Haute Property

Originally published in Michigan Avenue Magazine
December 2014

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Curated Commerce

Originally published in Middle Market Growth
November/December 2014

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Haute Property

Originally published in Michigan Avenue Magazine
November 2014

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Dutch Dialogues

Originally published in USGBC+
October 24, 2014

As a young boy, Louisiana native David Waggonner’s philosophy about solving problems and creating resiliency in communities was being shaped as he watched his dad, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1960s and 1970s, deliberate with his colleagues in Congress.

Waggonner and BallJoe Waggonner, a conservative Democrat, sat on two important congressional committees—the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, which focused on the science behind getting American astronauts into space for the first time; and another—the prestigious House Ways & Means Committee—which is in charge of funding decisions for federal projects.

“Those experiences gave me the belief you can do anything if you put your mind to it,” asserts David Waggonner, a well-respected, New Orleans-based architect now in his sixties and a founding partner at Waggonner & Ball, an architectural firm regarded for its expertise in adaptive reuse and historic preservation. “Using science is big in the resiliency projects I’m working on now, but you also have to have a mechanism to pay for it.”

When young David Waggonner wasn’t in Washington, D.C., surrounded by newsmakers and learning how the wheels of government and power worked, he was back in Bossier Parish in northwest Louisiana, soaking up the values of living close to the land. He spent hours playing in the woods, laying in the grass and splashing around in the water with his friends. He described living amid nature, not separate from it.

Fast forward to 2006. Waggonner is now applying those lessons learned as he plays a pivotal role in the ongoing big fix of New Orleans—the Big Easy—in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the broken levee system soon after the storm to keep water out of the city once again. But some locals—including Waggonner—are working on other aspects of rebuilding the city and region to make it stronger to withstand even more calamitous hurricanes and storms that are expected to occur in the years to come.

In Waggonner’s view, a critical factor to solving future problems was overlooked from the start after Katrina. “Understanding the root of the question about water was completely ignored,” asserts Waggonner, who became a staunch champion of reshaping the conversation about repair and was frustrated by some of the early Band-Aid solutions.

Dutch Dialogues enters the American Lexicon of Disaster

Soon after Katrina, the Dutch Dialogues came to play a critical role in jumpstarting an entirely new conversation and approach: looking at collaboration over water management as the best solution. Waggonner, as well as other key players in the region, maintains that beginning that dialogue process in 2006 ushered in a new way of problem-solving for resiliency in communities that would catch fire across the nation.


Indeed, the Dutch Dialogues initiative in New Orleans got rave reviews among professionals and government officials addressing water disaster issues. Leaders in other storm-hit and flood-vulnerable cities and regions have called on Waggonner and others engaged in the Dutch Dialogues methodology to help them replicate the same process in their locales. In addition, a new exhibit at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.,—called Designing for Disaster—includes a component about the Dutch Dialogues.

When the devastation of New Orleans and the surrounding region from Hurricane Katrina was seen around the world, there was an outpouring of sympathy and aid from near and far. The Dutch, in particular, had more to offer than most other countries.

People living in the Netherlands are surrounded by water in a delta region and have suffered the harsh repercussions of flooding for centuries. They’ve experienced tremendous loss of life, destruction of land and community infrastructure, and massive disruption of economic activity. As a result, the Dutch have learned how to address the constant threat of flooding, death, and economic disaster from water, says Dale Morris, senior economist at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, D.C., and coordinator for Dutch Water Management and Climate Adaptation in the United States.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch began to change the way they looked at water management, notes Morris. “They just couldn’t keep building higher barriers,” says Morris, an American who served in the Netherlands while in the U.S. Air Force and learned the language and culture while he was there. “They figured out how they can live more naturally with the water.”

Through the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C., the Dutch government in early 2006 invited an American delegation, led by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, to visit the Netherlands. There, they would meet with local experts and government officials to learn firsthand how the Dutch developed sophisticated, well-integrated systems that have made them more resilient in responding to the constant threat of potential water-related disasters.

Senator Landrieu assembled a group of state and local officials, and water and planning experts who could benefit the most from those meetings abroad. Waggonner was part of that delegation.   “The Dutch are geniuses in urban design and water design,” says Waggonner. “We needed to learn from them how to talk to each other and agree on how to solve our water problem.”

In addition, the Dutch are known for how well they pool money to address water problems because everyone benefits from it. “We don’t know how to do that here,” he notes.   By all accounts, the delegation trip was a big hit. “When David came back his eyes were wide open,” recalls Mac Ball, an architect and Waggonner’s longtime partner at the firm. “He said these Dutch guys have to come over and analyze our problem and start a series of dialogues to help us tease out solutions.”

After the trip to the Netherlands, Waggonner was intent on further engaging Dutch experts. He worked closely with Dale Morris at the Dutch Embassy to develop a patented process that was ultimately named “Dutch Dialogues.” They also had lots of input from the American Planning Association, a nonprofit that provides leadership in community development.


“Simply put, the model [of the Dutch Dialogues] brings multiple disciplines together to solve vast resiliency and risk mitigation issues,” explains Morris. “As opposed to working in silos, the dialogues allow people to work across disciplines to work on problems as the climate changes. Those challenges could be about drought, flood, or water supply issues.”

Two separate Dutch Dialogues workshops took place in 2008 over several days that engaged Dutch engineers, urban designers, landscape architects, city planners, and soils/hydrology experts and their Louisiana counterparts. In the first workshop, the parties exchanged information to show each other how they addressed water issues in their separate regions. The second workshop moved the conversation further with recommendations about how to improve the way they deal with water with ideas that haven’t been tried before in Louisiana.

When the first workshop began, local players in New Orleans learned that people in the Netherlands faced similar problems living in a delta region surrounded by water, but there was a fundamental difference in their outlook. Historically, New Orleans’ leaders focused on separating people and their buildings from the water, explains Waggonner. Powerful pumping stations are located in strategic points around New Orleans that begin pumping wildly at the first accumulation of rain or any other surge of water. Making the soil so dry has had terrible consequences: the soil is largely composed of sand and because of that, wide swaths of land in the city have been sinking and creating a new set of problems, he says.

