Thursday, October 29, 2009

Open Space in Green Buildings Reduces Productivity?

Because of the focus on natural light and ventilation, green buildings are typically more “open” than traditional office space, meaning there are fewer full-height walls and and more flexible open areas instead. Many claim that this general trend has helped reduce energy use and building material consumption, but not necessarily productivity when it comes to acoustics or visual distractions. For more collaborative work, ambient noise or a general "buzz" around the office is good for productivity. However, employees trying to perform tasks that require a high degree of concentration may lose productivity due to noise in their work area.

My own view is that acoustics can be very subjective. For example, my husband likes to fall asleep to the sound of television, whereas I find television too stimulating and cannot go to sleep with it on. Some of my colleagues love to listen to music to drown out background noise... I find that even more distracting than tuning out what is happening around me. Maybe having a 3-year-old helps with this, I'm not sure. In any case, this recent push on companies to become more collaborative and more green has increased the amount of open space and now we're all finding our limits to what we can tollerate in terms of acoustical distraction.

Interestingly, when employees have some degree of self-control over the noise in their environment, they are less distracted by it (A. Kjellberg, U. Landstrom, M. Tesarz, L. Soderberg, and E. Akerlund “The Effects Of Nonphysical Noise Characteristics, Ongoing Tasks and Noise Sensitivity on Annoyance and Distraction Due to Noise at Work,” 1996). Maybe this explains my colleagues' headphones.

But it's not just noise. Research in open offices show that visual distractions associated with the continual movement of people has created high levels of dissatisfaction. This has lead to the widesrpead use of ever-more high partitions (cubicles). Although partitions reduce visual distractions, they have not adequately reduced the noise distractions (J. Heerwagen, “Investing in People: The Social Benefits to Sustainable Design,” 2006).

So what are companies doing about the constant complaints about their open offices? The solution for many organizations is to provide a mix of workplaces for their employees to move around in during the day, some of which have acoustic and visual privacy (supporting heads-down work). Other organizations have in invested in sound masking or have building smaller open areas (not just a sea of cubes) in order to minimise noise disruption.

My own view is that we put too much pressure on the physical office space to reduce acoustic issues and not enough focus on behavioral changes, policies and good technology to solve the problems we encounter. I'd rather not give up my windows for a sound-proof dark room... thank you very much.

This 5-minute Julian Treasure TED video is not exactly accurate in my view (Treasure claims noise in an open-office environment reduces productivity by 66 %), but he makes a good point about the power of noise! Check out his talk, “Four Ways Sound Affects Us.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Earthster, the Next Sustainability Rating Tool

For those of you following all of these emerging rating systems... Earthster is one of the latest attempts to create a common life cycle assessment tool for companies to use to rate their products. Earthster is headed by Gregory Norris and designed to be an open-source information system to evaluate a product’s life-cycle assessment relative to industry norms. Norris is part of the Sustainability Consortium, which is developing the index and is centred at Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas.

Normally, a system like this would take decades to get thousands of companies to 1) see its value in the marketplace, 2) adopt it 3) make needed changes in their production process to improve environmental impact. What is unique about this rating system is that Wal-mart has agreed to use this rating system to influence their more than 100,000 suppliers. I'm sure other organizations will also be considering this third party system (especially since Wal-mart is doing it... I mean, who wants to be behind Wal-mart when it comes to the environment!)

The fact that the system is open source is also intriguing, as it will help suppliers and bulk buyers spot ecological upgrades that will improve the product’s rating. Given that a number of Wal-mart's suppliers are in China (some 20 percent of factories in China provide products for Wal-mart) this means the impact of these ratings is global almost immediately.

A pilot project now underway with Earthster involves seven products from Wal-Mart. The intention is to make the system scalable, so that one day all items in Wal-Mart’s (and other retailer's) aisles will have a sustainability rating.

The founding and current members of the Sustainability Consortium is an impressive list of companies by the way... everything from the EPA to Seventh Generation to P&G to Waste Management. If you have any interest in this consortium, get involved now! Here are the academic minds behind the Earthster and the standards behind it:

Dan Vermeer, Duke University
Eli Cox, University of Texas
Olivier Jolliet, University of Michigan
Greg Norris, Harvard University
Tony Kingsbury, University of California, Berkeley
Peter Guthrie, University of Cambridge

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Save the Earth with Fun (Theory)

I'm a huge fan of social influence, real time feedback and other incentives to encourage green behavior - even if it is subliminal. But making the greener, more socially beneficial choice also fun? Now that is something I can support with GUSTO.

