Saturday, June 25, 2016

Oregon BCD Certifications: OAR 918-098

The following is a letter written by Royal Mortier of Mortier Engineering. Like me, Royal is a member of the Emerald Executive Association (EEA). He recently brought to the attention of EEA members the radical changes proposed by the State of Oregon’s Building Codes Division to the administrative rules regulating the certification of building inspectors, plans examiners, and building officials. 
The BCD’s proposed rules make changes to the certification process that it asserts will support the division’s focus on providing Oregon-focused training for building officials, inspectors, and plans examiners. Specifically, these rules relate to changes to the Oregon Inspector Certification (OIC) and creating a transition path from International Code Council certifications to equivalent Oregon certifications, as well as ostensibly clarifying the conflict of interest requirements for certification holders. However, as Royal points out, OAR 918-098 will likely have an adverse impact upon the quality of the permitting and inspection processes, drive away prospective new inspectors and plans examiners (just when they’re needed most), unfairly penalize private entities, and effectively (and ironically) generate new conflicts of interest. 
OAR 918-098 becomes effective on July 1, less than a week from now. The deadline for written public comment was yesterday (June 24). Royal penned his letter this past Tuesday, addressing it to every member of the Oregon Legislative Assembly, after also testifying in person at the BCD’s scheduled public hearing earlier that day. He is pushing for revocation of the new rules, a move I believe is warranted because the proposed changes do appear short-sighted and fundamentally flawed in their intent. Time will tell if the members of the legislature agree and take action.

My name is Royal Mortier and I serve as the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Mortier Engineering, P.C., an employee-owned engineering and code consulting firm. A subsidiary of Mortier is The Building Department, LLC (TBD). TBD is a licensed Building Inspection & Plan Review Provider under ORS 455.457. TBD provides building department services to government entities that are too large for counties to provide adequate service to, too small to cover the expense of their own building department, or building departments that need staffing assistance.  We are currently contracted with approximately 30 jurisdictions in the state of Oregon to serve as inspectors, plans examiners, and/or building officials. Combined, we serve a population greater than Portland. I’m contacting you today because we have a nationwide shortage of building inspectors. How the State of Oregon Building Codes Division (BCD) is handling this issue is setting up our construction economy for failure. 
A significant need for qualified inspectors, plans examiners, and building officials currently exists because the average age within this workforce approaches sixty. This is an irrefutable fact, and something needs to be done to entice new inspectors, and retain or hire experienced personnel to properly train them. In decades past when a staffing crisis like this occurred, jurisdictions requiring certifications found ways to attract newer staff through bonuses, or turned to private industry for support. Unfortunately, the BCD has opted for a different path by pushing for, and getting passed, legislation that shuns out-of-state qualified people and private industry support. 
BCD was initially established to be a division of the state that assisted in the review and adoption of building codes. Over the years, BCD has added to and changed its roles many times. Beginning in the early 2000’s, BCD began taking over inspection and plan review duties from jurisdictions. It grew to a staff of over 110 employees with three offices across the state, per the BCD website. The BCD bankrolled these efforts using taxpayer dollars, a 12% surcharge on building permits, and taking 90-100% of permit fees from the jurisdictions that use them. 
In December of last year, BCD moved toward a rule change that requires inspectors to attain training and certifications performed and issued by BCD and ONLY recognized in Oregon, making Oregon the only state in the western U.S. to not require national certification. Prior to this rule change, most personnel came from the trades, and/or attended a two-year approved college program in preparation to take a national certification, which was then supplemented with additional training and certifications. Under the new rules from the BCD, incoming building inspectors will only be required to take a 4-hour per week, 14-week training (56-hours total) to become a certified residential structural and mechanical inspector. Additional changes eliminate the acceptance of past experience, nationally accepted certifications, and college degrees, essentially making the certification programs at Portland and Chemeketa Community Colleges obsolete. 
Oregon changed to a national inspector and plans examiner certification system in 2005 because BCD was unable to keep testing current, but still required the Oregon Inspector Certification (OIC) test to verify knowledge of statutes and administrative rules that apply to them. Being on a national testing program with state specific law testing is common for many professions (i.e. Engineering). The BCD is changing back to state testing without the benefit of input from existing code enforcers and professionals within Oregon, and without justifiable reasoning provided to professionals or noted in the legislation’s Statement of Need and Fiscal Impact
BCD’s changes to Building Official certifications are even worse. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a Building Official is in charge of a jurisdiction’s building safety program and its employees, including the inspectors and plan examiners. BCD again has chosen to eliminate requirements for past experience or education in building codes or construction and replace it with a 2-day training, given by BCD, to earn a certification recognized only in Oregon. 
If you’re skeptical that BCD would put someone with so little experience in charge of the public’s safety, please see the attached meeting minutes from June 6 of this year with comments from Tom Phillips, BCD Government Affairs, regarding hiring a recent high school graduate to be an inspector and comments on the new 2-day building official program. These changes will flood the industry with inexperienced and poorly trained inspectors, plans examiners, and building officials that will hinder the system and tarnish a reputation that many in the industry have worked extremely hard to maintain. These are the personnel the community relies on to ensure what is being constructed is safe and accessible. The public deserves better. 

