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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


Just over a year ago (May 2014), we conducted our first Passion Projects. In a nutshell, all six of us are given a 24 hour period to do just about anything. At the end of that period, we convene at Fontenelle Forest and we each spend some time talking about what we did and what we learned. There’s no expectation or requirement that the activities directly align or relate to our work, although they always have.

We’ve since repeated the exercise in February 2015. Here’s a list of a few Passion Projects from the team:

  • Researched local ecological impacts of and potential policy solutions for climate change
  • Researched water issues specific to the Omaha region
  • Researched recycling behaviors for the apartment dwellers in our building (Tip Top)
  • Researched and prepared a list of the top 20 best practices for conducting an effective meeting
  • Researched biomimicry and how it relates to our work

I have an interest in and passion for Omaha’s physical design characteristics and how they impact our daily lives. My time spent on Omaha’s Urban Design Review Board really opened my eyes to just how much (or how little) our community cares about improving our urban environment.

The way we design and build our largest public spaces – our streets and the associated right of way –  have a huge impact on our community’s health, safety, ability to safely and enjoyably use active transportation, and our well-being. So I decided I wanted to measure the quality of six intersections in Omaha to see what I could learn about how our community’s urban form is faring.

I focused on intersections that are traditional main street environments, as I have a high expectation that they are the best, most-inviting places for anyone and everyone. I then created a scoring system after doing a little research and set out to take measurements and conduct observations. The results:

  1. 11th & Howard
  2. 24th & N
  3. 24th & Lake
  4. 50th & Underwood
  5. 64th & Maple
  6. 33rd & California

Screen shot 2015-05-22 at 5.34.18 AM

Rather than diving into the details via this blog post, I think it’s easiest to offer an actual summary of what I did, what I learned, and where these intersections excelled and fell short. Here are the results: Passion Project: Assessing the Quality of Six Omaha Intersections.

As noted therein, this is not necessarily my area of expertise. As such, many experts in the field will look to the methodology and chuckle. I’m cool with that. My hope was not to conduct a highly rigorous analysis. Rather, I wanted to learn something. And if what I did and the manner in which I did it sparks a discussion or could be used in some small way to improve Omaha’s urban environment, I’ll consider it a win.

Onward and upward!

 

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At Verdis we are all driven to reduce our impact on the environment; at work and at home. Everyday, we work with clients to develop and implement changes to reduce energy use, reduce waste, recycle more, and simply reduce our collective impact on the natural environment. Beyond working with our clients, all of us individually pursue our passion to make the environment healthier in other ways. Craig chairs the group Mode Shift Omaha working to broaden active transportation options in Omaha, and Daniel serves on the Metro Transit Authority Board. I’ve been working on my personal impact on the environment, and have been building my dream home in the most sustainable manner we could.

House

What were we able to accomplish from a sustainability perspective on our new home?

 

My husband and I are quite proud of our HERS 32 Rating.  A Home Energy Rating System (HERS) rating is a score that compares a home’s energy use to a modeled house that is the same as your house, but built to 2004 International Energy Conservation Code. For a HERS rating, the lower the better. A home that scores zero is a Net Zero home, meaning it produces as much energy as it uses, typically through solar or wind power. Our HERS score of 32 means that our house is 68% more efficient than the HERS reference/modeled home. The U.S. Department of Energy determined that a typical resale home scores 130 on the HERS Index, so we are 98% more efficient than a typical resale home! My understanding is that only a handful of homes in Nebraska receive a HERS score this low on an annual basis, and once we add solar – net zero here we come!

 

Here are the highlights of changes we made from a typical home, which make our home more energy efficient and lessen our environmental impact:

Mechanical Systems

  • Open loop geothermal heat pump uses the 52 degree ground water temperature to heat and cool the home. We don’t need an air conditioner! And we expect our heating & cooling bills to be only $39 a month on average. The cost of this system is significantly supplemented by the Federal Tax credit.
  • Hybrid heat pump water heater uses the energy in our basement’s air to heat our hot water (along with electricity). This water heater is twice as efficient as a regular hot water heater (expecting to cost only $9 a month for hot water heating).
  • A variable frequency drive (VFD) on the well pump allows the pump to use only the energy needed to pump the amount of water needed at the time, instead of only having two options of “on full speed” or “off.”
  • A desuperheater transfers excess heat from the geothermal system to the water heater to preheat the water.
  • An Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) acts as the home’s lungs bringing fresh air into the house, while recovering some of the energy in the stale air before its removed from the house 

