All I Know about Sustainability I Learned from an Italian Peasant Cook

Five Timeless Values for Sustainable Communities

December 6, 2016

President, Forterra

Gene Duvernoy is President of Forterra, a Seattle-based nonprofit which helps communities secure the places — urban, rural and wild — that are keystones of our sustainable future. This essay is adapted from his commencement address to the University of Washington College of Built Environments.


In my work at Forterra, a Seattle-based sustainability organization, we began an experiment several years ago we call the Cascade Agenda. It boils down to this: to save our natural and wild lands, our natural environments, we must change our built environments. We must make cities we in fact are drawn to, where we truly want to live and raise our families — prosperous places worthy of our children and grandchildren.

The progressive real estate and development world is now abuzz with the building of these new urban communities, which serve our many needs at a handy, even walkable distance. In fact, we have become so enamored with this old-fangled way of living, that we have given it a very new-fangled name. So while our grandparents may have just called them the home neighborhood, we proudly use the sobriquet “sustainable communities.”

To know when we are succeeding at these sustainable communities, we have invented measures and protocols, LEED categories and livable buildings standards. But let’s go behind this current vocabulary, to the lasting values of sustainability. For this, I will rely on the writings of Italian peasant cook Angelo Pellegrini.

Maybe you’ve heard of him? Angelo lived his first 10 years as a young and always hungry peasant in Italy and then, in about 1910, came to our own bountiful Olympic Peninsula. He grew up in what was the remote railroad town of McCleary and became — of all things — a University of Washington Shakespeare professor. Quite a career, but he is best known for his food writing. My favorites are Unprejudiced Palate (1948) and Lean Years, Happy Years (1983). He writes in these two books about sustainable kitchens, before we had such a fancy word — before the notion went to university.

Now here are the values he expressed through his writing:

First, he practiced a peasant’s crafty sense of frugality — how to get the most on the table today, without sacrificing future harvests.

Second, he promoted an Italian’s sense of quality — live life well, as your means best and prudently allow.

Third, he argued for the fresh and local over the exotic and remote — he was a locavore before his time.

He also deeply valued a host’s intrinsic responsibility for his guests. I think of this fourth as his most defining value. As a cook he understood that his role was really to elevate his guests’ spirits.

So all this I learned from reading Angelo. Sustainability arises from a frugality, commitment to quality, clear understanding of the fundamentals and respect for those he was serving.

Sustainability has gained an uptown polish as it has come to real estate. But, I mean to convince you that the values behind it remain the same.

Now to apply these five values to our job of building tomorrow’s sustainable communities.

Frugality — For sustainable communities, this means approaching a project with a clear intent to be cost-effective. But do not confuse frugality with parsimony, which leads to projects that serve narrow interests, while defeating the broader interests of our communities — like box stores on our diminishing farmlands. I mean frugality in a full sense of the term, where all externalities in fact are captured. For instance, we must concern ourselves with the multi-modal possibilities and commuting costs to a project, or the way stormwater may be handled onsite so it does not become a costlier problem offsite. As we get better at identifying and assessing all life-cycle costs and incorporating them in our design and building decisions, our choices naturally will be more sustainable.

Fundamentals of craft — We need to design and build our communities with the fundamentals readily available: affordable homes, jobs, transit, parks, shops, safety and schools. This may be a call to go “back to the future,” but these fundamentals are at the very core of sustainable communities.

Quality — Clearly livability demands a strong commitment to quality. Think like Angelo did about his table, where frugality and quality work synergistically. Again, as we become more cognizant of all life-cycle costs, this value too naturally moves to the forefront.

Good sense of business and profitability — Firms that are no longer in business, or projects that have gone underwater, are not contributing to cutting-edge sustainable communities. Admittedly, though, this value is a tricky one: Wall Street wants profits immediately. Bank and commercial financing are leery of innovation; they always have been. But the market itself — customers — are buying and proving sustainable buildings and communities are right. This is particularly true with a younger demographic. Ultimately, we will be building for clients who get it — the younger generation.

Regard for a project’s users — This is the value that I have the most trouble putting into words; the most elusive, yet maybe also the most important. Again, think like Angelo did about the guests at his table, with a deep regard for the ultimate users of the project.

As Lewis Mumford and many others have noted, we first started to build communities many thousands of years ago, in part to protect us from what was lurking in the woods. We have come full circle. Now we must protect these same woods from us. And — lucky for us — we are starting to do this by designing and building communities where people want to and can afford to live.

Sustainability in the built environment is being rediscovered. The technology is of-the-minute, but the values behind creating truly sustainable communities are time-tested, enduring. So I call on all of us — sincerely request each of you — to embed these values in our future work and practice.

Let us be the ones building communities where we will live well, gracefully and affordably — right alongside and respectful of our natural world.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

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Designing the Workplace of the Distributed Economy

A Hackathon Suggests How to Design Workplaces for Both Remote Technology and a Sense of Community

November 21, 2016

Designer, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by MetropolisPoint of View blog.

Coming innovations mean that work will be unconstrained by a building, free to expand and evolve, to shrink and transition. Given the evolution of technology, we will continue to work from anywhere and across multiple time zones. In fact, in the next decade, estimates suggest that upwards of 40 percent of the workforce will work remotely or within a distributed work model.

Paradoxically, the new workplace is also about community, social interaction and culture, because as people work more remotely, they encounter new points of interaction. Perhaps people want a place to gather, a place that fosters community brainstorming, and a place that would allow for deeper interpersonal relationships to develop.

So how can we reconcile working in the distributed economy and designing for it?

