Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Catcher in the Green

For my friends in the UK I have a great service available - Carbon Catcher. Carbon Catcher is an energy reduction service that can provide specifying, supplying and installing energy reducing technology to your business in cost effective manner.

To understand Carbon reduction strategy check out their site on what a CRC Efficiency Scheme is and what it means to your business in relation to current Governmental policies on reaching energy consumption by the year 2020.

The Carbon Catcher green cat is a tool used to determine what your businesses targets with regards to energy consumption.

To fully understand how they work and what they do check out their site and find out if you need a survey in ways to reduce energy and your overall carbon footprint ultimately saving both your business money and the planet simultaneously. That is a win-win equation if ever was one.

The site provides an outstanding blog and case studies for which to compare. Try out Carbon Catcher UK.

***this blog entry was sponsored by your friends at Carbon Catcher UK***

Thursday, June 23, 2011

I can see clearly now...

Windows are the biggest most expensive investment which to upgrade a home. Its also not the most necessary and probably should be the very last thing you do prior to pursuing other energy efficient measures.

A poor window install, a bad decision or simply confusion on the type and kind of windows which to buy can be costly and often wasteful.

If you are seeking ways to improve your window performance seek out some ideas at Efficient Window Collaborative for great unbiased source information on windows. Or go to Window Attachments which offers information on products to purchase as well as a Q&A forum where you can post any question, including questions (and then get answers) for your particular situation.

The site offers information on Interior and Exterior Attachments, Window upgrades, replacement information and air sealing as well

If you are a renter check out the information on surface applied films that can be attached to windows to offer energy efficiency without a lot of cost or permanent alteration.

It also includes information on blinds and shades that can also serve as energy savers.

Also check the National Fenestration Council for information on windows and films they provide excellent guidelines on what all those "numbers" mean with regards to window performance.

Tax Credits may also be available and may also be provided by your local utility. Check Energy Star or DSIRE for what is in your area.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The Greenest Building is the one already built. Say it with me "the greenest building is the one already built..."

I spoke with a coffee shop acquaintance the other day who was excited about finally buying a home. Its not built yet but he was excited as it was a planned "net zero" home. And while short on specifics regarding exactly what that meant I simply asked the price - over $450K on a home not yet built.

In the area where this development is located, there is a nearby better area (than where this development is planned) are homes for sale, many many homes. All of them could easily be brought into the concept of net zero or at least energy efficient for well under 450K.

We have many homes short sale, foreclosures, desperate people who need to sell before that comes a reality with homes for sale. We have many many unemployed Contractors and workers in the industry desperate for jobs of this kind who are available and now very affordable as a result. All willing to make homes green, any kind of green an owner would wish.

To buy new seems well luxurious in my mind wasteful in another. The tax credits for many energy upgrades are still available, solar is coming down and there are many grants currently available; utilities are offering cash for clunkers or credits to offset energy saving appliances and heating options; The City of Seattle is piloting a water conservation project for landscaping. All of this for the ingenuity and committed home owner interested and willing in pursuing what can be done to make a home "green". All it requires is the willingness to do the legwork. Hiring a consultant to ferret out programs, options and plans are also easy affordable ways to keep people working and making your home green if that legwork issue is just that an issue.

I feel that in this economic climate, and one where Construction plays a big role in recovery, its hard for me to completely denigrate a new project that is being built in a lower economic neighborhood. But its also a disservice to have such expensive homes adjacent to affordable public housing and in an area where many residents are getting pushed out to accommodate the growing need for green build. That gentrification for the sake of greenness seems to be the antithesis of what it means to be a green community.

I can't applaud his decision nor comment on it to him directly. I was not hired by him nor asked by him my thoughts. Like many of the reasons I believe the housing crisis came to be was prompting that buying new was better and that women dictate the demands of home buying but they rarely spend the efforts on economics over aesthetics. And as more women work they no longer have the time or inclination to manage such a project. This is a disservice to women and to families by not looking at the big picture. My neighbors here who own the town homes I rent realize now what appalling structures they are and how insufficient they are in which to live. I thankfully rent and have no plans to buy anything even remotely like these absurd shoe boxes that came and went during the boom, but when you are buying you look at silly things like "newness" as somehow being "better", add to that simple ignorance on how to find a property that fits but is not perfect but has the potential is not something anyone teaches. Seeing outside the shoebox is a better way of finding that which fits. So instead of expecting someone to do the right thing for you do the right thing for yourself - the effort can make a dream a reality and a much more affordable one at that.

Don't fall into the trap that led the boom time in building - it was just a shell game and as result made homeowners the mark. All it was was just another bubble game of finding a mark, using ringers to excite the mark and the host to walk away with the money. Its an old con but it works its basically lather, rinse, repeat.

So remodel,refurbish, recycle. Buy old and find ways to make it green. If its already there its the greenest building.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Rich...well you know the rest

The last week once again found the news filled with tales of disproportionate income between the rich and the less so.

America if its ever to get back into a sustainable level of growth must address the long range issues of income inequity.

America is near or at the bottom of equivalent Westernized countries when it comes to overall satisfaction of life, education, health but at the top when it comes to CEO and Executive compensation in relation to other countries. Are really our CEO's that superior to their foreign equivalent?

Sunday NY Times reported on a study by The Analyst’s Accounting Observer, a publication of R. G. Associates, titled “S.& P. 500 Executive Pay: Bigger Than ...Whatever You Think It Is,” they compare senior executives’ pay with other corporate costs and measures.

They found that Total executive pay increased by 13.9 percent in 2010 among the 483 companies where data was available for the analysis. The total pay for those companies’ 2,591 named executives, before taxes, was $14.3 billion.

