Sustainable Snacking

Each week, our office receives a snack delivery from FreshDirect. Our order typically includes apples, bananas, coffee and of course, Snyder’s Honey Mustard & Onion pretzel pieces. Because we view ourselves as a “green” office, I decided to see how sustainable our favorite snack is using the GoodGuide rating system.

The GoodGuide rates products on a scale of 0-10 (0 being the worst and 10 being the best). Each product is rated for health, environment and society. The final score you see is a combination of the three scores, with the option to see the breakdown of the products rating in each category.

As soon as the snack shipment arrived, I grabbed the bag so I could scan the barcode on the side of the packaging to see the pretzels’ rating (a nice feature of the app that makes it easy to use when you’re in a rush at the store).

Overall, Honey Mustard & Onion pretzels were only a 3.7! Here’s what the GoodGuide had to say about this product:

  • Human Health Impacts: 3.0, this product has an average nutrition score.
  • Environment: 4.2, this company’s environmental policies, practices and performance place it among the worst 50% of companies rated by the GoodGuide.
  • Society: 4.0, this company’s social policies, practices and performance place it among the worst 50% of companies rated by GoodGuide.

To be honest, I’m not sure why a 3.0 for Health is considered average (shouldn’t 5 be the average?). Regardless, this Snyder’s product is clearly not performing well in any category.

Another convenient feature of this app is that it suggests alternative products that are similar but have a higher score. GoodGuide suggested ten comparable snacking options that scored either a 7.4 or a 7.5, a big jump from 3.7. As an office, we have agreed that any of these are a better option than the pretzels we currently order.

Consumers don’t always know the full impacts of the products they are buying. However, apps like GoodGuide force companies to be more transparent and accountable for their actions. Also, with features like the “alternative products” list, consumers can take back control of their footprint and purchase more sustainable foods and products.

Sick of Home? Why Not Move Into a Cave

Would you move to China to pay $30 a month in rent? What if it meant your new home was in a cave? While most New Yorkers would probably pass on the opportunity, there are approximately 30 million people in China who have grown accustomed to this lifestyle.

Most Chinese caves are in the Shaanxi province, where the soil is very porous and easy to dig through. Chinese caves range from simple, one-bedroom living spaces, to full scale homes with modern features. According to a report from the LA Times, a cave with three bedrooms and one bathroom could sell for $46,000. The nicest caves have plumbing and electricity, are very spacious and have architectural features similar to traditional luxury homes. People also buy furniture and hang pictures on the walls to make the caves feel homier.

These caves are often hailed as “eco-friendly” because they use significantly less energy than traditional homes and apartments. Unlike modern homes, caves naturally maintain a constant temperature throughout the year and therefore require no energy for heating and cooling. They also require significantly less building materials than traditional homes, which greatly reduces their ecological footprint. Some caves have not even been updated to include electricity or running water, making them the least energy intensive of them all.

Cave dwelling is certainly not a new phenomenon in China. However, if you do decide to move there in hopes of adopting this lifestyle, it might prove to be more difficult than you think. Most families have passed down their cave homes from generation to generation and have no plans to sell their caves any time soon.

Photo taken from http://assets.inhabitat.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/1/files/2012/03/Cave-houses-shanxi-2-537×357.jpg

A Wet Wipe Problem

The efficiency of a well-designed system is often limited by the operations of the people who use them. In my most recent article, I covered “smart” technologies that help people make systems in their home more efficient. Buying the proper smart technology is a great place to start, but their effectiveness depends on the owner’s willingness and dedication to learn how they work and to use them correctly.

One of the largest, most taken advantage of, and least thought about system is the New York City sewer and sanitation system. On a daily basis, 1.3 billion gallons of safe drinking water is delivered, used and disposed of in New York. Most people don’t give much thought to the scale and complexity of this system because it is mostly out of sight (and therefore out of mind). However, in order to get this job done the sewer system requires 6,000 miles of pipes, 135,000 sewer catch basins, over 494 permitted outfalls and 93 wastewater pumping stations.

