big demands.

As I was looking for inspiration and ideas I saw a few examples of how paint, accents and more importantly color can brighten a small space.

This bathroom accomplishes drama with a bold use of black wallpaper. The accent of white is already in the fixtures making this a glamorous bath.

This bath uses the focal wall concept as an accent with a photo illustration turned into wallpaper that brings the outdoor in. It also provides an illusion of looking out a window/door to a green path. This look adds both drama and interest into what can be a dull space.

Boldness is not lost on this bathroom with its hot pink walls and accents. This makes a statement and its a bright one.

Upgrading a bath does not always mean a full remodel it can be the simple changes to the hardware that also lends a modern new touch. A new shower head or faucet along with some new bath accessories can make an old space new.

There are even decals that are removable for those who are looking for less commitment and/or renting and can only make temporary alterations.

There are even vinyls that will work on tiles for a quick upgrade and accent feature.

The only limits are budget and imagination. Think outside the box and freshen your bathroom in bright bold colors, great accessories or even a new shower head. The change in the space and even your mood may be surprising.

The Price of Small Business

This marks the end of Small Business Week. Not that I, a near to non-existent business owner knew or cared nor likely many of my other equivalents in the trades. As most of us are "single shingle" businesses we work hand to mouth, without the safety net that regular corporate employment offers.

We often do not have insurance or for the few firms that do its moderate at best. 401k plans, pensions are also not part of the package. For many, myself included, we are exempt from Unemployment Insurance and receive little public services or support during downturns. Its why I went back to Substitute Teaching which also offers little to nothing other than daily wages when you work only.

This economy is in tatters in my industry and sadly the Health Care Reform bill did little to really address the problems for those who need insurance but don't have businesses to support them. I don't see this improving soon. Thankfully today the Obama Administration is requiring any insurer to notify why they are raising premiums over 10% in a time ironically of massive profits. If anything the downturn helped insurers as few are seeking medical treatment. A sunny side always!

Below is an article by Wendell Potter on the ever increasing scams Insurers do that hurt Small Business. Don't see this changing soon either.

Modest-sized firms priced out of health insurance market don't have much to celebrate during National Small Business Week
By Wendell Potter

You might not realize it, but this is National Small Business Week. I’m betting many small business owners aren’t aware of it, either. Perhaps that’s because most small business owners are far more likely to be worrying about whether they’ll be able to offer health insurance to their employees for another year.

Or is this the year they join the ever-growing list of small businesses that have been “purged” by their insurance carrier?

For several years now, insurance companies have been “purging” small business accounts they no longer consider profitable enough or that their underwriters believe pose too much risk. I became familiar with “purging” (yes, that’s the actual word insurance executives use internally) toward the end of my career as an industry PR man.

Virtually unknown outside of a few executive suites until I disclosed it in testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in June 2009, the practice is most prevalent at the big for-profit insurance companies — the ones that are under the gun to meet investors’ profit expectations every three months. Along with “rescinding” (cancelling) the policies of individuals who become seriously ill, purging small businesses that employ workers who get sick is a tried-and-true way of meeting Wall Street’s expectations.

All it takes is one illness or accident among employees at a small business to prompt an insurance company to hike the next year’s premiums so high that the employer has to cut benefits, shop for another carrier or stop offering coverage altogether, leaving all their workers—and their dependents—uninsured.

The purging of less profitable accounts through intentionally unrealistic rate increases helps explain why the number of small businesses offering coverage to their employees has been declining for several years and why the number of Americans without coverage reached a record high of nearly 51 million last year. According to the National Small Business Association, the number of small businesses that provide health insurance to their employees fell from 61 percent in 1993 to 38 percent in 2009.

Dr. Ghanima Maassarani is the CEO of a small business who worries that her company may soon have no choice but to join the growing list of employers who no longer offer coverage.

Maassarani’s company, Inova Management, owns and operates several in-vitro fertilization centers throughout the United States. Her employees are mostly clinical professionals, including physicians. She shared a spreadsheet with me last week to show the rapid increase in premiums that her firm has had to endure in recent years.

In 2005, she was still able to pay the full monthly employee-only premium of $335 for all of her workers. The annual deductibles were comparatively modest: $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families.

When her insurer at the time, Aetna, proposed to raise the premiums at the end of the year, she switched to CIGNA, which offered her a lower monthly rate of $303 in exchange for a doubling of the deductibles. It turned out to be a one-year-only deal. Facing a substantial hike in premiums, Maassarani switched to UnitedHealth in 2007. She still had to pay more in monthly premiums for each employee than she had paid CIGNA—$321—but the deductibles stayed the same.

Like CIGNA, UnitedHealth proposed a hefty rate increase at the end of the year. Rather than switch again, Maassarani chose to stay with UnitedHealth and swallow the additional 16 percent in 2008. To continue paying the full premium, however, she had to agree to double the deductible for her employees.

Twelve months later, UnitedHealth demanded a 22 percent increase for the following year. Maassarani agreed to UnitedHealth’s demands but had to have her employees pay a portion of the premium for the first time. She would pay $316; they would pay $110.

