Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Merry Christmas and stuff

I love Christmas. It’s my favorite holiday, hands down. What’s not to like about a whole month of getting together with friends you haven’t seen in awhile, sharing good food, decorating your house to look all twinkly, singing happy songs you’ve known all your life, and giving and receiving gifts?

And oh, the gifts! When I was a kid, I’d write to Santa asking for everything from a pony to Legos to new clothes, and as I’ve gotten older, my wish list hasn’t gotten any shorter… but this year it has changed a bit. I’m looking around my house and thinking, do I really need more stuff? I barely have enough room to contain all the stuff I already have! And what about the environmental implications of acquiring more stuff?

So I sat down and watched this “Story of Stuff” video. It’s only 20 minutes long, and quite thought-provoking. I’ve never been much for conspiracy theory, but the notion that Americans didn’t have such a love affair with shopping for new possessions until every household contained a television set that ran enticing advertisements designed to make us want bigger/faster/new and improved/MORE! is pretty compelling.

This holiday season, I challenge you to think about your stuff, and the stuff you give to others. Need some ideas for stuff-conscious holiday shopping?

Give an experience, like concert or sporting event tickets from Ticketmaster.

Give food, like fair trade chocolate from Ten Thousand Villages or a fruit basket from Harry and David.

Give online memberships, gift cards, or services, like CooksIllustrated magazine's online portal, Flickr photo site, Amazon gift cards.

Donate to a charity like Heifer International, Sustainable Harvest, Engineers Without Borders.

For more ideas, google "green christmas ideas"... there are lots of good websites out there. Get creative!

While I’m on a feel-good bent… the holidays also happen to be a popular time to volunteer! Did you know that Thanksgiving is THE most requested day to work at soup kitchens? A friend of mine who works with one in downtown Baltimore gently reminds people that while venues may be all booked up for volunteers on Thanksgiving, there are still plenty of time slots to fill on the other 364 days of the year! I read several studies that proved such tangible health benefits associated with volunteering as improved physical fitness, decreased rates of depression, and increased longevity, for starters. Read more at www.nationalservice.gov

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thank you, GreenBuild

At the risk of sounding like a bona fide hippie, this Thanksgiving I am grateful for the Earth. More specifically, I’m thankful for the green movement and all the people in it who are working to make our world a healthier place.

I just returned from the 2008 GreenBuild conference & expo in Boston, where some 29,000 green and sustainability professionals from around the world spent a week swapping stories and ideas. It was enlightening, inspiring, and tinged with the hope that at least the green building part of our economy is moving in the right direction.

The week started on a celebratory note with an opening speech by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He thanked the crowd, on behalf of the world (with a healthy dose of self-deprecation and glee) for the good work we are doing for the planet. He said plenty of other things too, but his words were so simple, genuine, and heartfelt that they left few dry eyes in a large conference hall.

By the end of the conference, attendees had seen and heard so much about the topics at hand that I think we were all refreshed to witness a closing session that was a departure from the usual talk of community development and building construction. World-renowned biologists E.O. Wilson and Janine Benyus spoke of biomimicry, loss of species diversity, and how their work in conservation biology can overlap with ours in the design world. The concept of approaching the natural world as students instead of as conquering colonists is revolutionary, considering human history, yet the idea of adapting principles that have evolved as elegant, natural solutions in the living world makes so much sense that it begs the question: why didn’t we think of this sooner? And, now that we know about it, why aren’t we adapting this approach on a larger scale? Wilson and Benyus presented the tools for us to do just that: the websites for the Encyclopedia of Life and www.AskNature.org represent a compendium of everything scientists know about the natural world, and a forum for exploring how its lessons can be adapted to the human world.

In between, there were speeches, presentations, forums, product demonstrations, question & answer sessions, and everything else you’d expect from a conference about green, building, and green building. At last year’s GreenBuild in Chicago, the loudest buzz was about BIM software and how it’s changing the climate of the architecture and engineering world by creating new opportunities for collaboration and software interoperability. However, this year I heard more about energy studies in high performance buildings and ecological footprint reporting (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that my job roles have changed from BIM software to carbon footprint study over the past year… so consider the source).

