Biomimicry: Consider the Tardigrade

Hemispheres Magazine
Consider the Tardigrade
By Tiffany Meyers, January 2011

The fast-growing field of biomimicry encourages innovators to look to nature-in all its wonder and weirdness-for solutions to our trickiest problems.

ONE AFTERNOON IN Grand Rapids, Michigan, Dayna Baumeister stands in a room full of Herman Miller employees, next to a trunk filled with seashells, feathers and other natural miscellany, and hands a sea cucumber to Carolyn Maalouf, a blindfolded R&D engineer. Don’t guess what the object is, Baumeister says. Guess what it does. Maalouf takes a shot. Well, it’s spiky, she says. Maybe it needs those spikes to ward off predators?

Another blindfolded colleague, meanwhile, is holding a swatch of sharkskin. With some guidance, he eventually deduces, correctly, from the smooth surface that his object is designed to move fast.

That they stumble through the exercise is pretty much the point. By eliminating sight—the sense that would instantly provide the “right” answer—the exercise succeeds in what Baumeister calls “quieting our cleverness.” This is crucial. Baumeister is the cofounder of The Biomimicry Guild, a group that promotes the increasingly popular notion that many of the best solutions to problems facing humanity can already be found in nature. “Biomimicry represents a paradigm shift away from the belief that we humans are the cleverest and most perfectly evolved,” says Baumeister. “When people believe that humans are the cleverest species, they might say, Why would I bother trying to learn from nature?”

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Universal Design at Access Living

Metropolis Magazine
Free Space
By Tiffany Meyers, October 2007

A Chicago nonprofit creates a liberating environment for people with disabilities.

The building that houses Chicago’s Access Living, a nonprofit that provides services for and is staffed by people with disabilities, sits at the architectural intersection of sustainable and universal design—but you wouldn’t know it. And that’s the point. “A basic principle of universal design is that an environment shouldn’t make a person with a disability stand out as different,” says Richard Lehner, a partner at Chicago’s LCM Architects. “So the building itself shouldn’t stand out from any other office building either.”

That was core knowledge for LCM, which specializes in barrier-free spaces, but when Lehner and fellow partner John H. Catlin set out to incorporate green features into their plans–a requisite from the city of Chicago, which sold Access Living the site at a discount-they discovered a powerful synergy between the two design paradigms.

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It’s a Swamp Thing

Metropolis Magazine
It’s a Swamp Thing
By Tiffany Meyers,  September 29, 2010 

An IV drip of espresso would have stimulated the brain less than an afternoon at CUSP, the two-day innovation conference—created and hosted by design firm smbolic—that flipped Chicago’s lid last week.

Swampman kicked it off. Covered in head-to-foot, craft-store moss, former priest Mike Ivers took the stage, complaining of deadlines: “I’m swamped!” he shouted, shedding peat. Ivers, now President of Goodcity, a capacity-building organization for NPOs, proposed his perspective on swamps—or the social, economic and personal problems we’re trying to design ourselves out of. To find our way out of the bog, we have to get lost in it first. “Let us shift the paradigm of life’s swamps, and see them as adventures—frightening and scary, but always exhilarating!”

Halleluiah. Conferrers then dove into the “gumbo mud” and morass of Broken Systems like health care, food distribution, manufacturing and education.

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Green up Your Office

Entrepreneur Magazine
Making a Green Office
By Tiffany Meyers, March 2009

Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and office buildings are guilty. They binge on more electricity than any other type of commercial building, representing about 25 percent of the sector’s total electricity consumption. The natural gas they guzzle accounts for almost 14 percent of consumption in nonresidential buildings. But if you take a few simple steps toward a more sustainable office, you’ll see payback in many shades of green—from money saved to increased employee morale and retention.

1. COOL IT   According to the most recent statistics from the Center for Sustainable Systems, space cooling accounts for 11 percent of total electricity consumption in commercial buildings. If you’re in a mild climate, ask your landlord to consider adding an economizer, which conditions by bringing in outside air—not by using refrigerant—when it’s cooler outside than in. For optimal wintertime savings, experts recommend setting thermostats to 68 degrees during work hours and 55 degrees after hours. Stay on track with a programmable thermostat. HVAC maintenance matters, too: You and your landlord should seal leaky ducts, change filters and have your contractor come out to do annual tuneups.

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Where It’s Greener

Entrepreneur Magazine
Where it’s Greener
By Tiffany Meyers

As sustainability becomes more important, these cities are setting the standard.

Cities across the U.S. have at last realized the need to take action against global warming. Implementing some of the most innovative, far-ranging environmental programs and plans for residents and, in particular, business owners, the 10 cities featured here have earned themselves a rightful place on Entrepreneur’s sustainability map.

