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Sprout Collective starts growing

More neat friends of ours are shaking things up. The Sprout Collective is doing that green jobs thing that we’re all trying to put our finger on. This trio is leveraging a big idea—the Living Building Challenge—and exporting our Northwest knowledge to any school district that is ready. They will solve school capacity issues, provide an innovative and tangible curriculum platform, and create lots of jobs. The team has designed the Seed, which is a net-zero modular classroom. Sprout will coordinate the pre-fab units with partner Method Construction. The primary elements—rainwater collection, PV panels, composting toilet—that make the Seed a Living Building will be contained in a central pod, which can then be enlarged with flanking rooms as needed. The Daily Journal of Commerce has some additional info here. And if you still need convincing, the real point of the Seed is to inspire kids towards a more sustainable future. I can’t think of a better time to simultaneously invest in our kids and the green building industry. Help the mission here if you’re so inclined.

Photo courtesy of Sprout!

Stop skimming & bundle bigger energy projects!

This is a long, but important article on why we’re not achieving deep energy efficiency reductions in buildings. There are many reasons, but Auden Schendler (Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company) digs into the idea that grabbing low-hanging fruit (quick payback projects) prevents us from ever reaching the bigger-ticket items that save more energy. I’ll provide the notes version of the argument here:

  • There are a lot of no-brainer energy efficiency projects out there. Especially when utility incentives are factored in, they are dirt cheap.
  • Not surprising, building owners set basic ROI thresholds and do the easy stuff. They agree to dip their toe into the water, and say they’ll come back later and jump in for the big splash. I’ll do the lighting retrofit now and overhaul my HVAC system later. It does happen, but it’s rare.
  • Problem is, the big jump requires long payback periods and with those short payback projects already off the table, the program dies on the vine.
  • The ROI metric is flawed … a) in the case of energy efficiency, it usually only counts installation and equipment costs and the subsequent energy savings. Maintenance costs, asset value, tenant/employee attraction and retention, health and productivity benefits, energy cost volatility and more should be incorporated into the equation. There’s also the  potential of being forced to replace equipment as time goes on, although this is admittedly a challenge to model … and b) ROI thresholds are just too darn low in light of market investment alternatives.

Building on this, Schendler suggests a few ways to improve our situation…again, the highlights:

  1. Bundle bigger. Combine long and short payback projects from the get-go.
  2. Accurately assess ROI and revisit ROI thresholds.
  3. Lobby for better policy. Cheap energy sends the wrong price signals. A carbon tax would level the energy playing field.
  4. Utilize creative financing mechanisms like MESA and PACE. Moving capital investments to operating expenses can help. And tying improvements to a property rather than a mortgage is smart.
  5. Switch incentives to help encourage longer-payback items … we don’t really need help with the cheap stuff.

The Food Oriented Development … it’s an FOD!

I’m pretty fired up about this concept. Perhaps I didn’t officially coin the phrase, but I’m certainly trying to bring it into practice. Much like its more common cousin, the TOD (transit oriented development), it’s fairly self-explanatory. At the moment, however, I’m thinking most specifically about an urban site development rather than a complete neighborhood. An FOD is all about density, with food as the central focus. On some levels it’s simply mixed-use development with a theme. But an FOD adds food industry—production, processing, storage, composting—to the usual combinations of residential, office and retail.

Parts of this concept pop up all the time. Take the images here, for example. My friend Chris was part of a group that launched a short-term demonstration called the Mushroom Farm. They partnered with renowned architecture firm Olson Kundig, which rotates thematic installations through its Pioneer Square storefront.  The Mushroom Farm showcased the industrial ecology nexus of spent coffee grounds and mushroom spores. Create the right conditions and voila, tasty oyster mushrooms grow right out of a bag. But the installation was much more than mushrooms and coffee. The team curated lunches, dinners and events to explore related conversations and celebrate the community that showed up.


Also in Seattle, Melrose Market does a nice job of co-locating food businesses. It’s mostly service and retail, although the butcher certainly provides some processing flair.

Another key to an FOD is that green building strategies are extended to tenants’ operations in a very intentional and food-specific ways. And I think these efficiencies—be it electrons or ingredients, water or waste—can equate to real performance for  food businesses, thus making an FOD attractive on many levels.

Layering these types of activities, efficiencies and community benefits across many businesses on one site is an FOD. I can get all scientific and nerdy about the systems-based design aspects, environmental benefits and educational potential, but it still boils down to dynamic and vibrant placemaking. I think the FOD is yet another evolution in connecting people to their food and community.

Seattle’s energy disclosure deadline looms

Phase one of the City’s energy disclosure ordinance is in full effect, and its October 3 deadline is right around the corner. In tracking this program over the past months and year, I’ve seen a handful of issues arise, some of which could limit the program’s overall effectiveness. I think that a solution that allows the market to utilize transparent energy metrics is a big piece of the energy efficiency puzzle, so let’s make this thing truly work!

So what’s happening out there?

  • Not all building owners have received their letter from the City (for phase one, only buildings over 50,000 sf must report). We kind of knew this would happen at some level … City and County records are not perfect and mail gets lost in the shuffle. In addition, property details are not always correct, leading to some confusion and subsequent troubleshooting.
  • Additionally, phase two buildings (over 10,000 sf) won’t receive their letters until November, for an April 2012 deadline. Overall, we need more people talking about the ordinance and its likely effects. I’m reaching out to media colleagues, allied organizations, and building owners to spread the word.
  • The City’s enforcement plan is non-existent to date. This is a big one. Owners need to know that compliance is not optional. And penalties need to be clear in order for a mandate like this to be effective. One of the first questions owners ask me is, “What happens if I don’t comply?” City program managers have promised more information online soon, which should help, but the clock is ticking.
  • Along with City action, we need more market enforcers. I’m hoping to encourage real estate agents to start requesting energy performance reports from buildings that they are hoping to lease or purchase. This is one primary aim of the ordinance—to use energy metrics in real estate transactions—and in part, the market can provide a self-policing service. But again, more knowledgeable players are needed. More market requests = more benchmarking = more compliance = higher energy performance over time.

As always, collaboration is key. Groups like the Seattle 2030 District are bringing together building owners and other stakeholders to share ideas. And I’ve been teaming with other small firms to help building owners streamline the compliance process and think about longer-term energy opportunities. So if you’ve come this far, give us a call (617.851.6742) or e-mail to discuss compliance details and energy savings potential.