12 Days of Earth Day

Day 12: Big Data & the Designer

Big Data is a general term for data sets that are so large and complex they need algorithms to analyze them.

These data sets include any and all information collected from cell phones, security cameras, internet searches, and credit card purchases – basically anything that gives off a digital exhaust, which is almost every powered product in today’s world. The amount of data a person in the 15th century was exposed to in their lifetime is the same amount of data exposed to us in one day. Previously, much of the excess data generated would end up getting lost in cyberspace because we didn’t know how to analyze it or utilize it. Companies are now starting to see the value and power of big data and are using it to their advantage.

Big data is already being used within the design industry. When Brown University was trying to decide whether they should upgrade their existing engineering building or move off-campus to an innovation center, the architect used big data to determine how they should proceed. After analyzing twitter feeds, surveys, class schedules and other data, the architect found that there was a high level of collaboration between faculty members of different departments, as well as integration of engineering students across the entire campus. With this information, they made the decision to upgrade the existing facilities, rather than spend the money to build a new facility that would have been detrimental to the culture of the university.

 A similar example exists with Harvard University. During an evaluation of the campus plan, Harvard University insisted that they needed to reorient circulation towards the front door of a certain building. The architect utilized data from security cameras and an app called MyCampus to evaluate where the majority of foot traffic entered the building. They found that almost nobody used the front door, and with this information were able to convince Harvard to rework the entire campus plan.

Thanks to the combination of BIM design and GPS tools, we are not only able to construct a complete digital project in three dimensions, but also walk through an empty site and know exactly what room in the future building we are standing in. Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are starting to have an impact in both design & sustainability realms, from driverless cars to supply chain management and protection of natural habitats. The power of using big data and other innovative technologies in the design process is the ability to take a project from “this is how it should function” to “this is how it will function.” Design as prediction, not preservation, and we are all futurists now.

Article By:
Cara Smeltzer
Rachel Bannon-Godfrey


Day 11: The Beauty of Process & Partnerships

Photos by Chang Kim & Devin J. Dilmore.

Photos by Chang Kim & Devin J. Dilmore.

“What a beautiful maintenance facility!” said no one ever.

But Division 13 (D13) isn’t your average bus maintenance and operations facility. Beauty, whether being used as an adjective to refer to our built environment or otherwise, is inherently subjective and its use is easily debatable. Beauty can describe physical appearance and it can also be about the meaning and the process behind a project. LA Metro and the D13 design team at RNL sought to design something different when the project was first conceived. The facility was not only meant to be physically attractive, but it was also to represent something different, that appeals to the senses on a larger scale.

The tree is depicted as a series of graphite drawings laminated to polycarbonate panels. Source:  Metro

The tree is depicted as a series of graphite drawings laminated to polycarbonate panels. Source: Metro

The use of color, scale, landscape and massing all contribute to the beauty of D13, but one element stands out above the others is the public art integration. The lantern, as it is referred to, is subtle and almost hidden during the day, but at night becomes a focal point. The dynamic art piece is the product of an extremely collaborative effort by RNL, Metro Art, 3form and artist Christine Ulke. The artwork consists of hand drawings of a sycamore tree that were scanned, enlarged and printed onto a interlayer of composite translucent 3form panels. Titled El Aliso de Los Angeles, the piece commemorates a 400 year old tree which stood near the site and was cut down due to encroaching industrialization. The massive tree was at the center of Yaanga, one of the largest settlements of the native Tongva people in the LA basin.

It can be seen as an urban scale lantern, but more importantly as a commentary on the control of nature imposed by the built environment. Beauty is sometimes in the details (or the materials), but it can also be in the statement made by a public agency in partnership with artists and architects.  D13 may not appeal to everyone or evoke feelings of beauty for many, but the process and the story can be appreciated by even the most cynical of critics.

3form panels being installed at Division 13. The artwork will improve the quality of a high visibility street intersection across the street from Union Station. Credit:  The Source

3form panels being installed at Division 13. The artwork will improve the quality of a high visibility street intersection across the street from Union Station. Credit: The Source

Article by:
Will Todd, AIA, LEED AP BD+C
RNL Associate, Project Architect

Day 10: Staying One Step Ahead of an Unknown Future

Over the past week, two earthquakes measuring greater than 7.0 in magnitude struck Japan and Ecuador.