Construction Methods

  • rigid foam2×6 framing of the walls to allow for two extra inches of insulation (57% more), compared to traditional 2×4 construction
  • One inch rigid foam insulation used continuously on the exterior (instead of plywood) provides additional insulation and air sealing (see image at right)
  • Borate only treated blown in cellulose insulation in wall cavities, mainly used for health reasons, but also because cellulose is a great insulator and made from recycled paper. We used Green Fiber insulation made in Norfolk, NE
  • Energy efficient windows by Gerkin made in Sioux City, NE
  • Some Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) wood during construction, bonus from Millard Lumber – thanks!
  • Caulking the top and the sill plate before insulation to seal air gaps
  • Capillary breaks under and around foundation (plastic under the basement floor and waterproofing spray between the foundation walls and footings) minimizes the water that can enter the basement through the concrete
  • Passive radon mitigation system that allows radon under the home to exit through closed pipe that goes out the roof
  • Rough in for future solar, hopefully installed before the tax credit expirescarpet tile

Lighting, Interior Finish, and Other Sustainable Choices

  • LED lighting, we found screw in bulbs in traditional fixtures were the most economical, especially when bulbs were purchased in Council Bluffs.
  • A detached garage (attached garages often bring unhealthy air into the home)
  • East and south windows to warm the house in the winter, and larger eaves to keep the sun out in the summer
  • Energy Star appliances
  • No and low VOC paints/stains
  • Low flow water faucets, toilets and showers
  • Recycled carpet tile samples in our office / guest room (see image at right)
  • Products made close to home to minimize transportation emissions. For example, pre-finished wood floors are often finished in Asia with significant emissions from that transport; ours is wood floor from the United States and manufactured in the United States.

Implementation Evaluationsblow door smallestestest

  • Blower door tests evaluated air sealing. We did this before paint, trim and floors were installed, to see if the house was sealed well at a point – it was!
  • Personal inspection of the items that were different from what our builder usually used, like the blown in cellulose insulation

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So with all of these great energy saving strategies – What can I tell YOU about saving energy at your home?

  1. If you have incandescent lights in your home, go to Home Depot in Council Bluffs ledsTODAY and buy LED light bulbs to replace all the lights in your home. REPLACE them TONIGHT.

If you have a large home, this could add up to a couple hundred dollars investment, but the investment will pay for itself in electricity savings over the course of a year or less if you are replacing incandescent bulbs. The payback if you are replacing compact florescent lights (curly cue ones) is not as good. This Home Depot has the best prices I’ve seen for LEDs; a 60w-equivalent bulb is usually $5-7 each. On sale for $3 a week or two ago… After the first year, you’re saving lots of money in electricity each year! Here is a handy calculator to see this savings.

  1. If you are building or want to do a more significant project in your home, air sealing and insulation are the most cost effective ways to save energy. I would suggest getting your home’s HERS rating calculated. Then I would talk to the rater that does this calculation to see what you could do to improve your specific home in a cost effective way. I used American Energy Advisors (AEA) here in Omaha for this, and was very happy with the work they did for us and the advice they provided throughout the building process.
  1. If you are installing new insulation, take the day off and oversee the installers. The installers my builder used had never installed blown in dry cellulose and were given insulationno instruction on how to do so. When the ‘finished’ insulation was reviewed by the manufacturer representative to ensure it met manufacturer specifications (at my special request), it was short about 25% of the needed material. I’ve heard of other installers in town just skipping entire wall cavities. My advice here is to get lots of references before you choose a company, spend 20 minutes learning what you need to on the internet about how things should be installed, and then be there while the job is happening to actively review the installer’s work.

At the end of the building process, when AEA brought their infrared gun to check wall temperatures on a very cold December day, I was happy with the temperatures on the walls at this point. We’ll see a few years down the road, whether the insulation settles or not, a check we can do with an infrared gun that reads wall temperatures.

  1. If you want to build a green home, make sure you find a builder in the area with some experience with this, and just as importantly, a builder that is interested and willing to learn. Based on my research and conversations with others in the green community, there doesn’t seem to be a go-to green builder in Omaha.

We asked Landmark Performance Homes to build for us, and the owner Steve Faller was great throughout the entire project. Whenever we had a green practice in mind that Landmark had never done before, we talked through it. Steve gave us his insight based upon years of building experience and together we chose the best path forward. This was critical to keep our costs under control and to ensure that best practices in green building were incorporated whenever possible. I found Building Science and Green Building Advisor to be the most helpful websites when sorting out detailed questions on what to do.

