Inspiration From Afar

Posted on July 24, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , |

In this era of budget cutting, I’m regularly hearing from my fellow campus sustainability professionals that they’ve had to reduce or eliminate their travel.  I’m no exception.  The challenge then is to find opportunities to be inspired by the great thinkers and practitioners of the sustainability arena without actually leaving our campuses, for it’s often after attending these talks that we develop our own big ideas.

This past March, Rice University hosted an extraordinary conference entitled “Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities” that featured many of the speakers whom we would hope to see as keynoters when we travel to conferences.  The talks from this conference are now available online and are posted below.  In lieu of actually going to a conference, consider blocking off time on your calendar, closing your email, unplugging your telephone, and allowing yourself the time to be inspired from afar (without the CO2 emissions from air travel!):

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“Wow, What is this Place?”

Posted on February 6, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , |

One of the joys of working as a campus sustainability professional is the opportunity to spend time in the classroom, either as an instructor or as a guest lecturer. For my first guest lecture appearance at Rice, I provided a sustainability walking tour of our campus to students in the sustainable design class in our school of architecture. I have since returned to give variations of that tour about eight or nine times, most recently last week. One of the stops I like to make is in our civil engineering building (Ryon Laboratory), where we have an excellent example of a water-efficient restroom. As a tour stop, waterless urinals are always good for conversation.

The center of Ryon is a large open space filled with gigantic pieces of equipment for breaking things like steel bars and concrete beams. While there’s nothing aesthetically pleasing about it, there’s an inherent curiosity and coolness to the space that attracts one’s attention. As we walked past this central area towards the restroom, I couldn’t help but overhear a number of the students commenting to each other, “Wow, what is this place?”

What just happened? That one comment told me everything I needed to know about the level of interaction between architecture and engineering students on our campus. The architects had never been inside the civil engineers’ building, and I’m guessing the opposite held true as well. That’s two different buildings and two separate worlds for two professions that absolutely must become more familiar with one another if we are to create a more sustainable future.

One of the most challenging jobs for campus sustainability professionals is to thread the different worlds of the university together. I’m presently co-chairing a conference entitled “Transforming the Metropolis: Creating Sustainable and Humane Cities” where we’re trying to do exactly that by bringing together architects, urban planners, elected officials, civil engineers, environmental engineers, corporate executives, sociologists, community leaders, energy policy experts, faith community leaders, and many other disciplines and professions to address how an urban future can provide answers to our ecological, social, and economic challenges.

My role in part has been to see beyond the departmental and topical boundaries and to build connections. When planning the conference, there were pressures to compartmentalize the program, and to package the speakers into different tracks for different disciplines. And if left unchecked, there is a general tendency for each interest to just focus on their own preferred speakers, rather than to see a broader context. But the discussion of sustainability doesn’t fit into anyone’s box, and neither do discussions about cities. These topics demand to be handled in an interdisciplinary manner. And so we decided that all attendees regardless of background would hear the same speakers, and like it or not would be fully immersed in a number of topical worlds that might not be altogether familiar to them.

If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, I would like to briefly describe the flow of the program (you can view the speaker bios here), and to invite any reader of this blog to register for this exciting and affordable event, which will be held on the Rice campus from March 2-4.

The first morning of the conference features a panel of mayors, representing Houston, Texas; Bogota, Colombia; Karachi, Pakistan; and Rehovot, Israel. For the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, so this conference envisions the city as holding the solution to our challenges for building a more sustainable and humane world (if done correctly, of course). The mayors will collectively illustrate progress and problems in their own cities in achieving this outcome. Following the panel is a discussion about the natural limits on our expansion by the originator of the ecological footprint William Rees, paired with a historical view of the human tendency to sprawl, by Robert Bruegmann. In the afternoon, we’ll address our future water and energy supplies with Perry McCarty and Amy Myers Jaffe, respectively. Next, we’ll turn our attention to globalization with Saskia Sassen, followed by discussions of demographics and the middle class with Elijah Anderson and Joel Kotkin. Ray Anderson of Interface, Inc. will close the evening by providing a striking story of sustainability and innovation in the corporate world.

Day two begins with strategies of hope from Cameron Sinclair, whose work in promoting design solutions to humanitarian crises has brought him to the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast in recent years. Alejandro Guitierrez and David Crossley will present design frameworks for sustainable cities, followed by a discussion of movement and access by Catherine Ross and Antanas Mockus. In the afternoon, Larry Beasley, Peter Calthorpe, and Lars Lerup will address the topic of people, power, and planning. Fred Kent will share snapshots and lessons of successful urban spaces, and Ken Yeang will discuss designing eco-cities and eco-skyscrapers. The evening comes to a close with Majora Carter, whose work as the founder of Sustainable South Bronx led to her being recognized as a MacArthur Fellow.

The final morning of the conference delves into the present and future of the city’s infrastructure with Thomas D. O’Rourke and William J. Mitchell. Alexander Zehnder will offer thoughts on the future of water management, and finally Wayne Gordon and Pastor Harvey Clemons, Jr. will share their experiences on the role of communities of faith in building cities of hope.

But what happens on March 5th, the day after the conference, when all of the attendees have gone home? Will our faculty and staff co-chairs and planning committee retreat to their separate worlds? Are the connections that we’ve been making ephemeral, or are they real? This will be the real test. In some respects, universities are highly conservative places, penalizing those who reach outside their departments or who take unconventional approaches to their scholarly pursuits (witness the struggles of the digital humanities community, for example). Further, the pace of change in the curriculum can be glacial.

