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Look Who’s Talking – Energy Conservation Edition

by Mark R Miller, AIA

CEO, MKThink

Lets start with a test of your GREEN I.Q.: What institution has this institutional priority?:

“…More strategic use of energy resource…lowering risk…saving money…and allowing the department to shift more resources to other…priorities. Such efforts are critical if we are to meet our mission to prevail, today and in the future.”

A. State of California: Board of Regents

B. US Department of Energy

C. US Green Building Council

D. University of California – San Francisco (UCSF)

E. US Department of Defense

The answer is in the full quote:

DoD’s Operational Energy Strategy will guide the Defense Department to a more strategic use of energy resources in the fight today and in plans for the future by lowering risks to our warfighters, saving money for American taxpayers, and allowing the department to shift more resources to other warfighting priorities. Such efforts are critical if we are to meet our mission to prevail, today and in the future. – US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

For more go right to the Department of Defense website:

Yes, energy management and more specifically significant reduction of fossil fuels, is a non-political, mission crucial objective promoted by the rather senior Secretary of the United States Navy Ray Mabus. (refer to an NPR interview with Secretary Mabus here: )

Why? Well it is more than a public relations initiative. According to the Department of Defense it is rather straight-forward assessment: reduced reliance on fossil fuels will increase mission effectiveness, save lives and save money – not a bad trifecta. This assessment is the basis behind high level strategic planning that is reshaping the military’s approach to everything from advanced research to forward-operating bases operations. The US Department of Defense provides more more detail on the strategy role of energy in this report:

This recognition by the DoD is important in many ways. Some are obvious: such a large and influential institution as the DoD supporting clean technologies will be a big morale boost to emerging clean technologies and ongoing research. The military offers a large market for commercially viable (and domestic!) clean technologies. It also provides mission-critical venues to explore emerging technologies, accelerating their testing and potential for commercial viability.

There are deeper benefits: This decision come from deep and data-driven analysis of the impact of fossil-fuel energy patterns of military operational effectiveness. This is not a political decision. Rather the assessment findings have had to overwhelmingly indicate the cost of the prior direction to overcome a red-leaning culture that has dismissed, and would have been expected to continue to dismiss, energy as a relevant issue.

Nothing like a bit of solid data-driven analysis presented by a respectable institution to fundamentally change the debate.

For more on the Department of Defense strategic assessment of energy reference the following article links:

Universal Design

Protect the Architectural Fabric and Your Wallet

by Matt Pietras, AIA
Director of Architecture

Almost without disagreement, I can state that from a bottom-line perspective, good design is a wise investment for building owners and for architects. As an example, many studies conclude that a building that smartly and efficiently incorporates Sustainable Design is a wise investment—one with a good ROI, with benefits to human health and the building owner’s pocketbook through energy savings. I argue that the same case can be made for “Universal Design”—a design approach that recognizes and strives to accommodate the broadest possible spectrum of human ability in the design of all products, environments and information systems. While other industries have caught on, architecture—perhaps not surprisingly—is slow to adapt.

Some perspective: According to census statistics, 1 in 5 people nationwide have a disability that can be classified under the ADA. That’s 54 million people. Since 1990, the Fed has been protecting the differently-abled under no less than five Americans with Disabilities Act Titles, covering non-discrimination in employment, in public places, in commercial properties, and communications. Those laws, particularly Titles II & III, are the government’s minimum requirements. But, arguably, because of how they are written—exceedingly prescriptive and absolute—they falsely give designers and building owners the impression that there is only one way to provide accessibility. And, consequently, the prescriptions are followed in a vacuum lacking good design thinking that yield the lowest common denominator, and are a poor financial investment.
Case in point: The ubiquitous “handicap” ramp to the side of the grand staircase leading to the front entrance of a building. Or worse, the horrendous carbuncle of an “HC lift”. Let alone marginalizing and stigmatizing the differently-abled, such design—if you can call it that—not only reduces the overall quality of the built environment, it is a poor use of financial resources from a building owner perspective. Building owners are making one investment for the able-bodied public, and a secondary investment—sometimes more expensive—for the differently-abled. (And, don’t forget that architects must double the effort to design and draw both features.) Building owners and architects must do more, much more and stop the rote behavior of following the ADA. I am not calling for a repeal of the ADA—it provides value in a court of law. Rather, I suggest taking the more economically sensible approach and employ the strategies of Universal Design. Unlike the federal law, Universal Design is a non-prescriptive set of guidelines that:

