Sustainability vs. Square Feet

I went to a Prestigious Undergraduate Institution.  It doesn’t matter which one, because in the subject matter of this story I think they are pretty much all the same.  They are the same in this:  When it comes to sustainability vs institutional prestige, prestige wins, sustainability loses.

Here is what this particular Prestigious Institution has to say about sustainability: 

Sustainability “require(s) us to bring together the best technologies, people, and ideas to create a way forward.  …  Now is our moment, a chance to use our strengths to create something even more powerful than anything we have done before.  We can become a world leader in solving sustainability challenges at a moment when this is exactly what the world needs. “

In the years since I went to this school the student population has increased by about one hundred individuals, a little over two percent.  In those same years, the physical plant has increased by this:  new Life Sciences building, new Psychology building, something called Sudikoff Hall, new Math building (which is actually two buildings), doubling in size of the Library, new Physics building, new Government building, doubling in size of the Engineering School, thirteen (!) new dormitories, new boathouse, new rugby clubhouse, tripling in size of the gym, new sports training facility, new art museum, new Visual Arts center, new nameless office building, new baseball facility, new tennis center, new lacrosse facility, a dozen new sororities and fraternities, and what am I missing?  For 100 students, the school has more than doubled its physical plant.  The school has also developed a few hundred thousand feet of retail and office space on properties it owns in the community.  And there are a bunch of new buildings down at the business school; their student population, I believe, has increased by zero.

To be fair, the school has knocked down buildings as well:  the old Math building, old computer center, one dormitory, a bunch of private buildings it has taken over.

I’m quite sure this school has brought together “the best technologies, people, and ideas” to make many of these buildings as green as possible.  But that’s not the point. 

The point is, a fundamental tenet of sustainability is that the first and most meaningful action to take is to address the size of the built environment.  So many aspects of sustainability correlate with that:  energy use, water use, runoff, water quality, transportation, material consumption, land use.  If you want to demonstrate sustainability, you start by building less.

And the point is, unless I’m missing something, there is no correlation at all between the size or number of buildings and the quality of education.  If anything, education needs less space than it used to, because now, anywhere I have a phone, I can go online and take a course from Stanford or MIT or Wisconsin, from the best professors in the world.  I don’t need a library to do research.  If I need to talk to a professor, we can text, email, or Skype.  Nor, I think, has the size of my body increased such that I need a three bedroom suite to house it, nor more space for my bed.  If I can’t play tennis because it’s raining or cold out, I can do something else.  If I’m training for a sport, I don’t need my own special training center; I can share. 

And the point is, aside from a few square feet of lab bench, all the meaningful education I have ever had has been in the interaction between me and an excellent text or an excellent teacher.  Never, not once, in the interaction between me and a classroom, me and a dormitory, much less me and a brand new weight room.

And the point is, sustainability is not a teaching position, or an administrative position, or a major, or a web page.  Sustainability is something you do, or you don’t.  If you insist on building more and bigger structures to do exactly the same thing for the same number of students, you don’t.

And the point is, in their desire to leave a mark on the world and strut in step with other Prestigious Institutions, successive administrations and successive generations of donors have felt it necessary to more than double the physical plant of this school, for a student population that has hardly increased at all.  As long as those are the motivations that drive higher education, the “way forward” will be a high speed crash into a brick wall.


RFP and Specification Language for Furnishings and Equipment


This reuse project for King's College (Wilkes-Barre, PA) recovered more than 200,000 pounds of surplus assets.
This reuse project for King’s College (Wilkes-Barre, PA) recovered more than 200,000 pounds of surplus assets.

Click here for Specification

Click here for RFP Language

Like any project, reuse starts with planning.  Successful reuse starts with good planning.  Good planning starts with clear expectations and clear information.

Reuse is a new addition in construction and property management.  It’s new in the furniture and installation business.  Until recently, if you thought there was value in old furniture, you’d call up a liquidator.  They’d buy what they wanted, and you’d toss out the rest.  If you could find a local charity, they might take some of your old furniture – if they had a truck, if they had manpower, if they showed up.  Most surplus ended up in the trash.

Now, as Sustainability becomes ingrained, companies and schools and hospitals are realizing that they shouldn’t let usable furnishings and equipment go down the road to a landfill.  As much as possible, furnishings and equipment should be reused.  If reuse isn’t possible, they should be recycled for their commodity value.  Reuse should be part of the plan for every project, whether it’s the replacement of a few dozen chairs or the demolition of a building.

Good planning starts with clear information and clearly defined expectations.  The places where these are laid out are the Request for Proposals and project Specifications – these are where the owner defines his/her expectations and how they are to be fulfilled.  Over decades, owners, architects and contractors have developed comprehensive language and specifications that cover almost every aspect of demolition, construction, renovation, and the purchase and installation of furnishings and equipment.

