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The Diffuse Pollution Reality: Owning Air Pollution

By  Christopher Damien

Cultural Systems Analyst

In the last half of June, smoke and haze from 265 fires in Indonesia blanketed Sumatra, Singapore, Malaysia, and neighboring nations and communities causing air pollution to rise to its worst level in 16 years. The Pollution Standards Index, an air quality monitoring system used by Singapore, hit just over 400 in late June, which is classed as possibly “life threatening to ill and elderly people.” Malaysia temporarily closed around 200 schools as a result.

To make a bad situation worse, authorities have been unable to identify exactly who is responsible for the fires. Knowing that they have been caused by illegal slash and burn land clearance methods on Sumatra, to the west of Singapore and Malaysia, the investigation has been narrowed to 14 farmers and 14 companies engaged in agricultural production of lumber and palm oil. However the diffusion of smoke from so many blazes makes it extremely difficult to focus blame on any one suspect, especially if it is found that they have all been known to utilize these dangerous land clearance methods.

The way in which air pollution can travel hundreds of miles from its source is technically referred to as air transport and is hardly exclusive to this pollution type. The same issue of diffusion occurs with water pollution, pesticide use, and, most popularly, with carbon emissions. However, the extent and seriousness of air pollution problems in developing nations, of which the Sumatran fires are merely a small portion, are of particular concern. The problem is that many quickly developing nations are also pollution hotspots (e.g. China and India). It seems that environmental health concerns pale in comparison to the pressures plaguing economies attempting to grow…like wildfire.

Our work at MKThink seeks to understand the interactions among the environment, people (culture), and buildings/technology in a way that leads to optimization of the interrelated system they comprise. To start with, we use a variety of monitoring technologies to establish the on-site resource quality of air, energy, water, and materials related to site location and cultural context. It’s not just a matter of knowing how much of a resource is being provided. Rather we see the need to go beyond quantity to an understanding of quality of resource related to context.  The challenge posed by diffuse pollution is that such quality measurements are not isolated to property lines or project boundaries. Contaminants can cross boundaries at any time.

One potential solution is to make cooperation a priority. To address similar issues, Japan and South Korea have been conducting plodding talks with China concerning actions to decrease Chinese air pollution transporting to their shores. In this particular case, a significant amount of the transported air pollution is a result of environmental challenges both new and old. History has recorded the occurrence of large-scale sandstorms blowing sands from China’s Gobi Desert to Japan, South Korea, and Eastern Russia for millennia. However, with starkly increasing air pollution and the related desertification plaguing North China as a result of heavy agriculture, the Gobi sandstorms have become a more substantial threat to human health. That is, they have increased in volume, duration, and toxicity. In addition to implementing air quality early warning systems that alert citizens of high pollution levels, South Korea has contributed to preventative measures such as supplementing widespread efforts to plant trees in China’s north. For example, Shanghai Roots & Shoots: The Million Tree Project, a largely volunteer-run effort, endeavors to plant one million trees in inner Mongolia by 2014.

Perhaps gone are the days when neighborly resource disputes ignited over untrimmed hedges trespassing property lines. With data to prove it, now such disputes will include the diffusion of pollutants throughout ecosystems. Of course, the caricature of the discourteous neighbor also fails to account for how much more is at stake in the diffuse pollution reality of today. A report recently published by MIT Department of Economics finds that in recent decades Southern Chinese on average have lived at least five years longer than their northern counterparts because of the destructive health effects of pollution from the widespread use of coal in the north. The study calculates that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River will lose 2.5 billion years of life expectancy because of outdoor air pollution. Such diffuse pollution, often harming those that had little to nothing to do with its production, is not just a monitoring challenge, but a large-scale threat to human health. That’s to say, we’re no longer dealing with neighbors estranged from their hedge trimmers, but complex negotiations between legislators and commercial interests positioning economic development in opposition to the health of the greater biosphere and the human community inextricably embedded within it. As data relating to health and resource quality continue to challenge the supremacy of economic measures of development in a new ecosystem of knowledge, it remains to be seen how these negotiations will adapt, if at all.


