Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reach for the STARS

As I recorded earlier, SUNY Oswego sponsored its first Citizens Academy for the greater Oswego community this past fall. Starting this January 6th the second Citizens Academy will begin, and it’s very exciting to host a next installment of this important community based sustainability program.

In an earlier blog about the Citizens Academy, I wrote, slightly derisively, about technology, and our consumerist tendencies. In that post, I deliberated on the potential for a “sustainability app” and although no deus-ex-machina solution has appeared to be downloaded yet, another tool has emerged in the context of college sustainability solutions that I’d like to share with you.

This solution, or tool, takes the form of the STARS (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System) 1.0 that is advanced by AASHE or the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. It is a voluntary, self-reporting framework for gauging sustainability progress by colleges.

STARS is the gold standard for tracking sustainability in higher education, and AASHE is the national body assessing sustainability initiatives across campuses. For those of you familiar with LEED certification, STARS is a comparable tool used to objectively assess a college’s commitment to sustainability. (More information on AASHE and STARS is available here: and here:

SUNY Oswego has had a strong and ongoing commitment to sustainability. President Stanley is a signatory of the Presidents Climate Commitment; we have a Sustainability Strategic Plan and a Climate Action Plan; our campus has a variety of initiatives that address sustainability on an ongoing basis.

However, the beauty of STARS for an institution like Oswego, that is working to establish priorities and reporting structures, is that it takes the guesswork out of things. The tool provides a framework to gauge both how an individual institution is doing toward completion of objective sustainability criteria, and how an institution compares on a ratings basis to other institutions who are attempting to make their campuses and cultures more sustainable.

It’s like a Zagat guide for sustainability efforts! Brilliant!

SUNY Oswego had previously used the nascent STARS 0.5 version, and conducted in the summer of 2008 an informal, introductory assessment of how Oswego would fare on the STARS. I’m hoping to post that report soon on the college’s sustainability page here:

Oswego has just signed on to participate in STARS 1.0, and this process requires the college to complete this more formal, yet still voluntary self-report by January 2011. Continue to look for postings on the college’s progress related to its participation in STARS here in the upcoming months.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Little Boxes on the Hillside

My commute to and from Baldwinsville takes me past one of the most egregious sub-divisions I have ever seen, remarkable for the bland uniformity of its housing, the ugliness of its setting, and, as always with these "communities," its stark lack of trees. Malvina Reynolds wrote "Little Boxes on the Hillside" in 1962—her black pastoral on the subject of suburban sprawl—yet I guarantee the sub-division she describes looked more appealing than the one I drive past.

In fact, so do some British "council housing estates"—a form of "projects" found in most towns in the country of my birth. A good friend of mine lived for a couple of years in a council estate outside of Brighton, England, when he and his family were starting out. These hurriedly, sometimes shoddily, built communities have bad reputations—the houses are never well-built, cars are stolen—yet even they are platted with small parks, schools, and little shops all within walking distance. Sidewalks are a given and trees are planted. Some estates even have easy access to "allotments" (community gardens).

American-style sub-divisions (I say American-style because this un-walkable, non-communal sub-division model is found in England now) weren't always as poorly planned as they are now. In fact, I live in a sub-division: Indian Springs, just outside the village of Baldwinsville. Built in the 1970s, there are three or four distinct models of houses in Indian Spring, as well as backyards are full of old trees and interconnected streets—no cul-de-sacs here. But some bad development habits had begun to creep in by the time Indian Springs was platted: there are no sidewalks, no parks, no shops. Thankfully, the streets are wide enough for joggers and dog-walkers, but to access a park or shops, you need a car.

The US Green Building Council wants to halt the deterioration of neighborhood planning with its LEED-Neighborhood Development designation, recently awarded to Syracuse's Near Westside Initiative. It's an excellent achievement for the NWSI, putting it well on its way to becoming a shining example of sustainable urban re-development. But at the same time, the criteria for LEED-ND in the general category of "Neighborhood Pattern and Design" show just how far from sensible neighborhood development we've come.

Honestly, some of these criteria really should be in the "duh" category for a neighborhood: walkable streets, street networks, tree-lined streets, access to recreation, local food production, neighborhood schools ...