As with last year, I’ve returned home excited, inspired, full of new ideas and leads to research… and exhausted! This Thanksgiving, more than anything, I am grateful for a vacation.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My new tree!

I planted my new Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis, purchased at the Parks and People fall tree sale) tree last week! It was sad to see the old crabapple tree go, but I'm learning to embrace the tenets of good gardening: if something doesn't work, compost it and try something else.

When the tree guys came to remove my old tree, I asked what they would do with it... did you know that there are so many tree removal services in the Baltimore area these days that they have to pay to dump all the mulch they accumulate? Make this work for you! Call a local tree service or utility company (I've heard that BGE will drop off free loads of mulch in both Baltimore city and county) when you need mulch - why pay when you can get it free?

They tell me that Treegators are a good idea to keep newly-planted tree roots moist and healthy, so I got a small tube type that rests on the ground from my local garden center. They also make a tall bag type, but my tree isn't big or sturdy enough for that type. With a Treegator, you fill the 15-gallon bag once or twice a week and it gradually dispenses the water over a span of 5 to 8 hours... which sounds much better than forgetting to turn off the garden hose after the prescribed 15 minutes and flooding the whole yard (which is what I would have done otherwise).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Clean coal my foot

If I hear a politician utter the oxymoronic phrase “clean coal” one more time, I will scream! I mean really.

I grew up in West Virginia: good luck trying to tell me there’s anything *clean* about coal. Granted, there is no perfect solution to the world’s energy dilemma, but it really irks me when politicians blatantly greenwash an issue like this.

You want the truth? Solar and geothermal are expensive, wind doesn’t blow all the time, hydroelectric power requires enough water to dam, toxic nuclear waste will remain so for thousands of years, oil reserves won’t last forever… and coal is dirty in both the extraction and burning phases.

However, faced with a growing shortage of fossil fuel resources controlled by volatile governments, I think that renewable energy sources are worth pursuing. It doesn’t matter if you believe in global warming or not. The fact of the matter is that fossil fuels will someday be depleted, and we’d be foolish not to prepare for this inevitability.

I hate politics. That’s my two cents.

More articles about "clean coal"...

Sierra Club

Washington Post



Coal is dirty


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Green building overdose?

People are getting sick of greener-than-thou buildings, and rightly so! Lots of designers seem to be missing the point as they compete to build bigger and more green buildings (green McMansion = oxymoron, as this writer points out). How about not building at all? Or renovating existing structures that sit derelict in many American cities whose residents have moved out to the suburbs (in Baltimore I’ve heard it called “white flight”). The light rail route along Howard Street in particular makes me sad: here is a row of once-beautiful specimens of architecture that have fallen into disrepair and neglect. A look at the photo book Baltimore: then and now by Alexander Mitchell illustrates how picturesque this and other areas of the city used to be. It’s a shame.

Last week I attended a lecture sponsored by the Baltimore USGBC chapter that gave me hope! John Knott, Jr., formerly of Baltimore, is a developer who understands the idea that creating sustainable communities can mean revitalizing existing ones as well as building new structures to fill the gaps. Check out his Noisette project in South Carolina. I’m happy to see that other developers around the country (and around the world, even) are catching on to this idea as well: this week the NCPC sponsored a conference in Washington DC that started off with a panel discussion at the National Building Museum. Leaders from the capital cities of Brazil, Sweden, and Oregon (from what I hear, Portland is one of the green capitals of the USA?) spoke of initiatives that they are implementing to create healthier, more sustainable communities. Now that’s good green news!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Trees in art

Continuing the tree theme, here's some art worth checking out: Tilt Studio joined forces with Baltimore's Urban Forest project to produce some striking banners to support TreeBaltimore this past summer. Check out their blog and images.