“In the Netherlands, they learned how to embrace the water and its deltas, and live with it in a smart way that’s less likely to put them under water,” adds Waggonner.

The New Orleans participants learned the Dutch work closely together to propose solutions for the greater good of society (and not just special interests), because they saw that rising waters don’t discriminate by wealth or social status, says Morris. Everyone was affected by flooding. Their outlook on problem solving was shaped by that knowledge.

The residents of New Orleans—rich and poor—learned those same truths when Katrina forced the levees to collapse and inundated extensive parts of the city with water.


However, there are real obstacles that get in the way of good collaboration in the U.S., which was discussed in the workshops. Special interests and competing government jurisdictions often obstruct collaboration that could lead to better planning for protecting communities and creating wonderful amenities to benefit everyone too, explains Morris. The Dutch have overcome many of those obstacles, he says.

Also, “the Dutch, by nature, are consensus seekers,” notes Morris. “They try to give everyone a say before making final decisions.”

In the U.S., zoning issues and jurisdiction issues come into play, which is trickier to maneuver when trying to build consensus, admits Morris. “Zoning and pumping are local issues, but dredging and navigation are federal.”   At the federal level, the goal was to look at the outer protection system of New Orleans by rebuilding the levees. Waggonner believes the federal government wasn’t paying enough attention to urban flooding issues, and federal, state, and local authorities weren’t working together to figure out how to move that water around.

“In the Netherlands, flood risk mitigation, zoning codes, drainage systems, road building, and other aspects of urban water management are integrated so they get efficient use of their dollars spent,” explains Morris.

The Dutch Dialogues gave New Orleans stakeholders a framework for constructive discussion, and brought disparate parties to the table to create synergies that otherwise wouldn’t occur, says Waggonner. In addition, Waggonner set an intergenerational element to the discussions so younger professionals and university students could participate in the process and integrate that philosophy into their work ethic as they advance in their careers.

“We have an effective network now,” says Waggonner. “The work transcends the competitive. No one is making money doing this, including the Dutch participants. We’re constantly learning from each other.”

“In the Netherlands, they learned how to embrace the water and its deltas, and live with it in a smart way that’s less likely to put them under water.” – David Waggonner

A new radical plan for water management in New Orleans

Since the Dutch Dialogues, Waggonner and others have been working hard at coming up with funding for designing new plans for water management, and even larger pots of money that will be necessary to implement any of the design ideas that are approved.

Neutral Ground_FilmoreGentilly

In 2010, state and federal funds were allocated to Waggonner and Ball to lead a team of local and international water management experts to develop a Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. The in-depth plan, “Living with Water,” calls for a radically different game plan for how water should be incorporated into the city’s infrastructure.

Taking a completely different tack, the Living with Water plan recommends designing a new system within the levees that doesn’t automatically eject the water when it rains. Instead, the new ideas focus on rethinking the use of water and integrating it more into the fabric of the city.

“We want to make New Orleans consciously a water city by using surface water in the landscape,” says Waggonner. “In Louisiana, water has not been something we valued and we want to change that. Our new paradigm regarding water is to drain it, store it, and use it when we need it.”

These designs are intended to first promote safety for residents, but also establish amenities that improve the quality of life by living close to water. For example, one component of the plan reworks the canals, which currently are walled in, aesthetically unpleasing, and mostly hidden from residents, explains Waggonner. They’re used primarily as a place to push water away from residents. The new plan calls for a flattening of the canal walls, cleaning up the water, and making the edges of the canals more like a promenade for residents and visitors to have a place for walking and communing with the natural environment, he says. “What we’re trying to do is get people not to turn their backs to the water’s edge but to embrace it.”

To illustrate those ideas, Ball created a wonderful series of drawings that are intended to foster buy-in from the community because they’ll be able to visualize how these canals can transform their surroundings and draw tourists to the region, much like the High Line transformation did in New York City, he says.


“We were hired to do this study, but it took longer and cost more than any of us thought because it was very exhaustive and grounded in science,” notes Ball. “We’re hoping funding will come soon so this project can start.”   As of late summer, city officials and others were working on tapping potential funding sources, including the federal Rebuild by Design program, which was created as an initiative of the President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013.

Waggonner, a natural leader, great networker, and sincere cheerleader for the city, was the best choice to head up the New Orleans team that collaborated with the Dutch in the workshops, concludes Morris. Aside from his fierce determination to rethink the fundamentals of water’s role within New Orleans, Waggonner knew how to tap the right experts for the local team.

“He told me there were people in New Orleans who were skeptical or were too busy to participate,” recalls Morris. “But David has a strong commitment to the city, he doesn’t give up easily, and adversity won’t stop him. The Dutch participants couldn’t succeed without the true local knowledge and participation that David brought together.”

Dutch Dialogues Beyond New Orleans

Since its inception in New Orleans, the Dutch Dialogues process has taken on a life of its own in the U.S. and elsewhere. Both Waggonner and Morris participated in a Miami workshop in August that assembled many local players to discuss how to build a team for addressing water issues. The first formal Dutch Dialogues are expected to begin there next year.

Indeed, many believe the principles and framework adopted by the federal government’s Rebuild by Design program after Hurricane Sandy was modeled after the Dutch Dialogues format.

After Hurricane Sandy, city leaders in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a coastal city hit hard by the storm, invited Waggonner as a consultant to facilitate a Rebuild by Design workshop for key stakeholders to figure out how to begin repairing its devastated infrastructure and nearby waterways. They’re moving along in the process, but will face funding challenges once they’ve devised a rebuilding plan, observes Waggonner.