An old-fashioned (i.e. 19th century) village-within-a-city, the Near Westside has all of the above, and more (mixed-use buildings, access to civic centers). My neighborhood—Indian Springs—has some, but not many. The nameless subdivision I commute past, none whatsoever. Nineteenth century planning, mid-20th century, 21st century ... it's a slippery slope. What will it take for the green movement to convince mayors, trustees, developers, builders, and house-buyers to return to values of community and self-reliance and make our communities "liveable" once more?

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, December 18, 2009

Energizing Education

Sustainability requires solutions. Let me tell you about one of SUNY Oswego's signature programs: the Summer Energy Institute.

This program, “Energizing Education for a Better Future,” is designed for Secondary Teachers of Math, Science, and Technology.

Teachers who participate will develop new curricular units on energy and sustainability. Among the topics covered in the institute will be the nature of energy, energy conservation, alternative energy sources such as the sun and wind, nuclear and radiation safety, future energy resources and energy’s connection to politics and social cultures.

Participants will visit a variety of energy facilities in the area. Each participant will build an energy curriculum portfolio that includes handouts, lesson plans and learning activities that can be used in the classroom. The curriculum delivered in this institute was designed using the principles the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Reform Movement that is being promoted by Congress, NSF (National Science Foundation) and NASA.

The current institute is co-directed by Dr. Alok Kumar, chair of the physics department and Thomas Kubicki of the technology department.

“Because the baby boomers are retiring, there is a shortage of workers for the energy industry,” said Kumar. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that by 2012 there will be nearly 10,000 more energy industry jobs than workers available to fill them.

“We are going to train teachers to teach about energy issues effectively,” Kumar reports. Not only will the institute help to infuse the workforce with new talent, but it will also help the teachers and everyone they teach to become better consumers and citizens in a global economy driven by energy.

“The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but accounts for 25 percent of the world’s energy consumption,” according to Kumar. “This imbalance forces us to be dependent on other nations, creates a scarcity for energy resources in the global market and weakens the ecosystem.”

Some of the adverse impacts are easily avoidable, he said, through energy conservation, new energy resources and smart energy practices. “This is a global issue that requires local action,” he said.

For more information, visit the Energy Institute’s Web site at: or call the Office of Business and Community Relations at 315.312.3492.

-Thad Mantaro
SUNY Oswego

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Syracuse named "Emerald City"

A Building Boon
by Ilona Kauremszky

GREEN IS THE NEW BLACK, Al Gore tells us. Sheryl Crow supports environmental causes, and hundreds of other celebrities are leaving their green thumbprint on the growing eco trend.

So what does a former industrial town in upstate New York do? Syracuse, quickly earning the accolade as “Emerald City” for environmental breakthroughs, staged a Healthy Buildings Conference for academic researchers and other professionals from architecture, building products and services, engineering, indoor environmental quality, public health, urban planning and environmentalist types.

And the timing couldn’t be better, report city insiders. Like so many manufacturing towns in turbulent times, old businesses have dried up—but Syracuse is using this reality to help bolster a new economy, one of sustainable development. Currently a building boom is under way in and around central New York State, where Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is big in housing and business developments.

It’s all about the new economy, says David Holder, president of the Syracuse CVB, describing breakthroughs that include a medical biotech research center and the headquarters of the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems.

“There are all kinds of incredible partnerships blossoming,” he said. “So much of what we have with the Syracuse Center of Excellence and so much of the development of the area is building on that sustainability base, employing different industries that are all about the generation of natural energy and the generation of building developments that can be used elsewhere in building these types of buildings.”

The center will showcase the city’s eco-advances and provide a blueprint for cities across the globe. The site is on reclaimed industrial brownfields, a type of real property, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, cleaning up, reinvesting in and redeveloping these properties shift development pressures away from undeveloped land, improving and protecting the environment. Federal officials say “brownfields redevelopment returns non-productive real estate assets to productive use, promoting the economic development of many of the nation’s most economically distressed areas and regions.”