• Eliminates the need for special features and spaces
• Avoids stigmatization of looking different or more expensive
• Virtually invisible
• Often called “more inclusive user-based design”
• “Good Design”: meeting the needs of as many users as possible

The emergent practice of Universal Design is a useful in tool the architect’s toolbox and is finding its way into building owners’ lexicons. At MKThink, along with our commitment to sustainable design, it is another building block in our approach to “good” design. We encourage designers and building owners to understand principles of Universal Design and engage each other in discussion of how we can improve upon the status quo and be making more sound investments in the built environment.

To learn more about the principles of Universal Design, visit the Center for Universal Design website at NC State University:

San Francisco’s Aquatic Park

by E. Chloe´ Lauer
Director of Strategy

“San Francisco attracted 16 million visitors in 2007, according to Wikipedia (, and ranks consistently in the top 100 destination cities of the world (

In an ongoing series, we’ll be exploring the architectural, cultural, and environmental attributes that come together to make a place like San Francisco such a popular destination.

Aquatic Park in San Francisco is a case in point. The beauty is undeniable. Let’s look below the surface to identify how architecture, culture, and the environment are intersecting to create such a memorable and spectacular place.


On a warm and sunny fall day, San Francisco bustles with the energy of delighted locals out for their morning jogs and bike rides passing eager tourists seeking out the world famous sites. Health and fitness are in the air as the Nike marathoners head from Union Square through the city, along the Bay and through Golden Gate Park, celebrating a big accomplishment as they reach Ocean Beach. On Treasure Island, revelers feast on live music all weekend. That’s just a taste of the range of happenings that the city offers on an typical weekend.


The variety of building type and scale create interest and dimension for the viewer. In the foreground, the Balclutha Ship’s masts stand out, bringing texture to the clear blue sky. The middle ground neighborhood scale 2-3 story homes and apartment buildings allow taller apartment buildings on Russian and Nob Hills to the right and Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill to frame the Financial District’s skyline in the background. The TransAmerica Building’s distinctive shape gives the viewer an icon to focus on.


The incredible culture and majestic architecture wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if it weren’t for the physical setting: the crystalline sky reflecting in the glistening bay. Without the hills, the skyline would lack interest. Really, the environment is the basis for the development of San Francisco’s culture and architecture. People are attracted to the edges of land masses as they meet the world’s massive water bodies: over half of the world’s population lives within 120 miles of a coast (1998).\

Stay tuned for the next installment on San Francisco: World Class City Equation.

With more seats than students, conversations about school closures begin in OUSD

Published in: Oakland North



Oakland Unified School District may soon have to consider one of the least popular moves a school district can make: closing schools. In short, the district has room for 10,900 more students than it’s serving, and not a single extra dollar to spend on maintaining empty space.

MK Think, a firm that specializes in developing strategic ways for organizations to use facilities, presented the numbers at a community meeting held by the education non-profit, Great Oakland Public Schools, on Thursday night. OUSD hired the firm as part of Superintendent Tony Smith’s strategic plan to develop a high quality, sustainable portfolio of schools for Oakland’s children. The plan calls for ten “task forces” to explore topics from effective teaching to full-service schools. MK Think is part of the task force looking at facilities usage.

“There’s a lot of fear out there,” Hai Sin Thomas of Great Oakland Public Schools, said when introducing the MK Think presenters. “We can’t be afraid of change. We can’t be afraid of looking at data, hard data, and making good decisions. We are not opposed to closing schools, but we think the community should be included.”

The district owns 95 campuses on nearly 500 acres throughout the city, Nate Goore of MK Think said. The buildings can accommodate up to 51,348 students, but only 41,440 students attend school in district facilities. The gap, Goore said, represented a chance for the district to turn a current financial drain into a financial gain.