Seattle
Population: 594,210
LEED -Certified* Buildings: 46
More Than 800: Number of mayors who’ve pledged to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets since 2005, when Seattle’s mayor, Greg Nickels, launched the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement
For Entrepreneurs: Ecotuesday: Eco-minded businesspeople meet on the fourth Tuesday of every month (ecotuesday.com).

Portland, Oregon
Population: 550,396
LEED -Certified Buildings: 47
Likes Bikes: Portland was the first major U.S. city to earn a Platinum rating from the League of American Bicyclists.
Succession Planning: With a $149,000 Coleman Foundation grant, The University of Portland teaches sustainable entrepreneurship, cultivating the next generation of ecologically responsible businesspeople.

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A Show of Emotion

STEP Magazine
A Show of Emotion:
Review of the STEP’s Design 100 Awards Show
By Tiffany Meyers

In an era troubled by economic, environmental & social distress, designers lean toward messages of compassion.

In one way or another, each of the five judges of the STEP Design 100 described this body of winning design entries as exquisite. But those who worship at the altar of the avant guard will want to take a seat now: It doesn’t happen to be the riskiest body of work these judges have seen in their collective awards show experience.  

“We’re at a place in time where relatively simple and conservative but tasteful approaches are more the norm,” says judge Kevin Grady, editor-in-chief and creative director of Lemon magazine and partner at Grady & Metcalf in Concord, Mass. “And sometimes that’s OK. The goal of design isn’t to do wacky things just to see what you can get away with. A lot of the winning work wasn’t selected because it was necessarily groundbreaking, but it was very beautifully done, very confident work. I’d say that was more a hallmark of the show and its winners than anything else.”

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The Most Influential Industrial Designers

Forbes.com
Tastemakers Series: Industrial Designers
By Tiffany Meyers, January 2005 

We live in a world of stuff. It accumulates in our homes, garages and offices. We tuck it into nightstands and glove compartments. Occasionally we throw it out, but, inevitably, we go out and buy more stuff. In fact, we’re buying more stuff every year. In 2004, Americans spent $987.8 billion on durable goods such as motor vehicles, furniture and household equipment, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

But even in this cycle of gather, dispose, repeat, there are objects that stand out. From the new BMW 7-Series to candy-colored iMacs, these are the products whose ingenuity captures our imaginations and whose lines catch our eye. These are the chairs that straighten our slouches, the containers that prevent us from spilling on our laps, the handy tools that are triumphs of form and function. They are the vehicles that transport us along roads–and even through the stratosphere–in comfort and style. “Good industrial design identifies unmet needs,” says Alistair Hamilton, vice president of customer experience and design for Symbol Technologies in Holtsville, N.Y., “and then fulfills those needs.”

Industrial designers must draw from a range of competencies–including ethnography, engineering, ergonomics, manufacturing and marketing, among others–to create everything from spaceships to sippy cups, interiors to interfaces.

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Marketplace Opportunities for Entrepreneurs

Author’s Note: Entrepreneur Magazine’s annual “Hot Trends” roundup of marketplace opportunities for entrepreneurs, including the two sectors I covered.

Green
Decades in the making, this $209 billion market has its roots in everything from water to energy to food. Look especially to organics, clean energy, alternative fuels, and water reuse and reclamation services.

Boomers
Representing the biggest wealth transfer in history, these individualists started the green movement and are ready to cash in on the environment, health, financial planning, travel and everything in between.

Green Cities: Director’s Cut

Author’s Note: In spite of my best efforts, I occasionally geek out on my reporting. In this case, I dug up way more content about green cities than my editors had space to publish. So I sliced and diced it. Then came the blog, vessel for all good stuff that ever got cut. Here is the longer version of the Green Cities story, salvaged from the cutting room floor.

AUSTIN, TX
POPULATION: 743,074
PUBLIC TRANSIT: 18 million trips taken during the second quarter, 2008.
HOME TO: The nation’s largest utility-sponsored sustainable building program, Austin Energy Green Building.
ALSO HOME TO: Whole Foods HQ.
LEED-CERTIFIED BUILDINGS: 18.
LIKES BIKES: According to The League of American Bicyclists—which gives Austin a Silver—almost 4 percent of Austin’s residents bike to work.

