Monday, December 10, 2012

Small Roof, Big Egos. Not enough room for us all.

Clearly, I took the job in the Mid-Atlantic working for Magco, as a green roof specialist.  Many times in my life I have had an unbalance: score high in school, score low socially.  Have a great social life, but my job is just OK.  Here was a chance to really get the job I could eventually make my dream job... And hopefully the social part would follow.
My first project was the highly touted ASLA Headquarters in Washington DC.  It’s a pretty cool design!  The bulk of material was donated by manufacturers, we were contracted to install this monster project.  I was handed the plant list on day #2 of my new job.  Now, if you have ever worked with, or worked within the Landscape Architect community, you know they have been known to push the design, keep the challenge high and demand a quality execution.  And rightfully so.  As green roofs were just coming to be the newest sexy and sustainable technology, the NYC based firm at a lot to prove (and on such a signature building as that!).
The plant list was incredible.  While in theory some of the plants would survive on a green roof, most many not commercially available- esp in the quantity I needed.  When they were thumbing through pretty pictures, I believe they failed to ask the basic question of – can these be sourced.  It took me about 2 weeks to find the majority on the list.  But, the last 20-30% were unreasonable.  I went so far as to call range land specialists at University of North Dakota for seed sources!   …Which I was not able to get because of their classification on the invasive list, of course.  I had enough and offered substitutes to the LA.  Oh man, the backlash from that was just stupid.  In fact, I feel my BP rising after remembering the back and forth and unreasonable responses we had to deal with! I don't believe it.  
On the day of installation for the plant material, there was no plant schedule to prepare the groupings of species.  Instead, the LA came down from his NYC firm to point at each plant and each spot on the green roof, as my crew sat back waiting for him to make a decision.   At some point in the day, I planted a prickly pear cactus and the LA made me rotate it 90o so it would “fall back to the landscape.”  It drove my site super nuts!  I learned my lesson.  Never again was I going to install plant material without a defined plan (that is, if a green roof actually needs one).  Oh, and I won’t even mention the “intern” who came down to document the plants and begin to educate ME about them.  I had to leave him to it.  Ha!
Is their roof sustainable?  What makes it sustainable? I will be focusing on this topic a lot.
My final thoughts on this project- there was a lot of hype and bunch of money spent.  Now, there is a website, a web cam, and tours... This project certainly required an LA, but I truly do not believe an LA is needed on every roof project. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Search of Place

Where do you like to be creative?  What does one do to find a spark?  Even though I just starting blogging, and recently took a little hiatus, I have been really happy to talk about getting back into writing!  As I stated in my first post, there are so many topics that I want to explore.  Some experiences were jaw dropping.   And so far I haven’t needed to find a place to inspire my writing.  I have written in my kitchen, at the airline gate, once was at my desk at work over a conference call that I didn’t need to be on (sh, don’t say anything), and now I find myself at one of the coffee shops in my neighborhood I’ve been wanting to visit.  (The peppermint tea here is really impressive!)

“Place” isn’t just a spot where I rip a blog, of course.  In my professional life, I like to be surrounded by a bit of familiarly, creativity, and like-minded folks—as I am sure many of you do.  Working at EP was enriching for some of that for me.  But, like I said, I found myself needing to push the industry forward and advocacy alone was not going to fulfill my goal. 

I found myself on Amtrak heading from NYC to Baltimore for an interview with a roofing company.  I was answering an ad for a horticultural professional who had some experience with green roofs.  That sounded cool, I seemed qualified.   A guy who looked a bit like Wilford Brimley was standing near a silver truck with a ladder in the parking lot once I arrived.  This must be the guy.  Actually, he wasn’t the guy I was interviewing with, he was just “doing his boss a favor” by picking me up.  

When I walked into the Magco building for the first time, I thought, “Well, so this is what a roofing company looks like, huh.”  I noticed steel partitioned cubicles, large drafting tables with large plans stacked on top, bulky computer monitors and wires openly exposed.  The floors were cool- it was painted concrete and the duct work was exposed in the ceiling.  I didn’t see people- and I saw that as a good sign- they must be out roofing, estimating, and managing some very important projects.  My future boss’s office was huge, with large windows.  File cabinets lined the walls, and there was actually a jade plant in the window.  (Hey, I notice these things.)