  1. If you are buying a new home, check out the HERS scores before you buy. Here is the Residential Energy Services Network’s (RESNET) database of all HERS scores. Also, keep an eye out in realtor descriptions for HERS scores; local builders are working to get HERS scores included as part of the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) system where all realtors share listing information. If you are buying a home with a lower HERS score, this will save you money every month and should tip the scales when selecting between homes.

 

In the end, we love our dream home, and we are proud to have built a home that will stand for hundreds of years, making a small ongoing impact on our environment.

And if you wake up to this view everyday, how can you not want to protect our environment.

sunrise 11 inch

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As we approach our five-year anniversary this summer, we have been spending time reflecting on all that is good with Team Verdis. There are many reasons life is pretty exceptional here: wicked-smart and passionate colleagues, forward-thinking clients, organizational core values that resonate, and work that we love are all huge parts of the picture. But another reason we’re all pretty darn happy is because of our digs.

We’ve been an Alley Poyner Machietto Creative Collaborator (CO-LAB partner) since October 2010, which means, in a nutshell, we rent a few workstations in APM’s studio and they give us the run of the place. OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, but we do enjoy amenities – a kitchenette, conference rooms, projectors, fitness room, showers, indoor bike storage, great art, rooftop deck – that we would never be privy to were we renting 1,000 SF in some random office building.

But it’s more than the amenities. We love the open floor plan that spurs creativity. We love the informal interactions with people that aren’t on Team Verdis. We love our location in North Downtown. We love the copious amounts of natural light that flood the studio every day. We love being on a bus line. We love APM’s family-like culture and are working hard to emulate many of their idiosyncrasies. We love the crazy stuff that happens on 16th Street, just outside our windows. And we love the leftover food when APM has firm-wide meetings or lunch ‘n’ learns.

The view of APM's studio from Verdis HQ. We dig the open-office environment.

I especially love the open floor plan, but not everyone is a huge fan. A recent article in the New Yorker highlighted a few bodies of research that, when compared to a traditional, enclosed-office setting, suggest that open-office settings inhibit creativity, decrease employee satisfaction, are bad for your health, and decrease productivity. Yikes! When digging into many of those studies, however, researchers are comparing an open-office setting to one wherein everyone has an office, which is completely unreasonable for a firm like ours and an architectural studio that values collaboration and teamwork. It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison. The better comparison would be open-office settings to cubicles. Having worked in a cubicle previously, I can safely say that they result in nothing other than misery and despair, and an open-office environment wins out every time.

The Harvard Business Review blog recently suggested that when it comes to an office environment, one major factor that impacts employee satisfaction is an employee’s ability to control their work environment. Companies that allow their workers to help decide where, when, and how they work often have workforces that perform better, are more satisfied, and view the organization as more innovative than their competitors. I think this autonomy and flexibility is a huge component of why it’s great to be in the CO-LAB, and why we allow our team to work pretty much whenever and wherever they want – from the standing workstations in the studio at 7am to their favorite coffee shop at midnight.

APM is actually expanding their space so as to take on more CO-LAB partners. There are currently three (Verdis, Omaha Creative Institute, and Steve Jensen Consulting) with four more (SecretPenguin, Revolve Fine Art [note the showcased piece from the artist featured on the website!], Live Well Omaha, and artist Mary Zicafoose) committed once the new space is built out.

We consider ourselves pretty lucky to be in the CO-LAB and have no intention of leaving (voluntarily) anytime soon. If your team is interested in joining the fun, there’s more room in the CO-LAB. Come on down; it’s a great place to call home.

Onward and upward.

 

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Trees, and the value they add to our community, have been on my mind lately. I’m extremely fortunate to live in a neighborhood where mature trees are the norm and my neighbors sincerely appreciate and adore their trees. As evidence of this love, see exhibit A below.

Exhibit A: This sign appeared a few weeks before a 70+ year old pine was removed from a neighbor's yard.

An adoration and appreciate for beautiful trees isn’t a new thing. Nor is the realization that trees add value to our lives. I’ve heard so many stories of people receiving fulfillment through the presence and beauty of their favorite oak tree. Similarly, there are plenty of stories of heartbreak due to the loss of a tree; it’s not quite the loss of a pet, but it can be comparable.

The fact that trees improve property values is also not a new concept. This 1980 study summarized in the Journal of Arboriculture  showed that in the area studied (Manchester, CT), if a house had good tree cover, as much as six to nine percent of the total sales price of that home can be attributed to good tree cover. A more recent broader study on the value of nature from the University of Washington’s Green Cities: Good Health program found that the presence of larger trees adds value to residential values, directly relates to higher commercial rental rates, and could cause shoppers to spend more. There are several more studies with similar findings on property value and the like. The case is pretty clear.