CORRECTION: The Urban Forest project is all Tilt! Thank you, anonymous commenter, for sharing this info.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Time to plant a tree

Fall is in the air, and you know what that means: swimming pools closing, kids going back to school, and time to plant a tree!

OK, so that last one is not yet an annual tradition, but it should be: the best times for tree planting in Maryland are October-November or March-April. I’ve heard that fall planting is better than spring, because the tree can devote more of its energy to developing a strong root system since the leaves are not an issue. Another plus is that you may be busy working up the rest of your garden in the spring (if you’re into that kind of thing), therefore you’ll have more time to plant and tend your new tree in the fall.

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” –Anonymous, from Maryland DNR TREE-MENDOUS program.

Why plant a tree?

-Trees are good for watershed health. They absorb runoff, mitigate soil erosion, and lessen the load on storm drains.

-Deciduous trees provide shade from the hot summer sun when you need it most, and then in winter the falling leaves allow the sun to come in. I wish I had a big tree outside my south-facing office window to keep it cooler: on summer days it gets toasty, even with the blinds closed! The green building term for this concept is “passive solar.”

-Trees are good for air quality. For that matter, so are plants in general: humans inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants do the opposite, and many filter out harmful gases in so doing. See? A nice symbiotic relationship. Go get some houseplants while you’re out getting your tree. (Tangent: houseplants that improve indoor air quality)

-Green is good for you. Think about it, which would you rather have outside your window: a noisy street full of traffic and hard surfaces, or a serene wooded area with lots of green? Which would make you feel more relaxed and happy? Perhaps this is why real estate agents say that trees add value to residential property.

-Read on for more good reasons

Why plant a native tree?

Naturescaping, xeriscaping, biodiversity… these are terms you’ll hear in reference to working WITH the natural plant habitat rather than trying to shape it into what society tells us a landscape should look like. Why enslave yourself to expensive chemicals and extra work to maintain plants that have no business living in your geographic region? Go native and reap the benefits of healthy, low-maintenance plants.

Where to get trees?

The Baltimore County Growing Home campaign is giving out $10 coupons for buying a tree from a participating local nursery or garden center.

Baltimore City’s program is called TreeBaltimore. Also check out the Parks and People fall tree sale (all Maryland natives - thanks Anne!).

Arbor Day Foundation: get 10 free trees and more with a $10 annual membership!

In case you're wondering what inspired this post, yep, I am planning to plant a few trees this fall: Serviceberry and River Birch. Got my $10 coupon, called Miss Utility, I'm all over it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Organic gardening tips

The end of summer is a bummer in many ways... but not in the mid-Atlantic garden! Right now farm stands and backyard gardens like mine are loaded with juicy red tomatoes. I have so many, especially cherry tomatoes, that I've been giving them away (so hey, email me if you're local and want some).

This bumper crop of mine would be even bigger if not for the slugs that have invaded. I figure that my soaker hose is a bit too effective at keeping the soil moist, and has created a damp haven for slugs. Perhaps this is also why my zucchini aren't thriving as usual? More on zucchini later, but back to the slugs. Like many humans, it turns out that slugs have a thing for beer. So I dug a little pit and filled it with a plastic dish of beer into which they could tumble to their alcohol-soaked deaths. At least they die happy, right? I caught two last week, and look forward to catching the others who keep attacking my lovely Big Rainbow heirlooms.

Before I get off the subject of tomatoes, did you know that marigolds make great companion plants? I've read that the scent repels certain tomato pests like whiteflies and nematodes, depending on which variety you plant... but at the very least, they look pretty.

Elsewhere in the garden, my zucchinis are plagued by powdery mildew. I have yet to find a good remedy for this: it seems that prevention is the best cure. Before I got religion on organic food and gardening, I tried chemical sprays that were semi-effective, but my latest attempt is a natural neem oil spray. This oil is used in holistic Ayurvedic medicine in India, and also makes a good bio-pesticide.