As a former construction superintendent and project manager, Oregon State graduate, and graduate of Chemeketa Community College’s two-year Building Inspection Technology program, I can say that nothing prepared me better for the career of inspection than the Chemeketa program. To consider 56-hours of online training as an acceptable alternative to past experience, college, and national testing is ludicrous. In addition, to issue code enforcement professionals an Oregon-only certification places an invisible leash on them. This will result in many qualified professionals leaving Oregon to explore opportunities in other states. In fact, Oregon currently has more government job openings for code professionals than California and Washington, combined. Code professionals and private industry do not want to come to Oregon because of the BCD. BCD’s regulation is not the solution—it’s the problem. 
With these changes, BCD has taken on the role of educator and certifier of all code professionals within the state of Oregon. Per ORS 455.117, BCD is the governing body for review and approval of code training programs, but per OAR 918-098, BCD’s training is now the only approved training. BCD is also an enforcer of the code and financially benefits from acquiring services from jurisdictions. So BCD is allowed to approve the training they provide, to issue the certifications that only they are allowed to issue, and are allowed to use these certifications to enforce the code for financial gain. This is not something that would be allowed in private industry, so why are we the public subject to this obvious conflict of interest? 
Researching how other states handle their adoption and oversite of building codes, I found no state that has anything comparable to the BCD. Our neighbor to the north, Washington, has the State Building Codes Council (SBCC). The SBCC staff provide assistance and information on building codes to the public, contractors, and jurisdictions—similar to what BCD’s initial intent was. For code development and review, the SBCC coordinates subject and code specific groups consisting of professionals from the respective areas to develop recommendations and implement local or state-wide building code changes. They perform these duties with a staff of 5, and rely on the professionals they serve for input (What a concept!!!). 
Over the past couple years, I’ve researched the cause for this surge by the BCD, and have been provided with the same reason by multiple building officials and state representatives. A prison that was being built with state funds in a remote area required a building permit. The governing jurisdiction’s building safety program was contracted with a private provider, as the jurisdiction historically did not produce enough annual permit fees to afford their own. Some in the state didn’t believe it was right for state funds to go to a private company to oversee a state-funded project. However, the state has engineers and architects on staff, but the design of the entire facility was contracted out to private engineering and architecture firms. The state owns heavy equipment and has workers, but the construction was contracted out to a private construction company. Yet the expense of a permit fee used to fund a private inspection company to review and provide oversight for a multi-year project could not be seen as justifiable. 
The prison project has been cited as a primary impetus for Senate Bill 421 (2005). SB 421 was expanded with the passing of SB 582 (2013) and both have resulted in the development of additional statutes, regulations, and administrative rules against private code providers. Note that when SB 421 & 582 were passed to allow BCD to assist remote jurisdictions, the BCD was not the certifying agency. 
The fallout from these legislative changes are having effects on many within the state. The first major change was slipped in under “definitions” in Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 455:

ORS 455.715 (3): “Inspector” means:

(c): A specialized building inspector certified under ORS 455.723 who is employed by a municipality or by the Department of Consumer and Business Services.

Note how this verbiage specifically negates “company,” and this wasn’t by accident. If you view the Specialized Electrical or Plumbing Inspector Training Course application, it specifies on the cover page:

Those who currently work for a company that provides inspection and plan reviews for a city or county may take the course, but may not use the certification while employed by the company. Only city, county and state employees may use a specialized certificate . . .  

Since this legislation passed, it has paved the way for additional statutes, regulations, and rules to be passed directed solely at private providers. For example, as a continuation to the legislation noted above, specialized certifications held by personnel of a company will expire in 2017. 
In addition to changes to education and certifications, BCD has opted to not recognize its own conflict of interest, but instead is throwing down a rule change that would cite others for an assumed conflict. Under OAR 918-098-1470 a proposed rule change is as follows:

(j) Avoiding management or performance of work regulated by the state building code for a company engaged in construction or property development in Oregon when employed as an inspector, plans examiner, or building official by the division, a municipality, or registered business . . .  For the purposes of this section, property development includes, but is not limited to engineering, designing, testing, or auditing of buildings or other structures, devices and equipment regulated by the state building code.