The Syracuse Center of Excellence certainly intrigued Healthy Buildings. HB2009—own by the International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate (ISIAQ)—is considered to be the “Olympics for indoor air quality” and is held every three years worldwide. The theme was quite simply that: healthy buildings. Approximately 800 delegates from nearly 40 countries attended HB2009 Sept. 13-17 in Syracuse, N.Y. The five-day conference was held at the city’s acclaimed Oncenter Complex and had six-to-eight daily track sessions in addition to an expo, a conference first.

“We wanted to engage the business community to look at the green technologies that are on the market and to showcase with about 100 exhibitors and also through a series of programs that included keynote speakers, workshops, product and service demonstrations and opportunities for individuals from academia and business to work with the U.S. Department of Commerce and representatives from the Empire State Development Corp. to see what opportunities and resources are there to help build new partnerships with business-to-business and with the academic resources in this country,” said Tammy Rosanio, project manager and assistant to the executive director for the Syracuse Center of Excellence, describing the convention’s three-day Oppex forum where delegates learned about leading research and technology developments and networked with national and global leaders in the fields of indoor air quality and healthy built environments.

About a year leading up to the last Healthy Buildings Conference in Lisbon, the movers and shakers of the Syracuse Center of Excellence researched their case then took the RFP to the ISIAQ and made formal presentations outlining the reasons why Syracuse should be chosen over other undisclosed cities.

“The expectations were high. We didn’t walk in blind. We had actually contacted various members to see what was involved, what was the level of commitment, so that we were both benefitting our members,” said Dr. Suresh Santanam, a member of ISIAQ and deputy executive director of Syracuse Center of Excellence, who took the lead role in securing the bid. “I first presented to the board, then presented it to the general membership and during the process explained how Syracuse was an hour away from major hubs, how this conference could bring a diverse cross section of individuals from the indoor air quality field and how Syracuse and Central New York were experiencing a transformation in healthy buildings.”

Since the start of the Healthy Buildings Conference in 1988 in Stockholm, the U.S. has played host to the conference only twice.

Rosanio knew they had challenges.

“So we ensured appropriate levels of services were available in a mid-sized city for a conference of this size,” she said. “Our community really supported this conference. We even had retired workers from places such as Carrier who wished to volunteer.”

Santanam says that Syracuse’s location in Central New York was another great asset because conference delegates and their spouses were in close proximity to a variety of incentive travel options from wine tours around the Finger Lakes to a visit to Niagara Falls.

According to Rachel Alcaro, CMP, convention sales manager for the Syracuse CVB, the city hadn’t witnessed a conference on such an international scale before.

“One of the challenges is language,” she said. “We had 40 countries participate. To offset the language barrier, volunteer interpreters—mostly students from Syracuse University—were on hand to provide translation services. Along with language barriers, these people are coming from faraway countries, and quite frankly, our local banks are not equipped to handle money exchange to this degree with this variety. We informed the foreign participants prior to their arrival that they should exchange their money to U.S. currency while at home.”

Another challenge for the academic-heavy conference was how to get 800 delegates into a concentrated area.

“Our exhibitors at the Oppex were there mostly to discuss their products and developments, limiting the size of their displays,” said Shandrist Hillsman, HB2009’s meeting planner and president of Ascension Event Management. “The conference scheduling—with its multiple tracks and expo addition—was designed to help alleviate potential bottlenecks around heavily trafficked areas. We had so much going on that people were spread out throughout the conference.”

Still with the tracks comprised of plenary, technical and social programs that each had additional forums and sessions, space was a challenge.

“With the exception of the War Memorial, we used all the space at the Oncenter Complex, which included the Convention Center and the Civic Center Theaters,” Rosanio said.

Another curveball focused on the Syracuse Center of Excellence headquarters, a venue that was still under construction at the time of the conference. For Dr. Santanam, this building was a dream come true and was one of the selling points to secure the conference.

“We talked about having a new headquarters and said this would be available for the attendees to see what we can offer,” he said.

But construction took longer than anticipated, and organizers were not prepared to change their course. Donning hard hats and using safety precautions, tours were scheduled during the conference and open to limited group size.