Another nasty zucchini problem is that of squash vine borers. These little buggers will tunnel their way into the stems and kill plants from the inside out. You'll know you have squash vine borers when your plants start to wilt for no apparent reason. Check the stem for what looks like piles of sawdust around dry cracks: that's where the larva is hiding. Slit the vine along the crack and extract it, then bury the wounded stem with dirt to encourage healing. Last year this trick worked for me, but this year I cut too deep and lost the plant. Be careful! Read more about garden pests and how to eradicate them at the University of Maryland's Home & Garden website. Their plant diagnostic page is most helpful.

While I'm on the topic of natural gardening products, have you heard of Terracycle? This is a great company that sells worm poop as garden fertilizer: my favorite part is that they use waste products for all aspects of their business, from the fertilizer itself to the containers in which it's sold. That, my friends, is recycling and eco-capitalism at their finest. As they say in Cradle to Cradle, waste = food.

Monday, August 18, 2008

These boots are made for walkin'

In the immortal words of my favorite comedian Steven Wright: Anywhere is walking distance if you have the time.

I’ve been making an effort to add more walking to my daily routine, partly because I sit at a computer a lot so I need the exercise, and partly because I prefer to drive as little as possible in these days of global warming and high gas prices.

Did you know that Google maps will plot out not only driving directions, but walking directions, and that you can add intermediate stops or click & drag the route to suit your whims? I mapped out a back-roads route to walk to Lutherville using the click & drag map recently, which helped me figure out mileage and allot walking time accordingly. Of course, I didn’t get to actually use this route because I slept too late and didn’t have time to walk the five miles after all, so I walked part of it, then waited for the bus for half an hour, then hailed a cab so as not to miss my appointment. D’oh! Which leads me to post my “walking lessons learned”…

Do set aside enough time to walk to your destination, assuming an average 4 mph walking speed. Factor in extra time for crossing streets, chatting with people, petting dogs, checking out sights along the way that you never noticed before because you drive too fast, etc.

Do wear comfortable walking shoes. Blisters are no fun – if you get them, go get bandages with Compeed recommended by my hiking friends.

Do wear sunscreen and bring water if you’re walking more than a mile.

Don’t walk through any areas that seem unsafe to you, and especially not after dark! Don’t let that pepper spray or cell phone in your pocket give you a false sense of security – better safe than ending up on the evening news.

Why walking is good:

It’s good for your health! If you don’t have time to go to the gym, walking is great exercise. How do you think Europeans stay so svelte? Living and working in high-density areas that allow people to walk between public transit and their destinations certainly helps. They also drink a lot of water, sit down for meals of fresh/seasonal/local foods of reasonable portion size, and tend toward other habits like those described in the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, but I’ll let you read that on your own time if you’re so inclined.

It’s cheap! Gas is pricey these days. Public transit, if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with a good system, is cheaper, but walking is FREE. Can’t beat that.

On a related note, the Towson paper recently ran a front-page article on a doctor who runs the 5 miles from his home in Lutherville to work at GBMC every day. When I used to commute up Charles Street, I’d see him running along in his skivvies, carrying his plastic bag of what I now know is scrubs, and wonder about him. Apparently lots of people wondered about him, because the article was entitled “Who is this guy?” Kudos to the good doctor for saving on auto and medical expenses by running instead of driving to work! Car insurance + maintenance + gas for daily commute = $$$, running shoes + good cardiovascular health = priceless.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Rain barrel update

Wow, have I really not blogged in a month?? That is not cool! Trust me, I have plenty of topics in mind to blog about, I just haven't had the time to pull them all together properly. Perhaps I'll switch to a shorter format just to get the ideas out there...

Anyway, I'm also ashamed to admit that it took me this long to install my awesome rain barrel, but it's finally in! And none too soon - last week's short downpour filled it completely. I had no idea it would fill up with just one storm: the garden will be so happy.

