Friday, February 12, 2010

Propounding on the new documentary Tapped and our world of plastic (bottles)

Brought to us by the those who brought us Who Killed the Electric Car, Tapped—a documentary mostly about bottled water—recently screened as part of the UC|Sustainability Film Series for Winter 2010. The film exhbited where bottled water is sourced, which companies are behind the various brands of “natural spring water”, the containers in which it is sold, and the generally hidden impacts of bottled water on our environment and health. Although I was aware of the concerns of plastic packaging, as well as the unnecessary use and waste of water resources, Tapped was an engaging work that seemed to impact all in attendance.

Several topics in the film caused my innards to sink. It was the same disgust when I feel when the following ingredients are applied to the same recipe: individual ignorance by choice and corporate apathy. It is fairly simple for someone to point the finger solely at the insiders’ club—vile industry and the government at its mercy. But several times during the film, it was expressed that voting with our feet is ever so important. In this case, it is all about voting with our wallets.

One topic that disturbed me was environmental degradation in the name of plastic, If I recall correctly, 30 million plastic bottles are disposed every day, but only half make it into the recycling stream. The other half makes its way into landfills, rivers and streams, and even wash up on distant islands in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The film exhbited one such beach that no longer had the pure white sand it solely featured for thousands of years. Instead, it was littered with millions of small pieces of plastic. Our consumer choices translate into loss of habitat for marine life. Our culture of convenience translates into a lower quality of life for fellow humans and entire ecosystems alike. This is precisely the big picture thinking that I fear lacks in collective society only days after seeing realm-rocking documentaries about real life quasi-chaos.

My primary concern leads me to borrow a couple terms from the business world, both of which I picked up an Organization Theory course. After seeing several environmentally focused documentaries like Food Inc, The Age of Stupid, No Impact Man, and others, I cannot help but think of a class discussion on the difference between “corporate responsibility” and “corporate responsiveness”. Companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle likely will not alter their practices of virtually stealing water from local water bodies, (which was shown to result in “overharvesting” even during droughts), unless they are trounced with government regulation. Their image of “pure” and “clean”, and their sleek bottle design is about as bad a Starbucks’ recent greenwashing.

Corporate responsibility usually comes into play when a company comes under fire for objectionable practices. It is a chicken-and-egg issue though. The film interviewed a former EPA official, who quit the agency after being told that he was not permitted to take action against a petrochemical company (those which make the petroleum-based resin used in plastic production), which was causing adverse health effects in residents of nearby Corpus Christi. However, if enough people complained to the agency, he would then be allowed to enforce penalties. But where do we obtain that critical mass, when much our bountiful news and informational sources tell us what they want us to know?

However, I would actually like to concurrently mention both my concerns by replacing “corporate” with “environmental”—and not just our natural environments. Both industries and communities must find a way to coexist in good health somehow. Leveraging partnerships with big corporations seems to be a key ingredient of establishing sustainable relationships, no matter how large or small your neighbors really are. Perhaps it could be via institutions with government as a silent figure at the table—a mediator of sorts. The creation of a long-term plan to live in harmony with each other—that is necessary, I feel. But like the uprising against tobacco companies and their evil mind tricks, government must play a facilitiating role. Government has regulatory measures in place to prevent the free market from taking over our societal reins. It seems that we run into problems when an adminstration comes along that deregulates the corporate realm.

We are ingrained in a culture that responds to chaos but does not do a very good job at using preventative measures, that is, until tragedy strikes. That is environmental responsibility, motivated by a range of factors tied to consequence. Environmental responsiveness—I believe—in achieved when two or more partners engage in a long-term commitment to address the always-looming issues in our lives. The different is that environmental responsiveness can be an antidote to the cynical response that laymen have against the limited scope and results of environmental and corporate responsibility. In the case of bottled water, government can help to take back our local waters. There is evidence that it is always working.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

greeneyedspotlight: Cincinnati-based emersion DESIGN's LEED Platinum HQ

When one visits Cincinnati-based emersion DESIGN's website, they notice the plethora of services they currently offer. The architecture firm also offers engineering, interior design, and planning services, as well as building inspections and drafting. Oh, but you say you have seen such a firm before. What makes emersion DESIGN and its team of eighteen designers special may be the space in which they work. After all, does the space make the person make the space, or does the space make the person?

Located in Norwood and within walking distance from Xavier University, the Hamilton County Business Center has been home to the emersion DESIGN office since 2007, where former KZF owners and architects and the nine-member team began. In 2007, after just five months of operation, the firm realized the need for more space to accomodate its influx of projects. The sprint for a LEED platinum-rated renovation was a no-brainer.

The result: emersion DESIGN became the first architecture and engineering firm in the world to achieve LEED platinum status for its office. The team carefully researched its options to achieve a maximum rating, while remaining focused on practicality and cost efficiency. No LEED Platinum certification is easy to obtain. The key is a cross-balance of credits and utilization of existing resources. Their answer was a salvage and module design purposed for disassembly.

Sustainable Sites: Although site selection is a typical category in any LEED rating system, in emersion DESIGN's case, it seems they had the certification in mind all along. Their location in a historic building trumps new construction in terms of a sustainable vision; utilization of a former brownfield site is yet another. The workspace's centerpiece is the large work table near the north-facing windows, taking advantage of daylighting. Proximity to a walkable neighborhood and transit both provide a suitable capstone. All these features are built-in advantages to the firm's vision.

Also worth noting is the firm's lease renegotiation to limit the number of parking space to the minimum required by code (11 spots for 18 employees). The firm would also pay a base rent with utilities as a usage cost. Thus, the emersion DESIGN paid for their energy consumption, rather than an artificially constant, incorporated rate.

Water Efficiency: Other than relocation of a sink from the general work area to the front vestibule (which also houses indoor composting and recycling facilities), few credits were acquired through Water Efficiency. However, the retrofit included low flow integration.

Energy + Atmosphere: From the ceiling still hung the original fluorescent lighting, abundant and redundant as ever. Task lighting and reduction of overhead lighting accounted for a 35% reduction. 90% of their equipment was also EnergyStar eligible. Motion sensors for lighting also save on wasted energy in their meeting space. emersion DESIGN also earned the elusive Enhanced Commissioning credit to ensure that appliances and energy-hogging equipment worked properly.

Materials + Resources: This one was where cost really came into the picture. The firm's focus for attaining Platinum certification was in renewable materials and recycled waste. The long work table is made from sheets of renewable bamboo plywood, which amounted to $800 for each of twelve sheets. That's more than the combined cost of some of the office's salvaged material furnishings! Icing on the cake (an understatement) was that all wood was FSC-certified.

Indoor Environmental Quality: The aforementioned daylighting pitched in for IEQ credit, as well as E+A and Materials. Using salvaged 2x2 ceiling tiles from a Cincinnati Public School, sunshades were installed between the north-facing windows, saving the eyes of hard-at-work designs from the rising and setting summer sun. Although they originally preferred to do without carpets or rugs, they also chose to install removable, non-VOC rugs to earn a Low-Emitting Materials credit. Use of non-VOC paints and improvements to the ventilation (cleanout out duct space, modified roof unit) earned emersion DESIGN a couple more stars for doing their homework!

Innovation + Design Process: When you leap for Platinum certification, there are bound to be some Innovation credits. emersion DESIGN's pinnacle achievement was that 99% of project waste was recycled, reused, or repurposed, excusing two BAGS (18 pounds) of foam from around two TONS of waste!

From their website: "Key contributors include: BC&E, HA Kahler, Urban E, HCBC, HGC, APG Office Furnishings, Applied Lighting, Masland, Smith & Fong and Building Value."

Whew! Well, if you are interested in replicating the results of emersion DESIGN's renovation pursuits, the firm also specializes in LEED certification. For more information on services that emersion DESIGN provides, visit