“There can’t be any resiliency in Bridgeport without economic revitalization because there’s so few revenue sources there,” he notes. “You have to approach resiliency with an economic approach in mind.”

One of the segments at the National Building Museum’s “Designing for Disaster” exhibit includes a video of the Dutch Dialogues format in action as it was employed in Bridgeport during the workshop led by Waggonner. That inclusion in the exhibit is expected to give even wider exposure of the Dutch Dialogues methodology to a broader audience and spread the word further.

More city leaders around the U.S. have contacted the Dutch Embassy and are eager to engage in their own flavor of Dutch Dialogues, says Morris. Some potential cities and regions in line for future collaborations include Norfolk, Virginia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta in California. However, none of those will move forward until the right people are selected to lead the charge locally, notes Morris.

“We have to make sure there are good local partners,” says Morris. “We have to find the right David Waggonners in those places and we don’t have them just yet.”

Despite Waggonner’s considerable contribution to facilitating the Dutch Dialogues in New Orleans and elsewhere, he’s humble about his place in the important conversation bubbling up around resiliency in our cities and communities. “The scale of this ship is bigger than me; I’m just trying to be a voice in the chorus,” he insists.   “We don’t have the luxury of a 20-year feedback cycle,” he continues, with a tone of urgency in his voice. “If you want to combat climate change and be more resilient, we need to experiment at a much faster rate and the Dutch Dialogues can help us do things the right way the first time. I’ve learned that it’s always better to spend more time planning upfront—measure twice and cut once.”

Integrated Living Water Systems

The integrated living water system is the basis of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan. It is a new model for managing stormwater, surface water, and groundwater collectively, rather than as isolated phenomena. It works to slow, store, and use stormwater in order to reduce the region’s dependence on pumping, and it provides for the circulation and recharge of surface water and groundwater. The Urban Water Plan describes seven characteristic elements that join together the capacity of existing systems with those of the region’s open spaces, soils, plants, and wetlands.


1. Small Scale Retrofits. Interceptor streets on high ground (backslope neighborhoods) are a critical subset of small scale retrofits. Running perpendicular to the flow of water, interceptor streets function as speed bumps, absorbing and slowing water as it moves downslope, in order to alleviate localized flooding and lessen the load on drainage systems downstream.

2. Circulating Canal. In the region’s bowls and lowlands, circulating canals sustain local habitats and recharge groundwater. During wet weather, they continue to serve as drainage conduits. Circulating canals with flowing water and improved banks can be beautiful public spaces, as seen in this example from the Netherlands.

3. Strategic Parklands. Strategic Parklands are multi-acre areas located at key junctures of the integrated living water system that are designed to contain vast quantities of stormwater during heavy rains and provide invaluable open space and recreational amenities. Wally Pontiff Park in Jefferson Parish is an example of an existing parkland.

4. Waterfront Development Zones. Waterfront Development Zones around key waterways and parklands anchor the development of higher-density, multi-use districts defined by urban water assets. Shown is a multi-use development along the Industrial Canal.

5. Integrated Waterworks. Integrated waterworks are the water treatment plants, drainage pumps, siphons, sluices, and gates that draw, redirect, and filter stormwater, surface water, groundwater, drinking water, sewage, and industrial wastewater. They are the engines that establish the flows of the living water system. Shown here is a weir in City Park.

6. Integrated Wetlands. Wetlands located within strategic parklands and distributed throughout the region store and filter both stormwater and dry weather flows. Existing wetlands are restored with treated wastewater and filtered stormwater.

7. Regional Monitoring Networks. Surface water and groundwater provide system managers with real-time data that are necessary to address immediate drainage needs and long-term trends in water levels and water quality, and to maintain higher water levels without compromising safety.

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Mission Accomplished

Originally published in USGBC+
October 1, 2014

The architects and builders of the Department of Energy’s new Research Support Facility (RSF) in Golden, Colorado, were confident they could design and build the world’s largest net-zero energy building. The new structure, within the campus of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), was expected to be a trailblazer for the green building industry and a model for others to follow when the project got underway in 2008.

“Part of our mission is to be national leaders in energy efficiency,” says Shanti Pless, top efficiency champion at NREL and one of the facility’s project leaders. “Costs and efficiencies of many energy technologies have improved significantly in recent years, and we had the opportunity to walk the talk and show the industry how to do it.”

Still, they held their collective breath. They had to wait until the first full year energy consumption data was tallied with all systems up and running to see if they could really achieve net-zero energy. That way, they could verify whether the total energy the building produced through its own renewable energy sources was greater than the energy the structure consumed over a 12-month period.

The verdict? Mission accomplished. In April 2014, the Department of Energy announced it had collected real-time verifiable data demonstrating the Research Support Facility produced more energy than it consumed between April 2013 and April 2014.

Even though the first 800 occupants of the building moved into the 220,000-square-foot building after construction of Phase One in 2010, the ambitious project wasn’t fully completed until 2012. That’s when an additional wing was added for a combined total of 360,000 square feet and 500 more NREL and Department of Energy staffers moved their operations to the new building.

The primary source of renewable energy was drawn from the building’s 2.6-megawatt solar photovoltaic (PV) system that blankets the roof and stretches onto a canopy over the adjacent parking areas. What’s more, the building was designed with a multitude of energy efficiency features—some high-tech and others pretty basic—so the structure could operate using at least 50 percent less energy than most other Class A buildings of the same size.

Of course, operational efficiencies have to occur year after year for a true net-zero energy success, compared to sustainability design goals that are measured as a one-time accomplishment, Pless notes. The RSF also was awarded the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) top Platinum rating for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for each completed phase of the complex.

“Net-zero energy is the holy grail of all targets on the sustainability side of creating large-scale buildings,” asserts Pless, who spent the first decade of his 25-year career in the commercial sector as a mechanical engineer meeting energy goals for high-performance buildings, including the Lewis Center at Oberlin (Ohio) College. “It’s only in the last five years that large-scale buildings can be thought of as a realistic goal.”