This April marks the fifth year of the California drought. In March, the Paris Prefecture conducted the Sequena 2016 to help authorities and citizens prepare for a hypothetical 100-year flood similar to the one that drowned the city in 1910.

A house destroyed in Jama, in the Ecuadorean coastal province of Manabi, on April 18, 2016 two days after a 7.8-magnitude quake hit the country. Rescuers and desperate families clawed through the rubble to pull out survivors of an earthquake that killed 400 people & destroyed towns in a tourist area of Ecuador. Credit:  Juan Cevallos

A house destroyed in Jama, in the Ecuadorean coastal province of Manabi, on April 18, 2016 two days after a 7.8-magnitude quake hit the country. Rescuers and desperate families clawed through the rubble to pull out survivors of an earthquake that killed 400 people & destroyed towns in a tourist area of Ecuador. Credit: Juan Cevallos

Globally, we have seen an increase in unpredictable weather patterns, growing populations in urban, coastal areas and social inequity in access to basic infrastructure and services. It is imperative, as designers, we understand how our work can strengthen the resilience of our buildings and communities. In the post-Hurricane Sandy world, resilience has finally come under a long overdue spotlight. The design community and policy makers alike have focused on the role of sustainable buildings, specifically passive design strategies and islandable power sources. Consider a building in which the most regularly used spaces are predominantly day-lit and naturally ventilated, and the rooftop PVs, fleet of electric vehicles (and on-site battery storage for extra credit) are all part of an on-site micro-grid. This building has the potential to remain operational – or at least habitable - in the event the power grid goes down. Ironically, the more technology-driven society becomes, the more designers need to consider how our buildings can function when that technology cannot be plugged in or turned on.

Even more importantly than the individual building scale, we should focus on how to nurture and develop resilient communities. Not all disasters are weather-induced. Some issues are public health related. Flint, Michigan has experienced one of the greatest modern examples of failed and deteriorating infrastructure. Because the cost of fixing the piping infrastructure is so large, community members have had to rely greatly on their neighbors, their local businesses and their public partners in order to get back up to an operating level.

As designers, we have the unique ability to affect the resiliency of the physical building. But the larger impact of our critical thinking provides us with opportunities to support the development of resilient communities. This can come in many forms – for example the current focus on health and wellbeing often fosters community relationships through promotion of community exercise classes, car-pooling, or even the realization that you share a bike route with your co-worker. Space planning to include a large room in a building for exercise classes means there is also a gathering space in the event of a disaster, natural or man-made.

Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant Steve Kiger of Beaverton, Michigan, helps a Flint resident take bottled water out to his car after he received it at a Flint Fire Station. On January 12, Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to aid the American Red Cross in distributing water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that's in the City's water supply. Credit:  Bill Pugliano

Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant Steve Kiger of Beaverton, Michigan, helps a Flint resident take bottled water out to his car after he received it at a Flint Fire Station. On January 12, Gov. Rick Snyder activated the National Guard to aid the American Red Cross in distributing water to Flint residents to help them deal with the lead contamination that's in the City's water supply. Credit: Bill Pugliano

We cannot foresee 7.0 magnitude earthquakes or hurricanes that shut down an entire metropolitan area. But we can anticipate and proactively design more resilient buildings, and the infrastructure needed for resilient communities. The ability to be resilient leans heavily on the local environment. As design professionals, we are one of the best resources when it comes to understanding the local environment and the potential catastrophic effects these events can cause on our communities.

Our next biggest design challenge, however, is to shift our thinking from reactionary resilience to proactive resilience. This is a conversation we are having on many of our projects right now, particularly with our transportation and utility company clients. Every project, every location faces different threats and requires different definitions of what ‘resilience’ means, but the common thread is the need to stay one step ahead of an unknown future.