Building As A Teaching Tool Curriculum Resources

by Brandon Baunach AIA

Project Architect

At MKThink, one of our strengths is the ability to explore curricular opportunities in our buildings’ designs for our K-12 private education clients. We’re often asked what is our basis of design and what references do we use for our inspiration when we design a building as a teaching tool. As one might expect, there are too many inspirations to list, but a great place to start this focus is through the following online resources:

Sustainability Lesson Clearinghouse


Description: A great repository of lesson plans categorized into four age groups and six areas of study. Many of the lessons include full descriptions on how to implement the lessons, talking points, reference materials, and worksheets


Construction and Trade Lesson Plans


Description: A superb list of links to lesson plans involving buildings and construction. Although the site is not well maintained, the topics covered create a diverse resource of learning opportunities in the areas of carpentry, electricity, general science, plumbing, air conditioning, masonry, and metal fabrication.


National Clearinghouse for Education Facilities – BATT


Description: Although the funding for this website was recently lost, the quality of the resource list is incredible.


NCEF – Outdoor Learning List


Description: Although the funding for this website was recently lost, the quality of the resource list is incredible.


Green Schools Initiative


Description: Resource for creating sustainable schools.


Project Learning Tree


Description: “The Cornerstone for Environmental Education” has a fantastic list of Curricular materials of very high quality.


Engaging Places Teacher Resources


Description: This UK based, environmentally focused, teacher resource is a beautiful and compelling location to start our quest to build a curriculum around your school. Engaging Places not only divide their teacher resources into eight distinct categories, but also offer specific lesson plans and activities to build from.


Sidwell Friends School


Description: The Sidwell Friends School is an exemplary school that integrates environmental stewardship into their curriculum. As well as being a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, Sidwell Friends is a founding member of the Green Schools Alliance.

Waste(d) Space

By Molly Brennan

MKThink Operations

Americans throw out a staggering 2,600 lbs. of waste each year per person. That is equivalent to throwing out a new Honda Civic per person each year. Across a lifetime that means approximately 102 tons of trash per person.[1] And that’s all at our personal discretion.

Current statistics from the EPA show that a measly 2% of our waste is recycled, with an overwhelming majority of waste ending up in landfills. However, that doesn’t need to be the case. The graph below details U.S. landfill waste by type. As you can see, most of the 102 tons of “rubbish” destined for landfills could be reused, recycled, or composted.

Why should we care about our 102 ton waste footprint?


A few reasons:

  • 10% of the world’s oil supply is used to make & transport disposable plastics.
  • 5.6 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year, contributing to serious health repercussions for marine life, with potential for disastrous effects to the marine food chain.
  • 4 million people could be fed annually from the 96 billion pounds of food waste that Americans discard if only 5% were donated to food banks or kitchens.

Invaluable amounts of economically viable materials are buried each year in the U.S. For example, every year landfills receive enough steel to level and restore Manhattan, enough wood to heat 50 million homes for 20 years, and enough aluminum to rebuild the entire commercial air fleet four times over.[2]

Pacific Gyre aka “Pacific Garbage Patch,” a massive collection of plastic in the Pacific Ocean

Taking a quick look in the mirror, [SU1] the 30 employees at MKThink share 17 trash bins, 18 small recycle bins, and 3 compost bins. Most people share a trash and recycle bin with a coworker, while only a few employees have their own.

Looking at the previous paragraph, a few questions naturally emerge: Is this a typical ratio of # of trash/recycle-bins-to-employee within an office environment? Do the waste bins sufficiently limit our penchant to pitch trash, or are they enabling a culture of wastefulness?

We don’t know. There is no centralized database that we’ve seen that adequately quantifies our waste and qualifies the space used for waste related fixtures in U.S. offices. Standard agreements for architectural services do not typically include the programming or design of space used for waste management, and most (if not all) clients do not request it. The fact that waste management is typically less-than-resolved prior to each project’s substantial completion date is reflective of the attitude most Americans have towards waste; we rarely think about it.[3]

How can we change?

A variety of solutions have been proposed to reduce the huge quantities of valuable materials we bury in landfills. These efforts mark significant steps forward in waste diversion; however, widespread benefits to the economy, environment, and energy-use require a cultural shift towards both waste diversion and reduction. A cultural shift cannot occur when people are unaware of the amount of waste they are producing. Simply communicating the statistics of waste is a powerful motivator for change.