However, at this moment in time, my gut tells me that this conference is an important and necessary step in spanning the often wide chasms between the disciplines on my own campus on issues of sustainability and the city. And if I’m lucky, perhaps within just a few years, when I lead students in the sustainable design class on a sustainability walking tour of campus, when we walk into the civil engineering building, I won’t have to hear “Wow, what is this place?” but rather “Hey, I love coming to this place!” Wouldn’t that be more appropriate in a building for a discipline known for bridge-building?

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The Day of Energy Policy

Posted on January 7, 2009. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Today was perhaps the biggest day ever for energy policy at Rice University. Famed Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens presented his vision for weaning the United States off of foreign oil to a packed auditorium on the Rice campus in the energy capital of the world, Houston. The thrust of the Pickens Plan features a significant investment in wind power (though curiously he hardly mentioned this at all in his talk), accompanied by a shift of natural gas away from electricity generation to use as a fuel for 18-wheelers and other large trucks (present battery technology won’t power these vehicles). True to Texan mythology, this is no small effort. Mr. Pickens has already spent $50 million to promote his plan; he intends to spend tens of millions more.

From my perspective, the visit by Mr. Pickens was not Rice’s lead energy policy headline for the day. That distinction is reserved for our university president, who sent an email to the entire Rice community announcing a Building Temperature Policy, outlining a series of tangible steps that members of our community can take to save energy, and calling for a broader culture of energy conservation on our campus. The Pickens event will garner media attention, enliven classroom discussions for the classes that attended, and perhaps even lead some students to focus their careers on energy. However, the Building Temperature Policy – as unglamorous as it sounds – is the real game changer.

Houston’s climate is quite similar to that of New Orleans or Tampa. That is, hot and humid. Air conditioning – providing relief from both the heat and humidity – was one of the technologies that enabled Houston (and the South for that matter) to grow into the major population and economic center that it is today. For years, locals used to boast that Houston was the “world’s most air conditioned city,” and anyone who has visited can attest that thermostats across this city are set to levels that are almost uncomfortably cold during our long, hot summers. It is not uncommon for women on our campus to wear sweaters indoors during the summer, and we even have instances where some employees use space heaters to counteract the aggressively cold air conditioning. We have taken a technology that has rendered our heat and humidity a mere inconvenience (rather than a threat to human life) and abused it. On our campus, air conditioning is our primary energy expenditure, and this is where we believe a lot of “low hanging fruit” can be found to cut our utility bills and reduce our carbon footprint.

In the 4+ years that I have worked as a campus sustainability professional, I have become involved in a variety of energy conservation efforts, from awareness campaigns to dorm energy competitions to design reviews to operational changes in facilities. There have been a number of successes along the way, mixed in with a healthy dose of frustrating moments (despite working with good, well-intentioned people). What I have come to conclude is that in absence of a comprehensive policy that outlines temperature settings, building hours, off-hour setbacks, and general expectations related to thermal comfort, we’d forever be acting in a piecemeal fashion, making adjustments here and there as time permitted, but never fully realizing the financial and environmental savings that would come with a comprehensive approach.

So why should it be so hard to create indoor conditions without a formal policy such that a worker doesn’t have to wear a sweater indoors when it’s 95 degrees and humid outside? In the absence of guidelines, the facilities personnel who actually set space temperatures are inclined to please their customers rather than conserve energy, and in doing so a space is often cooled to a level that satisfies the most heat-sensitive building occupant, as fewer people will complain about too much air conditioning than too little. Further, in the absence of guidelines, air conditioning schedules for buildings are gradually eroded as requests come in for off-hour (over-)cooling that are then never re-set, eventually leading to 24/7 over-cooling for an entire building. Facilities workers are busy and they want customers to be happy. If a customer demands that his office be cooled to 70 degrees instead of 76, why would the responding facility worker not make the change if no such policy existed to prevent it? And what if he took a conscientious stand and refused to make the change, but had no policy to fall back upon? That worker would likely be overruled.  And let us also not overlook that the customer, freed from the burden of paying their own energy bill in the workplace, will consume energy in ways that they wouldn’t dream of doing at home.

In his talk, Mr. Pickens made numerous references to the first 100 days of the Obama administration, and the need to enact a comprehensive national energy plan within that timespan. We’ll have our own first 100 days on campus as we begin rolling-out our building temperature policy, communicating with our campus community, and setting implementation processes and milestones. I see this as happening not a moment too soon. In this economic climate, universities need financial savings, and energy efficiency can be one of the ways to help keep universities strong. Imagine what even a 5% reduction in energy costs could do for your university? For us, that’s close to a million dollars. And rest assured that as soon as the economy recovers, the soaring energy prices that we witnessed in the first 8-9 months of 2008 will return.

This will be nothing compared to what’s further ahead. Quite chillingly, in his final remark during the question and answer session, Mr. Pickens noted in a rather off-hand way that we have perhaps 20-30 years worth of recoverable domestic natural gas reserves left, but that that’s enough of a bridge (and, in his view, the only available bridge) for us to cross as we race to develop new technologies to feed the energy demands of America. I suspect that crossing that bridge might take on the appearance of an Indiana Jones movie, as we race desperately to safety while the structure crumbles beneath our feet. Where does your campus’s power come from? We generate ours through natural gas fired cogeneration turbines, and we also purchase electricity from the grid that is generated in large part from natural gas. Clearly, we have long-term vulnerabilities and unavoidable challenges ahead. A building temperature policy is an important step, but ultimately each university will need to consider developing its own energy plan for the future. As Mr. Pickens joked, it’s better to be a fool with a plan than a genius with no plan at all.  Let’s hope that in academia, we’re geniuses with plans, because otherwise we’ll be nothing but planless fools.

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

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