Monday, 17 June 2013

A Day in the Life of a Sustainability Advocate…

It has been a long time – almost two years – since we last blogged of our existence. But the near-Solstice winter sunshine beaming onto the Sustainability House garden seems to have stirred something up, and we feel inspired! Two years of earthquake recovery are under the bridge, but there’s a long way to go yet. But we are still here, and we have a lot to get done. The following is a little overview of a day of being a university sustainability advocate (Matt) two years after a massive natural disaster. It all began today before dawn, walking out into the streets where Matt lives at New Brighton by the beach. The gutters were still overflowing from yesterday’s deluge (that flooded many parts of the city). The footpaths were broken up and fenced off with Fahey fencing and traffic cones – earthquake repairs are on-going – but at least it was simple crossing the road which is down to one lane. As the sun began to rise it lit up a solitary cabbage tree, and the bus pulled in to Matt’s stop. An hour later and Matt is walking across a brand new zebra crossing on Ilam Road from the bus stop opposite Sustainability House. The Ilam Road upgrade that is now almost finished has been on the Council’s books for years and something the University pushed for. It’s had traffic calming, bike lanes and crossings all installed now, things that were asked for very very loudly in last year’s UC travel survey (run through our office). The design of this upgrade had a lot to do with the Transport Working Group (which is also coordinated through our office), so Matt smiled to himself as he paced towards the Sustainability House. Matt’s first task was to write up the notes from yesterday’s contract review meeting with our waste and recycling services provider, Mastagard. There seem to be some concerning issues coming our way regarding plastics recycling – to do with the buyer’s expectations – and we need to watch this very closely. We’re also concerned about takeaway cup recycling (which we can currently do, but which other companies are starting to reject). Katie (Sustainability Projects Facilitator) reported on her recent discovery (found whilst climbing through our recycling bins), that we recycle about 95,000 plastic bottles a year! Oh dear Lord. We’d rather people just stopped buying these things. But it looks like we might be needing a new education campaign around waste – we think probably early next year. After correspondence, the next thing needing attention was proof-reading the final versions of the documents Matt’s been putting together relating to a new piece of sustainability curriculum (an Endorsement to the BSc in Resilience and Sustainability, and a brand new course on sustainability and resilience). This project has taken months and months, and has been dragged around every college at the University and through countless committee meetings as it makes its way up a chain of decision-makers. It should go off to the Academic Administration Committee this week, and we hope to a national committee for a final sign-off around September. Matt has learned a lot about bureaucracy! Following this paperwork was an exciting meeting at Sustainability House with Simon (a Geography professor and active transport specialist), Annette (our Capital Projects manager) and Matt. Annette is in charge of the campus masterplan, and Simon chairs the Transport Working Group. With so much massive building work going on at the moment (all earthquake related), it can be hard to get the sustainability message heard when it needs to be. But we affirmed that the Transport Working Group needs to meet (urgently, it turns out), to help Annette with some of the big picture questions about planning for people movement on campus. There’s informing the briefing architects, responding to the City Council on a proposed new cycleway out to uni (very exciting), and thinking through what facilities for cyclists could be included in remediated buildings (more lockers and showers are coming, we hope!) for starters. By lunchtime Matt strolled around in the Sustainability House garden, where we now have three raised beds. He had planted out some seedlings of Cavolo Nero (like a kale) and silverbeet, which seemed very perky. But the weeds are getting pesky so after crunching his way through a very tasty Granny Smith (supplied in a veggie box delivered by our former community garden coordinator, Penny), he took to the beds with a garden fork and fed the compost heap. It’s Matariki, after all, and forking things over is exactly what needs doing right now. He looked at the hundred or so celery seedlings that were coming along (but sooo slowly!), muttered something about needing some Miner’s Lettuce, washed his hands and went back to the computer. The rest of the day is emails, phone calls, meeting with Katie and, of course, blogging. But tonight promises something special. Matt is on the organising committee for the next New Zealand Association for Environmental Education (NZAEE) conference – happening at CPIT and UC in January 2014. And tonight the committee is having dinner with the conference caterer (Guilio, from Roots Restaurant). Guilio is, like Matt, passionate about local food and has a radical vision for how communities can feed themselves. This fits nicely within the context of Lyttelton, where he has his restaurant, which has a plan to become self-sufficient in food. Matt is looking forward to the bus trip over to the port tonight.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Of Air Travel and Cake

Here in the sustainability office we have been spending some time thinking about air travel and cake.