Architecture and design firms are positioned to leverage an ever-increasing awareness of waste to guide a wide spectrum of individuals, businesses, schools, and organizations in making optimized solutions around waste reduction and management.

Some easy ideas for starting the conversation:

  • Promote or provide content for conversations and trainings on waste to raise employee awareness and increase individual investment in the cause.[4]
  • Learn about how cities like San Francisco have been successful at decreasing landfill waste by 70%.[5]
  • Collect monthly facilities data and share the statistics on waste collection, diversion, and composting.
  • Program waste management spaces early on with an Architect. Allocating space up front may allow clients to visualize how waste bins occupy valuable real estate. Or go even further and compute the dollar amount per square foot that is taken by waste receptacles.
  • Encourage friendly competition between projects of similar scopes to see who can produce the least amount of waste
  • Design and/or specify attractive three-holed waste receptacles with clear signage to discourage trash volume and encourage recycling & composting.

Here at MKThink we are beginning to incorporate waste optimization into our data services with a goal of achieving smart resource use.  This starts with measuring how much waste the client produces and where it comes from. Then we compare the data to other workplace parameters such as building type, department, activity location, as well as other cultural, architectural, and environmental parameters. Based on the client’s organizational priorities, we create a strategy to optimize their waste stream, moving towards maximum value creation per unit of waste creation.  The answer may not lie in zero-waste, but it definitely lies in achieving smarter resource use.

Innovative Waste Receptacles

As a firm that strives for sustainable practices, it is our responsibility to start the conversation on waste reduction.




 [SU1]Above you’re talking about tons of waste created.  I would either calculate the volume of waste we create, or begin with “Here at MKThink…” or maybe you transition by saying, “Let’s step back from global catastrophe and look at waste in the office environment…”

[2] All listed statistics from: Garbology, Edward Humes, Penguin Group, 2012

[3] “The State of Garbage in America,” a joint study by BioCycle and the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University, by Rob van Harren, Nickolas Themlis and Nora Goldstein, published in BioCycle, October 2010.

Senses and the Built Environment: Smell

by Signo Uddenberg

Environmental Analyst

What do you remember the most about your last trip to the ocean? The view of the sun as it dipped beneath the horizon?  The sound of the crashing waves?  The feel of the sand as it cooled your feet?  Or was it the smell of the ocean mist as it quietly moved deep into your nasal cavities?

It may be a surprise to many, like myself, who are visually oriented that the sense of smell is the sense modality most directly linked to memory.  This is thought to be in part due to its close proximity to the brain’s limbic system — the oldest part of the brain related to emotions and emotional memory (Herz & Engen, 1996).

But it’s not just memories that smell can make us feel and remember.  Our olfactory senses (smell) help us imagine experiences yet to be.  For instance, what might that summer dress look like by the ocean? Well, with a sniff of fresh ocean mist, I might find myself back at that ocean beach, but this time with my new summer dress. And with the positive emotion evoked by the pleasant scent, I’m more likely to positively evaluate the dress and increase my intention to buy (Spangenberg et al., 1996).

Marketers have known the power of smell for decades. Bakeries have used chocolate-chip scents to lure passersby into their stores, and used-car salesmen have employed the “new car” scent to make used cars seem more attractive.

If our sense of smell affects our emotions and cognitive abilities so strongly during fleeting interactions with scents, how are we being affected by the odors all around us during our working day?

Japanese researchers are arguably the furthest ahead in studying how smell affects productivity in the workplace.  In one oft-cited study, 13 Japanese key-hole punchers were monitored during an eight hour day over the course of one month.  When their environment was infused with lemon-scented aroma, their error rate dropped by 54%, and their self-reported satisfaction with their working environment increased.

Additionally, recent studies show that smells such as peppermint and jasmine heighten our cognitive performance on problem-solving.  In one study, researchers tested how the smell of peppermint affected participants undertaking three common work related tasks – typing, memorization, and alphabetization.  A significant increase was found in the “gross speed, net speed, and accuracy of the typing task” as well as improved performance during the alphabetization task.