Volkswagen is sponsoring a new campaign called The Fun Theory... last entries accepted November 15. The piano staircase in Odenplan, Stockholm is my favorite - after it was installed, 66% more people than normal chose to take the stairs over the escalator.

Or how about this garbage bin? It makes a noise that sounds like the trash is being thrown into a deep well. 72kg were thrown into this bin in one day - that's more than 41kg than were thrown into the "normal" bin nearby. Who says design can't be influential?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Environment Guardian

After a rather long hiatus, I am back. So from here on in I will endeavour to keep you more up to date on European news!

First up I want to draw your attention to my most used source of all news environmental over here the environmental pages on The Guardian newspapers website;

I am slightly biased, as my team recently competed the Interior Design Brief for The Guardian's new building (which, showing they really live their values, is a building with excellent environmental credentials).

This is a brilliant resource for keeping up to date on the latest news, political agendas, tips of green living and even for recipes. I thoroughly recommend a look.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Executive Order Sets New GHG Emissions Target

New Executive Order released October 5th requires Federal agencies to set a 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target within 90 days!

This new Executive Order requires agencies to measure, manage, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions toward agency-defined targets. It describes a process by which agency goals will be set and reported to the President by the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). The Executive Order also requires agencies to meet a number of energy, water, and waste reduction targets, including:

  • 30% reduction in vehicle fleet petroleum use by 2020;
  • 26% improvement in water efficiency by 2020;
  • 50% recycling and waste diversion by 2015;
  • 95% of all applicable contracts will meet sustainability requirements;
  • Implementation of the 2030 net-zero-energy building requirement;
  • Implementation of the stormwater provisions of the Energy Independence and Security
  • Act of 2007, section 438; and
  • Development of guidance for sustainable Federal building locations in alignment with the Livability Principles put forward by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Will this Executive Order actually stick? Can Federal agencies actually get their act together and meet this order within 90 days? I'm optimistic they can, but it's going to take a lot more than policy to change the way these agencies do business. If I was to prioritize, I'd look at making contracts green first... the government cannot change fast enough, but the companies who work for them can be more agile and they desparately need business the government offers. Put the burden on change where it can be affected fastest. All of the other items on this list can be accomplished by changing procurement policies.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Clean Your Office with Ionized Water

I just found out about a new technology by the Tennant Company. It's called ec-H2O and it uses no cleaning chemicals and 70% less water than normally required by traditional scrubbing methods.

Here's a little film on one of their vacuum cleaners.

Here's a film on the hand-held version from Activeion Pro.
It's almost crazy how simple the solution is... just change the attributes of H2O so that it becomes "activated" or charged water that picks up dirt particles. After sprayed, it converts back into water. I'm sure the chemical companies are not so excited about this product, but it's truly innovative and definitely green!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Green Workplace Chicago Book Signing

The HOK Chicago put on a great booksigning event for The Green Workplace last Thursday evening. Co-hosted by Allsteel in their showroom at the Merchandise Mart, the event was complete with green drinks (vodka, green tea and cucumber?) and lots of smart green experts from all over the city.

More photos of the event here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Top Green iPhone Apps

I'm not afraid to say it. I LOVE my iPhone. And here's even more reason to share that with others - Green iPhone Apps!

Love Tomorrow Today listed its favorites:

Go Organic! [Free] finds organic grocery stores and Earth Day events near you.
shopgreen: [$0.99] based on information you enter about your green habits, the app alerts you of promotions from local businesses.
MyMpg: [$2.99] helps you maximize your fuel efficiency. It evaluates braking forces and acceleration, tracks stats and improvement in gas mileage over time.
Green Lemur: [Free] offers advice on green tweaks, with a tip of the day on how to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.
iRecycle: [Free] provides information on where to recycle/dispose items. Choose from over 100,000 locations from coast to coast.
Yowza: [Free] finds coupons for nearby retailers that you present digitally rather than having to cut them out of newspapers and magazines.

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