“About 25 people went with a tour coordinator and tour manager,” Rosanio said. “We also had representatives on site from the various companies involved in the design and construction of the building showcasing their products and ready to respond to inquiries directly on the floor.”

While principally geared to the academic world, HB2009 was not ready to dismiss the corporate significance.

“We looked at companies that we already had an existing relationship, some big some small, a nice representation of companies that are known locally and internationally,” Rosanio said. “These companies [sponsors] are specialists in their field and have an interest in this.”

Local sponsors such as Carrier, IBM and Siemens jumped on the chance to contribute to the conference despite the economic downturn.

“We hadn’t really noticed the economy affecting our sponsors, and in fact, our participant registrations were close to what we had projected initially when we started this project,” Rosanio said.

While the bones of a factory town are apparent, the transitioning “green” city still has hurdles to overcome when alternative transportation is considered, such as delegate transfers. Initially, the idea was to allow attendees the option to walk or bike to the conference.

“We quickly scrapped that, because in Syracuse we were afraid drivers wouldn’t see them,” Shandrist said.
In an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint, scheduled timed transfers to and from the convention center were made.

“We wanted to be as sustainable as possible,” she said, adding that USB flash drives with complete conference documents were distributed as well as using green practices for other conference materials: T-shirts from organic cotton, custom-made neck wallets from 100 percent recycled materials and pre-owned or GREENGUARD certified furniture pieces.

Sandra Baker, vice president of sales and marketing for the Oncenter Complex, added that water was provided upon request for the closing dinner, and no water bottles were available at the conference.

A leader in implementing green practices in the meeting and event industry, the three-venue complex has also introduced a revolutionary form of composting using local upstate worm farms.

“We get these great big bins, and all the scraps from this conference were thrown into these worm bins, taken to the farm and when these scraps biodegrade, the compost returns to us and is actually used in our gardens,” Baker said.

Now that’s a healthy building. One+

ILONA KAUREMSZKY is a weekly travel columnist and the former editor of Corporate Meetings & Events.

What’s New in Syracuse
• When completed in 2010, the 60-room Hotel Skyler will be the first LEED-certified hotel in Central New York and will offer preferred parking for partial zero emission cars along with room-key controlled lighting and thermal comfort among other energy efficiencies.
• Syracuse has several revitalization projects under way which include a US$2.4 million renovation project on the 100 block of West Fayette Street and the multiuse, residential, LEED-certified Jefferson Clinton Commons building in Armory Square.
• Holiday Inn Syracuse/Liverpool, in the town of Salina, underwent a few nips and tucks with the recent completion of a $20 million expansion project that includes an extra 10,000 square feet of meeting space, along with the erection of a 123-unit Staybridge Suites Hotel.

Transportation Tips
• Located north of the city, Syracuse Hancock International Airport is approximately 15 minutes by car from downtown and serves upstate New York with seven major airlines offering approximately 250 daily arrivals and departures.
• Forget about making early morning drives to Rochester or New York City for flights. The City of Syracuse and the Metropolitan Development Association—with help from central New York companies and a U.S. Department of Transportation grant—have created, a new fly program to promote lower airfares departing from Syracuse’s local airport.

Fun Facts
• In 2007, the Go Green Earth Summit named Syracuse the Go Green Large City of the Year.
• Before Dinosaur BBQ sauce, Syracuse’s big claim to fame was salt, and “the city that salt built” was considered one of the biggest salt suppliers in the U.S.
• Don’t be surprised if you walk down a yellow brick road in Chittenango, 13 miles east of the Syracuse airport. Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum was born here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Back to the Future

Sometimes solutions to engineering problems that have been consigned to history make a comeback ...

Last week, Syracuse University, IBM, and NYSERDA opened the Green Data Center on Syracuse University's campus. Thanks to remarkable power generation and HVAC innovations, it will be one of the greenest—possible THE greenest—data center in the world, using 50% of the energy of current data centers.

Considering how persnickety data centers are about heat, cold, and power (they're vast digital orchids, if you will) that's a significant accomplishment. To use another biological metaphor, data centers are cropping up like mushrooms throughout the world—if we don't get a handle on their energy requirements, all the LEED office buildings in the world won't make up for the fact that computers within them must turn to gas-guzzlers to store and retrieve information.

