Earth Day 2014 - Lean is the New Green

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afternoon sunlight glistens off treetops on the North-facing slopes of Manua Kea on Hawaii's big island

   Earth Day began in 1970 with a mission to steer the passions of the day into environmental protection, but things are afoot today that may finally help channel the environmental movement into its real mission: building a better future. American rivers were ablaze in 1970, and industrial cities lived under a perpetual pall belching continuously from its smokestacks. I grew up a hundred miles away from one of them, and one of our playground insults was “you stink like Birmingham.”

   Recovering our skies, our waters, and our lands from the ravages of industry’s degradations was the essential first step… no doubt about it. But just as an alcoholic’s eventual goal shouldn’t just be to get sober but to live a better life, our goal as earth’s residents shouldn’t just be to clean up our messes, but to build better places.

converging Hawaiian gorges pinch meadow down to a single point, with a solitary tree at the center

   Some people have been working on this for a long time. The New Urbanists, for example, started working out ways of building more sustainable places as far back as 1980. More recently, a number of them have taken on the mammoth problem of recovery from the addiction of sprawl.

   The engine of sprawl was fueled by the 20th Century’s energy glut and the mirage of perpetual expansion, making it a bloated target for anyone interested in building more sustainably. But sustainability’s allies have also become part of the problem. The LEED rating system, for example, was created with the very best of intentions, but it has also become so flabby that there are now calls for a lean alternative. And place-making regulation at all levels of government, environmental or otherwise, has become not just a thicket, but a complete unnavigable hairball of regulatory centipedes. Conjures up some disgusting images, right?

   It’s time to come lean. Fortunately, there’s a small crack team already working on that. The Lean Initiative doesn’t advocate for a complete free-for-all, but rather for “pink tape” instead of red tape… in other words, lightening the load so that more of us can get meaningful stuff done. The Lean Initiative is built on seven Foundations. Here’s a quick look at some of the lean things some of us have been building upon them:

farm shed stands solitary sentinel over agricultural field on the northern slopes of Hawaii's Manua Kea


Lean Building

• Condition people first, so they can throw the windows open and “live in season” most of the year. Tweet

• Build outdoor rooms, not lawns, to entice people outdoors where they acclimate to the local environment. Tweet

Outdoor rooms are a fraction the $ of indoor rooms, so save a little indoor living space & outdoor rooms are free. Tweet

• No equipment is so efficient as the machine that is off. Tweet

Small is the new luxury. Bigger is lower quality, smaller is higher quality for the same $. Tweet

• Why waste the space in the walls? Hundreds of square feet are lost in spaces you never see. Tweet

• Build armoires instead of closets for your clothes. They’ll save $, floor space, and look better, too. Tweet

Mauna Kea's northern slopes only slightly interrupted by Hawaiian orchard and nearby farm road

Lean Development

• Building a mature city on Day One is as insane as giving birth to an adult. Build infant villages and let them grow. Tweet

• Development speed is the enemy of value. Any place worth building well is worth building slowly. Apologies to Mae West. Tweet

• When you build, be generous with parks, greens, squares, and plazas and they will pay you back several times over. Tweet

• Build like you have only a wheelbarrow, not a bulldozer. You’ll save lots of trees and character in your place. Tweet

• Build high Walk Appeal in your streets so that your neighborhood businesses flourish. Tweet

• Single-crew workplaces make many business possible in your neighborhood today that would be impossible larger. Tweet

• Build places where you can make a living where you’re living, and walk to the grocery. Tweet

solitary farm trail traces across verdant ground on the northern slopes of Mauna Kea in Hawaii

Lean Business

• Working at home should be a basic human right. If it were harmful, humanity would have perished centuries ago. Tweet

• Welcome the Makers into every struggling neighborhood. They’re morning’s first light to a recovering place. Tweet

Name a place for what you want there. “Printer’s Row” or whatever. Names attract, and also direct. Tweet