Similarly, we’re now starting to see evidence that there’s a correlation between income levels and tree cover. Tim DeChat, who blogs at Per Square Mile, recently highlighted a two-year-old study that found a strong relationship between higher tree cover and higher income. In essence, the better the tree cover in your neighborhood, the more likely it is that incomes are higher.

The explanation, posit the authors, is that wealthier property owners and city governments can afford to plant more trees. Makes good, logical sense to me. I don’t foresee a causal relationship between tree cover and income (you’re not going to start earning more simply because you moved to a dense forest). Nevertheless, I think it’s immensely important that cities look for ways to increase tree cover. There are several benefits trees provide, above and beyond what value they add to our property or income levels. Just a few include:

  • Provide shade from the boiling hot summer sun (duh)
  • Clean the air and sequester carbon
  • Serve as a traffic calming devices
  • Reduce stress
  • Fight crime
  • Provide an in-your-backyard opportunity to learn about nature (I’ve been taking “nature walks” with my daughter since she was only a few months old)
  • Trees were the original jungle gym

DeChant took the study’s results a step further and grabbed two Google Earth images from a few cities to do a little unscientific compare and contrast of their higher income neighborhoods versus lower income neighborhoods to see if he could tell the difference just from the images. The results were pretty clear, which got me thinking about the same exercise in Omaha. I compared my neighborhood (Midtown) to what is largely considered to be the poorest section of town, North Omaha. The images are below. Can you tell which is which?

Option One: Midtown or North Omaha?

 Or…

Option Two: Midtown or North Omaha?

The answer: the top image is from North Omaha; bottom image from Midtown.

A couple things jump out at me. First, it’s difficult to measure tree cover when the images were taken in winter. The leaves are gone and you don’t get a good sense for the true tree cover. (If anyone has a better mapping system with spring, summer or fall images, please share.) Secondly, the noticeable difference between the two areas was the number of vacant lots in North Omaha. That’s another topic for another day, although there are some pretty interesting things you can do with vacant lots to ensure that they’re adding value to a community, rather than detracting from it.

Needless to say, we love trees. I love trees. I used to live in West Omaha in a brand new home with only one little ash tree in the front yard. I now live in a 1920s home surrounded by a cornucopia of tall, beautiful trees. I’m lucky to live where I do, but I also hope that we can find a way to continue giving the gift of trees throughout Omaha.

Tonight is a particularly good night to start discussing the topic when I’ll be attending another great event hosted by our friends at Emerging Terrain. It is the first in their ET Talks series and the topic is Public Space and what it means in Omaha. It promises to be a fascinating discussion, and I hope, at least once or twice, we talk about how important trees and the natural environment are. If I have anything to do with it, we certainly will.

Onward and upward.

 

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The Recycling Symbol. We see it almost everyday, and almost anyone can tell you what it means. It is rare for an abstract design to gain such widespread recognition. But where did it come from?

The symbol was designed in the early 1970s when architecture and urban planning student Gary Anderson responded to a design competition by the Container Corporation of America. The contest was to design a symbol to represent recycled paper.

Anderson modified and polished a design he had used earlier for a presentation on recycling waste water, and won the competition. After winning, he saw the symbol on a bank statement once and then forgot about it until seven years later while traveling in Europe when he saw the symbol on a recycling bin. The rest is history.

You can read the full story on the Financial Times website.

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I have been really excited about all the momentum towards creating a more livable, resilient Omaha as of late. My beautiful wife and I moved to Omaha in 2000 fresh out of college and have seen the city really make some strides over the years. We’re not originally from Omaha but now don’t foresee a scenario where we leave; It’s home and we want nothing more than to see it get better and better.

Downtown Omaha (home)

One of the biggest opportunities for improvement is in how Omaha develops to be more vibrant, dense, walkable, and sustainable. Since the 1950’s we haven’t done very well. One clear sign of our failure: in 1950 our population’s density was 6,171 per square mile. Today it’s around 3,489. Much like every other city in the United States we’ve sprawled, and we’re less connected, spending more time in our cars and in our (typically over-sized) houses, driving more, emitting more, weighing more, and putting the City into a financially and environmentally unsustainable position.

Thanks to Omaha by Design and the Greater Omaha Young Professionals, I had the opportunity to attend a Strong Towns Curbside Chat last week in Omaha. Executive Director Chuck Marohn’s two-hour presentation painted a bleak picture of how we (the U.S.) have dived deeply into unsustainable debt in order to fund our horizontal growth. Without going into all the details, our current development system relies on constant growth to sustain itself, and that constant growth puts us deeper and deeper into the hole.