Currently, seventy-nine jurisdictions in Oregon rely on private industry for support of their building safety programs. This support ranges from peer review by an engineer, inspection and plan review support, or management of the entire program. The change proposed under item (j) is a blatant attack on private industry and will result in a population greater than Portland, Salem, and Eugene combined losing the experienced and affordable support of building safety programs currently provided/accessible to them. The vagueness of this rule change could implicate any employee of a jurisdiction’s building safety program for doing any work within their jurisdiction, even if performed on their own home. In addition, this rule change exceeds the authority of DCBS and BCD as stated in ORS 455.720 and has been developed without justification. 

As members of the Oregon Building Officials Association and multiple Home Builders Associations, members of our team and I have attended multiple events where the current director of BCD, Mr. Mark Long, has spoken. We have been continually amazed at how Mr. Long arrives at these events to tell, rather than discuss with, the very professionals that BCD serves about the changes that are coming. We have not attended an event in recent years where our input was requested or taken, and our verbal and written comments from public hearings have been continually neglected. It appears that BCD has no interest in making programs better and attracting qualified individuals, but instead are being led by their own agenda and special interest groups (i.e. public employee unions). 

With the proposed changes noted above, BCD will establish themselves as the only building codes trainer and the certifying agency for all new inspectors and building officials in Oregon. For BCD to even attempt this is outlandish, and to implement these changes would be illegal.  Additionally, BCD is overstepping its authority with the proposed changes to OAR 918-098-1470(j) granted them by ORS 455.720 and its attempting to impose rules on professionals (e.g. engineers and architects) that the BCD does not regulate. 

The public hearing for the rule changes noted above took place on June 21. It was attended by engineering and architecture professionals, building officials, and private parties—all in opposition to the proposed changes. Past history has shown us our opposition will likely go unrecognized, which is why we turn to you, our state representatives. We request that you contact the BCD and push for revocation of all proposed rules that remove Oregon from national certification of building inspectors and plans examiners; help ensure education and experience be requirements for building officials; and eliminate rules aimed against private industry. 

Thank you for your time. 

Royal Mortier, PE, LEED AP
Mortier Engineering PC
O: (541) 484-9080 ; C: (541) 521-1276 ; F: (541) 484-6859

OR#82283PE, CA#81480, WA#53059


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Spatial Variation

Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, a place familiar to Bill Kleinsasser and one he used to illustrate his lectures on the subject of spatial variety (photo by Jeffrey M. Vinocur, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license).

It’s been more than three-and-a-half decades since I first met Bill Kleinsasser. If anything, my experience as an architect since then has only reinforced the fundamental rightness of what he espoused. The whims of fashion did not sway him one bit, and as the years passed the latest fads or “isms” would likewise lose their mesmeric hold over me. I realized what Bill attempted to instill in his students was something much more fundamental about the power of design. 
A good example of architecture (or landscape architecture) is a synthesis of many essential concerns, of which one is to provide a variety of places to be—places that are generously accommodating, lastingly useful, opportunity-rich, efficient, and strong. Good architecture also acknowledges our tendency as humans to favor ranges of spatial opportunity so that we have choices about how to use a place. We instinctively seek out supports within a setting and the freedom to control the degree to which we interact with that place; however, there is no choice if there is insufficient spatial variety. 
The following is another brief excerpt from Bill’s self-published textbook Synthesis, in which he succinctly describes how spatial variation contributes to the experience of powerful, meaningful, and poetic spaces.   

Choices of Places to Be, Precisely-General Places, Longevity of Support
During its lifetime, any built place will confront many different circumstances. These may be caused by different users, by different purposes, by the same users with different states of mind, or by a combination of these. At the same time, built places usually must be made relatively solidly and permanently, and in configurations that are not easy to change. They usually outlast their first purposes and their second, and sometimes even more. Under these circumstances it is very easy for the built environment to become obsolete. 
Built-in spatial variety and consequent choice can help to offset this problem in built places. When generous spatial variety exists in built places, many long-lasting opportunities exist as well. One can experience different kinds of space; one can find accommodation for different purposes; one can find places for things; one can make different spatial combinations and thus realize greater space-use; one can choose from among a variety of circulation paths; and, if incompleteness and changeability are made a part of the spatial variety, one will be able to participate in the configuration of the place. 
Spatially varied spaces support more purposes and needs than ordinary places and, therefore, are more meaningful to more people over time. 
Spatial variety can be achieved by establishing an overall space (making the overall sensible), by making sure that each of the subspaces that comprise the overall have their own distinctive identity and spatial autonomy, and by developing mini-spaces of a variety of types within each of the subspaces. If this spatial variety is established, even more variety will emerge as various sub-configurations of spaces are identified by users. 
If all these ranges of space-types are achieved, then many place opportunities will be sensible, felt by people in the spaces. These opportunities will be the means by which those people can find an appropriate place for any purpose, state of mind, etc. and therefore the means by which they can find personal-ness, fit, and meaning.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Tactical Urbanism: 26th & Olive