• Do business with agreements that don’t require a lawyer to tell you what you agreed to. Tweet

• Jane Jacobs was right: new ideas come from old buildings. Businesses start best in cheaper places with lower burdens. Tweet

• Don’t advertise. Spam has vaccinated us against ads. Be the marketing you want people to see. Apologies to Ghandi. Tweet

• The old business virtues: better, faster, cheaper. The new business virtues: patience, generosity, connectedness. Tweet

northern Hawaiian shoreline battered by Pacific waves under the watchful eye of solitary white lighthouse

Lean Green

Gizmo Green: delusion that we can achieve sustainability with better equipment & materials, both of which cost more $. Tweet

• Encourage green building in ways that are fast, friendly, and free. All of which LEED is notTweet

• To thrive long after fossil fuels, we should learn from before them. Carbon is a temporary & misleading measure. Tweet

• Amperage increases a machine’s power; leverage increases our power, and works even when machine power fails. Tweet

Sustainability begins with the place, not the building. Without sustainable places, “green buildings” are meaningless. Tweet

• Sustainable places: nourishable, accessible, serviceable, securable. Green buildings: lovable, durable, adaptable, frugal. Tweet

• Sustainability isn’t something we buy, it’s something we become. Changes we make dwarf changes the R&D department makes. Tweet

a few trees scatter across a meadow out of a nearby river gorge on the northern slopes of Hawaii's Manua Kea

Lean Regulation

• Begin every rule “we do this because…” so the people know why, not just what. Consent of the governed arises from why. Tweet

• Whenever possible, set up things that regulate themselves, not requiring lots of external energy to run smoothly. Tweet

• Don’t grow regulatory “scar tissue” the first time something unpredicted goes wrong. (Thanks, Jason Fried!) Tweet 

• A building for 2 people should not be regulated like a building for 2,000. In a lean world, regulation follows risk. Tweet

• Free gardens & small farms from industrial food chain regulation. They feed neighbors, not millions of strangers. Tweet

• Those making regulations should be affected by them. We have no right to burden others with loads we do not bear. Tweet

• Regulations must be regional. Green building standards on Cape Cod look ridiculous on the Gulf Coast, and vice versa. Tweet

rare five-pointed star intersection of dirt farm roads on Hawaii's Manua Kea

Lean Infrastructure

• Generate services as locally as possible. You can borrow from your neighbors if the outage doesn’t affect them. Tweet

• Make beautiful sights and sounds with the rain, then get it back into the ground as soon as possible. Tweet

• Trading lane width for sidewalk width is one of the best infrastructure exchanges, and full of virtues. Tweet

• No sign of a vibrant, lovable place can be seen from further down the street than a line of street trees. Tweet

• Put parking on streets, on alleys, or in garages. Few things are more corrosive to cities than surface parking lots. Tweet

• Nothing reduces infrastructure as broadly and as much as doing business in your own neighborhood. Tweet

• Dispense with the gym. You can get fully fit working out on a park bench, which should be lean infrastructure's icon. Tweet

green-carpeted gorge cuts deep into Hawaii's Big Island as the tropical rain clouds hang low overhead

Lean Education

• Tell the children why, not just what. With what, you only pass or fail. With why, you can figure stuff out. Tweet

• Today’s kids will spend most of their lives on stuff that doesn’t exist yet. They must learn how to figure stuff out. Tweet

• Embed the greatest wisdom within that which can be loved, so that it may spread broadly. Tweet

• Lessons learned from things nearby stick with us easier than those from things we cannot see. Tweet

• Put homework on blogs, so each student’s work is visible to the world, and commenters help them get it right. Tweet

• Build places that put old and young together because the old are those with the most wisdom and the time to teach it. Tweet

• Combine proverbs with hyperlinks so the idea sticks with you and directs you. This might be education’s future. Tweet

   That’s a lot of stuff… what are your thoughts? What parts of this make sense?