They also determined that 158 companies paid more in cash compensation to their top guys and gals last year than they paid in audit fees to their accounting firms. Thirty-two companies paid their top executives more in 2010 than they paid in cash income taxes.

The article discusses the unequal levels of pay in comparison to what companies spend on Research and Development - the critical component of both innovation and ultimately job creation. I urge you to read the article here and see how this compensation discrepancy is affecting a companies long term growth and sustainability.

And this current issue of Mother Jones has dedicated itself to the state of the American Worker. They have found that among the "rank and file" working/middle class wages are stagnant but hours worked have increased making for an increasingly frazzled worker. And of course in this fragile economy the ability to speak up or ask for wage increases, time off, etc are a non-starter with over 15 million currently unemployed.

This again is not sustainable nor even comparable to other Westernized nations. Once again we lead in lower wages, benefit vs actual hours worked. Yay we are number one.

I urge you to read this issue that shares harrowing tales from the working class and shows how our Country stacks up in comparison to other countries regarding personal economics.

And lastly, Robert Reich manages to in 2 minutes describe how our economy is failing us.

The current decision by the Supreme Court regarding the class action discrimination suit against WalMart, the current attempts to unionize both Target and WalMart struggle while current Municipal and State workers find their union rights to collectively bargain eroding with their pensions, salaries and benefits only serve to illustrate that in this country the rich.. well you know the rest.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Debate Continues

While I have never been an ardent fan of LEED I have been supportive of what the USGBC does and its efforts to encourage Green Building and push for a better standard of what defines it.

I am against Certifications and Awards as they are easily exploited and often add features and costs to a building without lending any purpose or function. And until we have a ICC code that has updated green building and in turn Appraisals and Insurance that recognize the differences in the types of Green build I think its best to study what elements work and what do not. We cannot be excessive anymore in our thinking towards building as it reflects waste in every sense of the word.

I found an article today while reading another update on how to "cheat LEED for points" regarding a criticism by Andres Duany, one of the founders and leaders of the New Urbanist movement.

And it is on this note I agree with Duany that the high cost of meeting LEED certification. LEED is often too complicated and administratively heavy for the results obtained. In comparison to other Green Build programs, LEED is probably the most difficult to administer, requiring both intense interpretation and large quantities of documentation. Most other programs, both local and national, tend to be less complicated to manage and, in some cases, result in higher-performing buildings with less effort.

And in a struggling market I have to ask if LEED for Homes is value added?

I also refer you to Building Science that frequently laments LEED ratings as often false prophecies when it comes to building performance.

The debate is ongoing. And it should be to make sure we find what works and what is needed to make it work. I think that is the point.

Duany predicts decline of strict green building standards

By Andre Shashaty
Partnership for Sustainable Communities

Charlotte, N.C.–Decrying the high cost of "optimization" of development in a lean time, Andres Duany called for a return to common sense development principals that harken back to the 19th Century and predicted declining use of the LEED standards for building efficiency.

Speaking at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference here, Duany took aim at one of the banes of the modern developer's existence: excessive regulation of development, particularly the high cost of certification of buildings under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED rating system.

The Miami-based new urbanist architect said that "optimization" was driving up the cost of development to absurd levels.

He said infrastructure and permitting are "fantastically expensive” and blamed this primarily on "optimization," that is, the practice of imposing increasingly detailed and strict regulations in an effort to take development from merely good to nearly perfect.

He took a swipe at city emergency services officials for wanting too much optimization of roads. But he saved his strongest words for green building certifiers.

He criticized green building standards that don't give points for low cost approaches like passive solar heating but encourage developers to buy expensive windows to make sure that "not an atom of air escapes."

"Environmentalism got addicted to optimization and we can't afford it," Duany said. "It's absurd what you have to go through to get LEED certified. It will crash on it's own. It already is."

Duany is a principal of the firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), and was co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism with his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

"It costs more to get a project certified under the LEED for neighborhoods (LEED-ND) program than it does for me to design it," he said.

He called on the green building movement to adopt a dual approach, with one set of low tech standards and one set of high tech standards.

"There are many low costs ways to get 85% of the benefit of today's standards. We need $45 windows, not $250 to $300 windows," he said.

Duany said there needs to be a "LEED Brown" rating, in addition to the current silver, gold and platinum ratings. He suggested this could give builders credit for using traditional but low cost measures that are not easy to quantify or certify. He described these steps as "the original green," and "what we did when we didn't have money."

He said that high-density development in urban locations which entail less reliance on private cars should get a free pass on energy efficiency or energy generation standards. "Don't make apartment dwellers install solar power," he said. "They are doing their part just by living densely and driving less."

He ridiculed the notion that single-family homes would ever lose popularity or that they should be squeezed out by public policy. But he did suggest that they be subject to more efficiency requirements to compensate for the inherent inefficiency of this use of land.

Duany also had choice words for government land use and building officials.

In New Orleans, he said that government standards for rebuilding added costs that just about exactly offset the amount of assistance the government was going to provide, so "no one can rebuild."

How are Duany's clients adapting to today's difficult development climate? With "slow development," which he defined as working up to high density in a gradual way, likening it to how towns were developed in the 1800s. He spoke of the benefits of one-floor retail, with no housing above it, and of walk-up apartments, both of which he said are highly efficient.

For more detail on Duany's thinking about slow development read the March/April issue of Sustainable Communities magazine.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


While I am quite the skeptic regarding pre fab as an "affordable" residential option I am quite excited to see it go the commercial route. I do think that this could be a great option to spur the Construction Industry - from manufacturing to build.