Climate Change—a Catalyst

Concerns about climate change have been mounting in both the public and private sectors and many experts point to buildings as a major contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the U.S., buildings account for 30 percent of all GHG emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That should come as little surprise, considering buildings are responsible for about 36 percent of total energy use and 65 percent of all electricity consumption domestically, the EPA says. Since NREL aims to be at the forefront of energy efficiency ideas, administrators there figured attaching aggressive criteria for energy reductions to its planned Research Support Facility was a way to combat the growing threat of climate change as well, says Pless.


“Decisions made today in building design will impact emissions of our buildings for the next 30 to 40 years,” he observes. “You’ve got one chance to get it right because once you have an existing building it becomes difficult to change.”

The team that designed and built the new facility factored in operational carbon emissions as part of its definition for the net-zero energy goal because minimizing GHG emissions was just as important as the energy efficiency component from an environmental standpoint, asserts Tom Hootman, director of sustainability at RNL Design, a global design firm specializing in sustainable, integrated design, and one of the partners on the team that won the competitive bid for designing and building the new facility. “It forces you to think through the design problems in terms of operational carbon emissions, which can influence design strategies and energy sources,” he explains.

To that end, the designers opted for onsite generation of clean, renewable energy and passive design strategies as the primary sources for powering the building’s operations and keeping energy needs at a minimum, says Hootman. “These strategies add resilience to our built environment, which can help mitigate future impacts to our changing climate,” he adds.

What’s more, one requirement for the design/build team was to guarantee all materials used met the criteria of a 50-year life span to stretch the time that a major renovation or demolition would be required, says Brian Livingston, a senior project manager at Haselden, the Centennial, Colorado, general contractor that was awarded the design/build contract for the project with RNL Design. Life span requirements for buildings are typically 30 to 40 years.

“A building with a 50-year requirement rather than a 30-year would have stricter structural requirements because concrete deteriorates over time,” explains Livingston. “We had to prove either through examples of in-place construction or through a testing data mechanism that materials would meet that durability standard.”

Livingston adds: “When you demolish a building, you emit carbon dioxide with equipment that’s used and some of those materials end up in a landfill,” which produces methane, a potent GHG. “This requirement was about being mindful to the future and not contributing to climate change.”


The project leaders at NREL knew they were raising the stakes in their quest for a net-zero energy structure on a scale that hadn’t yet been achieved, so they took a dramatically different approach in the criteria for the request for proposal (RFP) they put out to the green building industry. They sent out a performance-based design/build RFP that placed energy criteria for the building’s operations as a required top priority requirement alongside cost and schedule, explains Pless. For example, the RFP said they required design and construction that results in a building that uses 25,000 BTUs per square foot for the first two years.


“What we learned is that when energy efficiency is a requirement from the beginning, energy efficacy decisions can be made early on and integrated cost-effectively,” asserts Pless. “That wasn’t really done before. Early energy efficiency goals can inform the design delivery process, rather than extra efficiency measures that are bolted on after the design has been developed.”

In addition, NREL for the first time wanted a design/build team to create the building instead of the typical two-step process. In this instance, a partnership of architects and a contractor design the facility and begin building it in an integrated manner instead of first having one team design the entire structure and then soliciting RFPs for the building phase, explains Pless. The integrated team saved money and slashed about 18 months off the total project’s start-to-finish time, he estimates.

“Performance-based design/build with energy efficiency integrated into the design is the one key replicable strategy that we’ve used in nine of our own projects since then,” he says.

Hootman, who was one of the main designers of the RSF and authored a book about the process, notes there was a requirement for LEED Platinum in the project, which was not new for his firm. However, it was the first time the energy goal was expected to be a deliverable as well, instead of having it on the wish list of hoped-for outcomes, he recalls.

“It changed the dynamic and seriousness of the project,” he says. “It aligned the entire theme of energy efficiency in a more profound way because now it was a contract requirement instead of a goal. Goals sometimes get lost when suddenly the budget gets tight or you’re running out of time. Here it wasn’t allowed to happen.”

Mix of New and Old

Improvements in some newer technologies and dramatic reductions in cost inspired Pless and others at NREL to view a net-zero energy building as a realistic possibility. Cheaper LED (light-emitting diodes) lighting, which requires far less energy than standard lighting, suddenly made that an option building-wide. Less expensive PV panels also enabled the design team to add solar as the primary renewable energy source. Colorado is known for its days of sunshine year-round, so that energy source was a good choice for a building there, he says.


In addition, some of the energy efficiency solutions were passive strategies based on simpler technologies that have been employed for hundreds of years. Those elements also are expected to contribute to the improved health and productivity of employees working there.

Two of the best examples are an emphasis on natural daylight and natural ventilation. A hundred years ago when buildings were designed, most were naturally ventilated and naturally lit, says Pless. “There was good shading, good insulation, thermal mass, lots of precast concrete and ventilation and daylighting,” he explains. “Now we’re learning how to integrate these simpler technologies into modern, high-performance buildings.”

At the RSF, the building’s operations will never turn on a light for an employee, except in the restroom, says Hootman. When employees enter their workspace, they decide whether they need more lighting beyond available natural daylight and they have the option of flipping their own dedicated light switch.

“Once the occupant turns a light on, the building finds a way to turn it off,” explains Hootman. “Sensors detect when you leave your space and your lights will be turned off automatically. The same will happen when the sun comes out, and at 6 p.m. there’s a hard lights-off again. This building only uses 15 percent of what a regular building would use in lighting energy.”

An open floor plan also enables workers to benefit from the natural daylight streaming in through the windows. There are no carved-out private offices blocking access to outdoor lighting. In addition, open work areas allow natural ventilation because there aren’t walled-off spaces that interfere with air flow.