Then a child of one of her workers got very sick. That prompted UnitedHealth to jack up premiums 23 percent for 2010. To be able to continue offering coverage, she had to increase the cost sharing with her employees once again.

At the end of last year, UnitedHealth demanded yet another big increase, this time 20 percent. She is now paying $416.50 a month for each employee, and the employees are now paying $210.53 a month for a policy with a $2,000 individual and $4,000 family deductible.

So just since 2005, the cost of premiums for Inova has skyrocketed more than 87 percent. During that time, her employees have seen their share of the premium go from $0 to $210 a month—while their deductible quadrupled.

Maassarani told me several of her workers are having a hard time paying their share. She expects some of them will drop coverage if they have to pay more next year. It’s all but certain they will. And she acknowledged that she’ll have to consider discontinuing health insurance as an employee benefit, a prospect she never imagined.

If Maassarani throws in the towel, she will have fallen victim to purging, like so many other small employers before her. Meanwhile, U.S. health insurers are reporting record profits, and their CEOs are topping the list of highest paid corporate executives.

So much for celebrating National Small Business Week.

Infrastructure Me Not

This recent article in the Washington Post is in response to a study from the Urban Land Institutes report on our Infrastructure.

Current estimates put it at 2 trillion dollars. Well that sure would put a lot of people back to work, perhaps have an overall effect on reducing our Greenhouse gas emissions and build a country by establishing better ways of commuting within it.

Frankly the resistance to taxes has hurt our overall economy in many ways. The lack of income redistribution (the supposed dreaded Socialism) in this country far outweighs any of its Westernized counterparts in Europe or Japan. Even China is doing more to build a modern society. But our strange obsession with the Libertarian ethics of no Government or Government by demand with no taxes and immense income inequity has led to a country that is now falling apart.

It will fall at some point to a private sector/public compromise to repair roads and bridges and establish better public transportation but it will not be free. We will need to pay for it via tolls, additional levies or fees as NOTHING is built from NOTHING for NOTHING.

To believe that a light rail or high speed rail would not serve a community even one not on the major line is a very myopic view as access to better ways of travel is never on a downside. The contrary or NIMBY perspective is what also leads to our decline. Between the "I am not paying for something I don't need or will use nor do I want it near me" might have worked in a time with fewer people, better access to jobs and services in one's community. But that was then this is now. And for a Country that seems to tout "Exceptionalism" we are exceptionally resistant to change of any kind. And its to our detriment.

Study: $2 trillion needed for U.S. infrastructure
By Ashley Halsey III,
Published: May 16

The United States is falling dramatically behind much of the world in rebuilding and expanding an overloaded and deteriorating transportation network it needs to remain competitive in the global marketplace, according to a new study by the Urban Land Institute.

Burdened with soaring deficits and with long-term transportation plans stalled in Congress, the United States has fallen behind three emerging economic competitors — Brazil, China and India, the institute said.

The report envisions a time when, like Detroit, U.S. cities may opt to abandon services in some districts and when lightly used blacktopped rural roads would be allowed to return to nature. Eventually, the report says, the federal gas tax will be increased; local governments will be allowed to toll interstate highways; water bills will rise to pay for pipe and sewer replacement; property and sales taxes will increase; and private, profit-seeking companies will play a much larger role in funding and maintaining public projects.

“Over the next five to 10 years, public concerns will grow over evident declines in the condition of infrastructure,” the report says. “At some attention-getting point after infrastructure limps along, platforms for reinvesting in America could gain significant traction and public support.”

The report is the latest in a series of studies to conclude that the nation will face dire long-term consequences if major investment in transportation revitalization is postponed.

“Infrastructure should be part of the larger conversation about ‘what do you want government to do and how do you want to pay for it?’ ” said Jay Zukerman of Ernst & Young, which conducted the institute’s study.

The report lends global perspective to an issue addressed last fall by a panel of 80 experts led by former transportation secretaries Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner. That group concluded that as much as $262 billion a year must be spent on U.S. highways, rail networks and air transportation systems.

Congress has failed to approve the two major bills that allow for long-term funding and planning for aviation and transportation. The Federal Aviation Administration has been operating under a funding bill that expired in 2007 and has been extended 18 times. The surface transportation act, which provides the balance of federal transportation funding, expired in 2009 and has been extended seven times.

As Congress debates how much should be spent and where to find the money, China has a plan to spend $1 trillion on high-speed rail, highways and other infrastructure in five years. India is nearing the end of a $500 billion investment phase that has seen major highway improvements, and plans to double that amount by 2017. Brazil plans to spend $900 billion on energy and transportation projects by 2014.

The United States, the institute report concludes, needs to invest $2 trillion to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the end of their planned life cycles.

The report says the desire of Congress to curtail spending will push costs onto “budget-busted” state and local governments. It points to highways and water treatment plants, built with federal funds 40 to 50 years ago, that will become financial burdens to local governments as the time comes for replacement.

“We’re seeing less federal support and less local revenues because of unemployment,” said Maureen McAvey, executive vice president of the institute, a non-profit group that analyzes policies and programs. “Some of the ambitions some growing cities had just a few years about are being cut back or put on hold.”