This is where I met Mark Gaulin, with a serious and commanding personality, yet easy to talk to.  The interview seemed fairly standard and I thought it was going well until he asked how many green roofs I had installed.  I said, “A few. Maybe 5-7 that I had an active hand in, but that seems to be about as much experience anyone has in this emerging field.”  Come to find out, Magco had only put down 2 or 3, so I was on point.

This was a good fit for me and Magco.  They had some green jobs booked for the spring and had maintenance planned in the DC area. Magco had equipment, crews, and insurance – and knew how to get jobs done safely on the roof.  That meant more green roof acres for me!  And, they were part of some larger organization beyond the Mid-Atlantic.  Mark didn’t promise me a national scope, but suggested there may be some travel from time to time.  That was very enticing!  

In search of a new professional place, I may have to give up my beloved NYC personal place.  But, it was the decision I had to make. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

This is a good one about EP!

Non-profits do not always provide the “good” we search for.  I may have busted your bubble.  Sorry. 

I finished grad school with an intense desire to continue to advocate for green roofing, I wanted to be the catalyst for getting as many acres installed as I could.  I was seeking out large roofing companies who had the overhead to employ someone with my specific background; many of them offered back a product sales-type role that I wasn’t really interested in.  The green roof industry was still in its infancy and there were not a lot of options.  I was also looking into this particular non-profit in NYC who claimed they were doing real research, design, and building green roofs across New York City.  The NFP: Earth Pledge (EP).

I was scared out of my mind to move to NYC- plus I didn’t have an intense desire to “make it in NY” like some kids.  EP did not offer a good salary or any relocation package.  Forget benefits.  I flew in for the interview and they didn’t reimburse me.  The only place I could afford to live was in Harlem or renting a room with random strangers, somewhere in Chinatown.  I would probably have to sell my car.

BUT I still took the job.  And, moved to Harlem.

Within two weeks, I fell in love with the City and all its opportunity and cultural diversity.  I enjoyed my co-workers.  We always said the best thing about EP was its ability to bring together good people.  To this day, I still trust most of the people I met there- we had formed this secret clan of suppressed individuals.  And there were many!  HaHa.  That place (EP) had the highest employee turnover I’ve ever seen.  The payroll accountants were on speed dial for all the hires and terminations.   We worked hard- despite the reluctance of management to let us do anything of any significance.  We couldn’t even make phone calls to the outside world without permission.  And, when we did, the person on the other side of the line would be so mad at EP that it was usually a stupid conversation.  

I was involved in some cool projects including setting up a research station on the large green roof at Silver Cup Studios in Long Island City.  This is where they taped Sopranos. So, I’d see the actors every once and a while.  I met Edie Falco in the bathroom, yes I did!  

Unlike many ideas of where a non-profit may office in a dingy cold cramped space, this place was sweet!  We worked in a brownstone in the Murray Hill district.  Probably worth about $7M and the non-profit “owned” it.  (Explain that, hm?)  The top level was a master suite, and lead out to a green roof with a patio and spectacular view.  We couldn’t go up there unless we snuck out after management left.  The main floors were in really great shape with new renovations and historical charm. The kitchen was in the basement – and was high end and decked out with All-Clad gadgets.  The house keeper(s) were great.  The first time I tried ceviche was made by a Latin American woman who explained how seafood cooks in its own marinade.  Yummy.  She treated us like we were her kids, and listened to the wrath we were always under.

It's Hillary!  One of my EP coworkers rigged up this photo, just for me
The Executive Director, residing in a condo facing Central Park, was chauffeured by a driver every day.  Let me reiterate that this was an environmental non-profit operating in a city that has the most public transportation options in the entire US!! There were last minute meetings in Punta Cana, DR.  There was the necessary Fashion Week in Milan, and trips to prepare. Give me a break.  Countless luxuries too absurd to fath

om.  But, they had a nice roll-a-deck of contacts, high rollers like the Clintons, and actors such as Edward Norton (I emailed him just to say Hi.  I’m such a fan!)

But, with all its glory that I’ve chosen to remember about this time in my life, I was really miserable in my career.  I lasted 8 months there.  This was not the job I wanted, nor was the environment set by management something my blood pressure could handle any more.  I quit right to their faces and walked out.  With clouded judgment, I walked into a church down the street and stayed for almost an hour contemplating and releasing it all.  I was glad the rumor was true that churches in NYC keep their doors unlocked.

We all had bets on how EP would eventually fail. Trust me, my depiction of EP is very nice considering some others who had a more aggressive approach to bringing the organization down.  The rich lawyer who had dumped his cash into EP as a tax right off finally died, leaving EP nothing.  And, now there is barely a trace of a website.

