Archive for June, 2008

Observations from and about the Sustainable Operations Summit

Posted on June 25, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Campus sustainability professionals are barraged by marketing. Each day, I receive several calls or mailings from sales representatives interested in doing business with Rice University, offering everything from energy-efficient lighting fixtures to carbon offsets to the latest in air filters. When a profile of Rice’s campus sustainability efforts was published in our alumni magazine in early 2007, I quickly learned which of my fellow graduates now held sales positions. Sustainability is hot, and companies see campus greening as a way to make money. Let us be thankful for that.

I attend several conferences every year, and I have come to expect marketing to occur at these events in one of two ways. First, a company co-sponsors the event, and in exchange their logo is featured in the conference program, and perhaps they are allowed to set-up a booth for passers-by or even to address the attendees for about two minutes in the gauzy marketing-lite style that is now permissible on PBS. Or second, the conference features a vendor expo that is of course voluntary for attendees, with the understanding that once you step foot inside the expo hall, you are fair game for the marketing sharks. Swim at your own risk.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Sustainable Operations Summit in Monterey, California, a conference with an unusual – some might say controversial – format that turns the traditional models for marketing at conferences upside-down. Yes, there are the familiar keynote speakers, session tracks, and panel discussions that we all recognize. And yes, there is also an expo hall, featuring booths from about 30 vendors representing a wide range of product offerings. However, the expo hall is part of the conference program itself, and entering that hall is not voluntary. Rather, each attendee is scheduled for a series of half-hour, one-on-one, “mandatory” meetings with vendors as part of the overall conference experience.

During the registration process for the Summit, the attendee is asked to select a minimum of ten vendors from a list of about thirty with whom they would like to meet, and similarly vendors are allowed to review the registration rolls and set meetings with particular attendees. When attendees arrive at the Summit, they receive an itinerary that includes the conference schedule and as well as their assigned vendor sessions. The first time I attended the Summit, I had about eight vendor meetings interspersed throughout the two-day event. This time, thirteen. The vendors of course pay mightily for this privilege, and these fees enable the conference organizers to pay for A-list speakers like Al Gore and Paul Hawken while keeping the all-inclusive registration, lodging, food, and golf (not me!) package at an arguably inexpensive rate for attendees.

With the prospect of spending six and a half hours in a two-day span meeting with corporate sales representatives, I found myself questioning my comfort level in participating in this format, and wondering more broadly why it is that I go to conferences in general, and what it is that I hope to gain when I attend a conference. Perhaps by answering these questions, I reasoned, I could properly assess the value in my attending the Sustainable Operations Summit.

So why do I go to conferences? We each have our own reasons, of course. My primary motivations are to:

  • Gather insights and otherwise learn from others
  • Be inspired
  • Present my work
  • Network with my peers

I personally feel that if I leave a conference with a potentially actionable great idea, then my time was well spent. So what great idea did I take with me from the Sustainable Operations Summit? Actually, I’m happy to report that there were two.

First, Wendell Brase from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) presented several strategies for reducing energy consumption in laboratory buildings. One that particularly struck me as an excellent idea is rethinking discharge velocities from the exhaust stacks on top of the building. The typical value is 3,000 feet per minute, which is required to overcoming cross-winds so that potential contaminants in the building’s exhaust stream are thrown high enough into the air so that they won’t blow back down onto people in the immediate vicinity. But why maintain this velocity as a constant? UCI is experimenting with using appropriate controls systems to lower the velocity if the crosswinds are minimal, or if the exhaust stream is free of contaminants. The potential energy savings could be significant.

Second, I have found a potential new direction for our construction waste management initiatives. Over the past 18 months or so, Rice has been actively recycling construction and demolition waste from many of our construction waste sites. To our surprise and delight, we are seeing diversion rates of over 80% – and in one instance over 90% – on several of our projects [I will cover this in greater detail in another posting]. But as I realized at the Summit, regardless of whether these construction materials are recycled or end-up in the landfill, Rice bought the materials for the purposes of constructing a building. We are paying for waste, possibly even 20% more than we need to be paying for our building materials. What this suggests then is that we need to work directly with our design and construction teams up-front on a program of source reduction, which should lower the overall cost of materials for a project. What’s interesting to note is that this idea came not from a speaker or a peer, but from a vendor during one of my “mandatory” meetings.