In what Austin Mayor Will Winn has called “the most polluting state in the most polluting country on the planet, from a carbon-emissions standpoint,” the straight-talking city chief enacted the Austin Climate Protection Plan, which calls for, among other things: powering city facilities with renewable energy by 2012; requiring new single-family homes to be zero net-energy capable by 2015; and making all municipal facilities and fleets carbon-neutral by 2020. A major player in meeting these targets? Utility company Austin Energy (AE). That recipient of the 2008 EPA Climate Protection Award offers a sweet photovoltaic rebate (up to 75 percent of installation cost). Meanwhile, so many customers recently subscribed to buy clean energy through AE’s GreenChoice program that the company stopped taking applications until 2009. In 2006, AE and the city launched “Plug-In Partners,” a campaign to show automakers that there’s market demand for plug-in hybrid cars now (So get cracking). Austin is also tackling the water crisis, coupling conservation measures with a Water Reclamation Initiative that will provide reclaimed water for non-drinking purposes to several venues, like the University of Texas.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN
POPULATION: 377,392
THE LARGEST URBAN SOLAR ARRAY: In the upper Midwest will be built here, thanks to a $2 million grant from the Xcel Energy Renewable Development Fund.
LEED-CERTIFIED BUILDINGS: 2.
LIKES BIKES: The League of American Bicyclists gives Minneapolis a Silver.

Mayor R.T. Rybak aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from city operations 12 percent by 2012 and 20 percent by 2020. And in true Midwestern fashion, residents rolled up their civic shirtsleeves in 2007 and did their part, buying enough wind-generated electricity from Xcel Energy’s Windsource program to power almost 2,800 homes for a year. In this City of Lakes—which planted, on average, 3,385 trees annually from 2003 to 2007—environmental enthusiasm reaps rewards: Minneapolis recently awarded 25 grants to support local organizations’ efforts to motivate Minneapolitans to conserve energy. The University of Minnesota continues to garner accolades for its renewable-resource research, while The Green Institute, which operates a $2 million salvaged building materials ReUse Center, diverts 4,000 tons of building materials annually from landfills. The city also cut 150 vehicles from its fleet since 2003, and those vehicles it is adding will be green: In five years, says the mayor’s office, buses on main thoroughfare Nicollet Mall will be hybrid-electric.

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Which Is Greener: LED’s or CFL’s?

Author’s Note: For The Chicago Tribune, I answered a series of readers’ questions about living a greener, more sustainable life. This Trib reader wrote in to find out if LED lights were more efficient than CFL’s. Here’s what I dug up.

There’s no question that LED’s have a bright future, but Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFL’s) remain your most accessible, environmentally responsible lighting option for the home. Which is not to say the CFL is perfect. It is vastly more efficient than an incandescent bulb, but each CFL contains about 5 milligrams of environmentally harmful mercury-about equivalent to the size of a ballpoint pen’s tip, by ENERGY STAR’s calculations.

Not only are LED’s mercury-free, their long lifespan makes the Energizer Bunny seem like a quitter.Unlike traditional light sources-which throw off relatively consistent light and then, poof, burn out–LED’s get dimmer over time. Analysts recommend that the LED’s last rites be administered when they emit 70% of initial light output. Using that measurement, the Department of Energy, Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (DOE, EERE) calculates that the highest-quality white LED’s have a useful life of around 35,000 hours.

Some context: You could turn on a high-quality, white LED and forget about it for four years, when it would finally need replacing. Compare that to your garden-variety, 75-watt incandescent bulb, which throws out 1,000 lumens for about a buck, according to the DOE. That dollar bulb-which converts only about 5% of the electricity it consumes into light-will expire in about 1,000 hours. Comparable CFL’s-which are five times more efficient than incandescent bulbs-cost less than $5 and last 10,000 hours.

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Which Is Greener: Styrofoam or Ceramic Mugs?

Author’s Note: A Chicago Tribune reader wanted to know: Are disposable coffee cups made of Styrofoam more or less harmful to the environment than reusable mugs? Here’s how I answered, with much help from sustainability engineer Pablo Päster. 

The debate over coffee cups-disposable or not-happens torunneth over with tough-to-measure variables. For instance, do you use a dishwasher? Is your model energy efficient? And: Just how clumsy are you? (Reusable mugs: Useless when broken.) Scientists analyze this issue in myriad ways, but overall, consensus is that brew imbibed from reusable, ceramic mugs is the most sustainable option.

But there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip. To reap environmental rewards of the mug, you’ll need to hand rinse it–putting it in your (energy-efficient) dishwasher only when absolutely necessary. That’s according to Pablo Päster, a San Francisco-based sustainability engineering consultant who also writes a column at AskPablo.org on the science of sustainability, including a technical analysis of this very issue.

In his analysis, Päster found that a ceramic mug has a higher total “material intensity”- a measure of resources used to manufacture a product (like the extracted clay and gas to heat the kiln)-than a Styrofoam cup. But the mug’s reusability-which means it can provide multiple “service units”-justifies its higher material intensity after about 46 uses. “If you have one cup of coffee daily for a year, that’s 365 ‘service units,'” says Päster. “That can be accomplished with either 365 disposable cups or one reusable mug.”

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