The 26th & Olive mural (my photo)
Something happened recently in south Eugene that I only became aware of through the power of social media. Thanks to Facebook, I learned a group of neighbors had created something truly special, a remarkable example of what has come to be termed “tactical urbanism.” Their handiwork—the 26th & Olive intersection mural—is an urban intervention, one enriched by the enthusiasm, imagination, and hands of a large group of like-minded people. Much to the delight of the neighbors who share the intersection, the street painting is not only big, bright, and one-of-a-kind, but has also become an instantaneous emblem of neighborhood unity, identity, and pride.

My wife and I visited the intersection mural last week, but finding it proved to be an adventure. Even though we live less than a mile away, we struggled to navigate the maze of dead end streets in the immediate vicinity of 26th & Olive. When we finally did reach the intersection, we learned we’d just missed the new art piece’s formal dedication ceremony earlier that afternoon. Regardless, we were cheerfully greeted by Erik Steiner, the principal organizer of the mural project, who graciously spent some time with us to describe how the project came about.

Erik said a principal impetus for the project was traffic and pedestrian safety. 26th & Olive is the only four-way intersection on College Hill without any traffic control signs at all. He and his neighbors begged the City of Eugene to install a strop sign, but the City's response to their pleas was "sorry, no." Disappointed, Erik remained determined to do something for the safety of the young children, including his own, who regularly traverse the intersection. But what could be done? What would slow motorists and enhance pedestrian safety? The 26th & Olive intersection mural would be the colorful answer, one really big sign in lieu of four smaller, post-mounted octagons.

The street painting isn’t the first of its type—there are many examples in Portland, for example—but it is a vivid illustration of the power of tactical urbanism and a quintessentially Eugene response to the problem. Tactical urbanism interventions are quickly executed, sometimes temporary projects whose aim is to ameliorate highly localized urban problems or to make a small part of a city more lively or enjoyable. These types of projects—ranging from creating vibrant plazas seemingly overnight to re-imagining parking spaces as neighborhood gathering places —have grown in popularity in recent years. They’re most often used by urban activists seeking to drive lasting improvements in their cities and beyond. Their hallmarks are quick implementation, creativity, and low cost. They offer a way to gain public and government support for investing in more permanent projects, inspiring residents and civic leaders to experience and shape urban spaces in a new way.

It turns out securing City of Eugene support for the project wasn’t an issue. It proved to be a willing partner, awarding a Neighborhood Matching Grant to help defray the cost of the painting. The Public Works/Engineering Department did its part, happily preparing the asphalt surface and sealing its cracks. The City also joined forces with the University of Oregon’s Planning, Public Policy, and Management (PPPM) program by commissioning five students to develop a guide to tactical urbanism and utilizing the 26th & Olive project as the basis for a service-learning exercise. The group’s project is a component of the 400-level PPPM course “Real World Eugene.” The class introduced the students to Eugene city officials and provided a real opportunity for professional teamwork. Bethany Steiner (Erik’s wife) happened to be the course co-instructor and is associate director of the PPPM Community Planning Workshop.

While enhancing pedestrian safety may have been the original motivation for the intersection mural, there’s no doubt Erik was also driven by a passion for community-building and place-making. More than 150 of his neighbors and friends would agree. They spent 8 hours together and emptied 28 gallons of paint to create a giant piece of delightful public art, all while enduring record high temperatures. The unique mural is already a landmark, a conversation-starter, and a symbol of the neighborhood’s vitality. The notion of neighborhood-ness is significant to Erik, particularly because he believes a thriving neighborhood is the ideal place to teach young children about healthy, local, connected living, and what it means to be rooted in place and part of a community. The 26th & Olive intersection mural will certainly be a wonderful teaching tool, hopefully for generations to come if the endowment intended to maintain it is adequately funded.

Video from Erik Steiner's YouTube Channel featuring images by Drone 1 Aerial Photography.

