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Drought Awareness: Data is Emerging, Design Should Follow

Christopher Damien by Christopher Damien

It’s hardly news that California is in the throes of a serious drought. California’s final Department of Water Resources snow survey of 2014, published on May 1, reported that the statewide snowpack’s water content is at 18 percent of average for the date. Such arid circumstances were anticipated after an April 1 snow survey found water content was only at 32 percent. This is troubling news considering that California receives about a third of its hydration from these water-containing snowpacks.(1)

Water agencies have experimented with and implemented several methods for budgeting water. “Allocation pricing,” for example, is a method of budgeting water in terms of how much users ought to be using; based on geography and demographics, a user is allocated a certain amount of water. With overconsumption rates increase dramatically. With these methods, water agencies are attempting to fiscally wake consumers to the severity of our current situation. However, consumers in the Bay Area have not yet cut water use by the 10-20% requested by San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Rationing this resource will certainly prove to be a challenge for the Californian’s varied degrees of thirst.

Human behavior will be the most difficult barrier to water security. As accurate monitoring increases our awareness of the impacts of overconsumption, the design of our built systems must follow suit. This necessary shift will only result from a clear evaluation of the various water realities throughout California.

Can design not only make systems more efficient, but make consumers more aware of how precious this resource is becoming?

Design to adequately address water scarcity must be rooted in data. The first step will be to raise awareness of where water is coming from, then reevaluate the practicality of these distances.

Where is your water coming from?

SPUR_HetchHetchyDiagram of the Hetch Hetchy Water System, courtesy of SPUR

San Francisco receives 80% of its water from the Hetch Hetchy Project, requiring transport of over 150 miles. This transport of water over a large distance is a peculiar characteristic of urban centers throughout the American West, one that is largely an artifact of yester year’s inclination for grand, if not hubristic, engineering.

What are the opportunities other than major engineering feats of piping water from distant climes?

This is the design challenge posed by Peter and Hadley Arnold of the Arid Lands Institute, who recently unveiled their program for design that substantially accounts for both geographic aridity and actual local rainfall in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley Basin, entitled “The Case for Divining LA.” In it, they exhibit a model of storm water runoff based on 30-year precipitation data, visualizing the path of runoff and opportunity for harvest and use. This high resolution geo-spatial model is part of a larger effort to visualize Southern California’s water reality: “520,000 acre-feet of unused stormwater is sent as discharge to the Pacific Ocean each year, enough to support 500,000 families at current usage rates with no conservation measures in place.”(2)

Their model includes surface runoff as a result of precipitation, surface permeability, and soil types and conditions. This model led the Arid Lands Institute to conclude that “urban stormwater and recycled municipal supplies combined with increased efficiency could meet up to 82 percent of Los Angeles’ water demand,” 82% that would not need to be piped via the 400 mile Los Angeles Aqueduct.

AridLandsInstituteGeo-Spatial Model of Los Angeles Water Sources, courtesy of  Arid Lands Institute

Efforts like this will be needed across geographies and municipalities throughout California and throughout the heating world as drought and aridity become more prevalent characteristics of life. These modeling efforts offer awareness of real resource surplus and scarcity, allowing design solutions to be based in reliable data.

In our own work, MKThink employs evidence-based design practices and seeks to enable user behavior through design rather than force it. We ask, how might design offer aesthetic awareness of drought? How might design offer awareness of distant geographies impacted by exorbitant consumption? How might we avail ourselves of the missed opportunities outside our doors?

Real knowledge of a legitimate drought and real knowledge of consumption patterns and sources will hopefully allow people to quench their thirst accordingly and stop watering their lawns; above all, it may finally force people to take responsibility for where they decide to put down roots.

(1) California Department of Water Resources (DWR), “Year’s Final Snow Survey Comes up Dry: 3-Year Drought Retains Grip as Summer Approaches”
(2) Arnold, Hadley and Peter, “Pivot: Reconceiving Water Scarcity as Design Opportunity: Mapping a More Absorbent Landscape,” BOOM Fall 2013, pgs. 95-101

Navigating the various sources of California’s water: Water Education Foundation.
High-Resoution Geo-Spatial Model of SoCal’s Water Reality: by Arid Lands Institute.

Steven Kelley Discusses the Recently Completed Flexible Learning Hall at Stanford University’s School of Education

Steven Kelley discusses the recently completed flexible learning environment at Stanford University’s School of Education from Nexus 1 on Vimeo.

Some say that well over half of the nation’s school & university space is functionally obsolete – and as these facilities age the problem only gets worse.

At MKThink we are often presented with the challenge of how to transform dysfunctional space into high performance space once again – and the upside potential for students, educators and learning institutions alike is huge. At Stanford’s School of Education, educators have sought more effective ways to connect teaching to comprehension and have embraced more interactive forms of learning — group discussion, active participation, and so on; thus, the need for more adaptable space is essential.

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Getting the Sense that Sensors are IN: Sensors, Carbon Dioxide, and Climate Change

By Rebecca Samad, Data Analyst

OCO spacecraft-high

When I first heard the term “space program” here at RoundhouseOne (RH1), I heard “NASA.” In actuality, in the context of what MKThink does, “space program” refers to organizing and restructuring a physical space to improve the comfort of its inhabitants. Ah. I see…

All told, NASA and RH1 do have similarities when it comes to how we collect, treat, and analyze our data. We both use the analysis process to reveal novel information about a physical environment.