In other garden news, I've discovered the joys of having a soaker hose hooked up to an automatic watering timer: especially good for vacation times. This gadget, purchased from any local garden center, turns on the water for 15 minutes every day at programmed intervals: mine is set for 6am daily, but you can set it for longer increments or multiple times a day. Isn't technology great?

While we're on the topic of water, here's another (previously mentioned) idea for you: keep a bucket in your shower to catch the cold water while you wait for it to warm. My water heater is in the basement, so it often takes a full minute or two to get some warmth upstairs in the shower. Figure that depending on your shower/bath fixtures, at between 2 and 7 gallons per minute, that can add up to a pretty good amount of water! I feed mine to the houseplants.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Vampiring: don't be a sucker

Don’t be alarmed, but there are probably vampires in your house right this minute. Not the blood-sucking kind, but the electricity-sucking kind.

“Vampire energy” is the term for the electricity drawn by an appliance while it’s in standby mode (off but still plugged in). I’ve also heard it called “trickle current” and “standby power”.

Here’s an article from Good Magazine on the subject, and one from Grinning Planet too.

How to find out which of your appliances is sucking the most electricity (and money) from your house? Well, you could launch a scientific study, unplugging one per month and studying your utility bills… or you could get the Kill-A-Watt electricity usage monitor for about $25 and find out immediately.

We’ve been discussing energy reduction strategies at work lately. It turns out that one of the easiest things you can do to cut down is to ditch your computer screensaver. Most of today’s monitors don’t have the image-burning problem that once made the screensaver a beneficial application: now it’s just one more power guzzler you don’t need. Read articles about this from Green Daily and Digg.

More easy things you can do to save energy:

Turn off your monitor when you’re away from the computer.

Turn off the power strip that controls all your computer components when you shut down for the day. Even better, turn it off and unplug it… I’m not entirely clear on the difference between plain and surge protector power strips, but from what I’m hearing about “trickle current” and lightning strikes, it’s the only way to be 100% safe.

Download a free application at LocalCooling.com to optimize your computer’s energy use. According to the website, it will cut your energy bills, reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by reducing your PC's power consumption, give you full control over any power mode settings, improve your overall computing experience and efficiency, and show you, in detail, how much you have saved since installing the software.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Dollars and sense

The other day as I stood at the bus stop waiting to go to downtown Baltimore, I found myself pondering the economics of mass transit. It’s certainly in the best interest of the environment for people to take the bus or subway or whatever, but at what price does it become a person’s best option financially?

Well, lucky for you, I am enough of a nerd that I sat down and figured out the formulas so you don't have to. Read on:

How much are you spending per car trip =

($ per gallon of gas) / (your car’s MPG) * (trip mileage)

Example: $4.10 / 22 mpg (in my Honda) * 10 miles = $1.86 total.

Need to find your car’s MPG? Google your car and “MPG” or try this website.

Need trip mileage? Mapquest it here.

At what gas price or trip mileage does it become cheaper to take mass transit?

= (bus fare) * (your car’s MPG) / ($ per gallon of gas)

Example: Here in Baltimore, a round trip bus or light rail costs $3.20.

$3.20 * 22 MPG / $4.10 = 17.2 miles

Therefore, if I’m traveling more than 17.2 miles round trip, it’s cheaper for me to take the bus… especially if I’m going downtown, where I’d have to pay for parking.

As my car gets older, I'm considering my transportation options: Keep the car and pay increasingly high maintenance costs? Get a new car? Give up car altogether and rely on mass transit and taxi service?

For new car options, I'm researching green vehicles at the EPA website. Not surprisingly, the Toyota Prius is at the top of the gas efficiency list, but there are also good Honda, Mazda, Smartcar options I'm considering.

Next time I do my bills, I plan to take a good hard look at how much I’m paying for car ownership, and whether it’s worth it. Insurance, maintenance, gas, parking: it all adds up! I hear there's a fleet of Zipcars hovering around the Johns Hopkins campus not too far away. I will check it out and report back here. Over and out!