The solution to the GDC's power and HVAC needs was to create DC power on site using natural gas and then to use the excess heat from the DC micro-turbines to run heaters and chillers (also utilizing water-cooling for the servers because that is so much more efficient than cooling with air).

That's a back-to-the-future solution. The SyracuseCoE HQ building is on the site of the old LC Smith typewriter factory in Syracuse, NY. Once upon a time the solution to power needs for that factory was a Corliss stationary steam engine (now housed at a museum in Camillus, NY) that produced DC power. No doubt the steam engine's heat helped out in winter, too!

Many of my blogs so far have been about sustainability solutions that are or should be returning to old values or methods we thought ourselves too modern to continue. I suppose that makes me a bit of a curmudgeon, possibly even a Luddite.

However, innovators should always consider kits of parts that have been discarded. After all, nature does when looking for innovations—I'm thinking of the evolutionary science idea that juvenile traits in some animals are not discarded but retained into adulthood—that is, if they prove a good fit for the environment (what scientists call "neoteny").

So, to complete my biological metaphors for the day, the GDC's leading-edge power/HVAC solution is a kind of engineering neoteny: the GDC engineers (helped by SyracuseCoE-affiliated Prof. Ez Khalifa of SU) went back to the beginnings of heat/power solutions (steam engines, direct current, power-as-heat-source) to find their green solution.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A “home” by any other name…

In Shishmaref, Alaska, they have a tradition where perhaps several newborn children will be named for someone who has recently died; each child then assumes some of the characteristics of the person who died. If the deceased was a good hunter, then the child will be raised to embrace this legacy. This cultural tradition imparts a sense of connection to the past, and continuity to the future.

I came across this cultural meme, illustrative of the lives of the Eskimo people who live in this part of Alaska where they cling to a meager subsistence along the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, in an article on CNN online.

The article ( is notable for several reasons: first it attempts to recount these cultural traditions and conditions that threaten a small community of 600 people; and second, for the tenor and character of the online response the article generated. The latter surprised me in its callousness to our shared condition, regardless of one’s belief of the etiology of global warming.

A brief synopsis: the article provides a compelling account of the impact climate change is having upon an older adult couple in this Inupiat Eskimo village: the changes in their lives and community, the death of their youngest son as the result of an accident attributed to changes in environmental conditions, and a remarkable depiction of the cultural destruction that parallels the environmental change.

Houses in this village exist on the thinnest of rocky crusts, on a shore that is separated from the mainland by a mostly frozen inlet. Warming trends have resulted in the erosion of the permafrost causing houses to fall into the sea, and many villagers to relocate to the opposite side of this island. The community is considering uprooting the village to an entirely new site, currently undetermined.

The article explores the difficulties this poses for these villagers and the incipient cultural loss (they have their own traditions, rituals, dances, dialect), and connects it to a larger, phenomenon—a wave of global climate refugees. From the article… “A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that 31 Alaskan villages face ‘imminent threats’ because of coastal erosion, flooding and climate change. At least 12 are at some stage in the relocation process.” How much of this is directly attributable to human caused climate change and global warming is unclear…and to many of the article’s respondents, unimportant.

Surprisingly, response after response online eschewed human causality or even the possibility of it, instead focusing on the recent controversy: Climate-gate. Apparently, a few scientists have been reported as colluding to prevent the sharing of some information that might contradict evidence for global warming (unfortunate). Critics have cited this as evidence not only of the refutability of climate change data, but also as further evidence of global climate change as a conspiracy to promote global governance, and threaten national sovereignty (huh?).

It’s striking that many people seem ready to believe in some pan-global collusion more readily than to consider that environmental change may be occurring, and to support the need for sustained, dispassionate and non-partisan debate on the causes and implications. This imperative seemed lost on the article’s respondents.

And the Inupiat lesson on cultural continuity in the first paragraph seems lost on these as well, as was the human condition that binds us all, whether we call Shishmaref, Alaska, or Syracuse, NY…home.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego