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Archive for February, 2012

Brookline's LEED certified public health building

As part of the Brookline Climate Week, I attended an open house at the town’s LEED Gold certified public health building led by the town’s Health Director Dr. Alan Balsam. The building represents a significant commitment on the part of the Town of Brookline to address sustainability in its public buildings and provide an example of sustainable building practices for the community.

The Brookline Public Health Center was built in 1953. When the building came due for renovation in the early 2000s, Dr. Balsam decided to use the opportunity to make the building a showcase of green building practices by incorporating LEED certification into the retrofit. The town selectmen challenged Dr. Balsam to raise the extra money this would cost. As a result, much of the money was raised privately, including $125,000 from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (now part of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center) and $30,000 raised by community group Friends of Brookline.

The renovated building incorporates a number of sustainable building materials, including cork floors, bamboo paneling, low VOC paints, and shelving made of a cellulosic composite material made from leaves. Other important green features include double glazed windows that can be opened to cool the building, use of glass for interior walls to allow light to penetrate the interior of the building, low flow toilets and waterless urinals, and motion-activated low energy lighting. Old building materials such as wood, metal and toilet fixtures were recycled rather than sent to landfill.

The centerpiece of the renovation is the building’s 25 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system, which Dr. Balsam estimates covers approximately 35% of the building’s electricity use and which saved the city $8000 in electricity costs last year. Visitors will soon be able to monitor the system’s energy generation in real time on a monitor in the lobby. The solar panels are raised so as to be very visible from the street, which Dr. Balsam hopes will serve as advertising for the project and encourage others in the community to consider solar energy. The economics of the solar system were more challenging. While the town estimated a 15 year payback for its contribution, Dr. Balsam estimates that the total payback (including external funding) will be on the order of 50 years. However, this system was purchased before the precipitous drop in solar panel prices of the past few years. A project today would likely see a much faster payback.

Dr.Balsam indicated that he sees the LEED project as a way to encourage sustainable behavior both within the municipal government and in the community through leading by example. He also hopes that the project will provide a way to begin talking to people in the community about the links between climate change and public health threats. The project has already created some converts: Dr. Balsam noted that several people in the town’s building department were initially skeptical but were won over to sustainable building practices by the renovation. As a result of this project, the town is now obliged to include sustainability in its feasibility studies for all future renovations of municipal buildings. Through high visibility projects like this, Brookline is clearly putting sustainability and the threat of climate change on the local political agenda. Hopefully this will lead to more such projects in the future, both within Brookline and in other municipalities in the state.

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Have you ever wondered whether or not all this recycling is doing any good? We hear plenty of bad news—overflowing landfills, rising energy consumption, islands of garbage floating in the ocean—but until recently it has been hard to figure out just how much impact our own individual behavior was having.  Boston-area company Greenbean Recycle aims to change that by installing high-tech “reverse vending machines” at university campuses and eventually other public areas around the city. Aimed at the Facebook and Twitter crowd, these machines provide recyclers with instantaneous feedback on how much they are recycling and on how much energy they have saved in the process. Users simply sign in and deposit their bottles; their recycling totals are tracked online. According to the company’s website, the company’s machines at MIT and Tufts had recycled 30,058 containers and saved 5313 kilowatt hours of energy as of February 9, 2012. Bottle deposit money can be deposited to a Paypal account, added to a student spending card, or donated to a charity of the user’s choice.

The instant feedback provided by this system gives an incentive to keep recycling in much the same way that the desire to get a high score in Tetris keeps players coming back. This is an example of the phenomenon of gamification, or adding video game-like incentives to encourage people to participate in socially desirable activities. Greenbean offers recycling competitions (the America Recycles for Thanksgiving challenge took 2636 containers out of the waste stream), and CEO Shanker Sahai envisions eventually giving away prizes provided by sponsors, such as Red Sox tickets, to encourage even more recycling.

Anyone who has had (or known someone who has had) a video game obsession knows how easy it is to get hooked on simple, repetitive tasks for which rewards are given. Gamification provides a wealth of opportunities to encourage people to participate in beneficial activities by reframing them as competitive games rather than chores. In the future it would be interesting to see more experimentation in this area, such as testing whether or not intermittent rewards (e.g. a small chance to win a random prize each time a bottle is inserted into the machine), would increase use.

We applaud Greenbean for its innovative program, and hope to see more of its machines around the city in the near future.

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