February 22, 2007

Snowboarding can teach us how to be green

  • It’s better to pick your path than to worry about wiping out
    Paladino and Co.

    Image courtesy of Mithun
    Snowboarders keep their eye on the goal. Instead of seeing streets simply as asphalt corridors, Mithun in its plan for Portland’s Lloyd Crossing re-envisioned them as wildlife and habitat connectors.

    Seattle is such a great place to live and work, especially right now — it’s snow season! This is especially exciting for me, because I love to snowboard. I know we have a bad rap; crazy speed, rude passing habits, and yes, we do scrape the snow right off the slope.

    But that is a superficial evaluation of snowboarders, because we have a code to our craft. There are some guiding principles that really good snowboarders always follow:

    • First, always spot your line and look where you want to go. Never look at the trees, look at the gaps! Because if you look right at something bad while flying down the slope, it’s a guarantee that’s where your board will go!

    • Second, know what you are about and always stay on the edge that leads you there. If you’re not on an edge, you’re going to end up flat on your butt.

    • Last, if you don’t know the terrain, set up your board with your feet ducked out. That way, if you get into to trouble you can jump and ride switch — reverse your direction without reversing your board! Throw a turn! Shred it!

    It’s an easy code: Line, edge, shred!

    Sustainability imperatives

    Photo by Lara Swimmer
    A good snowboarder works with the terrain. Rather than fighting the Northwest rain, Mahlum Architects’ design for Evergreen State College’s Seminar II building celebrates it, using it to irrigate rain gardens.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we had a code like that for sustainable development? I think about little codes like that a lot. Sometimes you can borrow codes from one realm and use them in another. And it seems like we really need a code right now. Think about some of the recent trends we have all heard about:

    • For the first time in human history we are beyond peak oil

    • Saudi Arabia is our biggest wheat export market, and our biggest oil import market

    • China has surpassed the U.S. in oil use for the first time

    • Over 90 percent of all large ocean predators are fished out

    • For the first time in human history food and biofuel compete for land use

    • Over half the world’s population will experience water shortages in their lifetimes

    • The last 10 years are the warmest decade in human history

    • In 2004, the U.S. saw four of the 10 most costly hurricanes ever, and 2005 saw Katrina

    In his 2005 book “Collapse,” Jared Diamond develops a fascinating set of case studies of historical cultures that rose to great heights and then extinguished. Completely. Only ruins and artifacts remain. Their cultures are extinct. And they all followed the same pattern of factors contributing to demise: environmental degradation, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners and lack of will to react soon enough. Some are variably significant, but the last is always significant.

    The political will to recognize these growing problems does not seem to be present. In fact, it seems focused on perpetuating, even exacerbating the collapse factors.

    It feels as though we are not measuring up as a society, that we are in fact doomed. I hate that.

    I don’t want the kids that depend on me to be doomed. I want them to inherit paradise. What would our lives be like today if our parents had decided we should inherit paradise?

    The bottom line

    These degradation trends paint a vision of the future based on scarcity, where all the apparent options are to chase diminishing returns.

    The touchstone goal of the movement is even scarcity-based: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

    It’s a goal that sets the bar at limiting activity to just above sustainable levels.

    There a lot of codes aimed at reversing these trends by doing less bad. Energy Star, Green Globes and even our flagship standard, LEED, have a lot of “don’t do this” or “don’t do that” in them. The latest “code” is based on the triple bottom line — people, planet and prosperity — the three Ps.

    But isn’t the bottom line just another way of talking about what is left over after you create something and deduct the cost of creation? Given the magnitude of today’s global imperatives, I feel responsible to aspire to something higher than leftovers.

    A new vision

    If a snowboarder is smart enough to look at the gap and not the tree, surely development teams can do that too!

    What does the gap look like? Perhaps if scarcity is the condition to avoid (the tree), then abundance is the condition to envision (the gap).

    Nature is fantastically good at creating abundance; all ecosystems are self-sufficient, exploiting resources at a rate that maximizes regeneration. There is no waste, all parts are integrated.

    Think of a climax forest, a wetland or a coral reef. These systems are monuments to abundance. They are incredibly complex, but also as simple as they need to be and no simpler. How elegant.

    There is some interesting parallel thinking going on regarding sustainable development. The Marine Stewardship Council has created a code. It balances the three Ps this way: grow the fisheries, take care of it and the structures around it, and manage it under community rules and norms,

    The Asilomar principles deal with sustainable agriculture. They balance the three Ps this way: increase sustainable farming, expand knowledge and protect rural communities.

    The Forest Stewardship Council’s definition of a sustainable forest is the definition that we could apply to our cities and communities: grow it, manage it and monitor it. All people involved matter — indigenous people and workers are recognized and valued.

    All these frameworks focus on a holistic view of the system they are intended to foster. They paint a vision of the preferred future.

    So what do the visions of abundance look like for buildings and developments? How can we focus on what we want to happen, not what we don’t want to happen? How might we grow the top line of a sustainable society?


    Conventional development is often said to have an “environmental footprint” — the amount of land that would have to be set aside to counteract the negative impacts created by that development.

    Green codes often attempt to limit that footprint. But what if the net ecological footprint of development was not simply zero, but one that actually increased the resources that natural systems depend on?

    What if we went beyond the idea of eliminating connections to the water and sewer grid and said that all buildings need to add resources to the grid? We would no longer have energy demand per person per square foot; we would have energy production per square foot.

    Crazy? Maybe not. At Evergreen State College’s Seminar II project, Mahlum Architects carefully sited the building to create an abundance of outdoor classrooms. Rather than fighting rainfall and minimizing stormwater, the project celebrates rain and maximizes irrigation to the rain gardens. Total cost of ownership is lower than conventional construction.

    In its Lloyd Crossing study in Portland, Mithun proposed that the street grid, the largest contiguous open space, become wildlife and habitat connectors to adjacent green spaces. Asphalt corridors were re-envisioned as a positive attribute and treated as an abundance of raw space ripe for habitat conversion and place-making.

    At the USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center in Honolulu, the Portico Group turned an abundance of wind, sun and visitors into a shaded oasis for reflection rather than build sealed boxes that require cooling because of their closed nature. The abundance strategy had a first cost that was 20 percent less than conventional construction.


    So if the first element of a new code is “abundance,” what are the other two?

    Consider the question that many development teams try to answer every day: How much more does green cost than conventional? Or, in other words, “How much does it cost to consume the last 1 percent of a finite resource versus consuming the last 5 percent of that resource?”

    It is a question based on the scarcity model, one that conveniently ignores the consequences of not dealing with the environmental imperatives of the day.

    Consider another question I have been asking workshop attendees for years: “How many of you are working on a green building project and have been told there is extra money to go green?”

    The answer I have heard, over and over, is that less than 5 percent of respondents have extra budget for green. Which means that it does not matter how much more green will cost than conventional. For 95 percent of us, there is no extra money to pay for it.

    Rather than spending enormous amounts of time on the “delta” cost question — trying to figure out how to do more with less — isn’t it more productive to try and do something different with the abundance we have?

    What assumptions are we making that we are not even aware we are making, that define the outcomes possible in this situation? What might I invent and imagine that I have not yet imagined, that would give me other choices?

    So the second element of the new code might be analytics — the hypothesis for abundance can only be tested through a science that is tuned for that outcome. But there is one more element to the code.


    Have you been to a kid’s soccer game lately? I am always amazed at how hard they play, giving 100 percent of their skill to the team. And whether they win or not, most parents are terrifically proud of their kid’s efforts. Why? Because win or lose, you cannot give anything but praise to people that do the best they can with what they have.

    It is no different on a development team. Every one of us has something amazing to offer and contribute towards green building. I am sure of that, and when I start a new project, I can’t wait for those interactions where I meet somebody new and their “A” team skills and abilities.

    Does that sound funny or a bit naive? Some of you are reading this article and thinking, “I’m here to learn from the ‘A’ team! That’s not me!” There was a time that I thought like that too. But the longer I work on green buildings, and the more I grow personally and professionally, I’ve come to learn a couple of things.

    Everybody starts on the “A” team. Every one of us is capable of doing the best we can with what we have to work with. Everyone! We all start with that possibility.

    But for some reason, we often get downgraded through bad assumptions, through standards and norms used to define us, or we are compared to peers using some construct or rating system. It is hard to be measured, and not measure up.

    But what I have come to see is that the only real measurement that matters is your own assessment. Have you done the best you can with what you have? If the simple answer is yes, you are on the “A” team and it doesn’t matter what others think.

    So try making this affirmation on your next project: “I am going to get an ‘A’ on this project because I am making a contribution. I am someone who makes a difference.”

    First think about what you did last week. Then think about your contribution during this week. Finally, think about yourself as a contribution for the coming week.

    It’s important to take personal responsibility — to accept it and embrace it.

    So there you have it. A code of conduct for sustainability. Dream abundance and visualize the preferred future. Project analytics must be based on abundance, not on scarcity. And have an attitude. We are going to need that to meet the environmental imperatives of our day.

    Tom Paladino is president of Paladino and Co.

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