Career aside, I loved living in NYC.  But, I didn’t get a Masters just to wait tables in the City. 
USPS Morgan on 9th Ave, one of my signature jobs

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Public Speaking

I am barely comfortable with blogging, but it feels good to write again.  I shared my site with a few friends and got some nice and immediate responses, so thank you!  I also decided to check in with my HR department to make sure my rants and resolutions would not cause conflict with them.  It all checked out, and I’m keeping this public.  

My previous entry about grad school fell short on several important lessons learned.  For one- public speaking.  I never took a class in it, nor debated in high school, so the idea of getting up in front of a crowd to blab about a topic for a certain period of time was a bit nerve wrecking- as many people agree.  Presentations in class were hit and miss- I decided that if I liked the topic and became confident in it then I had a fighting chance.  If I was barely prepared or knew too little about it, then I was screwed.  I know that my cheeks get red no matter how anxious I am, so there is a bit of self-awareness that clouds my time in the hot seat.  It’s kind of a funny family trait, but still annoying. 

One of my first presentations on green roofing was for a Master Gardeners group- the “hugs and cookies” crowd.   Nice, that was a safe audience.  I was merely introducing the concept back in 2001 so most examples were from Europe, and the benefits I went over were barely researched in the US.  Lucky for me, there were some signature projects that had been built in the US, so that brought some familiarity to the topic.  I presented the research I had started, and what my colleagues were studying.  I got great reviews from those in the audience.  It was an energizing topic that kept me energized on stage.  

Public speaking is more than just getting a live audience to throw some slides to.  I’ve been on TV and radio, too.  I surprised my Grandma one day when she was listening to her talk radio one afternoon, and there I was talking with Don Shelby about green roofs in Minneapolis.  Ha!  Boy, that was a weird experience.  Don is a celebrity in the Twin Cities, having anchored the TV news for decades.  At the time they asked me for an interview, I didn’t know that.  I walked into the radio booth, which was painted dark red.  He hung signed photos from celebrities he palled around with over the decades.  The interview was actually decent- he spoke most of the time- and took a lot of commercial breaks.  I got to wear the big earphones and speak into the radio mic.  We faced each other during the Q&A, which was awkward. 

Of course, there are media and audience you can’t always control- the journals and magazines who request an interview.  Yikes, what are they going to print?!  And, what are the public opinions going to be like?  In hindsight, I really which I had to take public speaking, instead I had to wing it.  Fake it till ya make it.  

Over the last decade, I discovered audiences need a deeper understanding of the topic and have had to deal with naysayers.  We are not introducing the concept any more, we are pushing the industry in a much deeper direction in project performance.  I think if a box of Sedum on a roof is all someone is selling in a presentation, the owner is probably getting ripped off.  
If I’m bored talking about something, then certainly the audience is.  I want the presentation to be a little memorable and current.  Got to keep it light, and with an interesting twist.  And, the other key thing is, however vain, is to take off that name tag (especially those horrid lanyard ones).  Presentation photos are bad to begin with, and the name tag will just glare a white square right back.  Haha

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Props to Michigan State!

My introduction to the green roof industry was really quiet simple and easy.  I wanted to go to grad school and further study how plants can interact within the human environment in a sustainable way for both.  I had been working in the biotech industry in North Carolina where I was growing Arabidopsis and Mentha in a controlled environment and we were running genetic experiments that really meant little to the big wigs.  Of course, our group didn’t know this until later, frustrating me to no end.  It made me realize that where I wanted to be in my career, I was going to have to get a Masters in Science to gain credibility to make decisions...  Which is how I ended up at Michigan State.  (10 years later, they still have the strongest green roof research program in the country, and even a few undergrads have found jobs in the  industry.)

I was motivated! I loved living in Michigan and MSU was a great place to study horticulture and plant science.  I biked to campus, was running daily, and trained for a marathon.  My grad student group went skiing in the winter, and camping in the summer.  The hort programs were fun, and I was a member of the CSA (Community Supported Ag).

My advisor Dr. Brad Rowe (a.k.a The guy who has a green roof dog house for his 2 brown dogs) gave me direction for my research, but it was up to me to collect data and process it in a timely manner and work independently.

I started some cool experiments where the results are now used in practice by growers and other industry professionals- little did they know the information came from our collection of research.  I published three studies that are now referenced as “original” studies… Man, do I feel old!