As my wife and I have learned over the years about the enclave we live in further to the south and east, each of Eugene’s diverse neighborhoods is not only a function of the people who live there; its unique physical characteristics also contribute significantly to making it feel like a distinct place. Erik definitely wanted his little slice of Eugene to become more distinctive. He also wanted his neighbors to come together and find shared satisfaction and inspiration by creating something special. He wanted them to abandon their comfort zone and instead mutually occupy a “connection zone.” By bringing them together to produce their iconic street mural, he hopes he has accomplished all this and more.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Terminal Studio Review

Paul Dustrud, AIA, makes a point about Dylan Garza's terminal studio project as Dylan (standing, left) looks on. (All photos by me).
The University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture requires its professional degree program candidates to complete a two-term advanced studio during their final year of studies. Two academic quarters in duration, the generous timeframe lets each student develop a comprehensive, complex, and creative architectural design, wide-ranging in its execution. The terminal studio project is the student’s best and last opportunity to demonstrate his or her mastery of fundamental design and presentation skills before moving on to face the exigencies and realities of professional life. 
Professor Michael Fifield, FAIA, has regularly asked me to be a reviewer for his studio classes. Whenever possible, I enthusiastically respond by saying “yes!” I not only enjoy the reviews but also attach great seriousness to the responsibility of providing constructive feedback for the students. Some of the best and most helpful critiques I received when I was in school came from practicing architects; I’m hopeful my words, now founded on more than three decades of professional experience, are equally useful to students whose work I review. 
In addition to Michael, other members of the Department of Architecture faculty who have invited me to participate in their studio reviews include Virginia Cartwright, Nancy Cheng, Don Corner, Mark Gillem, Jim Givens, Otto Poticha, Michael Pyatok, Rob Thallon, Glenda Utsey, and Jenny Young (I know I’m probably forgetting several others). I’m grateful to all of them for the chance to do so because every review is truly a pleasure. 
Michael’s Housing Innovations Project (HIP) provided his students with the flexibility to explore the design of housing with sites and programs of their own choosing. All of the students enrolled in his studio brought with them some prior knowledge with multifamily housing, either through Michael’s Housing Prototypes course or the equivalent offered by another instructor. The entire studio also traveled to San Francisco prior to the Winter Term to visit several firms noted for their work on multifamily housing projects, and also to tour notable built examples. 
I was impressed by the variety of the projects generated by Michael’s studio. This mixture included dense, affordable housing solutions in major urban centers (Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, among them) as well as townhouses, an extended stay hotel, and market rate apartments for senior living. Michael directed his students to work within existing zoning bylaws and applicable building codes for the locales in which their projects were situated. They also developed their respective functional programs on density expectations and analyses of the specific community needs and/or market demands. 
Lauren Rice listens as Juli Brode comments on Lauren's design for a "New Occidental Hotel" in Seattle. 
A unique aspect of the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture is its long custom (established by W.R.B. Wilcox nearly a century ago) of eschewing a competitive learning environment and letter grades in favor of a supportive studio culture and individual evaluation through discussion and written assessments. The intent is to avoid the risk of arbitrarily fixing a standard of excellence; instead, the goal is to encourage each student to constantly question and learn, to acquire a broad understanding of culture and society, and, beyond this, to be an influence in forging those values, aspirations and character. This approach encourages open-mindedness, critical inquiry, collaboration, and risk taking, all necessary qualities for creative achievement. 
The school likewise employs “reviews” as opposed to “juries.” In practice, the distinction between the two isn’t that marked but the words themselves signify a meaningful difference. We regard “reviews” as evaluations. On the other hand, we think of “juries” as judgmental. Simply being characterized as a reviewer rather than as a member of a jury profoundly casts one in a different role. 
Taken together, Oregon’s emphasis on student development rather than competition, and the avoidance of hypercritical or condemnatory evaluations has fostered a setting most conducive to learning and exploration. 
ZGF Architects Design Partner Larry Bruton, FAIA, holds the floor as he engages Saya Shimada in a conversation regarding her "Rainier Beach Townhomes" project.   
In a brilliant piece for the website Section Cut entitled “The Final Review: Negaters Gonna Negate,” Mark Stanleya Lecturer and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee’s College of Architecture and Design—discussed the challenges facing reviewers. He also described the practice of reviews as a microcosm of everything about the process of architecture that make it such an enthralling pursuit: 
“In many ways architecture review culture mirrors the discipline itselfit sits somewhere between the unconstrained, wildly productive studio art review where students say nothing and the work speaks for itself, and the controlled, disciplinary thesis defense where the saying of things is as important as anything. It’s somewhere between being creative and discursive, between intuition and method, between beautiful and substantial. I revel in the potential of this weird moment. It is the most exciting, most valuable, most vibrant moment in design education, and many of the reasons that make it bad are precisely the reasons that make it good.” 
At their best, the students’ final reviews are fertile with epiphanies and leaps of understanding. The students naturally seek validation for their design concepts and execution, but they should first and foremost embrace the process of intellectual exchange and discourse with the reviewers. They should learn everything they can from the experience. I’m also quick to remind them to take my comments and those of my fellow reviewers with a grain of salt. After all, the students know their projects better than anyone else. 
My goal is to elicit from the student whether he or she framed the design problem clearly and then did their best to come up with a solution that is as thoughtful as it should be. This is particularly the case for terminal studio project reviews because the expectation is the students have acquired the aptitude and skills necessary to be effective designers and communicators. In the best Oregon tradition, I want each review to be exciting, valuable, and vibrant for the student, not because it is filled with drama and grandstanding, but instead because real learning is taking place. 
Final review presentation materials by Saya Shimada: drawings, physical models at varying scales, and a bound report documenting her program, project goals, design assumptions, and the concept.
Big thanks to Michael for inviting me to his studio’s final review. It was the de facto culmination of the architecture school experience for his students, certainly a proud and exciting moment for them. I heartily congratulate all of the studio members for achieving this significant milestone, and look forward to their future contributions toward the betterment of architecture and our world. My parting words to them now: Get some sleep, you've earned it! 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Placemaking – Making it Happen

Saturday Market (Photo via Wikimedia licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
The AIA-Southwestern Oregon Design Excellence Committee continues to produce outstanding talks for its series of Making Great Cities events. The 2016 edition was no exception as a packed house at the Hult Center Studio gathered last Wednesday to hear from Fred Kent on the subject of placemaking, and how relying upon the input of community members is necessary to create well-used and loved public spaces. 
Fred is the president and founder of Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit planning, design and educational organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public spaces that build stronger communities. The PPS approach helps citizens transform their public spaces into vital places that highlight local assets, spur rejuvenation, and serve common needs. Fred founded PPS in 1975 to expand on the work of William Whyte, author of The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Since then, PPS has completed projects in more than 3000 communities in 43 countries and all 50 U.S. states. 
It was clear Fred took the time to explore some of Eugene before his presentation. He said he believes Eugene is “close to an enormous opportunity” and that now is a “wonderfully transformative time” for the city. Given this may be true—and I agree that it is—we certainly should capitalize upon and avoid squandering this opening. The next few years may determine whether Eugene will develop truly effective public spaces or continue to suffer without enough of them because we failed to come together to make it happen.  
We immediately recognize a great public place when we see it. Fred characterized great ones as places that breed affection. They attract people, who in turn attract even more people, further enlivening the place. They each have their own distinct identity. They make people feel welcome and comfortable. Most significantly, the community of which they are a part had a hand in creating them. After all, the members of the community are best equipped to understand what they want and need from the spaces they share. Successful public places instill a sense of pride and ownership in those who live and work in the areas surrounding them. 
A ubiquitous impediment to creating great community places is our tendency toward addressing problems in less than holistic ways. Urban design problems and the means to solve them are often tackled independently by disciplines all too dedicated to their areas of specific expertise. As Fred said, “each discipline has become its own audience,” its discourse conducted within an ideologically disconnected echo chamber. For example, much of our public realm has become defined by the needs of and dedicated to motor vehicles, thanks to the diligence and laser-focus of municipal traffic engineers. Efficient flow of traffic is what’s important to them. The problem for Eugene is this blindered view of the world has meant many of our streets are terrible places for human beings; “a disgrace,” Fred called them. Streets should be used for going to places rather than merely through them, he says. 
Fred picked on traffic engineers because the consequences of their decisions are especially impactful upon our cities, but too many bureaucrats (and also architects) with the power to shape our public spaces are likewise afflicted by the silo mentality. Eugene has few benches to sit on as we’re too afraid of who will use them and law enforcement wants to discourage loitering. We lack the kinds of multiuse buildings that activate sidewalks because our land use regulations have prohibited or failed to mandate them in many instances; and so forth. 
So, how do we get everyone to crawl out of their comfortable silos and collectively think about how to make Eugene’s public spaces vibrant and attractive? How do we shift the mindset and culture toward those that foster the creation of the kinds of places we’ll all be proud of and want to use again and again? Fred’s answer to these questions is to converge on the notion of place, because when you focus on place, you do everything differently. 
Fred identified 11 key principles useful to transforming public spaces into vibrant community places. These principles are: 
  1. The community is the expert
  2. Create a place, not a design
  3. Look for partners
  4. You can see a lot just by observing
  5. Have a vision
  6. Lighter, quicker, cheaper
  7. Triangulate
  8. They always say “it can’t be done”
  9. Form supports function
  10. Money is not the issue
  11. You are never finished
Each of these principles is succinctly explained on the PPS website. Of these, looking to the community for expertise, creating a place rather than a design, and starting lighter, quicker, and cheaper stand out for me. Resources are always limited, so top-down (as opposed to community-led) and expensive solutions are often neither possible nor desirable. Simpler, bottom-up, low-cost processes may be equally or more effective means for achieving the kinds of public places we yearn for. Managed properly, simple processes don’t result in impoverished solutions but instead embrace the real complexity of vital and vibrant spaces and the manner by which they support both programmed and spontaneous social gatherings. Making things happen with lighter, quicker, and cheaper means entails at once both less risk in terms of capital outlay and more risk-taking by a community members emboldened by a vision of their own making for what a successful, active, public place can be. 

Fred went on to describe PPS’s placemaking process and its tools. One of these is the “Power of 10.” This concept is used to facilitate placemaking at multiple city scales. Having a range of reasons to be in a place—such as reading a book, people-watching, listening to music, eating food, meeting others—makes it a place. Some of the activities that regularly occur there will set it apart as unique and particular, reflecting the culture and identity of the surrounding community. When the range of reasons to be there numbers ten or more, the place thrives. 

During the placemaking process, participants not only start at the small scale by identifying the 10+ things to do, they also locate ten or more places within what can become a destination: corners, edges, centers, and other subspaces that layer a variety of activities upon one another. No single type of use or user dominates the space. The synergistic and incremental outcome is a set of workable ideas the community can implement (perhaps with a minimum of means). Ultimately, a city with ten or more great destinations is on its way to becoming a more resilient setting for urban life at its best. 

Fred presented numerous images of successful, enthusiastically embraced public places. All of these featured cheery people bathed in obliging sunshine. What? You say it rains in Eugene and people tend to shun outdoor spaces when it does? “Weather is a perception,” Fred says, meaning our rain is an impediment to enjoying a good public place only if we allow it to be. If anything, a vital and vibrant space shines through even when the sun cannot. 

While creating effective public places is often difficult, Eugene definitely has all the ingredients necessary to develop its fair share of them. We have an engaged citizenry, neighborhoods with distinct and emergent characteristics, and, as Fred pointed out, we simply need to adopt the necessary mindset and focus first and foremost on the notion of place. I’m enthused by the opportunities in front of us, and I’m hopeful we’ll seize the brass ring by coming together to create the lively, inclusive, and attractive places our city deserves.

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Kudos to the Design Excellence Committee for putting together such a great event. And big thanks to Dustrud Architecture, The National Association of Realtors, The American Planning Association, Lease Crutcher Lewis, the City of Eugene, and Patricia Thomas for supporting the Making Great Cities speaker series with their sponsorship contributions.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Walking the Progressive Path