RH1 employs many sensors, including a non-dispersive infrared sensor used to measure carbon dioxide concentration in a room. NASA’s upcoming satellite mission, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory – 2 (OCO-2) will also collect atmospheric carbon dioxide data, but on a global scale and with a global goal.

RH1’s sensor measures CO2 levels in a room. It has a chamber through which the ambient atmosphere flows. An infrared lamp shines down the tube toward a detector. CO2 particles absorb only particular wavelengths of light, so whatever percentage of the light is absorbed before it hits the detector reveals the concentration of CO2 particles in the air. This is under the valid assumption that there are no other particles in the air that absorb the exact same wavelength.


Measurements are being made with this type of sensor all over the world, providing a massive amount of data on this gas. For our purpose of determining the room air quality and therefore the health of the ventilation system, we only need the local environment’s information. When talking of global climate change, however, some crucial information is missing.

So what’s the deal with global climate change (aka “global warming”)?  Humans are contributing high amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere without re-absorbing it, unlike many of the natural processes on Earth that also produce CO2. Although accurate concentration measurements from ground-based sensors do exist, we don’t yet have a full scope of measurements necessary for understanding all aspects of the global carbon cycle.


OCO-2 has a similar sensor to RH1’s that instead of using an artificial infrared lamp, it utilizes natural light. It measures sunlight reflected from the Earth’s surface. An albedo (reflectivity value) of 1.0 indicates that all incident light is reflected and an albedo of 0 indicates absorption of all incident light. Since we know the reflective factor for each of Earth’s various topographies, the sensor can record how much of a particular infrared wavelength of sunlight is being absorbed by CO2 particles, upon its reflection back through the atmosphere.

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory will seek out potential global sources and sinks of carbon dioxide, in order to answer the question: to what extent can our forests and oceans combat the human-accelerated rise in greenhouse gas levels?

But why is this comparison so interesting?

At MKThink and Roundhouse One, we value the crossover of the built and natural environments. Our innovation pushes across disciplines and shares the same data-driven purpose that drives innovators like the U.S. space program. We, as a firm, value perspectives beyond the local, and value knowledge outside our immediate scope.

The built, the natural, and the innovative go hand in hand in hand. Think about it.



“How Does an NDIR CO2 Sensor Work?” N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.

“How to Measure Carbon Dioxide.” N.p., 2012. Web. <>.

“”OCO-2 Orbiting Carbon Observatory”” JPL: Jet Propulsion Laboratory. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2014. <>.

Vidal, John, and Damian Carrington. “IPCC Climate Report: The Digested Read.” Guardian News and Media, 27 Sept. 2013. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.


Thanks to Sean Dasey and Brett Madres from RH1 for the information on our CO2 sensors.

Back to School: Make your educational planning count.

MKThink & Education

Better spaces for better learning


Since it’s inception in 2000, MKThink has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to supporting the evolution of educational organizations through the thoughtful planning and design of the spaces they inhabit. Our experience spans a wide array of institutions both public and private, from kindergarten through higher education. Whether the project involves the modernization of single building or long range strategic planning for an entire district, we employ data driven problem solving to align innovative facilities with institutional goals.

In planning for your 2013/2014 school year and beyond, here are 4 steps we employ to keep leading schools ahead of the curve:


1. Understand What You Have

Embark on your facility prioritization and planning with insight.  Get beyond assumptions to know the actual quantity, quality and effectiveness of your educational environment, and inform how to reach your facilities’ full potential.  RoundhouseOne, powered by 4Daptive technology, provides multidimensional data management and analytic system to support educational leaders and facility professionals.  Our packages enable you to know and respond to the impacts of your facilities on Resource Optimization, Utilization Alignment and Human Factors to support high performance educational programs.  It’s better than making decisions in the dark.


2. Plan Strategically

You deserve an array of viable options moving forward. MKThink Strategic Planning Services leverage knowledge gained through analysis and outreach to generate flexible and actionable plans for facility investment, site design, and property management. Depending on client need, these plans may translate into architectural design, programmatic adjustments, or fundraising and revenue generation. Whether it is a single room, a building, or a large system of dispersed assets, we evaluate how physical spaces are being used and model scenarios that bring about optimal outcomes for students and the school community as a whole.


3. Implement Value

How do you make the most of your upcoming projects? MKThink’s Architecture Studio designs high-performance student-focused, innovative educational settings that optimize tight budgets and schedules to service complex functional needs. Our comprehensive range of architectural and design services articulate inspiring educational spaces to enable evolving 21st century pedagogies.


4. Be Relevant

MKThink’s Innovation Studio is a dynamic center dedicated to the research incubation, and enterprise of next-generation technologies and practices related to the built environment. From modular building to blended STEM spaces, our network of industry specialists are poised at the crossroads of today’s relevant educational issues: Economic Viability, Collaboration, Connectivity, and Sustainable Design.


This year, make your planning count. Explore the idea of what is possible with MKThink.

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.