Initially, employees had to get used to working in an open-space environment since many previously had secluded offices. The new layout includes private call rooms and conference rooms for meetings, plus a lot of attention was paid to good acoustics to minimize noise travel. Pless notes the way for these passive features to work best is to change office culture and get buy-in from workers.

For example, the building was equipped with operable windows for natural air ventilation that can easily be opened by people working there, says Livingston. “From a construction perspective, we considered the building ‘delicately simple’ because much of the work didn’t need specialty engineers or workers,” he says. “Anyone can install a window that opens.”

In more complex “smart” buildings, numerous problems crop up when sophisticated systems break down, observes Hootman. “Fancy controls eventually stop working and it takes a specialist to come back and recalibrate,” he says. “Or employees don’t like what’s installed so they circumvent it by covering occupancy sensors. Our building was brilliant in its simplicity.”

The passive architecture served another important purpose: Those design features also were intended to maximize employees’ health and improve their sense of well-being while at work. Fresh air from open windows (especially in Colorado) is generally better than sealed-off air that’s continuously recirculated in a building, for example. Happier workers also typically are more productive and take fewer sick days, notes Pless. “We believe everyone has a right to daylight and the right to a good view.”

Air quality was enhanced in the new building by rounding up all the printers and toners, which emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and housing them in a separate self-contained ventilated room. At their old workstations, every other NREL employee had his own desktop printer, says Pless. “That was a lot of VOCs to breathe, so we changed our standards (with the new facility) and bought high-speed multifunction devices and put much fewer of them in the closed-off rooms,” he explains. “Now when I go into buildings that aren’t naturally ventilated and day-lit, I feel like I’m in a cave.”

Industry Impact

When the RSF design was on the drawing board, there were no large-scale net-zero buildings standing, recalls Pless. The largest were 10,000-square-foot structures and most were experimental, he says. The objective of the RSF project was to demonstrate the scalability and replicability of the concept so others could follow, he notes.

Hydrogen Bus

“The industry has now recognized that it can be done on a large scale and they’re learning how to do this,” says Pless, who spends time on the lecture circuit sharing his experience with industry professionals. Project leaders also developed a manual with design details that is shared publicly. Hootman describes the experience of this project as “transformational.”

“It changed the way I work and the way I think about design,” he admits. “Given that I’ve always been a LEED AP sustainable designer, this was a far more radical approach to designing around energy. It vaults you to the next level.”

Historically, architects weren’t trained in the details of BTUs of energy and other energy minutiae, notes Hootman. But that’s changing, he says—noting that some architectural programs are even incorporating net-zero energy into design class curricula. For his part, Hootman is pushing other architects to adopt these new approaches and insists the industry is on the cusp of a growing trend.

There currently are a couple hundred net-zero commercial buildings in various stages of design and construction. Many large-scale retrofits with net-zero energy goals are underway as well, says Pless. The majority of new construction is found in the government and education sectors, while retrofits are occurring across the board.

“Net-zero building today is where LEED Platinum was 15 years ago—a few leaders were trying to go all the way and soon after others followed,” he says. “I’m pretty excited to see this happening.”

Green building visionaries like Pless, Hootman, and Livingston applaud net-zero building as a vital component to mitigating the impact of climate change, but they are realistic about what will motivate others to jump on the bandwagon. “When commercial developers figure out how to build it, sell it, and create a marketplace for it like they’ve done for LEED, that’s when you’ll know net zero has become mainstream,” Pless predicts.

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Three entrepreneurs, three global adventures

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
September 27, 2014

Ken Pelletier at home | Photo: Kendall Karmanian

Everyone probably has daydreamed about what they’d do if they hit it rich. But even among the rare few who actually get that lucky, hardly any pack it up to live out their fantasy. Here are three tech entrepreneurs who left the grind behind. Read on and get envious.

Founding CTO, Groupon Inc. —Learning an ancient string instrument in Cambodia

Ken Pelletier has been exploring the music of diverse cultures as long as he can remember. After reaping the financial rewards as founding chief technology officer of Chicago-based Groupon from 2007 to 2011, he took time out for a deep dive into music in Cambodia. There, he learned to play an ancient string instrument that was almost lost forever during the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s.

Mr. Pelletier started playing guitar when he was 8. He also plays the bass, mandolin and shamisen, a Japanese guitar. While on a trip to Southeast Asia with his wife in early 2013, he discovered the unique sound of another string instrument—the kse diev (pronounced sigh-DYOO)—and knew he had to return to take lessons.

“This instrument creates a sound that isn’t like any other Southeast Asian music—it’s more like American blues,” says Mr. Pelletier, 52. It goes back 1,000 years to pre-Angkor time, he says, and he believes there was only one person after 1979 who knew how to play it.


Master Sok Duch, now 90, and the sole surviving player of the kse diev after the Khmer Rouge genocide.

Over two months earlier this year, he studied and practiced in Cambodia at least three hours a day. The kse diev is a fretless one-string instrument made of a long stick with a string and connected to a gourd held over one’s heart to play. Mr. Pelletier learned under Phanith Lun, grandson of Master Sok Duch, who survived the Khmer Rouge mass killings and saved the kse diev from extinction.

Members of a nonprofit, Cambodian Living Arts, asked Mr. Pelletier to take recordings of masters playing traditional songs on the kse diev back to Chicago to create an online archive.

“These things I’m doing now were always simmering, and I’ve had to push them aside instead of getting deeper into it,” says Mr. Pelletier, who returned home with five of the obscure instruments. “This time I had the chance to go all the way in, and in some small way I’m helping to keep this instrument alive.”

Though he pulled out of day-to-day business activities for several months, Mr. Pelletier remained a technical adviser and early investor in a handful of Chicago startups, including DeskTime LLC,Shiftgig Inc.Kitchensurfing Inc. and the Noun Project.

After returning to Chicago from his musical experience, he went back to Cambodia two more times over several weeks to work with a filmmaker on a short documentary series about social injustices in that country.