Today's New York Times has a great article on a Pre-fab project used for student housing. Its green lean and mean in every great sense of the word. It also cites project costs as significantly lower than traditional build. Sadly however the costs are often saved in the wages used to build the structure but still a significant wage for many struggling in the trades.

Looking outward to this project the inspiration is there and the possibilities are as well. And that is Fab-tastic!

Squeezing Costs, Builders Take New Look at Prefab

New York Times, June 15, 2011
PHILADELPHIA — A package arrived on a shabby north Philadelphia block in January 2010, wrapped in Tyvek and measuring 55 feet long and 16 feet wide. Inside was a kitchenette, a bathroom and two bedrooms. The only thing missing was the toilet bowl lid. Just six weeks — and 88 similar packages — later, the Modules at Templetown, a four-story student-housing complex of 80,000 square feet near Temple University here, had completely risen from its concrete foundation.

The technique used to build the Modules, modular construction or prefab, in which major components are assembled off-site, has a long history in the single-family housing market, but its place in the commercial field has been limited. Currently just 1 percent of the commercial building market is prefab, mostly limited to schools, hospitals, dormitories or retail stores, although the largest modular building in the country is a 21-story Hilton hotel in San Antonio that was erected in 1968.

Now, with an emphasis on materials conservation and reuse, and developers looking to squeeze costs any way they can, modular construction is getting a closer look.

Often the word prefab conjures images of inexpensive and poorly built structures like trailer homes. But proponents of prefab, many of whom shudder at the moniker, say that modular design done well is anything but cheaply built. A modularly constructed building uses the same materials as a traditional one. But because it is made in a factory, workers are not battling the elements and can construct it more soundly and with less waste, proponents say.

“The quality of what you can assemble is infinitely higher on a factory floor,” said the hotelier AndrĂ© Balazs, who considered building a luxury modular hotel atop the High Line in Manhattan, but abandoned the idea when he found it too costly in New York.

Mr. Balazs said he was in discussions with manufacturers in Europe to build individual hotel units abroad and ship them to this country to assemble a boutique hotel in Los Angeles, a process that could be replicated in other cities.

Nearly all contemporary buildings rely on some element of prefabrication, with facades largely constructed off-site and windows and doors standardized. Even “bathroom pods,” bathrooms built and assembled off-site, are becoming increasingly common. But the idea of building most of the building in a factory and setting it atop a foundation simply has not taken off.

“Is the technology there to do it? Yes. Is the desire? Yes,” said Christopher Sharples, a principal at SHoP Architects, which is designing a possible 34-story prefab tower for the developer Forest City Ratner at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. “In the near future, I think people are going to become more educated about what the potential of this approach could be.”

The market share of commercial modular construction is poised to increase in the next five years, according to the Modular Building Institute, an industry trade group. In addition to the possibility of a tower at Atlantic Yards, an eight-story modular apartment building is scheduled to break ground this summer in the University City section of Philadelphia.

A developer can expect to shave up to 20 percent off construction costs with modular building largely because labor costs are lower. A unionized New York City carpenter makes about $85 an hour, including benefits, when he works at a construction site. At Capsys in Brooklyn, the only modular factory in the city, a comparable worker makes less than $30 an hour plus benefits. Many modular factories are not unionized and pay even less.

“It’s a disaster for construction workers,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in western Massachusetts.

Developers also benefit from time savings. Speed aside, builders have the ability to create a production schedule that minimizes downtime. In traditional construction, a contractor is overseeing work by various subcontractors who work for separate entities and on their own schedules. Weather can cause delays and so can any number of unforeseen factors like waits for zoning approvals. But in a factory, all the various tradesmen from the plumbers to the carpenters to the electricians work for the factory, and all the pieces come together simultaneously.

“It never rains inside our building, it never snows,” said Tom O’Hara, the director of business development for Capsys, an 80,000-square-foot factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “We can make very airtight buildings.” One of their projects, a luxury hotel on the North Fork of Long Island, was able to open in the spring of 2005, before the start of the lucrative summer season, largely because of the modular construction schedule, Mr. O’Hara said.

Still, prefab has its own set of limitations. It is uncharted territory for most architects, developers and contractors, who are hesitant to take any risks in a tenuous market. Every decision, from the color of the bathroom tile to the knobs on kitchen cabinets, must be made before construction begins. And the building must be designed so it can fit in boxes that meet Federal Highway Administration regulations.

“It looks simpler than it is,” said Jonathan Weiss, the president of Equinox Management and Construction, the developer of the Modules in Philadelphia. “There’s an awful lot of coordination.”

Mr. Weiss said the $9.5 million building would have cost 25 percent more and would have taken 15 months instead of eight had it been built traditionally.

The modernist building has boxy orange windows jutting out from a gray stucco facade that masks the boxes behind it. The facade was built on-site along with several other elements like the hallway stairwells and the mechanical elements.

“You really do need to embrace the modular constraints,” said the building’s architect, Brian Phillips of Interface Studio Architects. “That’s where you save time and money.”

An untrained eye could never tell the building was built anywhere but on-site. The units have modern kitchenettes; large, airy bedrooms; wood floors and chalkboard apartment doors.

“Everyone’s always fascinated when I tell them I live in the Modules,” said Timothy Archer, a Temple University junior who was sitting on the building’s roof deck garden one recent morning sipping a glass of red wine. Rents start at $1,300 a month for an unfurnished two-bedroom unit, according to the building’s Web site.