Wanda Dunaway

The May meeting of the Willamette Valley Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute featured an excellent primer on green building product attributes presented by Wanda Dunaway, Director for Education & Government Markets at Shaw Industries. Wanda impressed me as someone who is clearly passionate about sustainability and the duty of the manufacturers of building materials to exercise environmentally responsible processes. Her presentation highlighted the importance of recognizing my role as an architect in driving the use of green building products. She also helped me understand the characteristics of healthy building materials, and brought to my awareness the tools available to assist in the selection and specification of healthful products. 
Many segments of the construction industry have embraced the need to provide transparency, translation, and leadership when it comes to communicating what constitutes healthy building materials. Toward this end, manufacturers have become increasingly sophisticated in bringing together thinkers, creators, builders, makers, and connectors to develop the most effective means to transfer useful knowledge to their customers. After all, informed clients (who include designers as well as building owners) make educated decisions, and it is these decisions that lead to healthy building material specifications. The transactional energy of new and more demanding specifications can powerfully shape the marketplace. 
Wanda stressed how we need to raise discussions about human health and wellbeing to the same level energy efficiency and life-cycle cost analysis have occupied for many years now. All of these factors are capable of bearing dramatically upon the triple (social, environmental, and financial) bottom line. To offer a case in point, she quoted Jane Henley, CEO of the World Green Building Council, by saying even modest improvements to employee health and productivity attributable to the selection of healthful building materials can have a dramatic impact on organizational profitability. From this perspective, healthy building products are not only good for people but good for the balance sheet as well. 
It is important to note the place of material health within the overall context of sustainable building. Material health is but one slice of a larger pie that also includes renewable energy, water stewardship, material revitalization, and social responsibility. The selection of green products has evolved from a time when aesthetics and cost were the principal factors influencing choice, to later when LEED and recycled content were dominant considerations, to today when material chemistry has come to the forefront in our decision-making. 
So, what are the resources at our disposal inside the product transparency toolbox? 
Wanda described a few of the certification tools available for our use. Each of these evaluate the health of building materials by inventorying their ingredients, screening those ingredients, assessing their risks to human health and the environment, and optimizing those with healthful attributes. Wanda summarized these programs as follows: 
  • The Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is an independently certified and registered life cycle assessment that quantifies the environmental impact of a product. EPD declarations include information on the environmental impact of raw materials acquisition, energy use and efficiency, and materials chemistry and content. In a nutshell, EPDs describe the effect a product has upon the Earth. LEED awards one point for using at least twenty permanently installed products sourced from at least five different manufacturers that meet EPD declarations conforming to specific disclosure criteria. 
  • Declare is a product labeling program that relies on the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) “Red List” as its primary basis for material evaluation. In creating a Declare label for a product, a manufacturer must disclose all of that product’s constituent chemicals to the designated 100 parts per million (ppm) threshold. There are three compliance levels, which are: 1) LBC Red List free, meaning the product is free of all Red List ingredients; 2) LBC compliant, meaning the product contains some chemicals the ILFI has designated as Red List exceptions; and 3) Declared, meaning the product is not compliant. The Red List represents “worst in class” materials, chemicals, and elements known to pose serious risks to human health and the greater ecosystem. These ingredients include alkylphenols, asbestos, BPA, lead, mercury, PCBs, phthalates, PVC, and VOCs (in wet-applied products). 
  • The Health Product Declaration (HPD) is a standard format for transparent disclosure of building product ingredients and associated hazards. An ad hoc, multidisciplinary industry group developed the system with the objective of establishing a standard format to report building product content and associated health information. HPDs are not third-party certified, and do not include optimization or risk assessment; they are merely inventory of the product’s constituent chemistry and its attendant impact on human health. 
  • The Cradle to Cradle Certified program is a third-party eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and future life cycles. It requires an optimization plan to remove harmful materials and practices from the product. Additionally, it is a multi-attribute certification, considering material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. Like the ILFI’s Declare program, Cradle to Cradle also includes a list of banned ingredients or products.
Any one of these product transparency tools may help ensure a project meets sustainability goals by helping us align our product selections with the project’s requirements. In some respects, their output is analogous to the nutrition labels we find on every package of processed food we purchase. 

An example of a Declare "nutrition label."
Nutrition labels on food packaging empower consumers to make healthier and more informed food choices. Of course, the standardized nutrition facts panel on food packaging has its share of critics, who argue it has been ineffective in improving public health and that a one-size-fits-all approach to labeling fails to address the varied dietary needs of different people. Their most damning arguments may be that food labels are too simplistic and therefore meaningless, utilize flawed metrics, and ultimately fail to address the vast complexity of the relationship between humans and their food. It hasn’t helped that nutrition science has proven so uncertain (Is dietary fat good for us or not? What about cholesterol?). 

Are the comparable building material evaluation tools and resources likewise unsound in fundamental ways? 

Some might suggest the real impetus for the trend toward environmental product declarations is a desire to minimize manufacturers’ product liability. Full disclosure does shift a substantial portion of the burden for awareness of the risks for using a particular construction material to the designer or specifier. That being said, architects have always shouldered this responsibility to a large degree. I’m inclined to believe the industry’s motivation for developing the various product transparency programs is first and foremost founded upon the desire to provide conscientious designers and building owners with an objective means to evaluate the healthfulness of manufactured building materials. By doing so, they have done all of us a great service and contributed toward our collective wellbeing. 

Most architects have welcomed the wealth of green building materials standards in recent decades. On the other hand, their proliferation does present us with challenges. Which standards, materials disclosure programs, and certifications are: a) most effective; and b) simplest to understand and implement? So far, I’ve avoided taking the necessary time to educate myself about how to objectively evaluate more healthful, earth-friendly materials technology. Clearly, this has been irresponsible of me. Architects undoubtedly must bear the burden of being informed and upholding the best interests of not only our clients but also our planet. My takeaway from Wanda’s visit with us is the necessity of being as knowledgeable as possible and becoming a change catalyst. There’s a clear path from education to influence I need to follow if I am to truly fulfill my public obligation as an architect. We can and must design for positive cause and effect. 

Big thanks to Wanda for taking the time to join us for our May chapter dinner and meeting!