First, the air travel. There is a significant issue here, and it affects a lot of staff at the university. From time to time, we’re expected to travel, and being able to meet others face to face and form that community is actually really important.

So Sharon and Matt have decided that they will attend the annual conference of Australasian Campuses Towards Sustainability this year in Adelaide. We are currently engaged in a benchmarking project with them, which is going to be really handy for us (developing a Sustainability Scorecard for tertiary institutions), and we’re going to be presenting a paper about working in the sustainability field post natural disaster.

These conferences are awesome for us and in the past have led to a whole lot of good developments (like the new eco office programme, for example).
We are acutely aware of this, especially since air travel is a substantial component of UC’s carbon footprint and it needs to come down. We have two conferences to fly to in the next six months, the second one being in Hamilton. And Matt has a couple of meetings for Soil & Health to get to out of town (Auckland and Nelson).

But it’s a challenge, isn’t it? That human contact with other people we’re working with is essential for us to make a difference. We figure that the best thing we can do is to limit our travel as much as possible, and not just jump on the first jet going to the tropics. And in Christchurch, we mostly use the busses.

We are also learning about video conferencing, and last week we attended the first meeting in about two years of our colleagues at Auckland Uni, AUT, Massey and Victoria by vid conference. Video conferencing is not that flash at the moment, especially for a group of people who don’t know each other that well. But it certainly serves a purpose. We found that just by walking to a conferencing suite in the Psych building and sitting there for an hour chatting, that we’d really made some important links that in the past would have required tonnes of carbon to make.

Still, sometimes you just really want to offer people a cup of tea and a slice of Hermann cake, and you can’t do that on a vid conference. As well as ensuring we have good links with our Australasian colleagues, we put most of our community building energies into our campus community. And we’ve been really lucky because one of our earthquake refugee housemates at Sustainability House has been busily promoting Hermann friendship cake.

This cake is amazing. I mean, it’s really, really good, and I’m pretty sure it must be really good for you as well. And probably really slimming. Hermann cake is a bug, like sourdough, but you use it to make cakes. It’s been amazing to have cake to offer people after our weekly gardening group get togethers while we’re swapping odd Mexican herbs to flavour our beans, and whatever else people have brought from their gardens for swapping that week. Thanks Philippa, we really appreciate it!

Come along and visit us… there’ll probably be cake!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Save Coal and Dress for Winter

The winter solstice has passed, so we are now definitely in the throes of winter (or should that be throws – preferably woolly ones), and here at Sustainability House we’re working out how to keep warm. We’ve been shutting the thermal curtains at night since we moved in, but this house is COLD, and in a frost, the heat pump has to work overtime when we turn it on in the mornings.

Fortunately, we’ve worked out how to use the timer, so now instead of shutting it down at night, we simply set it to come on at a lower temperature around 6am, just as the coldest hour before dawn begins so that when we get here we don’t have to crank it up to full. So far, so good.

The other thing we do (call us crazy) is dress for winter. So often around uni you walk into sweltering (not to mention a bit whiffy) teaching and office spaces and see people wearing pretty much what they wear in summer with maybe a cotton hoodie thrown over the top (note: cotton has little warmth value). Then, those of us who like to dress seasonally find that we have to delayer. Fortunately, that’s what layers are for.

Of course keeping your body toasty and your environment warm (rather than the other way around) will depend on whether you’re someone who feels the cold or not. Here, Matt and Sharon are at extremes. The former can be sitting blissfully in a long-sleeved cotton shirt and lightweight woollen trou, whilst the latter is wearing merino tights and socks, leather boots, woollen skirt, merino singlet, merino top, merino cardie, knitted arm-warmers and a scarf, and when Matt gets too hot and has to turn the heating down she has occasionally resorted to wearing her Swanndri jacket over her knees. On the upside, she will never suffer from high blood pressure.

Wearing that many layers of wool, and not looking like a teletubby takes some doing, but fortunately the second hand shops are heaving with quality merino in every shade and shape possible and it’s a source of pride for Shaz that she could probably wear a different woollen outfit everyday to work for at least two weeks, with a matching coat for each.

Add hats and gloves, and you’re sorted for anything, especially waiting in the post-quake open-air bus exchange in a freezing Southerly complete with rain. It’s at times like that, that warm actually looks cool, and ‘cool’ just looks miserable.

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Origins of UC Sustainability House

It was back at the end of 2010 that members of the Sustainability Office at the University of Canterbury first started seriously thinking about a Sustainability House. The idea was not new and had been dreamed of by the previous Sustainability Advocate, Kate Hewson, but when we heard that we were going to be moved out of our office in the Facilities Management building and would probably be re-housed on the seventh floor of James Hight, the lofty heights of such a location sent us earth-grubbing types scuttling into the board room to come up with a contingency plan.