The challenge of making a prefabricated building architecturally innovative is part of what drives architects like James Garrison, the principal of Garrison Architects, who designed a Scandinavian-style modular apartment at an adolescent treatment center in Albion, Mich. With floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over a lake, the steel-framed Koby Cottage was built in a factory; even the furniture was installed off-site. The 1,100-square-foot structure was put together on-site in a single day.

This summer work is to start on a two-story modular child care center at Lehman College in the Bronx that Mr. Garrison also designed. At $6 million, the building will cost the City University of New York half of what it would have cost and take half the time to build had it been built on-site, said Iris Weinshall, the vice chancellor for facilities, planning and construction at CUNY.

The center will be constructed of 20 boxes brought to the campus on a truck from a factory in Ephrata, Pa., and Garrison Architects says it will take a week to assemble.

Mr. Garrison offset the two stories and added trellises for vines on the building’s facade that run alongside thin vertical glass louvers.

“We don’t want it to look like a set of boxes produced in a factory,” said Mr. Garrison

Monday, June 13, 2011

Streamling your Mortgage

Are you paying too much interest on your home loan? Do you have an FHA loan or a VA home loan? Streamline refinance is the fastest, easiest way to save money on your existing loan.

To find out if you can refinance to an FHA Streamline Refinance loan check the website for details. They also offer similar packages for VA loans. You can go here for more information regarding Federal Housing Administration Loans.

Streamline Refinance is called streamline because of its ease of use. Using your original loan paper work there is no other paperwork necessary. No endless forms or documents to complete, your original paper work is the starting point of the streamline refinance process.

The benefits of a Streamline Refinance are yours from fast and hassle free to no out of pocket expenses, lower interest rates and long term savings over the life of your mortgage.

As in all situations take the time to analyze all costs and benefits, long term goals and objectives of any refinancing package and most importantly your own financial goals and needs.

Friday, June 10, 2011

High Impact

Five Tips to Reduce Overall Building Impact

Reprinted from ED+C

Chicago — Cutting through the green rhetoric can be challenging when trying to build sustainably in today’s marketplace, so defining what’s really important is key. The following tips from USG Corporation can help do just that to minimize a building’s effects on the environment while saving money, time and effort in the process:

Learn about Life Cycle Assessment. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a holistic evaluation of all stages of a building’s life from cradle to cradle—including extraction, manufacturing, installation, design, service life, deconstruction, reuse of raw materials and more—and is the most important step in building sustainably. Understanding LCA can lead to making informed decisions on how to design, build and operate a building in a way that reduces operational costs, energy usage and more.To quickly become informed about LCA, explore online resources such as National Institute of Building Sciences (www.nibs.org), www.Architecture2030.org and http://usg.com/ecoblueprint.

Extend a building’s product/systems service life through smart product choices. The longer the service life of a building is—from initial construction to deconstruction—the lower its carbon footprint becomes. As building materials and technology have improved dramatically over time, building professionals have more options to use sustainable products. For example, choosing products and systems that have high R-values (thermal resistance) or that have a longer service life, such as plaster that is highly resistant to surface damage, can help extend the life of the a building and minimize its carbon footprint.

Reduce operational energy and water usage. The U.S. buildings sector accounts for a whopping 40 percent of the country’s energy consumption and a shocking 8 percent of the global energy consumption.1 Energy and water are naturally limited resources that are affected by the operations of the building. Reducing a building’s lifetime water and energy usage can not only dramatically reduce the negative aspects of a building’s operations, but it can also reap significant cost benefits. For example, the use of stepped ceilings allows for day-light harvesting, thus reducing the need for artificial lighting, and the addition of ceiling fans enables the space to remain comfortable while setting the thermostat at several degrees higher than normal.

Retrofit, renovate, remodel. The greenest building is one that was never built, so retrofit whenever possible. In fact, it takes 65 years for an energy-efficient new building to save the amount of energy lost in demolishing an existing building.2 Many flexible products are available today such as drop ceilings that are conducive to retrofitting because they can be easily replaced for a fresh, new look; drywall partitions on wood or steel framing can replace solid masonry systems, allowing for easy reconstruction, design and space flexibility; and pre-engineered grid systems employ unique design options from multi-plane flat ceilings to articulated, domed and combinations of these options to provide innovative solutions for that old space.

Divert waste from landfills. The most common path toward waste diversion from landfills is reuse and recycling. The first step is to simply separate building materials before disposal instead of throwing everything into one bin. Various manufacturers are aiding in waste diversion and preserving natural resources through recycling programs, such as the USG Ceiling Recycling program that takes back approved ceiling panels from any manufacturer and recycles them into new building materials. In addition, grinding up installation cut-offs or used, deconstructed drywall can be used on site as soil amendment, reducing potential runoff. In fact, the use of one ton of reground drywall per acre per year reduces watering needs by 20 percent.3 These types of programs are an easy and cost-effective way to dispose of old panels, saving time and money by reducing trips to the dumpster and related landfill fees. They can also contribute to LEED credits for construction waste management and other possible credits.

Following these tips doesn’t require extensive certification, money or a shift in lifestyle—just a commitment and a break from traditional building practices. Money is often a chief concern in sustainable building, but, in fact, the cost to improve a building’s life cycle and operational energy consumption by 60 percent can be achieved at little or no cost.4 The cost implications, rising health issues (e.g., asthma related to poor air quality) and overall harm to the environment caused by unsustainable building practices make sustainability an imperative within the building community.