   ~Steve Mouzon


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Maker Space - A Building Type More About the Walkspace Around Than the Workspace Within

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free bird (a pigeon) sits on the storefront sill, looking through the storefront glass to his caged cousins inside a pet store

the free bird - Makers’ mascot?

   Maker Spaces are fascinating on several counts, but the most important one is something you might not have thought of: the secret sauce of Maker Space innovation isn’t something inside the building, but rather what’s around it. The Maker Spaces themselves only need to be large, open, cheap, and wired... and you can find places like this almost anywhere. It’s what they’re connected to around them that determine how innovative their work is likely to be.

What Makers Do

conference call hack - turn two phones head-to-tail, and nobody has to call back on another line

conference call hack - quicker than having one of them

call back on the other line

   Makers do two basic things: They recover old crafts, and they figure out how to do new stuff. So a Maker Space is part school and part laboratory. Makers are both learning and doing, and they must learn skills in order to make stuff. Often, they’re working with supplies or components that are old and cheap, but it is specifically this low entry threshold that makes what they’re doing so accessible and empowering, as they hack and crack their way under the hoods of disciplines as diverse as cooking, computers, sewing, and rocketry.

Why They Do It

Makeshop Miami Makers at work

   Actually, you should ask one of them why they do it, as you’ll get some interesting answers. But at their core, Makers are a lot like the free bird above. While the rest of us might be more like the birds caged inside, comfortable and out of the elements because we’re supported by all our complex systems from air conditioning to the industrial food chain, makers relish getting outdoors. And in the process of learning the skills they learn and figuring out the things they’re discovering, they become much more robust and resilient as they become acclimated to the inner workings of things the rest of us take for granted.


Apple Logo stands backlit with cool blue-white neon against the corrugated concrete battlements of the Apple Store on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, all set against the inky night sky

   Ask a random person on the street about innovation and how it is produced, and chances are, they’ll begin to tell you about companies like Apple that work with big budgets, the latest technology, strong corporate infrastructure, and maybe piles of cash. This corporate sort of innovation depends on large power structures and massive infrastructure. Maker innovation is almost completely opposite. Budgets can be small or non-existent, often using found or donated materials. Technologies might be decades (or sometimes centuries) old. And while it’s completely impossible for one person to create a product like an iPhone on their own, almost all Maker innovation occurs in small groups that are often as tiny as a single person. Maker innovation removes the necessity of as many outside power structures as possible, depending often on little more than a roof overhead and electrical power.

Things That Spark the Mind

unknown hoodie-clad stranger ambles down a morning street in Richmond's recovering Shockoe Bottom neighborhood

   Entire books are written on innovation-rich environments… far too many to reference here, although Richard Florida’s Creative Class series of books are some of my favorites. But in any case, it’s clear that some settings foster going through the same motions repeatedly, while others are seedbeds of innovative thought. Innovative settings tend to be those where many things are possible… places where there are many ways to turn, and where on a whim you might turn another way and end up at a different place. There, you might see someone you didn’t expect, or maybe even meet someone new. And if that person doesn’t do what you do but wants to hear about your work, then you just might be entering that most insight-rich zone of looking at your work through the lens of another discipline.

Innovative Settings

architect's rendering of Apple's new headquarters (not my image; harvested from Google Images)

Apple’s new headquarters

   Corporations with a highly innovative culture and track record are often insanely focused on a narrow product line, as Steve Jobs famously characterized when he said "I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things we have done.” It should be no surprise that getting thousands of corporate creatives focused on those few products seems to call for an inward-looking setting. Makers, again, are almost exactly opposite. There aren’t normally enough of them to just happen into very many unplanned meetings with other disciplines inside the Maker Spaces… at least not every day.  Sometimes it works, but you’re dealing at most with a few dozen people on any give day, not thousands. So it’s essential for Makers to look outward, connecting broadly with who's around.