The New York Times recently covered an issue that has begun to jeopardize the effectiveness of New York City’s sewer system – the wet wipe. Across the country wet wipes have increased in sales by 23%, and the “flushable” assertion seen on many of the boxes actually may not be true in New York City, Alaska, California, Hawaii and Wisconsin. Unlike everyday toilet paper, “flushable” wipes do not easily disintegrate in water, and more often than not they become knotted with everything else in the sewer system that does not break down.

While the sanitation department does employ different systems to pull material out of the sewage, the screening equipment is capturing more and more every year, almost doubling the amount pulled out since 2008. The major problem is that 100% of the material needed to be pulled out of the system is not captured by the screening equipment. Anything that makes it through can cause damage to pumping and treatment equipment, and the increase in wipes in the sewer system means more volume that the sanitation department has to remove.

The issue begins with the consumer and ripples across the sewer system to sewer treatment facilities and back to the consumer. The cost of more maintenance, equipment replacements, and volume of sewage to be treated is passed along in the form of raised water rates.

In a perfect world, we would all stop using these “flushable” wipes. For those looking for an alternative, a bidet attachment can be bought for less than $50 and attached to any standard toilet.

Photo taken from: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/dumbledoresarmyroleplay/images/c/cd/Environment-underground-rivers-nyc-tibbetts_46403_600x450.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20140430222305

Maximizing Indoor Air Quality

An important design consideration that can sometimes be undervalued is maximizing indoor air quality. Between work, school and home life, humans spend about 90% of their day indoors, where air quality can be two to five (or more) times more polluted than the outside. These pollutants come from combustion of fuels used for heating and cooling, building materials (i.e. carpets, pressurized wood products, etc.), outdoor air pollution, cleaning supplies, chemical products and other various sources. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to an increase in cases of asthma, allergies, heart problems and lung cancer. The problem has become so widespread that people are starting to take notice.

Engineers are responsible for designing the building’s mechanical systems to filter and move air in and out of our living spaces. Most building owners are becoming increasingly more aware of the pollutants humans can be exposed to and are investing in mechanical and natural ventilation systems that maximize indoor air quality well above the industry baseline standards. Rating systems such as LEED have created design criteria with higher indoor air quality design standards for engineers and building owners to use (for a detailed description of these strategies, click here).

Even if a building’s systems are designed to the highest possible standards, there is always room for improvement. Growing plants inside is great for our atmosphere because all plants absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. However, certain plants can also filter harmful pollutants from the air and are a low cost solution to be used in almost any building at any time.

The idea of using plants as a filtration system was first used by NASA as a way to clean the air in their space facilities and is now a common practice here on earth as well. Here are a few examples of plants that go above and beyond the limits of an engineered ventilation system:

1: Snake Plant- Known for filtering out formaldehyde, which is most commonly found in cleaning products, personal care products, toilet and tissue paper. Experts recommend you put it in your bathroom, as it can survive in humid conditions with little exposure to sunlight.

2: Bamboo Palm- Best plant for filtering out both benzene and trichloroethylene, which can cause a number of health problems including certain cancers, pregnancy complications and neurological disorders.

3: Heart Leaf Philodendron- Excellent at removing VOCs, however this plant may not be a good option for households or schools with children or pets, as it is toxic to humans when eaten.

Photo taken from https://unsplash.com/

Orlando City Soccer Club

Last Sunday, the Orlando City Soccer Club played their first home open against the New York City Football Club. The 60,000+ fans who attended the game watched these two teams battle for the win, yet neither was victorious thanks to a goal scored late in the game by Orlando City’s Ricardo Kaka, making the final score 1-1.

Orlando fans are also getting excited about their team’s new stadium, located in downtown Orlando- two blocks from the Amway Center and the downtown bar district. As fans approach the stadium, they can see in through the open plaza down to the field, which is 10 feet below ground level. Before the start of the game, a giant lion sculpture located at the stadium’s entrance will turn 180° to “watch” the game with fans.

The stadium, which broke ground earlier this year, is expected to be completed in time for the 2016 season. According to Orlando City’s website, “the stadium has been designed with the intention of creating the loudest and most intimidating atmosphere in Major League Soccer, with North American’s only safe-standing supporter section and a low slanted roof line to amplify crowd noise.”  The roof line also provides fans with shelter from rain and sunshine.