“I’ve had 30 years of really intense work in technology design, and to continue to do that well wouldn’t leave room for anything else,” Mr. Pelletier says. “Now I’ve got the time to pursue these other passions.”


Founder, OpenTable Inc. Former CEO, Impact Engine — Moving to Costa Rica for a yearlong adventure

At the end of the summer, Chuck Templeton locked up his Chicago home and moved to Costa Rica with his wife and two children for a year of adventure in Central America.

Mr. Templeton, founder of San Francisco-based OpenTable Inc. and until recently the head of Impact Engine, a Chicago accelerator for social enterprise startups, will spend time with his family learning Spanish and absorbing a new culture. He intends to study the country’s widely respected eco-driven policies and programs. Mr. Templeton also plans to take advantage of the natural environment there for some surfing and cycling, he says.

“We wanted to take our girls to a developing country that is safe so they could learn that there are other places that aren’t like our comfortable life in Chicago,” Mr. Templeton, 46, explains. Besides, “I’m a runner and mountain bike rider, and my girls (ages 8 and 10) are surfers. Costa Rica has a lot of that down there.”

The family will live on the country’s Pacific Coast on the Nicoya Peninsula, a magnet for surfers from around the world.

While Mr. Templeton has given up his daily responsibilities at Impact Engine, he remains chairman of the board and will check in regularly with Jessica Droste Yagan, the accelerator’s new CEO. He will continue his role from afar as a mentor to one or two startups participating in the 16-week program.

Mr. Templeton, who considers climate-change issues a high priority, may have even more good advice to share with startups once he learns more about Costa Rica’s ways of tackling some complex environmental problems.

“I’m a believer that every business that’s not thinking about the impact of climate change and isn’t treating people right isn’t going to be successful in the long term,” he says. “I’m hoping to connect with some progressive educational institutions (in Costa Rica) and bring back some good ideas” to share with other startups.


Co-founder, former COO, GrubHub Inc. — Biking across the country

Mike Evans, GrubHub Inc. co-founder, wrapped up a two-month-plus cross-country bike trip in late August that started in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in June and ended more than 4,100 miles later at the Pacific Ocean in Florence, Oregon.

Before departing, Mr. Evans, 37, resigned as chief operating officer of the Chicago-based online restaurant-ordering service after the startup went public last spring. He sits on the boards of two city startups—Whittl and Kapow Events Inc.—and is a mentor for and investor in Impact Engine, an accelerator program for social enterprise startups. Those commitments didn’t interfere with Mr. Evans’ ability to drop out for the summer and hit the road.

“After working on GrubHub for 12 years, I needed to take a break,” says Mr. Evans, who’s married with no kids. “Riding my bike across the nation was just the thing that I needed to reset my mental state after being so focused on a single idea for such a long time.”

Mr. Evans rode a tricked-out Easy Racer Ti-Rush recumbent bike, which held all his gear. He camped most nights but slept in the occasional bed-and-breakfast or motel along the way. He rode through thunderstorms, steep mountain ranges and a forest fire in Oregon.


DAY 75: Mike Evans arrives at the Pacific Ocean at Harbor Vista Park in Florence, Oregon.
Photos courtesy of Mike Evans

In a daily blog with lots of photographs, Mr. Evans shared his encounters with the people he met and offered commentary on the TransAmerica Trail he followed.

“Both the photography and the writing were an intentional choice to focus on a creative effort after spending so much time thinking about business,” says Mr. Evans, who rode about 68 miles on a typical day.

In an email exchange en route, Mr. Evans shares some surprises he didn’t anticipate. “I made a couple of very close friends from the other tourers I met on the journey,” he writes. “I had expected to do the trip solo, except for one week with the pastor of my church (First Evangelical Free Church of Chicago), Bill Shereos, and Chuck Templeton (from Impact Engine), who was a mentor to me early on starting GrubHub and has become a close friend.”

Between Kentucky and Oregon, Mr. Evans and about six other cyclists weaved in and out of one another’s paths. He spent the most time with two British cyclists.

When he has recovered from the trip, Mr. Evans plans to write a book about the transition from bringing a company through an initial public offering and leaving it behind to ride across the country.

In an epilogue blog post the day after he wet his wheels in the Pacific, he wrote, “The most ethereal of the changes (for me) has been the spiritual journey. It has been a slow change, composed of imperceptible increments. . . . The peace I feel at the completion parallels the varied nature of the journey itself.”

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Battle of the farmers markets in West Loop

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
September 9, 2014


There’s a bit of a farmers market battle shaping up in the West Loop. The Randolph Fulton Market Association and City Winery are co-sponsoring a West Loop Farmers Market Sept. 13 on Randolph Street just west of Racine Avenue.The market will feature fresh, local produce as well as prepared and artisanal foods and organic products mainly from businesses and restaurants in the area.

It’s about 10 blocks from Green City Market Fulton, which launched this year at the corner of Halsted and Fulton streets and takes place every Saturday through the end of October. Green City offers local and regional produce, cheeses, meats and breads from some of the same farmers and food purveyors who sell their goods at the original Green City Market in Lincoln Park.

Does the neighborhood — not known for big crowds on a Saturday morning — need two farmers markets at the same time in such close proximity to each other?

Roger Romanelli, Randolph Fulton Market Association’sexecutive director, says his group began planning for a market in mid-May before they learned of Green City Market’s intention for a new outpost in the West Loop. The association’s board was adamant about locating the market on Randolph near Racine to boost foot traffic to nearby retailers and restaurants. When his group learned Green City was scouting a location, he invited representatives to collaborate with him, but they weren’t interested, Mr. Romanelli says.

“We’ve been disappointed at Green City Market’s approach to our neighborhood and the locations they were looking at,” he says.

For its part, Green City Market representatives say they welcome the competition. “It would’ve been nicer if we could’ve all worked together,” notes Vi Daley, co-chair of Green City’s board. Besides, “competition is never bad. We’re all trying to do the same thing: bring fresh, local food to the community.”

