Because Three R’s Are So Old School

“Are buildings in danger of becoming just another consumer good in our disposable society?"

Given how difficult it (still) is to convince clients to look at long term cost benefits instead of initial costs, it certainly seems like most of today’s buildings are the fast food of the built environment. A recent RIBA article describes a series of approaches to building design and construction that helps them see the 3R’s of waste management and raises them another 3 as a shift to the circular economy:








The figure above summarizes circular economy principles specifically for buildings, found in the RIBA Publishing book,  Building Revolutions .

The figure above summarizes circular economy principles specifically for buildings, found in the RIBA Publishing book, Building Revolutions.

design principles mentioned:

Build in layers.
Design without waste.
Design more adaptable buildings.
Design for disassembly.
Carefully select building materials & products.

"Creating buildings that people love & value is a proven way to ensure longevity."

Another principle is to move away from the linear economy model of purchasing products. Instead, consumers can become users, with ownership replaced by stewardship. Customers purchase performance instead of products, which encourages manufacturers to take a vested interest in designing products that can be maintained, upgraded or recycled. This approach also helps secure a future supply of components and materials.
Applying circular economy principles to buildings uses fewer resources, enables adaptation for different uses and can even provide healthier environments for people to live and work in. But they also create an opportunity to design buildings that are not simply consumable goods, leaving a positive legacy for future generations. - RIBA Journal

*Speaking of waste. Here is a sobering thought:
The amount of plastic wastes on the planet today is enough to cover the planet with plastic.

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! 


Smart Glass: Wiser, Moodier & Cheaper

A new kind of window glass can be electronically tuned to selectively block large fractions of visible as well as heat-producing light.  Image Credit: Delia Milliron

A new kind of window glass can be electronically tuned to selectively block large fractions of visible as well as heat-producing light. Image Credit: Delia Milliron

Smart glass has been around for a while, but not every client has the budget or innovative drive of the NREL RSF. Also, most smart glass blocks only the visible component of light, still letting the invisible IR component enter the space. A new smart glass has been developed that embeds a framework of electrically conducting nanocrystals in a glass substrate. This ‘nanocomposite’ blocks up to 90% of near-infrared light and 80% of visible light, and features three modes:

In addition to the standard bright and dark modes it features a “cool” one, which could help buildings save energy during hot days. It can switch between modes in just minutes—faster than any commercial electrochromic window material... - MIT Technology Review

A cheaper and more reliable manufacturing process makes this technology especially appealing for mainstream market integration, estimated for 2017. 

led's and lettuce

Urban food gardens are a great way of addressing social inequity in access to fresh food, but not every urban site has the land or water available to set one up.  Philips (yes, the lighting company) has opened up a facility in the Netherlands for researching growing fruits and vegetables in compact spaces, with (you guessed it) LED lighting.

“Our aim is to develop the technology that makes it possible to grow tasty, healthy, and sustainable food virtually anywhere,” says Gus van der Feltz, Philips’ Global Director of City Farming. “The research we are undertaking will enable local food production on a global scale, reducing waste, limiting food miles, and using practically no land or water.”

All sounds great, especially the part about reducing vehicle miles traveled and water use. But...the part about changing the shape, size and oil content of leafy greens is a bit worrisome. And the statistic of growing 900 pots of basil per year from a space 10sqft is impressive, though I doubt Basil is the secret to ending world hunger. That said, it is a step in the direction of mitigating a serious issue.

photo courtesy of Philips City Farm Research Center

photo courtesy of Philips City Farm Research Center


A great piece on the need to reframe our design approach to thermal comfort in buildings, based on RMI’s new offices in Basalt, CO.

“By designing around the question “are you comfortable?” instead of “what’s the temperature?”, RMI and partners are creating a model office building that will use a fraction of the energy typical for a building this size”

The engineers designed around an expanded comfort zone that suits 90% of people, based on 6 variables.

“Call it the Goldilocks zone, neither too hot nor too cold.”