But not reuse.  As a new addition to project planning and management, reuse isn’t covered by standard RFP and Spec language.  So reuse is often forgotten or omitted, or covered by vague language and requirements that lead to misunderstanding and dispute.  Or it’s added into a project at the last minute, when schedules are set and contractors have mobilized, causing more misunderstanding and dispute.  And good stuff gets thrown into the landfill.

After working with several of our clients and vendor partners, we’re happy to offer the attached RFP and Specification language to help address this issue.  Our goal has been to keep it as simple and clear as possible.  It can be changed, shortened, or expanded to address the particular requirements of any specific project.  It’s meant to be flexible and adaptable.

And it’s meant to inspire competition, replication, adaptation, refinement, improvement.  If you have variations of RFP and Specification language that you like, let us know and we’ll try to get the word out.  Or get the word out yourself; blog, email, write an article.  Reuse is a good thing, and the more avenues to get there, the better.

Click here for Specification (MS Word)

Click here for RFP language (MS Word)

King’s College (Wilkes-Barre, PA) Moves a Hotel for Salvadoran Community Development

Kings 10Working through the Christmas holiday, IRN helped King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, to provide more than 4,500 pieces of residential furniture and equipment to communities in El Salvador.

On December 19, King’s College completed purchase of the Ramada Inn in downtown Wilkes-Barre, for conversion into dormitory and academic space. With a deadline to open for students next August, renovation was scheduled to start almost immediately.

But there was a problem. The Ramada was a working hotel, with 190 guest rooms, a restaurant and bar, conference and banquet facilities, china and glassware for hundreds of banquet guests, and a 3,000 square-foot industrial kitchen. There were thousands of items of usable furniture, supplies, and equipment in the hotel, all in good condition. King’s College abides by the words of its founding president, Father James Connerton, to “teach students not only how to make a living, but how to live.” Throwing the surplus away wasn’t an option.

“We needed a solution consistent with King’s College’s principles of charity and civic commitment.  But we also needed a cleanout that was complete, professional, and quick. We had to be conscious of budget.  And we needed it to happen over the Christmas holidays. It wasn’t an easy challenge.”  Thomas Butchko, King’s College Director of Facilities and Procurement

Tom had heard of IRN through his professional network, and called in mid-November.  On November 21 I made the drive to Wilkes-Barre, walked the hotel with Tom and his Facilities team, took a lot of pictures, and got as accurate as possible a piece count.  Tom put us in touch with Mike Hinchey of Matheson Transfer Company, who have worked on the King’s College campus for many years, and we sketched out the logistics plan.  IRN matched the surplus with our partner Salesian Missions, who indicated they could use the entire inventory to support community development work in El Salvador.  We prepared the work plan and budget for Tom’s approval.  All the pieces were lining up.

On Thursday December 19, I arrived back onsite and met the Matheson crew led by Corey Sands, Matheson’s Operations Manager.  Using a ballroom as our staging area, we started to bring down the thousands of items that furnish a working hotel and conference center.  On December 20 we loaded four shipping containers, then two on December 21, three on December 23.  The crew staged again on Christmas Eve when trucks weren’t running, then filled three more containers on December 26, three again on December 27, one on December 28.  On Monday December 30, four days ahead of schedule, we packed the last container, filled one rolloff box with scrap metal and another with the damaged and soiled items we’d set aside as unfit for reuse, cleaned up, and handed the hotel back to Tom, clean, empty, and ready for renovation to start.

Kings 5In all, surplus from the King’s College Ramada filled seventeen tractor trailers with more than 4,500 items, more than 97 tons of usable furniture, equipment, and supplies. Another two tons were recycled as scrap metal, and about five tons (old big-box TVs) were sent to an electronics recycling facility. Only three tons, comprised of damaged or unusable pieces, were thrown away. The usable surplus included more than 500 mattresses, box springs and bed frames, 450 tables, 120 refrigerators and microwaves, 1,000 chairs, 425 desks and dressers, hundreds of sets of bedding and towels, and thousands of pieces of china-, silver-, and glassware. From the kitchen came about 35 major appliances, including industrial ovens and ranges, frying surfaces and deep-fryers, chillers, and warmers, plus a dozen stainless steel sinks and prep tables, along with boxes upon boxes filled with pots and pans, tablecloths, and other foodservice items.

The surplus was trucked to the Port of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where it was loaded onto container ships and transported to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, in Central America. By now, the surplus has been unloaded and distributed among needy El Salvador communities, where it will have a long second life.

Christmas is the time of giving.  Many thanks to Mike Hinchey, Corey Sands and their crew at Matheson Transfer for giving up much of their holiday season to make this project happen, to Salesian Missions for giving hope and material support to needy communities, and to King’s College for making such a large and meaningful gift in support of Salvadorans’ efforts to overcome social economic barriers.

See a case study of this project here.

Kings 6