Three Maker Innovation Essentials

   The workplace is obviously essential, as this is where the work is done, but there are no absolute essentials for the workplace beyond being big, open, cheap, and wired. The second essential is the walkspace around the workplace, which is the collection of paths leading to the third essential category, which is where connections with others can occur.

The Workplace

artist sits painting alone in puddles of light spilling across the raw interior of a Maker Space

   Beyond the essentials of being big, open, cheap, and wired, there are a few other attributes that are helpful: First, unless you’ve found a really cheap warehouse, an old building in a soon-to-be-recovering neighborhood is important because nothing else is likely to be cheap enough, as Jane Jacobs pointed out years ago. You need the space wired with electricity, but also equipped with wireless Internet. There should be places to work alone and places to work together, places to meet and present, and places to post stuff to read. There should probably be a paint booth, and definitely a place to clean up.

The Walkspace

brightly-clad vacationers strolling past one of Washington Avenue's several tattoo parlors on South Beach

   Here’s where it gets fun. The innovative potential of the paths that make up the walkspace is directly proportional to the Walk Appeal of those paths because you’ll walk much further (and therefore reach far more connection points) on paths with great Walk Appeal. But it’s not just about self-propelled transportation. "Thinking on your feet” is no longer just a euphemism for the ability to think quickly; we now understand that walking (and other physical activity) may actually stimulate the brain. So just as fostering better Walk Appeal builds a stronger customer base for businesses, that same better Walk Appeal builds a more innovative walkspace around a Maker Space.  So Maker Spaces should be doing everything they can to enhance the Walk Appeal of their walkspaces, both the measurable things and the immeasurable, knowing that those things directly build their chances of innovation.

The Connections

A la Folie, one of the coolest places to eat in South Beach, sits quietly among the palm fronds near the end of Espanola Way

   What should Maker spaces hope to connect to? Makers are disproportionately young, and the young tend to be less wealthy than the old. And because Gen Xers and Millennials are less likely to own cars, it’s important to be close to housing most of them can afford. Affordable housing can be smaller units like one- or two-bedroom cottages, or it can be accessory units like carriage houses, rear-of-lot cottages, upstairs or lower level apartments, rear lane cottages or even mews, all located on lots with larger houses that are normally occupied by the landlords. Maker spaces should be located near civic space such as a park, green, square, or plaza because that’s a destination where you don’t have to spend money. Walkable places to eat are a must; the two essentials are third places where you can set up shop and work. Coffee shops are a type of third place that arguably spawned the Enlightenment a couple centuries ago, and they are the adopted homes of today’s Creative Class. There are more connection places that are also good Sprawl Recovery tools, but these are the first essentials.

Getting Started

Tactical Urbanism dinner party recedes into the fading light of a Utah evening, where there was only a deserted Salt Lake City street a day before

dinner party, to a Tactical Urbanist

   The Tactical Urbanists (a group populated by quite a few Makers) are great at starting things on shoestrings… their own well-worn shoestrings, in fact. Build your Maker Space walkspace and foster connections along the way as tactically as you can. And pay particular attention to the new Lean Urbanism initiative… Makers are fundamentally Lean, so many ideas should be cross-pollinated between these groups. And by all means, recognize that Makers are arguably creating the most vibrant living tradition in our culture today… so use the tools of living traditions to build the walkspace and its connections. The opposite to a living tradition is the command & control operating system, which is perfect for building armies and factories. It’s the operating system best suited for most corporations. Living traditions, on the other hand, are the best operating systems for building buildings and towns… and the thriving Maker movement. Command & control thrives on large numbers, global trade, and petroleum. Living traditions thrive at scales too small for the factory and with local trade, and are fueled by ingenuity. Command & control depends on us taking orders. Living traditions depend on us talking to each other. They are the highest form of ideas that spread, and are characterized by “plant small, harvest large."

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: If you want more on this, I’m doing three-hour presentations on these ideas at the Traditional Building Conferences in Boston in July and St. Paul in September. If you’re around, please come!


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