Chuck walked us through several compelling graphs (I’m a sucker for charts, graphs, info-graphics and charticles), but the one that’s really stuck with me is the graph below showing how Omaha has grown since World War II. In essence, Omaha’s population has grown about 90%, our urbanized area has grown 250% and our street length has grown a whopping 325%. Sustainable trends? I’m thinking no.

Omaha's Post-WWII Growth (courtesy Strong Towns)

 

If we continue developing the way we have for the last 60+ years, we are in deep, deep trouble. Fortunately, I’m hopeful and confident that we can reverse this trend, but it’s not going to be easy. It seems there are four primary players that can affect meaningful change: planners, developers, citizens, and elected and appointed officials. I know many of Omaha’s Planning Department staff, and I really believe that they “get it”. I worry, however, that the institutional momentum at City Hall is too much for them to overcome. They are critical players in the system, though, and must do what is in the best interest of the City.

Developers worry me. They develop for profit, plain and simple, and only a few Omaha developers have figured out that there is a business opportunity in developing our city in a sustainable way (e.g. Noddle Development, Urban Village, and BlueStone  are three good , albeit not perfect, examples of visionary developers in Omaha). But I’m not exactly oozing confidence that the rest of the development community is there, or even close. As Marohn reported during the Curbside Chat, between 1990 and 2005, U.S. consumer spending per capita rose 14% (inflation adjusted), yet national retail space per capita rose 100%. He also noted the U.S. has six times the retail space per capita of any European country. Sustainable trends? Ummmm, no.

Then there are citizens and elected and appointed officials. I run in circles that can largely be considered “believers”. If asked whether or not we need to alter our current development patterns, they will largely say yes and may have some ideas on what sustainable development looks like. But they are in the minority. With that said, I don’t think this issue is partisan. No matter how you look at it, our current path is unsustainable fiscally and environmentally. I firmly believe it’s just a matter of educating the average citizen on the issue and asking them to advocate for smarter development. This leads us to our elected and appointed officials. If citizens get educated and then activate, I would like to think our officials will follow. Am I naive? Maybe a little, but I also think that pushing for smarter development is an easier decision than some of the other challenges these officials face.

So where does this leave us?

I honestly believe that we’re set up nicely to make some significant and meaningful progress, and there are several important things happening that put me in my “happy place”. First, the Omaha’s Planning Department is getting ready to finalize and release an update to its Transportation Master Plan (TMP), and Daniel and I have been fortunate to be on the Core Committee for the TMP update. It’s a pretty well-done plan (thanks AECOM) that has prioritized some great projects that will really move the needle. There are two key questions, though: 1) how can we obtain a reliable and dedicated funding source for active transportation projects, and 2) will the plan actually be followed and implemented or will planners and other officials relent to business-as-usual when analyzing, critiquing, improving and approving development projects? I believe the second question is more important, and I think time will tell whether or not the plan has any impact.

Another important plan is the Environmental Element, which was added to the City’s master plan a few years ago. After several years of community-wide work in developing the plan, the Environmental Element spells out several hundred strategies in the areas of the Natural Environment, Building Construction, Resource Conservation, Community Health, and Urban Form and Transportation. Once again, it’s a plan, albeit a very aggressive one, and its effectiveness depends entirely on how well it is followed.

One good sign that the TMP and Environmental Element are making a difference  was the recent announcement that the City is planning (pending approvals) to turn two terrible one-way streets (19th and 20th Streets just north of Cuming) into two-way streets; a really smart thing to do as they are both ridiculously oversized for an at-risk mixed-use community in north Omaha. It’s a manifestation of precisely what the TMP and Environmental Element are prescribing.

And finally, Mode Shift Omaha, a group of citizens advocating for a more resilient and responsive transportation system, is really starting to take root and find its legs. This is exactly the kind of group that can help educate the public and hold our elected and appointed officials accountable for following the two aforementioned plans. Mode Shift is doing great work, and I’m excited to see how much of an impact they will have.

As evidenced by a recent brief exchange between Chuck Marohn and an anonymous Omahan that attended the Curbside Chat, the evolution to a more fiscally and environmentally sustainable development pattern is immensely difficult. We’re fighting decades of bad decisions and institutional momentum. BUT, we’re making progress, and I’m hopeful that the pace of progress will hasten and Omaha will become an even stronger, more resilient city. Dare I say a “strong town”?

When it comes down to it, we really don’t have a choice. Economic and environmental factors will make the decision for us and we’ll be left to react. I would rather we were proactive and took the bull by the horns. Let’s do this.

Onward and upward.

 

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