Recently NBBJ, in partnership with Time Inc. and Power to Fly, hosted a global hackathon on the future of work and the workplace in the distributed economy. The event, which spanned eight days, brought together the design, technology and business communities to tackle some of the problems inherent in the distributed workplace — cultural and social disconnection, fractured communication, and insufficient transparency.

Work is more than just the tasks that we complete. It’s about the casual relationships that develop from a chance meeting in the hallway, or the impromptu brainstorming session that happens when team members meet around the coffee bar. So NBBJ is focused on creating workspaces where people want to gather and collaborate with fellow employees, clients, and the community around us.


With these insights and our experience with the hackathon, here are three frameworks that architects and designers should consider that would allow distributed workers to be more connected with their peers.

Architectural: Our work environment should be unconstrained; it should be designed to fit our need for movement and for change. Research shows that we are more effective and more innovative when we can move and interact with our environment. For instance, an entire building could adapt to a user’s needs, with easier access to ramps and stairs, to remove the physical and physiological barriers of being on a different level. A more novel but entirely possible idea, as advancements in modular architecture occur, is to have building amenities such as conference rooms and meeting spaces physically move to employees as needed.

Studies have also shown that some types of workplace-related stress arise from the inability to control unwanted stimuli, such as light, temperature, airflow and, most especially, noise levels. That’s why we recently installed sensors that will allow people to choose the right ambient noise levels, light and temperature for their individual or group needs.

Distributed workforces will also require designers to create a sense of continuity across global offices and accommodate workers who travel between locations. Airbnb’s designers have been working to do this across its customer experience centers, starting with its Portland office, by getting rid of assigned cubicles, desks and phones and by creating various types of seating arrangements that employees and contractors can float between.

Digital: We should design our workspaces in tandem with technology, and to a certain extent we already do. What are missing, however, are the crucial personal connections so fundamental to vibrant, healthy and innovative workplaces. Products such as 3D, real-time, virtually networked “whiteboards” — a digital concept led by James Isaac and David Kosdruy that won the hackathon — or telepresence devices, such as those from Double Robotics, could reintroduce the spontaneity, creativity and interpersonal connectedness that distributed teams often lack.

Hardware: We should design hardware — including furniture, tablets and microphones — to allow for a more open dialogue between people. One concept might be a digital display wall that projects a series of images, culled from social media, which represent a person as they walk by it. By bringing in this visual representation of a person’s tastes and values, it would provide a catalyst for colleagues who don’t normally connect with one another to engage around shared interests. The idea is that people are more likely to engage in impromptu and casual conversations when they know a bit more about the person they are standing next to.

As we continue to gather more data about how people work, communicate and engage with one another, it is increasingly evident that we need to design spaces that allow us to have meaningful interactions with each other, that allow us to engage with and move through our physical and natural environment, and that foster a sense of community and culture. In short, we need to design spaces that are much more in tune with our diverse and distributed society. In doing so, we will create a future where workplaces allow us to be more comfortable, innovative, and happy.

Photos courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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Let’s Restore Hands-on “Making” and Social Justice to Innovation

Reflections on the Future of the Innovation Economy in Boston

November 15, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”
—Thomas Edison

I love this quote from Thomas Edison, because it represents the cerebral side and the hands-on, “making” side of innovation. So often we talk about innovation as purely a matter of ideation, not of practical intelligence. Yet there are fantastic intelligences that can be gleaned from making. We invent at our peril without a pile of junk nearby.

Take batteries, for instance. Countries like Korea and China long ago took the lead in battery technology and production. Now the United States is trying to ramp up the development of batteries for sustainable energy, but with the exception of Tesla, the U.S. no longer has the knowledge. So making informs research.

This quote by Edison returned to me at a recent NBBJ salon event, which focused on the future of the innovation economy in Boston. With its world-class universities, technology companies, startups, biotech firms and medical institutions, Boston has long had the research down. But it doesn’t have the making.

Therein might be the solution to inequality. How do we spread the largesse and rewards of an innovation economy to people who don’t have a Ph.D.? By bringing making to innovation. The next Bill Gates will be fine: there are endless opportunities for people who code, but that is a rarified skill. Where are the fifteen-dollar-an-hour jobs? Where is the work for people who don’t have a college education?

By restoring making to innovation — locally, in Boston — we can build an innovation economy based on social justice. After all, Massachusetts was the first to offer public education, thanks to Horace Mann in the 1840s. The first lending library was the Boston Public Library. We have amazing, historic examples in Boston of spreading innovation as a matter of economic justice. What is this generation doing to spread innovation?

Two possibilities came up during the salon. (1) In the same way market-rate housing can be used to subsidize affordable housing, market-rate office space can be used to subsidize affordable incubator space, which could be limited to small firms that aren’t backed by venture capital. (2) Transportation. A proper transportation network, by providing access to more and more housing and workplaces, unlocks affordability.

One final thought… At a recent conference, “Innovation and the City,” hosted by Microsoft here in Cambridge, I heard it said that innovative spaces are places where people let down their guard and recognize each other’s interests and humanity. It’s a powerful sense, that empathy is critical to understanding how to make a group move forward. Are we providing the spaces where people can do that? Is it a town hall? Perhaps it was the space under the Liberty Tree in Boston Common, or the café culture of Berlin in the 1920s or Greenwich Village in the 1960s, or an extraordinary theater experience, or an exhibition of paintings, or a walk or hike in the landscape. Or is it a place to just sit by the fire and break bread? Innovation needs more than an incubator: it needs great public spaces, it needs community-building in its grandest sense.

Image courtesy of Pexels.


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