USG Corporation is a manufacturer and distributor of high-performance building systems through its United States Gypsum Company, USG Interiors Inc., and L&W Supply Corporation and other subsidiaries. Headquartered in Chicago, USG worldwide operations serve the residential and non-residential construction markets, repair and remodel construction markets, and industrial processes. USG wall, ceiling, flooring and roofing products provide leading-edge building solutions for customers, and L&W Supply center locations efficiently stock and deliver building materials nationwide. For additional information, visit the USG Web site at www.usg.com.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shadow People Emerge

The long term "recession" continues. I wrote about the Shadow People resigned to perhaps a remainder of life living in the shadows on dwindling resources - from both personal savings and Governmental aid. Most are boomers over 50 struggling after decades of work and investment to the community are now shut out and ignored in the ever ending political landscape that seems less about work and more about debt.

The seeming lack of actual jobs programs, the avoidance of subject and the constant obstruction of the Republican party continues to put issue upon issue before the needs of the American people. And the divisiveness seems to center on some strange misguided belief that real working class people are exempt from hardship that anyone unemployed is somehow "lazier" "greedier" "unwilling" to work in jobs for less wages or benefits.

As many of the strongest members of the GOP are working class they have never had many opportunities either professionally or via education to improve their standard of living, manage to live on their ever decreasing incomes and somehow think that while the to 1% have managed over 30% growth in income the last decade they are more deserving so it shall be anyone else clearly not. And in turn they are still working or making ends meet so what is the problem except some sort of lack of character.

When you have never had much having less is not an issue but for those who have moved up the ladder, bought homes, educated their children and committed to an employer for long term professional growth theirs is a completely different issue. This is the real problem in America - class conflict - only between the wrong classes - the working poor vs the middle class.

I follow the plights of the 99ers most of them over 50 and cannot find work, those who have fallen so far off the radar they are virtually ignored by the media and politicians as the dirty secret of the great recession. A mass of shadow people who would simply benefit us if they would simply disappear.

Below is a video that tells of one' mans story. It begins with one and then extends to many.

A 99er's Story

And his and the others on that channel don't seem to be in line changing anytime soon - as indicated by this article in today's New York Times.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

This Land Is Your Land

Nothing touches the Sustainable "industry" more than the desire for healthy organic local food. It became the touchstone and focus of many communities and businesses that use the concept from "farm to table" to promote grow and buy local.

The farmer's markets that populate a city during the season are expanding but the vendors are not. Many are corporate farms simply greenwashed. The problem is that to actually grow and be certified organic is an expensive process. We lost a cheese maker last year to FDA requirements on unpasteurized cheese. Its these types of "regulations" that the Republicans like to see as job stifling. What they are is simply inflexible but as the current E Coli scare in Europe shows what would it be like without them?

But the problem is lack of land. Again the notion of the farm being this distant land vast space of home and hearth is long gone. In order to survive Farmers need access to urban centers which to market and distribute their goods. And simply there is no urban land. Our suburban sprawl thanks to the unreal costs of housing in urban centers and the building boom has removed much farm able land that once was adjacent to our cities.

But ironically what no one wants to do is look at these cities that are so badly decayed - such as Detroit, Cleveland or St Louis and turn them into growing space. The sensitive issue of relocating the few residents (mostly minorities)touches on issues of Racism and Gentrification. The old days when urbanization was a desired state of affairs and suburbanization an equally undesired one we have to ask ourselves what are we doing to re-imagine cities for the future. The sustainable city will have to address that and re-think what kinds of work and jobs will be needed to maintain the population. Costs for housing and transportation will also need to be adjusted. Change it just is not something part of the American mythology but the idea of farm and food has been but it may not be if it continues.

I reprint an Article from the American Prospect on the declining availability of land for our new urban farmers.

No Land to LeaseNew farmers inspired by the local and organic food movements can't find the real estate.

Sarah Laskow | June 7, 2011 |

Even before they began looking for land, Cara Fraver and Luke Deikis had a name picked out for their farm. Quincy Farm, they imagined, would be within 200 miles of New York City and would grow organic vegetables, which they would sell at farmers' markets and to members of a community-supported agriculture group. They didn't know much about farming, but they were accomplished gardeners eager to work a plot larger than their Brooklyn backyard.

Like many new farmers, Fraver and Deikis were drawn to agriculture by activist calls to reform the country's food system. They saw an opportunity to start a business that tapped into urban food markets for locally grown organic food. Between 2000 and 2008, sales of organic food have almost quadrupled according to industry sources, and by the end of that period, 4.1 million acres of U.S. farmland were growing USDA-certified organic crops. While the proportion of beginning farmers among all farm operators has declined more than 10 percent since the United States Department of Agriculture began keeping track in 1982, a growing group of purposeful newcomers is showing up at farm conferences, interning on farms, and looking to get in on the local-food wave.

For many of these beginners, the biggest hurdle is the first: finding land and figuring out how to pay for it. It took Fraver and Deikis about five years to purchase land. They started trying to leave Brooklyn in 2007, but they soon realized it would be too expensive to buy a plot; at the time, they couldn't justify the financial risk. In 2008, they began apprenticing on farms while drafting a business plan and saving money. But even after they again began looking seriously for land, it took about two more years before they closed on a deal this spring.

Farmland in the United States has been disappearing since World War II, and in the past 50 years, commercial and residential developers have come to control over 20 percent of U.S. farmland. The takeover began slowly at 75 million acres in the first 25 years and ballooned to another 171 million in the second half. What land remains has grown more expensive. Between 2000 and 2008, the real-estate value of farmland more than doubled.

The areas where many beginning farmers want to settle -- close to cities like New York City, Atlanta, or San Francisco -- are places with robust markets for the sustainably grown crops these farmers want to raise. But such locations also have the most expensive land. Property can sell at $6,000, $10,000 an acre, adding up to far greater sums than farmers can expect to repay selling vegetables. When a farmer named Erica Frenay and her husband were seeking land near Ithaca, New York, to raise chickens, turkeys, and pigs for sale (along with vegetables for their family), they resorted to driving around to look for promising tracts and then sending the owners polite letters asking if they would consider selling.