Mr. Romanelli says his group will hold another Saturday market day in October if the first one is a hit. It also is making plans for an undisclosed indoor location that will operate year-round. Mr. Romanelli couldn’t define what that success would look like on the first day, but he is optimistic that local residents and chefs will come out to support the new market.

“Now all we have to do is pray for good weather,” he says.

– Judith Nemes

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Apps make it easier to be green

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune
September 5, 2014


We’re constantly bombarded with warnings about how we’re endangering the environment. The task of taking better care of the planet and keeping ourselves safe from exposure to harmful toxins and chemicals can seem overwhelming. One solution is to bite off tiny pieces by making better choices through small changes in our own lives.

Making your lifestyle just a little more green is as easy as pulling out your smartphone or tablet. There are apps that can show you how to get around efficiently on a bike instead of using your car, shop for foods produced with Earth-friendly methods, and find shampoos and deodorants that aren’t loaded with potentially harmful chemicals.

Shrinking your carbon footprint is a few clicks away, starting with some of the apps below.

MapMyRide. Unless you’re driving an electric car, leave your carbon-emitting vehicle at home and use this free app to help you map the most bike-friendly route to your destination. The built-in “route genius” suggests cycling routes for locations all over the world, and you’re invited to post your own map if you find a better way of getting somewhere. You can track your location in real time with GPS and bookmark your favorite rides. If you’re cycling for a workout, you can upgrade to the premium app and pay a fee for a virtual coach to encourage you or track your heart rate while you pedal.

Farmstand. The Farmstand app locates farmers markets near you selling foods that are produced locally. Many feature farmers who grow fruits and vegetables or raise animals without harmful pesticides or chemicals. Those foods are healthier for us and don’t damage the soil or water supply where they’re grown or raised. Nearby producers also are better for cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions, because they’re not hauling goods over long distances. If you can’t make it to a market, the free Farmstand app also tells you where you can subscribe to a CSA, or community supported agriculture, and get weekly deliveries of locally produced foods. You’ll find listings of restaurants in your area that get food from nearby farms, and you’ll learn about community gardens in your neighborhood where you can get your hands dirty and grow your own food too.

Seafood Watch. This one’s for seafood and sushi lovers. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has a respected rating system, which tells you whether the fish you’re about to buy at the supermarket or order in a restaurant was caught in an eco-friendly way. The free app will indicate if it’s overfished or caught or farmed in ways that damage other marine life or the environment. If you want to buy salmon, for example, type it into the search box, and you’ll get a list of choices, using a traffic light system of green, yellow and red. Green denotes which kind of salmon is the best choice because it’s abundantly available and caught sustainably; yellow gives you good alternatives; and red tells you which ones to avoid. There’s also a feature on the app called Project Fishmap that invites users to add locations for ocean-friendly seafood items and check out what others have reported.

Think Dirty. Are the personal care products in your medicine cabinet loaded with toxins that are potentially harmful? That’s hard to know unless you can see a full list of ingredients. This clever app lets consumers swipe the bar code on a body wash or moisturizer and learn more about how it’s made. If an item is rated dangerous, you can see what chemicals within may be worrisome. The app suggests healthier alternatives and lists their ingredients, too. You can keep a personal list of “dirty” and “clean” products you’ve found. The free app has more than 146,000 items in its database, and whenever possible, manufacturers’ ingredients are verified with independent databases.

Ally Bank. What could be greener than managing your greenbacks with an online-only bank that has no branches to give off carbon emissions? Ally Bank, a subsidiary of Ally Financial Inc., has a mobile banking app (ally.mobi) that lets you snap photos of your checks and deposit into your account. It also finds the closest ATM.

– Judith Nemes

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A smarter approach to making water drinkable

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
August 14, 2014

AR-140819925.jpg&maxw=368&q=100&cb=20140814092407&cci_ts=20140814092406John Schoch knows a thing or two about clay. He’s been CEO for 11 years of Profile Products LLC, a Buffalo Grove firm that mixes porous ceramic particles into playing fields. Made from a specific type of clay, the material soaks up water after, say, a golf course or Wrigley Field has been dumped with rain.

In 2008, after chatting with a water management consultant, Mr. Schoch concluded his expertise might have a worldwide humanitarian use. He brought in a team of chemists, hydrologists and manufacturing designers to develop a modified ceramic particle that could filter out contaminants to provide safe drinking water in places where people lack access to it.

ProCleanse LLC, a subsidiary of Profile Products he formed five years ago, now has its product: a giant blue bucket lined with a proprietary blend of particles. Dirty water is poured into the top and gravity pulls the water through a strainer to catch debris. At the same time, silver, zinc and copper ions are released from the particles to neutralize bacteria and viruses. The device, which can hold up to 5 gallons of water and must be cleaned out a few times a year, requires no power, has no parts to replace and is expected to last 10 years.

ProCleanse received $4 million from Profile Products for development and testing. Each filtration device costs $200, but that works out to just one-tenth of 1 cent per quart of clean water when spread over the product’s lifetime, says Mr. Schoch, 64, who has spent his career in the chemicals industry.

Other purification products are available. But Mr. Schoch says his is better. One popular approach is chlorine tablets, “but chlorine gives off a bad taste and rotten-egg odor that no one likes,” he says. “Culturally, people don’t like to use it even though it will make water safer for their kids.”

Competing filtering devices cost no more but typically last just two to three years, says Chuck Chatowitz, a principal at Global Environment Technology Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on clean water access around the world.

Mr. Schoch is pitching his product to private organizations, service and faith-based groups and foreign governments, which in turn would distribute them to people in need. Rotary International clubs in Ecuador, for instance, have asked to buy 5,000 ProCleanse devices. He is working with clubs in the U.S. and the Guatemalan government to distribute 10,000 filters to at-risk families, too.