Neither MK Think, nor Great Oakland Public Schools, will be responsible for making the final decision about which, if any, school buildings are closed or re-appropriated – perhaps to short-term tenants who will use the buildings as office space or to community centers that host a range of public services in addition to public school programs.

complex-looking map

This complex-looking map is a graphical display of which elementary schools feed the district’s middle schools. For example, the majority of Chabot Elementary Students attend Claremont Middle School, but some attend Montera or Edna Brewer.

Thomas emphasized that closing school buildings does not necessarily equate to closing school programs.
For example, she said, Chabot Elementary in the Rockridge neighborhood is a quality elementary education program. Students there score well on standardized tests and parent surveys show high satisfaction with the school. Were the program to be moved to a different building though, there’s no reason that it wouldn’t continue to be a quality program, Thomas said. Thomas said she was not suggesting the district close the Chabot building, but that her goal was to push people to think creatively about how to best use the district’s available space.

“We have programs that are stuck in tiny buildings,” even though they could attract more students, she said. She pointed to Hillcrest Elementary in the North Oakland Hills as an example. The Hillcrest building has the capacity for 210 students, but nearly 350 attend the popular elementary program.

“Then we have schools that have huge buildings and a tiny population,” Thomas said. McClymonds High School in West Oakland, for example, can house more than 1,000 students, but only 237 students are enrolled there.

After the initial presentation of data, the audience – seated around small tables in groups of six or eight – was asked to discuss what they had heard. Each group had a print-out of maps MK Think had created to illustrate the capacity and structure of Oakland’s school facilities.

One person at each table had a list of questions meant to facilitate the discussion. John Colton led the discussion at a table near the center of the room. He wanted more specifics. “Which schools are at what capacity?” Colton wanted to know.

(The presenters had provided a sheet with enrollment numbers that could be cross-referenced with the maps, but it was a tricky process, especially since so many school programs in Oakland have different names than the buildings they are housed in.)

Junious Williams, who runs the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, said he was more concerned about the people at the schools. “It’s a nice exercise,” to talk about capacity, he said, “but race, class, values… You can’t do that on a map.”

For three teachers from Futures Elementary on the Lockwood campus in East Oakland, race and class were at the forefront of their thoughts while they examined a map showing which elementary schools feed into which middle schools.

Laura Gosewisch teaches fifth grade. She had noticed that most of the low-income, minority students who went to her elementary school stayed in the same neighborhood for middle school. “I’m just thinking about why our kids do stay around here. It’s a lot for transportation issues,” Gosewisch said.

“And it makes sense – it’s a good option,” her colleague, Sarah Upstill, added. Upstill said it was convenient for parents to have their different-aged kids all attending schools within walking distance of home.

“But it’s not a great option,” Monica Valerian, the third Futures teacher, argued.

Valerian allowed that the neighborhood structure made some sense, “but then you’re talking about super segregated schools. Also, we don’t necessarily want our kids to be stuck just in their neighborhood,” when there are beautiful schools in other neighborhoods. “It’s just not fair.”

MK Think will present this data again at a March 9 school board meeting. They will also present some potential scenarios for moving school programs and closing or re-appropriating school buildings.

No final decisions will be made until the data from all of the task forces task forces come in, Josh Jackson of MK Think said. Jackson expects to receive additional information about about current school operations and needs, he said. The new information will help inform MK Think’s work, but ultimately the tough decisions will be up to the board.

“It’s really about connecting these bricks and mortar issues with all of the people that are part of the system,” Jackson said.

March 12, 2011: The school board has added the MK Think data to their website, but it’s hard to find so I’ve uploaded it here for you. It’s a pretty large file and has more data than what was presented at the meeting I covered above.

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San Francisco Unveils “Temporary” Modular Classroom Design


Mar 21, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO – MARCH 21: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (R) reacts after removing a piece of a prototype model of Project FROG (Flexible Response to Ongoing Growth), a modular type classroom alternative March 21, 2006 in San Francisco, California. Project FROG was designed by MKThink to meet the growth at schools and educational institutions. The unit is billed as being easily assmbled, reasonably priced and more attractive than the majority of temporary classrooms currently available. MKThink is planning to donate one of the units to New Orleans to help bring back students to hurricane damaged schools