Article by:
Korey White, Architect
Rachel Bannon-Godfrey, Director of Sustainability


Day 9: Walking the Talk of Workplace Change

Knoll, a modern furniture company for commercial and residential spaces, recently gave a presentation to one of our clients regarding work place change:

Workplace change can be difficult for employees, and fear of the unknown is common among most people. Employees should be involved in the discussions from the beginning stages to help alleviate stress and anxiety. Preparing our clients for the huge adjustment ahead of time is an important role as Interior Designers and Architects. Below is some of the research and graphics that Knoll has combined through their own work place research and case studies, as well as examples of our first-hand experience with work place change. Well, the time has come for our own office reconfiguration, and one might ask; how does it feel to be given a dose of our own medicine?

RNL Denver office at Curtis & 16th Street Mall.

RNL Denver office at Curtis & 16th Street Mall.

The RNL Denver office is located on the 16th street mall in downtown Denver, Colorado at Independence Plaza. Initially, RNL leased 43,350 square feet; however, during the recession we relinquished 14,350 square feet to the landlord and had to tighten the proverbial belt. 2016 sees RNL stronger than ever and growing. While skilled in preparing our clients for workplace change, our ability to walk the talk was recently put to test as the RNL Denver office started a significant renovation and reconfiguration of work spaces, common areas and conference rooms. In order to make room for roughly 25 new hires, and give the office a much needed facelift, as we celebrate our 60th anniversary, we needed to reduce the area of every workspace from roughly 9’-0” x 7’-0” stations to 9’-0”x 5’-0”.

Thanks to some innovative thinking by our Interiors team, we were able to do this with minimal change to our existing workstation furniture components, saving on resources, money, and minimizing the environmental impact of the project. We simply removed a return work surface and switched components around, reducing the footprint of our typical U-shaped configurations and changing them to L-shaped. The removed work surfaces then became parts and pieces of the additional desks for new hires. Most work was done during normal business hours, with minimal effect on overall office productivity.


Take The Leap

Change management requires support from leadership and communication through letting people know what’s going to happen, why changes are being made, and how they will be affected. Communication is essential to building credibility on the part of the designers, and acceptance on the part of the client. This communication has to be open, and it has to go both ways.
It is critical to ask people for input, to address concerns as they arise, to identify the influencers within employee groups through engaging them in your efforts, and to recognize that different people will adjust at different rates. - Knoll

This last concern was a significant factor in the planning of our office renovation - RNL is currently celebrating our 60th anniversary, and some employees have been with the company well over 35 years. Although we have not been in our current space the entire time, many of our employees have sat in their same desks at this location for over seven years! Recognizing that some RNL’ers would adjust at different rates than others, and some would be more open to the idea of their work spaces shrinking than others, the project was phased. With one pod of workstations reconfigured at a time, and spaced out over about 6 weeks, some RNL’ers had the chance to see the new layout, and get used to the idea before it was their turn.

Renovation of RNL conference rooms.

Renovation of RNL conference rooms.

RNL’s Baby Barker in the middle of the moving chaos.

RNL’s Baby Barker in the middle of the moving chaos.


It is important to remember that workplace change is a process, not a onetime check box event. It takes time and focus, but does not need to be scary. There is no one right way. Navigating the waters of a workplace change can be an intimidating endeavor, but by having a vision and overarching plan, you can reduce resistance to the changes your organization is implementing. - Knoll

Our reconfiguration is a phased process; it took the installers one day per pod of 8-10 workstations. After actually seeing the new work space layouts, they are surprisingly more spacious than previously thought. At the same time we are getting an “office refresh”, new lobby and conference room ceilings, updated mill work, a fresh coat of paint, and refinishing of our existing cork flooring.  We are adapting quickly, despite the hesitancy of some to bite the bullet, and take precious time away from their work day, to fully unpack and move into their new digs.



Goals of Supporting Workplace Change

  • Ease anxieties of people affected by the change.
  • Reinforce behaviors & practices desired in the new environment.
  • Resolve conflicts in habits, attitudes and organizational culture.
  • Accelerate the adjustment process & minimizing disruption to normal workflow.
  • Maximize the return of physical investments.

The water is fine.

Undergoing a workplace change can seem daunting, but by having a vision, plan, and taking simple steps to communicate and engage your employees, you can lessen opposition to the changes your organization is implementing. Supporting workplace change doesn’t need to be overly complicated or overwhelming. And the results can be very successful for not only the overall business, but also for the people within the organization. - Knoll

The overall reaction so far has been extremely positive. We can’t wait to see our fresh and updated space when it is all said and done. It was definitely an awkward feeling to be faced with shrinking workstations of our own, opposed to designing smaller workstations for our clients, but it was a well needed lesson on “practicing what you preach”. Through constant communication from the Interiors team members who coordinated the renovation, RNL has adapted quickly and shown a positive, receptive attitude towards change.

Article By:
Christie Ellender, Associate IIDA, 

Interior Designer, RNL Associate

Rachel Bannon-Godfrey, Associate AIA, LEED AP BD+C, B Corp Ambassador
Director of Sustainability, RNL Associate


Day 8: Happiness in Urban Form

Read the full post at: A Creative Reality

The notion of a city form that promotes day to day human happiness relates to the ability of a city to provide a living and/or working environment that affords people time and freedom to pursue their own free time whether in a private or social manner. This is a simple statement, but it has a number of implications for urban form. A city that affords one time is one that is connected and implies a certain degree of density. A city that allows someone to engage socially is one that contains open-ended public space for organic human interaction, a diversity of uses supporting heteroscedasticity among users, and opens the door to people functioning and participating in a long-term community. Finally, just as a city needs to provide for interaction, it needs to afford privacy - this can be through clustered uses, providing ownership of smaller scale public or semi-public spaces.

In Dominic’s  original post , he visits Vauban in Freiburg, Germany and observes the organic nature of the public realm and the lived-in quality of the residential developments.

In Dominic’s original post, he visits Vauban in Freiburg, Germany and observes the organic nature of the public realm and the lived-in quality of the residential developments.

for a city to work well, it needs to provide for human investment and support that investment.

The term human investment doesn’t mean monetary investment, though that is required, it refers to a people being able to really ‘live’ in a community, to call it their own. By focusing on self-propelled, convenient mobility strategies, a city’s amenities and infrastructure can be right-sized to the human pace of the population that city serves. What’s important about this concentration on the velocity of mobility is when you slow people down, you begin to cater toward a live-in community rather that a collection of transient auto commuters - this provides the basis for a local population and the local population will be the foundation of the city’s viability. Once an intact population emerges, the city can begin to be ‘lived in’.


Day 7: Zero Waste

A zero waste existence is within our grasp.

Cities are increasingly adopting composting programs. The circular economy is gaining traction. Food waste is gaining deserved attention. On the project-side, we are fortunate that many of the contractors we work with are committed to achieving a high waste diversion rate, looking for opportunities to reuse materials wherever possible.


Recycling efforts of Independence Plaza’s tenants saved enough fresh water to supply 42K people for a year.

It‘s time RNL walked the talk on the operational side and really looked at our own waste stream. Each of our offices has unique access to recycling, composting and other waste options, due to their locations and building’s facilities. But the one thing they all have in common is people who work for a firm that values its environmental impact. So it’s time to talk trash, and more specifically, how we can generate less of it.

Let’s start with our Denver office - we are lucky to be in a building, Independence Plaza, run by forward-thinking and motivated building management in terms of environmental issues. From January 2015 to October 2015 (the latest data available), the collective tenants of Independence Plaza had a diversion rate of 63%. These recycling efforts saved enough electricity to power 42 homes for a whole year, enough gas to drive 75,425 miles, enough trees to produce 21M sheets of paper, and enough fresh water to meet the needs of 42K people for a whole year.

So what have we [RNL] done?

In an effort to increase awareness of recycling and composting, we have:

  • Re-arranged the collection bins in our two kitchens to prioritize recycling over trash by providing three recycling containers and only one trash container.
  • Placed the recycling containers in a more convenient location than the trash receptacles.
  • Tripled the number of composting containers and placed them right next to food prep areas.
  • Added two new battery recycling containers.
  • Put up signage explaining what can and can’t go in each of three streams (recycling, compost, trash).

But this is not enough.

Take a look at the bins at the end of any given day and you’ll see compostable and recyclable items in the trash, and non-recyclable items in the recycling. So what’s next? We can set a goal for a higher waste diversion rate, but without knowing where we stand now, asking people to ‘just do better’ won’t be effective.  In the coming weeks we will be doing our own waste audit. This involves hand sorting all the waste collected over the course of a day, then weighing it and calculating what our diversion rate is. We are anticipating that number won’t be great, but we’ll have a benchmark to help us set a goal. We’ll need to be creative with the wording of the most unappealing meeting invite ever, and offer incentives of the beer and pizza variety, but I am hopeful the audit will be useful.

In the meantime, if anyone has ideas or success stories on how to radically improve office waste diversion, please let us know! 


Day 6: Net Zero Energy

RNL’s NREL RSF redefined the potential for achieving net zero energy (NZE) status in a commercial office building. Located in Golden, CO and completed in 2010, phase I was the largest office building in the nation to achieve net zero energy status.

The RSF is a 222,000 square foot Federal office building that is designed to be one of the largest net-zero energy buildings of its kind.

The RSF is a 222,000 square foot Federal office building that is designed to be one of the largest net-zero energy buildings of its kind.

Since the RSF we have been quietly building up our portfolio of next generation net zero energy buildings, and are currently working on two that have the potential for making waves in their respective building types. So stay tuned… While we can’t disclose the details of the projects, we can talk about the details of the process. 

Know your Numbers

In theory, any project can reach net zero energy if you buy enough photovoltaics (PV) and find somewhere on the site to put them. Is that the right way to approach it? Absolutely not. Besides, we have yet to find that unicorn of a project with an unlimited budget for on-site renewables. Instead, the key to NZE projects is reducing your energy use as much as possible first, and then making up the difference with on-site renewables. This math game requires knowing your numbers from the very start – the energy use intensity (EUI) of your design as soon as that first Sketch Up or Revit model is made, the amount of PV you will likely be able to fit on the site (and in the budget), and the EUI that you’ll need to hit to make the net zero energy equation work – and checking back in on those numbers regularly. 


While we have energy modeling consultants on most of our projects, it is important for the design team to also know not only the EUI of their design, but also how each component of the design impacts the EUI, where the biggest bang for your buck is in terms of lowering the EUI, and how even the smallest design decision impacts that number.This is especially important during the concept and schematic design phases when the bigger design moves are being made, sometimes in a matter of minutes during a charrette, and where energy consultants may not have started modeling yet. This is where our in-house energy modeling tools come in.

It’s important to know how even the smallest design decision impacts the EUI.

Have Cloud-Based Software, Will Travel (and Design)

The era of plug-ins and cloud-based software has made in-house conceptual energy modeling seamless with the design effort, and portable when traveling to client presentations or project meetings outside of the office; two key innovations. So far we have used Light Stanza, Sefaira and Fenestra Pro to get an early assessment of EUI, daylighting potential, and façade design in our projects.  The promise of every single member of the project team working off of one BIM model is still a ways out from being realized. And that’s fine. For now these software programs allow us, the architects, to know our numbers early on, update them quickly on the fly, and make more educated decisions on the drawing board. 


Day 5: Live Long & B-Corp

Since becoming a certified B Corporation this past summer,

RNL has had the honor of getting to know other members of this remarkable community of people using their business models as a force for positive change. There are now over 1600 certified B Corps in 48 countries across the world; proving that the definition of prosperity is changing to include values such as community impact, governance and environmental stewardship.  In honor of the ‘prosperity’ principle, we're giving a shout out to some of the other certified B Corps we have come to know and admire:


Cultivation Center for helping spread the word of B Corporations, with their awesome Boot Camp series.

Fairware for helping us with ideas and environmentally conscious swag for celebrating our big 60th anniversary this year!

Green Spot Real Estate for their energy and commitment to Denver’s green real estate movement, and being super fun folks to hang out with in general.

Hemmings House for using the medium of film to make us all more aware of the conversations we should be having, and motivating us to take a small idea and bring it to the next level.

Ma Cher for inciting change at the community level with their shower cube initiative, and helping many of us rethink how long we spend singing in the shower.

NAVA Real Estate for revolutionizing conversations on health and wellbeing in the building industry.

Oliver Russell for telling the stories that we all need to hear

Waste Farmers for reminding us to look beyond the default approach to our food system

YR+G for sharing our passion for broadening the discussion on what sustainability means in the building industry, and what the rapidly-changing future holds.

Day 4: Brighton Boulevard

By Andrew Irvine, UDLA

Bringing the public back into the public realm.

RNL has been working to help the City and County of Denver transform Brighton Boulevard from a post-industrial corridor into a vibrant and eclectic street which includes new residential areas, pioneering retail and commercial uses such as The Source and Industry. Improvements within the street include attractive and functional pedestrian elements including: generous tree plantings, sidewalks, arts oriented furniture, dedicated bicycle path, transit stops and safe intersection crossings.

Improvements include: landscaping with 400+ trees, bike lanes and 2.6 miles of added sidewalk.  - City & County of Denver

Improvements include: landscaping with 400+ trees, bike lanes and 2.6 miles of added sidewalk. - City & County of Denver

Integrated within this framework will be a state of the art stormwater management and filtration system. RNL has worked with Urban Drainage and Denver Forestry to pioneer new design solutions to be integrated into the urban streetscape that will now be adopted broadly across the City and County of Denver.

The design process included extensive stakeholder consultation. By working with the neighborhood and community members, the team found a strong desire to accommodate a multi-modal street with dedicated bike paths, controlled turn lanes and better pedestrian thoroughfares.

“Brighton Boulevard Corridor Redevelopment is a transformational project that provides an opportunity to create an inviting gateway to and from downtown Denver. It encourages innovative development that mixes the new with the old, and offers a genuinely unique experience for all.” - Mayor Michael Hancock

RNL is proud to be involved in projects that have such a significant impact on our cities and create people oriented places.


Day Three: Designing for One Water

 By Tony J. Thornton, AIA, LEED AP BD+C 

“This is something we simply must do…”

…Echoed Denver Water (DW), as they first sat down with RNL to review the One Water goals that the team had been contemplating jointly. One Water is a quintessential sustainability strategy for DW’s new Operations Complex Redevelopment project (OCR); a campus project Intent on exhibiting DW’s aspirations of being the “number one water utility” in the nation and a paragon of environmental stewardship within the community.

Rather than Net-Zero Water, which relies on relatively inefficient, cost exorbitant and potentially unsafe 100% onsite water collection and reuse, the aim of One Water is to be a more reliable and replicable model where: 

  • Each water source is the most appropriate for each use.
  • Potable water use is specifically avoided for non-potable purposes.
  • Potable water demand use is minimized through conservation.
  • Potable water discharge to the environment is minimized through resource recovery and reuse.
  • Efficient & safe potable supply is delivered via the local water utility, where the strictest standards for health are upheld and routinely tested by experts using the best technologies available.

Specifically for Denver Water’s OCR, this approach incorporates familiar and progressive water sustainability concepts such as:

  • Low flow and low use plumbing fixtures.
  • Low water demand, drought resistant landscaping and porous paving.
  • Large volume rainwater harvesting for irrigation through augmentation.
  • Treated clean water overflow directly to the Platte River, avoiding wasteful, redundant re-treatment through the city’s wastewater system.
  • A small scale Onsite Wastewater Treatment Facility (eco-machine) capable of reconditioning discharge grey and black water into reusable sources for toilet flushing and additional irrigation stores.
Denver Water’s future administration building is a part of their $195M  campus redevelopment .

Denver Water’s future administration building is a part of their $195M campus redevelopment.

Within Colorado, the difficulty does not lie in creating a comprehensively sustainable model, but rather working with convoluted state and local laws and water rights. Fortunately, One Water as a public utility integrated approach is also the key to solving the Colorado’s regulatory water reuse riddle. By applying intelligent processes and technology, RNL is leveraging DW’s water law knowledge, access to the regional water supply and ability to help influence future amendments to water reuse laws in order to mold One Water’s design parameters to operate completely within the existing and projected structure.  

The time is now.

As water needs will eventually outpace Colorado’s available supply, new systems for smart water management are imperative. With One Water at the heart of its underlying model, Denver Water’s OCR is poised become the catalyst for Denver’s own, citywide approach to responsible water use and reuse on a large scale.