Preserving finite resources

Feb 01, 2017

As architects and engineers, we need to be on the front line in the campaign against inefficiency and waste.

I just listened to an excellent edition of National Public Radio’s TED Radio Hour titled “Finite,” which speaks of the way in which we, as a civilization, are squandering so many of our resources. The episode begins with a lengthy description of two of the most perilous issues facing human civilization – water and oil. Forget about global warming for a moment, think about a planet without either water or oil.

A Stanford University professor I heard speak a few years ago tackled the controversial topic of the connection between carbon dioxide and global warming, but he declared his deeper concern was the finite deposits of complex hydrocarbons on our planet, formed over millions of years, with no way to replenish the supply.

We use petroleum for much more than burning it for power. An example from the TED talk described oil being pumped out of the ground in Saudi Arabia, refined in a neighboring country and shipped to China where it is used for plastic to manufacture children’s toys. These toys are shipped around the world, frequently used for a short period of time before they become broken and tossed in a landfill. That’s not a very effective chain of events when you add in the cost of fuel for transport along the way.

Water is an even larger problem because of our inefficient use of this finite element in farming. An example from the TED talk: In California, we grow an enormous amount of alfalfa, one of the most water-intensive crops grown on earth today, which is then shipped to the Middle East and other parts of the world to feed animals. This is not very efficient when you consider that California is suffering from an ongoing draught. And, in fact, farm animals and livestock themselves are extremely resource-intensive and polluting, not just because of water consumption.

Encouragingly, some manufacturers who rely on mined resources for production are taking up the recycling torch. Vehicle manufacturer BMW is one of them. Virtually every element of a BMW can be recycled at the end of its useful life. The materials are captured by type – glass, steel, aluminum, plastics, oil from shock absorbers, tires, etc. – to be reused in future manufacturing by themselves or by other manufacturers.

As architects, engineers, designers, developers, and building materials manufacturers, we can have a profound effect on the usage and preservation of precious natural resources. It takes awareness, ingenuity, vigilance, and holding each other accountable for stewardship in areas where we can make a difference.

One of the most effective programs for recycling everything has been Interface, a carpet manufacturer which, through its CEO, set out to achieve a zero-waste, zero-emissions program when he had his “spear in the chest epiphany” about what his company was doing to the planet. Read more at here.

When I built a house for myself in San Francisco in 2001, I set out to do it as sustainably as possible at that time. Every pound of construction waste was recycled through a local firm that carefully sorted and repurposed every scrap of waste. The exterior copper siding was made from 100 percent recycled material and, of course, could be reused if ever dismantled. I incorporated solar electrical generation and a number of other processes and systems to conserve energy or reduce or eliminate waste, using recycled wood products in much of the construction.

I firmly believe we can continue to inhabit this planet for a far longer time than Stephen Hawking suggested recently. Read more here. While several of his suggested reasons for having to vacate would be out of our control, such as an asteroid strike, much of it is coming from our own hands.

It’s time for each of us in our own personal way, and through the businesses we’re a part of, to pursue the path of recycling each material that we mine or use from our planet. I previously cited an example we’re pursuing here in Reno. We’re building flat-deck parking structures that, upon the advent of autonomous, self-driving vehicles which will be prowling the streets instead of occupying a parking stall, could be repurposed as hydroponic gardens, utilizing recycled water from our on-site waste treatment plant and power from solar cells on the roof, to grow the produce needed for restaurants and residents in the district. No trucking or packaging required. I’m on a mission to spread the gospel. I want my grandchildren to have a future as generous in resources that I’ve had. And to have it without a finite end.

Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1183 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here to subscribe or get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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