The same performance enhancement has been studied in athletes undergoing physical activities. Athletes performed a treadmill exercise stress test under four odorant conditions.  When peppermint scent was applied, the researchers found a significant reduction in perceived physical workload, temporal workload, effort, and frustration.  Similarly, dental patients experience higher levels of calmness when orange odorant is applied during dental procedures, suggesting that scents have a noticeable impact on our physiological systems, and in turn our psychological systems, during moments of heightened stress.

So how is smell affecting you? Is it focusing your mind in the late afternoon when your biological clock suggests it’s time to sleep? Or is it distracting your thoughts, reminding you of how hungry you are right as you are about to finish an assignment? Or how the trash needs to be taken out more often, and you’re frustrated that you have to be the one to do it!

In the Innovation Studio at MKThink we’re focused on better understanding how the subtle characteristics of your daily environment, odors among them, either enable or inhibit the optimal performance of your activities. We believe that your environment is crucial to your success, and we want to make sure that you’re doing everything to ensure that it doesn’t stink. Literally and figuratively!

Complete, Ready for Occupancy: Housing as a Department Store Product

by Marina Christodoulides

Designer / Planner



“Good materials make good houses,” advertised Sears, Roebuck, and Company, regarding its model-kit homes that were distributed

to 70,000 sites across America from 1908 to 1940. Sears was not the fi rst to produce and distribute model-kit homes—however,

they quickly became a favorite choice, and the most widely spread.

The Sears, Roebuck, and Company success in the building industry came serendipitously; the company started with a mission to

provide products for American people and their houses. Richard Sears, originally a railroad station agent, recognized a growing

economy related to the national infrastructure he serviced. Farmers from the countryside would go to train stations to sell their

goods, and in turn, would purchase over-priced and limited products from the local general store. Sears and Alvah Roebuck

started a company which distributed mail-order catalogs to homes to compete within this limited market. Their products were less

expensive and of a high quality, and customers grew to appreciate and value Sears, Roebuck, and Company.

In the meantime, as sales for their products continued to grow, their construction and raw materials department performed poorly.

As a solution to this particular department’s struggle, the company invested in the model-kit housing industry. Its brand and

experience in product manufacturing and distribution catapulted its success.

Sears, Roebuck, and Company’s experience in the marketing of products translated into housing. They advertised 447 designs

with distinct styles and fl oor plans in their magazines, and preyed on the ideals of the American dream at a time when people were

leaving cities. Their modern home “makes its owners proud,” and spawned innovation through HVAC and indoor plumbing. The

houses used balloon framing and freed construction from the dependency of a carpenter’s craft, cutting the cost to 1/3 the price of

stick-built. Much like the contemporary IKEA, they made housing more affordable by removing the cost of labor. Widely accepted

style, convenience, affordability, and variety made it popular. Families would arrive to train stations and pick up their house with

30,000 stamped pieces and a book of directions, carrying their cargo away in a Model-T truck, or horses and carriages. As a family,

they would construct their new home.

Sears, Roebuck, and Company, capitalized on new infrastructure (the railroad), means of communication (magazines), and

economies of scale to propel their products, much in the way Amazon attracts consumers through contemporary equivalents of

infrastructure (shipping) and communication (the internet). They treated housing as a product. They made it substantially more

affordable by removing the cost of labor.

Sears, Roebuck, and Company’s successful housing model was relevant to a particular time and place. Currently, the same rules

and innovations are no longer applicable. Families do not have the dispensable time to assemble their shelter piece by piece,

2×4 by 2×4. However, they still need housing in a market which is often outside of their affordable means, and is now plagued by

uncertainty in its ability to sustain value.

If we were to seek innovation in housing today, we could examine our available technology and infrastructure, and treat it as a

product, as Sears, Roebuck, and Company did 100 years ago. Computer modeling software, the internet, and CNC fabrication

suggest variations that can occur in designing options, visualizing space, and fabricating its construction. A website with virtual

houses could simulate walk throughs, and provide options for color and materials. Upon selection, the personalized house could

then be fabricated through CNC technology or by robots and delivered to any location in the world. However, questions begin to

arise. Are these technologies economically viable? How can the specifi c requirements of local building codes, climate, and place

be followed? And most importantly, should a contemporary pre-fab housing typology continue to cater to a post-World War II,

American ideal? Do environmental conditions, the need for density, and the changing composition of a nuclear family, require

alternative housing options?

What would make housing “complete, ready for occupancy” today in 2012?