So under what circumstances can these vendor meetings be productive for campus sustainability professionals who otherwise disdain hardball sales tactics? I advise the following steps:

  • First, set the tone. Learning about new products is an important part of our jobs, and the chance to meet directly with a vendor to discuss the latest in photovoltaics or water-efficient toilets or green cleaning supplies has real value. But you have to run the meeting, or at least set the tone about your expectations. If you don’t, you’re likely to get the full sales pitch, and if that’s not what you want, then you’re going to walk-away dissatisfied with the experience.
  • Second, have a conversation. Some people do want to start from square one and hear a vendor’s pitch, so that communication is going to be primarily one-way, at least for a while. But chances are you already know something about what the vendor has to offer. So rather than sit back while they turn-on the powerpoint or flip to page one of their sales brochure’s statement of the company’s environmental values, you should take the initiative and ask what’s cooking in the R&D lab. Can they give you a peek at what they plan to feature at NeoCon or GreenBuild? I’ve found that this helps to orient the meeting towards a real discussion.
  • Third, provide feedback. Use the opportunity to tell vendors what you’re looking for from their industry, and even their company. If you’re meeting with a carpet company, and if your hope is that they take back and recycle all carpet – even their competitor’s brands – that is removed as part of a new installation of their product in your facilities, and that they should do this free of charge, then tell them that. If you expect paper products manufacturers to use only 100% post-consumer content recycled fibers without chlorine bleaching, then tell them that. These are people who have the ability to influence product and service development within their companies, and they care about what the customer thinks. They are looking for ideas too!

I found that by following this approach, I was able to turn what otherwise could have been an uncomfortable – and even questionable – use of my time into a productive activity. Still, we all have our limits, and 13 sessions of corporate one-on-ones was a bit beyond my limit. So in the spirit of my third suggestion above, that is exactly the feedback that I provided to the conference organizers.

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“The Typical Day” Ends Tragically

Posted on June 20, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

I’m regularly asked by people curious about the campus sustainability profession what it is that I do on a “typical day.” Truthfully and thankfully, there are no typical days. I’ve always been attracted to jobs with a lot of variety, and this is certainly one of them.

If I can make any broad generalizations, perhaps it would be that days in the summer differ from those during the rest of the year simply because most of the students are away from mid-May through mid-August. I trust that many of my counterparts at other schools have no “typical days” either. This is an emerging profession, one that we’re collectively inventing and shaping on-the-fly.

I went in to work this morning with the idea that I would report on some of the day’s events to at least provide a glimpse of the kinds of issues, activities, and decisions that a campus sustainability professional experiences. Little did I know that the day would end tragically. Following is a quick snapshot:

  • As I walk in my building in the morning, I stop in the lobby to review the building’s energy consumption that is displayed on a newly installed flat-panel monitor. The real-time reading shows the building’s actual electrical consumption tracking very closely though slightly higher than its predicted consumption. I make a mental note to press for changing the building’s temperature settings in Monday’s energy meeting to see what sort of energy savings can be realized.
  • The first of the sales communications comes in via email. High-end bamboo products for residential applications. Delete.
  • I check my voice mail. A salesman who saw an article about me in the paper wants me to introduce him to my boss so that he can tell her all about… this is where I delete the message before it’s over.
  • I complete and submit an evaluation form for the Sustainable Operations Summit, an event that will be the subject of my next post.
  • I review and comment on an outline for a summer research project by a Rice student who is helping some of the institutions of the Texas Medical Center (the largest medical complex in the world) to find collaborative recycling solutions.
  • Phone call, sales rep. This time it’s carpet. I refer him to a colleague, who will likely schedule a show-and-tell that I will attend.
  • I review what proves to be the final edited version of our campus cart usage map. I have served as the chair of a committee whose purpose is to reduce the number and usage of electric and gas carts on campus, as well as the conflicts between carts and pedestrians.
  • I complete a compensation survey from the publishers of Sustainability: The Journal of Record, wondering all along whether they are aware of AASHE’s data collection on the subject.
  • I discuss an upcoming meeting of our farmers market with two colleagues, as I am on the board of the market.
  • I review submittals for adhesives for a campus construction project to see if the comply with the LEED criteria for low-VOCs. For some of the products, I am able to find letters on the manufacturers’ web sites stating compliance with LEED. For one product, I call the manufacturer and speak with a customer service representative who is very helpful and emails to me the information that I need.
  • Lunchtime! My wife and I go out for Vietnamese sandwiches ($2.50 each!) at Les Givral’s in Midtown. One of Houston’s simple pleasures is the abundance of inexpensive Vietnamese sandwich shops serving delicious sandwiches on hot, crusty French bread. The banana tapioca cake with coconut milk makes for a pleasing dessert. By midday, the temperature has soared into the upper 90s. I see a colleague on my way back to the office, and we share our thoughts about how it just feels like we’re in for a long, brutal summer.
  • The red light on my phone shows that I have messages. All three are from sales reps. Two are calls that I will follow-up on, while the third sounds like yet another fishing expedition.
  • I use the Energy Star website and the Consumer Reports 2008 Buyers Guide to research options for washing machines, dryers, and refrigerators for one of our construction projects. I prepare a list for the project manager of about 6 recommended clothes washers, plead agnostic on the dryer selection due to their relative similarity in energy consumption, and then offer a general statement that any Energy Star-qualified top-mounted freezer will meet my approval.
  • It’s mid-afternoon, and I suddenly notice that I’m sitting in the dark. My office rarely needs artificial light, thanks to a well-placed skylight. On occasion, I will use an LED tasklight as a supplement. I turn-on the tasklight, but it’s still too dark. Reluctantly, I turn on the overhead lights. I then check the weather radar to see an arc of reds and purples in a band of storms quickly approaching central Houston from the northwest. For the third day in a row, it appears that we’re in for a quick, intense shower.
  • I order 40 books as part of an environmental literacy project that I’m planning for the fall (more about this in a future post).
  • I approve an estimate for what will be our first outdoor recycling bins on campus.
  • I receive an email from an administrator asking questions about carbon offsets. I smile as I think to myself how quickly concepts such as carbon footprints and carbon offsets are making their way into common use.
  • By around 4PM, the weather deteriorates significantly. I worry about my wife, who has just left campus for a hair appointment a few blocks away. I look straight up through the skylight at the rain that is pelting the glass right above me. The lightning is getting frequent, though with my lights on, I miss the full effect.
  • Another sales rep calls. The lead-in is often the same: “I was looking at your web site, and I thought I’d call you to tell you about…” Sales is a tough job, and I sure don’t have the personality for it.
  • I send an email to a colleague requesting a quote for a water conservation project that I’d like to fund with year-end money.
  • I review a list of alternate plants that have been proposed for a green roof on one of our campus construction projects. It seems that a few of the native species that we requested are proving difficult to locate. However, I find myself quietly impressed that the vendor has done some homework and identified appropriate native plantings as substitutes. He’s come to know what we expect.
  • At this point, I become distracted by the sound of the TV in the conference room just down the hall from my office. Usually when that TV is on, either the Rice Owls baseball team are playing a playoff game, or there’s some sort of national or local disaster. I strain to listen, but I can’t make out the words. I visit the CNN web site to see if something unusual has happened. That is, beyond the fact that we live in unusual times to begin with. But there’s no indication of a splashy headline. I listen further, and the commentator sounds local. I open the website for KHOU (our local CBS affiliate), and my heart drops as I read the headline: “Building Collapses at Rice”. I click to watch live streaming video from a helicopter camera, and am shocked to see my building in the foreground, with the adjacent construction site of two dormitory projects in the center of the screen. As if on cue, the commentator announces that for those just joining, a portion of a building under construction on the Rice campus collapsed during a severe thunderstorm, and I watch in disbelief as an injured worker is strapped to a backboard and lifted by a tower crane from the building’s second floor, where several walls collapsed. Then the camera zooms-in on a figure covered in a blue tarp amidst the rubble and twisted rebar. I step down the hall to ask colleagues if everyone has been accounted for, and I can tell by their ashen faces that they’ve all seen the image. The local headlines would soon read “One dead, seven injured in wall collapse at Rice University.”
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Field Notes from a Common Reading: Reflections on a Themed Academic Year

Posted on June 15, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , |

In the early summer of 2007, a golden opportunity fell into my lap. Unbeknownst to me, Rice University’s Dean of Undergraduates Office was in the midst of launching a common reading program, whereby all entering students in the first year class would receive a common book during the summer as a means of creating a shared intellectual experience once they arrived on campus. The selection committee had considered many titles, topics, and genres, but they felt the time was right to choose a book about global warming. Some eight hundred copies of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change would be appearing in mailboxes of incoming Rice students around the world, and the Assistant Dean of Undergraduates was calling me to see if I was interested in brainstorming ideas for activities related to the reading.

Within five minutes I was sitting in his office, trying to contain my excitement. In our meeting, we decided to create a year-long themed dialogue based on the common reading, branding 2007-2008 the year of “Humans, Nature, and Climate Change at Rice University.”

Some of the activities that supported the year of Humans, Nature, and Climate Change included the following:

  • Student-led discussions about the common reading selection during orientation week, accompanied by a lecture by Professor Neal Lane, former Director of the National Science Foundation and Science Advisor to the Clinton White House.
  • An environmental film series.
  • Signing of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.
  • A lecture on Rice’s campus greening initiatives.
  • Distribution of about 100 free or subsidized tickets to attend a lecture by James E. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a premier scientist on climate change, who was speaking at Houston’s Wortham Center.
  • A month-long dorm energy competition that resulted in a savings of $15,000 – $20,000 in energy, and avoided production of about 85 metric tons of CO2.
  • A series of lectures by William Calvin, a theoretical neurobiologist and Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, entitled “How to Treat Global Fever: An Intelligence Test for Our Times.”
  • A luncheon with an environmental activist working with the Sierra Club and Green Corps on a campaign to block the construction of coal-fired power plants in Texas.
  • A CO2 Forum and Sustainability Fair, in connection with the nationwide Focus the Nation event. Featured speakers included Rice President David Leebron, Houston Mayor Bill White, Nobel Laureate and IPCC Scientist Dominique Raynaud, Shell Oil President John Hofmeister, and Professor Neal Lane. Prior to the Forum, the Sustainability Fair featured approximately 25 student groups, campus departments, and outside organizations hosting booths related to their activities.
  • A series of lectures on carbon sequestration through soil biochar amendment by Dr. Johannes Lehmann, an associate professor of soil fertility management and soil biogeochemistry at Cornell University.
  • A visit from the BioTour, a traveling environmental educational program transported in a vegetable-oil powered school bus.
  • A research presentation entitled “Fever Pitch of Chilly Climate? Assessing Rice Student Attitudes toward Environmentalism”

So we were wildly successful, right? Well, for our first attempt at creating such an experience, I believe we did well, but there are many lessons to share.

Looking back on the academic year, I’ve come to realize that choosing and programming a themed learning experience is not terribly unlike creating a thematic mix-tape (or iTunes playlist, for those of you not raised in the era of the cassette tape). On a thematic mix tape, if the theme is too narrow or if the songs sound too alike, then most people are just not going to enjoy it. Who wants to hear 60 minutes of songs about cornbread played on a kazoo and released by the RCA-Victor label between 1928-1935 when a better option is songs about food from a variety of eras and musical genres? Inclusiveness and diversity matter.

A key lesson from our experience was that we were too narrow in how we treated our theme. No matter how credentialed or impressive or articulate the expert, there are only so many times and in so many different ways that the ordinary college student is going to want to be told that their future is in jeopardy because of global climate change. Yes, a subgroup of the student population who are either on academic tracks related to global warming or who are interested in environmental topics in general no doubt found the year to be an amazing journey – as did I – but we arguably failed to truly engage the interest of the average student over the entire year because we over-relied on a narrow offering of lectures that mostly focused on the science of climate change. In the language of the mix tape, we essentially played the same song over and over again.

A second important lesson was uncovered in a study of Rice student attitudes toward environmentalism, led by Sociology professor Elizabeth Long, Sociology postdoc Kristen Schilt, and student Andrea Dinneen. Through a series of focus group interviews, the researchers discovered a clear desire by our students to respond to environmental issues through project-oriented learning. Our more active events – the dorm energy competition and the sustainability fair – were definite success stories, and perhaps this was because they appealed to students’ desires to be actively engaged in environmental solutions rather than to just sit passively and listen to the problems. I was delighted by this finding in part because I am a firm believer in the value of project-based learning, as I teach two courses that connect campus sustainability efforts with the curriculum through group projects.

A third lesson flows from the second. Through the focus groups, our students expressed a preference for content about climate change solutions in the lectures. There was only so much bad news that they could take. We did include several well-received events that focused on solutions, but they came late enough in the year that those looking for solutions had perhaps turned-off to our offerings by that point. We had lost the listener. I must admit a certain level of frustration with this finding in that one could interpret it as students wanting to be told that everything is going to be okay. In my view, the only way we make everything okay is through focused hard work to create lasting change. On the other hand, there are several emerging signs of hope, and I completely agree that providing a more thorough immersion in some of these topics would have improved our overall program.

Finally, I would recommend that those considering themed academic years make their topic selection early enough to allow campus centers, institutes, and faculty the time that they need to create tie-ins with their own events and courses. Because we were already in the midst of planning for our Focus the Nation event, we did have some tie-in to classes offered during the spring semester. However, by choosing our theme just a few months before the start of the fall semester, we narrowed our field of tie-in opportunities.

While I’ve not yet compared lessons learned with our Assistant Dean of Undergraduates, it does appear that we’ve arrived at some similar conclusions. The common reading for the 2008-2009 academic year is an amazing book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin called Three Cups of Tea that chronicles the efforts of Mr. Mortenson to establish schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s a tale of hope and hard work, demonstrating the kinds of outcomes that a single person can achieve to overcome poverty and deep cultural divides in this post 9/11 world. The accompanying theme is likely to be global citizenship, a topic broad enough to attract widespread student interest if properly programmed.

Inclusiveness of content. Opportunities for action. Inspiring stories with real solutions. Advanced planning. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a truly successful themed academic year. I’ll report back in a year on this topic to see whether I’m right. My sense is that with this new theme of global citizenship, we’ll have a hit.

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Welcome to Greening the Campus: Inside the World of the Campus Sustainability Professional

Posted on June 9, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

As I begin typing this post, our world population sits ever so temporarily at an estimated 6,673,085,292. Here in the United States, at the exact same moment, our population is 304,293,472, and thanks to a webcam trained on the National Debt Clock near Times Square in New York City, I know that this U.S. population at this precise moment in time carries with it a national debt of $9,206,663,047,891.

As I continue to sneak peeks at the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clocks, I’m observing that the US population increases by one person about every 10 seconds, while the world population increases by about 25-30 persons in that time. And how fast is our U.S. national debt rising? The rate of increase is almost $1,000 per second.

Now try Googling the phrase “environmental debt clock”. As of this writing, you will find no results for this search, yet we know that somewhere around 1980, the world population’s hunger for natural resources pushed our ecological footprint beyond 1 earth. We are no longer living off the “interest” of the land; we are in fact drawing down our natural capital. We are now living in an era of environmental debt. Despite the fact that we Americans account for only 4.5% of the world’s population, this world environmental debt has a distinctly American flavor, as our country consumes about 25-30% of the world’s resources. These are credit card times, and the rest of the world aspires to live like us. Who can blame them?

I spent most of the 1990s in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, and attended graduate school at the University of Virginia, the school that he founded and designed. People in Charlottesville speak of Mr. Jefferson in the present tense, like he’s a local celebrity that you might spot holding forth with friends in a corner booth at a café, or quietly thumbing through the back stacks of an antiquarian bookshop, despite the fact that he died almost 200 years ago (July 4, 1826 to be exact). Like many in Charlottesville, I was (and am) deeply influenced by Jefferson. An interdisciplinary thinker and prolific writer, Jefferson’s ideas are better documented than perhaps any other historic figure before the age of television. In my view, one of Jefferson’s letters is of such importance to our present thinking about sustainability that it should be considered as nothing less than canonical. In 1789, Jefferson expressed the following thoughts on debt and our obligations to future generations in a letter to James Madison:

“…no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come; and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living.”

The word usufruct is a legal term describing one’s right to use property belonging to another provided that that property is not damaged in any way. Without using the term sustainability, that’s exactly what Jefferson has described. Jefferson’s position is that no generation has the right to burden future generations with economic or environmental debts, or to use land in a manner that incurs such debt. Imagine if you could assign your student loans or your home mortgage to your unborn grandchildren. The very idea sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what we’re doing from an environmental perspective. I should note however that Jefferson had his own complex relationship with the concept of debt. He was a man of many talents, but money management was not one of them, and he died deeply in debt.

Campus sustainability professionals occupy a unique space. We are charged with helping to change our institutions in ways that end the placement of additional environmental burdens on future generations, and to even begin lifting some of those existing burdens through acts of restoration. We are also asked to be partners in reorienting the curriculum and in shaping student life so that the graduates of our schools understand the concepts of sustainability and possess a sense of responsibility for the future. Our potential reach is quite broad. My intent in establishing this blog is to provide a view into the day-to-day issues and activities of this emerging profession, to offer observations, to share lessons, and to hopefully promote knowledge-sharing and dialogue in this exhilarating race against time.

Speaking of time, in the 45 minutes that I have spent putting my thoughts into words, the world’s population has increased by another 10,000 – which is twice the size of the student body at my workplace, Rice University. In that same time, we’ve added another 414 persons to the U.S. population, and they will consume resources in a manner disproportionate to the rest of the world. Our country has slid another $2.8 million further into debt, and globally we have sunk by some unmeasured amount deeper into environmental debt, thus impoverishing our future generations. This is a world that belongs to the dead. But yet, I’m energized by the notion that at this moment in our history, we now understand and have the know-how to implement many of the dramatic changes that are necessary to produce a lasting positive impact for many generations to come. The campus sustainability professional is one of many professions on the frontlines of delivering this change. What is our goal? Nothing short of a future world that belongs to the living. Jefferson would be pleased.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional


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