State policies are adjusting to bring the supply of land in line with this new demand. Since the 1970s, one of the most powerful tools for keeping farmland from being developed by other commercial interests has been a conservation easement, which decreases the value of land by stripping it of development rights. In these arrangements, the seller still receives the full assessed value of the land: Nonprofit groups, usually independent land trusts or government conservation programs, chip in to purchase the development rights, and the farmer pays the rest.

When Fraver and Deikis finally did find a farm, just north of the Hudson Valley in Schaghticoke, New York, they used an easement to bring down the land's price. Two conservancy groups, the Open Space Institute and the Agriculture Stewardship Association, pitched in to cover one-third of the land's appraised value.

"It was possible for us to own land because of these land conservancies," Fraver says. "It's still a huge investment" -- hundreds of thousands of dollars, when the average yearly farm income is forecasted to be just $11,174 in 2011. She and Deikis planted their first crops this spring. For now, they are both working off-farm jobs to supplant their farming income but hope to be farming full time by their third year on the land.

While easements preserve land from commercial development, however, Fraver and Deikis have been less successful at guarding against high prices: Retirees or city-dwellers looking for a second home can outbid a capital-poor farmer. Wealthy landowners and ranchers often use conservation easements to decrease their tax burden.

Some land groups and a couple of states are addressing this problem with easement clauses that guarantee affordability. These generally require that the land be used for farming in perpetuity and define farming in a way that excludes wealthy weekend farmers, who may plot a small farm on their vacation home, from eligibility. Massachusetts forbids any activity that would take away from the agricultural viability of the farms in its agricultural preservation program. Since 2004, the Vermont Housing and Consolidation Board has included in its easements an affordability option, which gives the agency the right to purchase the protected farm at its agricultural value should it be sold to a non-farmer.

But Fraver and Deikis and their easement partners were wary of this approach. If a regular conservation easement drops the resale value of the land, an affordability clause drops it even further and is designed to keep it low. Even though the option Fraver and Deikis chose made their land more expensive at the time of purchase, they wanted some confidence that they would get a return on their investment when and if they decided to sell the land. "It's scary to invest so much money into a piece of property and to think that it would be worth the same, or even less, in 30 years," Fraver said.

Increasingly, farmers' advocates are wondering whether it's wise for beginners to buy land at all, when simply leasing land can mean starting a business more quickly and without as much debt. Leasing has always been an option, particularly for beginning farmers. But only about one-third of farmers lease some or all of their land, and it's more common in places like the Midwest, where large-scale farming dominates. Groups such as Land for Good in New England and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture are developing programs that encourage small, beginning farmers to lease land and that are making that process easier.

Right now it's difficult for landowners and potential farming tenants to find each other and tricky to make those relationships work once they're established. Nine out of 10 farm landlords are not farmers. These relationships fall apart for all sorts of reasons -- different expectations, personality clashes, disagreements over issues large (who pays to rewire the barn) and small (how to muck out a pig stall).

Beginning farmers analogize these relationships to romantic entanglements or weird familial situations. Judith Winfrey and Joe Reynolds began working an older farmer's land in Georgia after he invited them to take it over, and he and his wife were still living on the property. "The analogy I used was: It was a bit like getting married," Winfrey says. "We married the farm, and we moved in with our in-laws. ... It was really awkward."

On the other hand, some landowners have little idea about even farmers' most basic needs. Winfrey has talked to a few local landowners who want their land farmed. "I ask them two questions: Is there a water source, and is the land cleared?" she says. Those are two land conditions farming requires. The answer, to both questions, has usually been no.

Groups like Land for Good hope that educating landowners ahead of time can help avert problems later on. At the very least, it can help set their expectations, which can tend toward the romantic and bucolic, rather than the realistic. "If they're not prepared, more often than not, things can fall apart, and both parties can get really discouraged," says Land for Good's Kathy Ruhf.

Monday, June 6, 2011


On the heels of my discussion regarding Container homes as another role providing pre fab uses, Builder announces another entry in the Pre Fab race - No mention of cost per square foot or total cost overall but the design is sleek and interesting, avoiding that lego look. But more importantly during this downtime we need support and innovation in this industry.

Two Firms Design/Build First Shipping Container House in Mojave DesertBy: Nigel F. Maynard

Ecotechdesign and its subsidiary ecotechbuild have completed what they say is the first permitted shipping container house in the Mojave Desert, near Joshua Tree, Calif.

“By combining high-efficiency and mass-produced modular construction methods with innovative design in one of the harshest climate zones in North America, we have developed a low-cost, sustainable, housing system that can be transported and quickly erected anywhere in the world,” says architect Walter Scott Perry, principal of ecotechdesign and founder of ecotechbuild.

Known as The Tim Palen Studio at Shadow Mountain, the container hybrid house prototype is a second-generation prefab design that consists of cargo containers and pre-engineered steel building components that were erected on site. It measures 2,300 square feet and has one bedroom, one and a half baths, and a studio. “The typical housing project in San Bernardino County takes one to three months to go through entitlement and permitting alone,” says contractor Eric Engheben, president of 44 West Construction. “Our project was approved and permitted in just one week.”

In addition to the speed of construction, the hybrid system allows home buyers to select a variety of green options. For example, the Palen Studio comes with a green roof, greywater recycling and water harvesting, solar shading, recycled flooring, solar daylight tubes, natural ventilation, solar power, and roof-mounted solar hot water panels that support a radiant floor heating system.