He also is pursuing a formal field test with 600 families in Ghana to demonstrate whether the product can meet relatively new, stringent World Health Organization standards. They include eliminating close to 100 percent of all harmful bacteria and viruses in the water.

“It’s not an easy marketplace to enter, nor is it easy to make money there,” Mr. Chatowitz says. “What’s unique about John and ProCleanse is their commitment to address these big issues surrounding clean water and access and their willingness to keep making improvements on their technology.”

– Judith Nemes

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The new corporate wellness program: On-site gardens

Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business
July 14, 2014

Kraft Foods Group Inc.’s garden in Northfield. The produce is donated.

Sterling Bay Cos., a real estate development firm, promotes a healthy lifestyle for its 62 employees with an on-site gym, training and yoga sessions, and an in-house chef who cooks fresh, seasonal fare for breakfast and lunch every day.

Now management is adding an amenity to give its staff another health and productivity boost: an organic vegetable garden. Last month, Organic Gardener Ltd., a Glencoe-based operation that creates organic vegetable gardens for corporate, residential and nonprofit clients, began designing a 30-by-40-foot raised garden area that will be installed soon on Sterling Bay’s new, lounge-like rooftop deck at its West Loop headquarters.

The firm’s chef will choose the plants he wants for his culinary creations. Staffers will be able to take breaks and work the garden if they want to get away from the hectic office buzz for a bit, says Russ Cora, vice president of leasing.

“We’re conscious of trying to be healthier and make this a cool place to work—this garden is part of those efforts,” Mr. Cora says.

A small but growing number of Chicago-area companies are tapping gardening experts to help them grow fresh produce on site. Some employers are establishing gardens to foster healthier lifestyles by emphasizing nutritious, fresh foods for their workers. Employees can get outside to bend and stretch while tending the garden during breaks. Additional benefits include bonding among workers, and stress relief that can contribute to improved productivity when they get back to their desk, according to Stephanie Spronk, a senior vice president leading the health transformation team at Aon Hewitt, a global employee-benefits firm with headquarters in Lincolnshire.

“We have such a sedentary workforce that any type of movement is good,” Ms. Spronk says. “Also, when gardening is done in a group setting, you have a social connection with people that’s good for workplace communication and team-building.”

Employees volunteer in Kraft Foods Group Inc.’s garden in Northfield. The produce is donated. Photos provided by Kraft Foods Group Inc.

Employees at Savino Del Bene, a global logistics and freight-forwarding company in northwest suburban Des Plaines, pitched in one afternoon about three years ago to set up six large raised beds and plant fruit and vegetable seedlings. The company, which leases its building in an industrial complex, got permission from the owners to plant the beds adjacent to an outdoor patio area.

Before long, many of the 55 workers started eating more salads, fresh fruits and vegetables because they were sharing the harvest in the communal kitchen, says Wendy Irwin, CEO of Yellow Tractor, a for-profit social enterprise based in Wilmette that helped Savino Del Bene build its garden. Caprese salads with fresh-picked tomatoes and basil and store-bought mozzarella were a big hit.

Since each raised bed is overseen by a different department, employees started annual competitions to see which garden yields the most pounds of produce, Ms. Irwin says.

What’s more, staffers who spend much of the day in front of computers and phones leave their desk for brief periods and work in the garden for stress relief when they need it, she says.


In addition to helping companies such as Savino Del Bene establish edible gardens and teach them about nutrition and wellness, the firm has a nonprofit arm. The Yellow Tractor Project assists corporations in sponsoring organic vegetable gardens in communities of need.

“Gardening is the new gym in employee wellness programs,” Ms. Irwin says. “You may not burn as many calories as you would at the gym but you get the same stress relief, and it takes less time to get there if the garden is right where you work.”

Ted Kopacz, a machine shop foreman, works in the garden behind Serfilco’s Northbrook building. Photo: Kendall Karmanian

Serfilco, a manufacturer of industrial pumping and filtration equipment, had Organic Gardener set up an 800-square-foot vegetable garden behind its Northbrook building four years ago to get its 50-plus employees thinking about good nutrition, says James J. Berg, vice president of Serfilco, a division of Service Filtration Corp., a family-owned business.

“At the very least, we hope our employees would take advantage of free organic vegetables to take home,” he says. He sends out regular emails to let workers know what’s ripe for picking. “Eating organic food is good for their wellness. A healthier employee misses work less often, which is better for them and better for us.”

Typically a few workers emerge as (nonpaid) primary caretakers of the company garden. At Serfilco, it’s Mr. Berg, who often comes in on weekends with his daughter.

Most of Organic Gardener’s work comes from residential gardens and educational programs. Since 2005, the firm has built about a dozen gardens for corporations and nonprofits. At Yellow Tractor, where a 4-by-8-foot bed and educational support starts at $5,000 to $10,000, the firm expects 75 percent of its work this year will be for corporations.


Kraft Foods Group Inc. created a lush, 8,000-square-foot vegetable garden in 2011 (pictured above) with the help of the Chicago Botanic Garden; it donates all the produce to food pantries and local shelters, says Leah Bradford, associate director of community involvement. Close to 500 employees at the Northfield complex have volunteered in the garden since its inception to contribute to the company’s ethos of community service, she says.


This year the food giant estimates some 200 employee volunteers will spend time in the garden either on lunch breaks or during regular volunteer days where one or two hours is set aside for gardening in teams. About 30,000 pounds of produce has been donated by Kraft from its garden.

“Our primary mission for the garden is to fight hunger, but it’s a great way for our employees to get to know each other and develop relationships in a nontypical work environment,” Ms. Bradford says.

At Sterling Bay, Mr. Cora says the organic garden planned for its headquarters is a pilot that could be replicated across Chicago’s corporate skyline if it’s the hit they expect. The firm owns 8 million square feet of office space in the city, and they’re installing many rooftop decks in old loft buildings they’re renovating.

– Judith Nemes

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