Additionally, the new stadium will feature a 360 lower bowl, all natural grass playing surface, single deck safe-standing supporter section and a 360’ scoreboard balcony bar (for a full list of the stadium’s design features, click here). Underground structures were also included in the design to allow for future expansion.

STEM Education: Today’s Classrooms for Tomorrow’s Leaders

The building design and construction industry has recently seen a rise the demand for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classrooms. The purpose of these classrooms, which are typically found in secondary education facilities, are to get kids interested in these subjects with the hopes that they will develop a passion for STEM and pursue a career in this field.

A recent report from Burning Glass found that the demand for students to fill STEM positions is much higher than previously thought. The report found that:

  • In 2013 there were 5.7 million job postings in STEM fields. Of those, 76% require at least a bachelor’s degree.
  • 48% of all entry-level jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher are in STEM fields, while only 29% of bachelor’s degree graduates earn a STEM degree.
  • STEM graduates have access to 2x as many entry-level jobs as non-STEM graduates.

The results of this study aren’t very surprising because although it’s not always obvious, the products from STEM professions surround us in our everyday lives. Whether it’s the buildings we live and work in, the roads and bridges we drive on, the tablets and smart phones we use to stay connected, or any of the millions of other modern day conveniences, we all rely on STEM professionals to imagine and create the infrastructure that supports our daily lives.

As demand for these professions increases, secondary education facilities are investing in new, state-of-the-art STEM classrooms. These spaces are designed to support integrated science, technology, engineering and math education by presenting students with real life challenges related to two or more of these fields. When designing STEM spaces, architects and engineers are not just providing schools with more classroom space, but rather a collaborative learning environment that gives tomorrow’s leaders real-world experience with solving some of today’s toughest challenges.

Although STEM classrooms aren’t all the same, they usually share similar design characteristics. For example, they are typically more open than their traditional counterparts, with flexible spaces that can be used to explore multiple subjects at once. STEM classrooms and teaching spaces also come fully equipped with the latest technology to give students full access to any information they may need with the click of a button.

So what does the future hold for STEM education? Due to the system’s current success, maybe someday every school will be required to have a designated STEM learning space. Some schools are have already taken STEM one step further and are now pushing for STEAM classrooms, which includes an “A” for art and design.

And while it’s great for architects and engineers to continue to improve their designs, I personally can’t wait to see what the next generations of STEM students are able to come up with next.

 

Photo from http://theeinsteinschoolplano.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/STEM-logo.png

A Response to LEED Critics

Over the past few decades, the LEED rating system has been revolutionizing the construction industry. The creators of LEED, Rick Fedrizzi, David Gottfried and Mike Italiano, wanted to design a rating system that would promote sustainability in the building and construction industry. However, the recent focus towards promoting environmental sustainability has opened the door to some critics who claim the rating system is not working as intended.

Sustainability is defined as “the ability to be sustained supported, upheld, or confirmed.” Today, the term is mostly associated with the ecological benefits of responsibly balancing and managing our energy and resource consumption. While environmental sustainability is a major part of what it means to be “sustainable”, ignoring the other aspects of the term detracts from LEED’s triple bottom line mission. When building owners purchase a LEED building design, they are making a long-term investment in a higher quality indoor environment for building occupants, increasing profits for building owners and creating a healthier planet.

Buildings that are seeking LEED certification can earn points from eight different categories- location and transportation, materials and resources, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, sustainable sites, indoor environmental quality, innovation and regional priority credits. Critics note that points from some of these categories actually increase the building’s energy consumption; however, there is usually a good reason behind these decisions. For example, in order to increase indoor environmental quality, the building engineer might use an airflow system that uses more energy to improve air quality. From an environmental standpoint, sacrificing energy consumption for better indoor air is not a responsible decision. However, when you consider that on average people spend 90% of their day inside, it then becomes a design factor worth including.

Although LEED building do not all performs the same, collectively they out-perform standard buildings. In a study conducted by the GSA Public Buildings Service, LEED buildings use 25% less energy and report 19% lower aggregate operational costs, 27% higher occupant satisfaction and 36% fewer carbon dioxide emissions. This well rounded analysis highlights the overall success of the LEED rating system in creating buildings that are better for people, profits and the planet.

Photo source: http://www.bee-inc.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/LEED-for-the-win.png