‘What about a house?’ someone suggested.

An hour later we’d covered the blank side of one of the big sheets of discarded architects’ maps (taken from the office next door) with felt pen, outlining what we were looking for in a house, and where we’d like it to be located.

A garden with fruit trees was at the top of the list. A kitchen and communal lounge area for eco-my-flat and other workshops a must. North facing, thermal curtains, non-coal fired heating, were all jotted down as being desirable in a house that would eventually serve as a model of a sustainable office space. Proximity to the main campus was also a consideration.

The notes were duly written up and sent to the powers that be for their consideration. In January we were asked to go and check a couple of houses in Creyke Road. In May our patience was rewarded when the Project Management team who were housed in 118 Ilam Road started eyeing up our office for its proximity to FM, and in return we began dropping hints about how much 118 would suit us. By June 1 we were packing and labelling, and when the truck with our stuff pulled in to the driveway the next day, 118 was wearing a plaque proclaiming to all that it was now Sustainability House. Result!

Of course, space is still tight at uni and currently Sust House is also housing members of the AQAU and Comms teams, but our office in the former dining room overlooking the garden is warm and cozy and close to the kitchen. Now the challenge is to eco our house!

 The house has five heat pumps, but given that it’s a ‘70’s concrete block house with sloping ceilings (no roof cavities), and each room is a separate office space, this excess in pumpery is actually the most eco heating plan currently available. Best of all, we’re no longer warmed by a coal hungry burner. In an effort to use the heat pump judiciously we run it at mid power, and turn it off at night
 During the first week we noticed that every time the kitchen was used by the other house dwellers, the door got left open and our precious heat escaped, so we printed up a polite sign asking users to ensure that the door was shut properly. Problem solved.
 Each night we draw the thermal drapes
 We shut down the computers at night and if we are going to be away from the office for long periods during the day.
 We turn our monitors off when leaving the room or having a meeting
 There are two large fluorescent lights in our room, so unless it’s really bleak we try to use only one and always turn them off when leaving the room.

 The first thing to happen in the kitchen was that hundreds of pieces of plastic cutlery were rounded up and banished to the back of a cupboard where they will hopefully stay for all eternity.
 Once cleared, the cupboards were then filled with a stash of second-hand cups and plates
 We use fair trade coffee, tea, sugar and hot chocolate.
 When it was discovered on day one that there was no jug for boiling water, someone ordered a plug-in urn as an alternative. It was about to be put into use when Sharon remembered seeing an extra jug in the Community Garden and promptly retrieved the lovely retro metal ‘forgettle kettle’ (water always tastes better when boiled in metal) and hid the power hungry urns.
 We wash our dishes with Eco-Store liquid, and wait until there’s enough to make it worthwhile, filling the sink to about a quarter of its capacity.

 A previous tenant left a can of air freshener in the loo, and in the interests of not scaring the other inhabitants too much we’ve left it there, but have also added a spider plant to naturally process any malodorous gases. Once the only tenants left in the house are all hardened eco types, we’ll add a sign to the loo saying something along the lines of ‘flush sparingly’.
 Currently, the soap in the bathroom is the default pink goo used by the UC as a whole, but after a trip to the Blue Earth stall at the Artesian Sunday market (Riccarton House), Sharon scored some sample pieces of their yummy, natural soaps to grace the curves of the 70’s vanity unit. (Thanks Blue Earth).

 Apart from a lemon tree, there’s not much in the way of edibles yet, but that’s definitely one of the projects we’ll be working on so watch this space.

Last week one of the AQAU team gave Matt a ‘Hermann cake’ recipe and starter bug, to which he added milk, flour and sugar and left covered on the bench for the requisite amount of days. Today was the day when Hermann required splitting and baking, which conveniently coincided with a planned photo shoot for the forthcoming Eco-Office guide. The community garden donated carrots, and in no time at all Sarah whipped up the cake (using FT) and put it in the oven. It was ready around the same time as the photographer arrived for a shoot about purchasing Fair Trade products – perfect!

The Hermann cake is also called the Friendship cake because it’s the cake that keeps on giving, so if anyone wants to try it themselves, we can provide the starter bug for them. Alternatively you can start your own using the recipe provided, but if using the bug, just miss out Day One to Three, and start at Four – happy baking!

- Sharon McIver and Matt Morris