This kit-like housing product is being offered for the first time to homeowners who want more than what is currently available with pre-fab and manufactured housing, even custom construction, the companies say.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Green Grandstanding

This week marked the grand guignol (oops, I mean opening) of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's new superior Eco Friendly Mega Green,Mega Crystal Church of all things "venture philanthropy"home

I am not going to get into my often frustrations with the Gates Foundation, their work or even this new 21st Century concept of "Venture Philanthropy" but instead discuss the actual building itself, its design, its purpose and its overall aesthetic to the community at hand.

It a nutshell its "OTT" as in all things Gates - it is excessive. I recall the kerfuffle over his mega mansion of Medina 10 years or so ago, the then bachelor Bill was building a tribute to the Jetson's of the future. A modern home with all things technology right down to the art on the walls.

Since then he married, had children and Melinda (as all wives of wealthy scions of industry are wont to do) hired a high end New York based interior designer to soften the edges. I have never been to the home, have no desire to do so, but I would like to visit the Gates building just for the point of it.

Located in the corridor of what is Seattle's WORST traffic road - called the Mercer Mess- it is also located in an area that makes getting to even on the best days a pain. Part residential neighborhood, it is also across from the site of the Seattle Center 1962 (I am sure the first place young Bill got a taste for all things Jetson)where a small entertainment complex still exists and is the home of the varying arts and entertainment festivals throughout the year. The Center also has the Seattle Public Schools football stadium (which they may be losing, the Science Center and the Science and Rock museum founded by his former bff, Paul Allen. this area is also host to most of our theatre and arts companies; One, Intiman Theatre (once nationally acclaimed), that had to shut down in total last month due to lack of funding for its operations; birthplace to numerous Tony Awards and respected careers in the arts it also and a long standing commitment to local arts - supporting in fact a PUBLIC school within the Seattle Center, called Center School. A school that supports curriculum for those interested in a career in the arts. Irony since Bill is so dedicated to Education he doesn't seem interested in that small thriving school directly across the street and the organization which supported - from financially, etc those also associated with it.

But I digress, again this is not about the concept of this new Venture Philanthropy or as I call it money with strings or hey there are no such thing as a free lunch this is about the building.

Aside from its absurd location and focus on being green the only thing I noted about the design was its arm shape. Done to resemble “arms reaching out to the world,” I am less inclined to see that as embracing and define as strong arming - a quality well known about Bill Gates be it in business or philanthropy.

As for its "bio" the building is well green if green is over 900,000 sq feet and was estimated to cost $500 million to build. The complex will likely get a Gold rating in LEED certification. Yes once again, Green comes in many shades and sizes too. My favorite aspect of the building is an 11,000-square-foot Gates museum, which tells the story of the founders and work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation employs roughly 800 people. Perhaps they can tour the museum during lunch as opposed to going to the cooler funner one across the street!

So how does the $500M, 900,000-square-foot Gates Foundation HQ compare to neighboring properties? Russell Investments paid a little over $100 million for a 42-story tower for their 900 staff members and Amazon.com, which has 20,000 employees, paid $700 million for their 800,000 square-foot area. And they are profit making business without tax credits nor exemptions given. In this economic tough times makes one wonder how non profits have the money to give let alone spend. Well... again they are not "venture philanthropists"

But as I said this is not really about the irony of it all so instead of me critiquing a building I have no seen nor toured; a building that was likely built on tax credit and is tax exempt as a non-profit- one worth 66 Billion; I will reprint the review from Crosscut a local blog that is ironically one of the strings attached to the gift of support by Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

Lawrence W. Cheek

From Seattle 'Space Gothic' to global health
Lawrence. W. Cheek

Posted Mon, Jun 8, 2009

The new Gates Foundation campus is a renewal of the promise of Century 21, helping to make Seattle the center of global transformation through science.
How Bill Gates caught the global health bug

It was when he read about rotavirus, a cause of widespread death of children from diarrhea. A decade later, Gates Foundation's efforts have brought about WHO approval of a rotavirus vaccine.

How should architecture express humanity's highest ideals? The Greeks did it pretty well — and for about 2,400 years architects were so paralyzed by the classical precedent that they kept returning to it for capitols, churches, banks, and bungalow porches.

Happily, NBBJ architects, designers of the new Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus in Seattle, have demonstrated no traces of paralytic thinking in these spectacular new buildings. They’re a new paradigm for the 21st-century workplace.

Whether they successfully express the Gates Foundation’s mission is a more complicated issue, and we’ll get to it. First let’s just imagine going to work here.

Parking is tough and expensive — the campus at Fifth Avenue and Mercer Street rolls right up against Seattle Center — so you’ll do your best not to drive. Fine; it’s easy to get here. Some employees are even grabbing the Monorail. Those who must use the parking garage should be gratified to see that most of it is underground, so it doesn’t dominate the campus skyline with a brutal concrete hulk.

If you’re just back from a longitude 10 time zones away, as Gates staff and guests frequently are, you’ll appreciate the building’s lavish daylighting. NBBJ pounced on research suggesting that bodies recover more gracefully from jet lag when exposed to the home port’s natural light cycles, so walls of windows are everywhere.

The main circulation hallways on each floor open to the campus plaza with floor-to-ceiling glass (buffering direct sun with automatic Venetian blinds). Offices and conference rooms on the opposite side of the hallway sport window walls to gather the daylight in the hall. An atrium attached to the north building serves as a lunchroom and reception hall, and its transparent walls are 60 feet high.

Since the buildings curl back on themselves in an acute boomerang form, this transparency has a secondary purpose and benefit: You’ll constantly see other people walking the halls on opposing wings. This encourages the sense of community in the foundation, and animates the buildings. The human flow becomes a piece of the architecture.

Many corporate and college buildings today are designed to encourage the flow of accidental meetings, like neutrons in a chain reaction, but these buildings take the concept deeper than most. Even the atrium-like curving stairwells are designed for people to view each other climbing and descending, and to suggest a bottom-to-top sense of the entire community. It’s a mutation-into-respectability of architect Paolo Soleri’s "arcology" concept, in which an urban development becomes a fully integrated ecological system. (Soleri’s showcase "city" in Arizona, Arcosanti, resembles a mad baron’s ranchito on the planet Mongo and serves mainly as a hangout for leftover hippies.)

If you’re a Gates employee, you’ll likely find yourself frequently overwhelmed by the toughness of the problems you’re dealing with — dropouts in Detroit, AIDS in Africa — so a prime driver of the design here was to create a great variety of environments people can work in, either for respite or inspiration. There’s a large and delightful plaza, designed by Seattle-based Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd., and inside the building, an engaging collection of spaces to wander into and meet, work, or just think hard. Employees just moved in last month, and it’s already apparent that some favorites are the cantilevered ends of the wing hallways — compact glass nests with seating for no more than two, some with stunning views of the neighboring Space Needle.

Steve McConnell, NBBJ’s partner in charge of the project, says the driving force for the design as a workplace was to create an incubator for far-reaching thinking. "How do you enable a great new idea to take root? That’s part of what we tried to do here — create an environment that will support that." From all appearances, they have.

The other part, probably just as important, was to express the foundation’s ambitious mission. To do this, NBBJ had to design a colossal office complex (900,000 square feet, accommodating 1,200 employees) that somehow didn’t look like the headquarters of Insatiable International Commodities Ltd.; that despite being prodigiously expensive ($500 million, according to Gates spokeswoman Melissa Milburn) wouldn't look conspicuously extravagant; and that would offer visual cues to evoke the foundation’s global outreach while simultaneously grounding it in the Gates family hometown.

All of these impossibly contradictory demands must have had the NBBJ designers wishing they had some magic respite-and-inspiration retreats themselves over the seven years it took to design and build the campus. They didn’t fully succeed, and it’s not surprising.

McConnell says they worked hard at materials and design details that would provide a "non-corporate-slick" setting. There are a bunch of these, from the alder end-grain flooring to the not-quite-workaday perforated corrugated steel that cloaks the fire escapes. There’s a beautiful Tibetan handmade honeycomb wallpaper in the Conference Center that would seem abstractly quaint in a corporate headquarters. (It’s sustainable and fair-traded, underscoring the foundation’s commitment.)

But the building, taken as a whole, still is slick, its high-tech sophistication overriding all the details that try to break down its formality. There’s not a square inch of it that’s mock-rustic or whimsical or casual. The foundation engages in dead-serious business, and it’s no mom ‘n’ pop operation. That’s the architecture’s strongest message.

McConnell says the outward-flying arms conceptually connect the buildings to their global mission, while their partial alignment to the Seattle street grid serves to integrate them into the urban landscape. That’s a nice concept if a little abstract; how many of us would get it without being told? It’s an interesting game to idly imagine how the campus might have suggested Seattle reaching out to the world more solidly. Something that resembled the Space Needle’s flying-saucer hat dissolving into an abstract Chinese container ship?

Here’s the impossible mission arising again: Creating a new, authentically Northwest modernism that doesn’t fall back on cliche or silliness. It really wouldn’t make much sense to slap cedar siding on a $500 million complex.

The ideals successfully expressed here are pretty substantial: a stimulating and unusually humane workplace, a lot of attention to eco-friendly and sustainable design, and powerful ambitions to do something more valuable for humanity than making a few people rich. If NBBJ had managed to do more than that, we’d be copying it for the next 2,000 years.

Editor's note: Crosscut has received grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Cheating Green

I read on another site tips on how to get Gold for LEED in Housing. Great, tips about adding features to a home that may not be of use, add costs and are about getting a better "color" to your green rating. Is that about the client/homeowner or about the builder?

While this was about residential build this same principle could easily be applied to the Commercial LEED market as well.

Last night I had an opportunity to tour McKinstry's facilities and listen to a talk on the future of Energy Management. McKinstry is famous for being toured by then Candidate Obama and cited as an epitome of where we are going with regards to green jobs and the future.

As we talked we discussed the needs of reconciling a building's long term goals and that of the client's with also the budget and demands of Certifying a building be it LEED or any other program.

McKinstry defines "Smart Building" as one that measures energy and resource use wisely. Makes sense as that is inherent in not only the design but its purpose and use. As pointed out the building can have all the smart efficient components and materials but without proper operations and maintenance and compliance by tenants it it can be anything but "smart".

A building is a sum of its parts and that part is beyond the actual design and construction phase. Adding features that have no purpose that have no cost or removing features that do affect the life of the building and the part often forgotten its tenants.

In last night's presentation they discussed a school that was designed to incorporate all the latest elements of green build/design. During the last phase an essential element was removed and in turn has greatly affected the energy use and occupant satisfaction. Why? For cost reasons. Yet this building still received a Gold LEED certificate?

And even the USGBC headquarters has more green bells and whistles than most including energy sensor monitors at every cubicle. The purpose to allow the occupant and ultimately the building O&M to monitor the energy use of that cubicle. Well the problem is that there is no technology or individual there to monitor it. So the point?

That is the point. Adding or taking away features for purposes that either cut or add to the budget without thought is not smart build. Cheating never prospers but it does I guess for those who profit from it.