Re-Release: HOW TO Design Sustainability into Your Daily Life | With Benjamin Holsinger, Liz Resenic & Gregory Plavcan of Gensler

© Gensler

Are you confused by the Trash/Recycle/Compost bins at health food stores? Are you seeking simple ways to be less wasteful at work — or is your company interested in learning about how to establish some greener, more mindful operations in the workplace? You’ve come to the right place. Today’s episode of the Gensler Design Exchange podcast features Benjamin Holsinger, a leader in Sustainability & Wellbeing Consulting at Gensler, joined by fellow sustainability teammates Liz Resenic and Gregory Plavcan, to share tips on how you can design sustainable practices into your daily life.

The sustainability group at Gensler helps to make our projects more sustainable, not only for environmental stewardship, but also for the people inside the spaces. Designing healthier environments and considering the health and wellbeing of the occupants in the spaces we design is pivotal; the more we incorporate sustainability and wellbeing into our projects, the better suited our designs will be for the people who occupy our spaces.


Hi, I’m Benjamin Holsinger, and I’m here today with Liz Resenic and Gregory Plavcan. And the three of us sit on our sustainability and wellbeing consulting team in our Gensler Washington, D.C. office. We want to take a few minutes to talk today about how we live our lives as sustainably as we can and how you can transfer that into your own workplace, your own work environment, and your home and life as well.

LIZ RESENIC (00:26):

One of the places that I love to have conversations about personal sustainability is in regards to our sustainability weaknesses. And I feel that when we all kind of acknowledge them in a group, we can easily talk about them in a solution-oriented way. So, I may be having an issue with my paper towel use, or I may be having an issue with my Saran Wrap use, and somebody else may have already found a great solution that’s market-ready for prime time that I can easily scoop up and apply to my own life.


It’s always a fun icebreaker, I think, to do your sustainability weakness. And I also really seriously know mine, and it’s paper towels. So seriously paper towels. My big solution to that is listening to the video that, Ben, you sent around…about the guy who does the hand washing with one paper towel, the 12 shakes, one paper towel, folded in half. I literally send that to people all the time.

LIZ RESENIC (01:21):

I also use way too many paper towels and Ben, you’re wonderful about reusing wipes within your kitchen at home. And that’s the way that you’ve really eliminated a lot of paper towel use from kind of the disposable.


Right! Liz, I’m glad you brought that up. So, a little more insight to that: Several years ago, I realized what I was throwing away was a lot of paper towels and a lot of plastic wrap, right? These single use things that we use all the time that are so small, but they really add up. So we started thinking about how can we eliminate our paper towels? And we actually buy surgical rags; they’re blue, or they’re green. You can get them from medical supply stores. They’re lint-free and are reusable. So, I think the last time we bought paper towels, we bought a roll of six, maybe two years ago. And we haven’t had to buy them ever since because we use the blue surgical rags and wash them after every use.


I just bought fancier things than blue surgical rags. I went online and bought beautifully colored microfiber cloths. And I use them now, but I will admit I still have paper towels in the kitchen just in case, so in transitioning.

LIZ RESENIC (02:30):

The kitchen is such an amazing place to start looking at all of the single-use products and ways that you can supplement or pull those out of your stream. I recently, and I know another team member of ours, Fatima, also did this, but bought reusable bags to take to the produce section of the grocery store so that you’re not using the plastic bags to house up your lettuce or your lemons or whatever you’re purchasing there as well.


That’s a great idea, Liz. One of the things we realized we were throwing away a lot in our kitchen was plastic wrap and plastic bags. These quick little single-use plastic items that aren’t recyclable, and those were filling up our trash can. So, I started looking at solutions for that, and I found a great product called Bee’s Wrap, and it is beeswax covered cheesecloth that is reusable and sealable. So, it’s changed our lives and has reduced our plastic. And then for plastic bags, like sandwich bags, or quart-sized freezer bags, we’ve converted to glass containers with BPA-free plastic lids with a rubber seal. And so that’s what I use for my lunch everyday. And that’s what I use for storing lemons and limes now at home, and we probably throw our kitchen trash out once every two or three weeks.

LIZ RESENIC (03:46):

You know what I find fascinating about you using the Bee’s Wrap and the glass containers: We’re in a small group, our sustainability consulting team, and one thing that one person kind of picks up and says, “this is going to be a way that I change my lifestyle to live more sustainably,” the rest of us start to pick it up. So, it’s this small incremental change that the group recognizes and tries to implement in their own lives. So, I think most of us now have switched to using glass containers also, and I know that I have Bee’s Wrap at home that I’ll bring, you know, pita in or something for lunch.


I do want to mention real quick. I said that I throw my garbage away once every two to three weeks. And that’s not just because I switched to Bee’s Wrap and glass containers. We’ve also taken a step of composting at our own home. And that can sound really daunting to a lot of people because you don’t know where to start. So, I’ve done some research, and it varies by area, and it varies by commercial haulers and local mom-and-pop-shop haulers. But we found a company here in Washington, D.C., that takes all sorts of compostables. So meat and dairy and eggs, as well as the plant-based plastics that are compostable. Not every hauler can do that. So, we found one that was able to do that, and that gets picked up every Thursday, and I have a fresh bin every Friday. And each spring and each fall, I get a bag of compost that’s been produced from the waste that I have given. And because we don’t have those organics going into our trash, there’s no odor, there’s no smell. So, we’re able to take out our garbage every two to three weeks.


One of the things I really like about that particular thing that you do is like on a Wednesday evening or maybe a Thursday, you’re like, “I’m calling for everyone’s compost!” And so, every now and then, I get to save my office compostable items and give them to you. And then I like to picture you riding your bicycle back home with a bag of my trash for the day.


Well, it’s funny, before we did composting at home, I used to collect the compost and bike it to the office because our office base building has composting in the alley, but the compost bags broke one too many times — that was once, and made everything disgusting in my bike bag. So, I decided to bite the bullet and pay for composting at my own house. It’s difficult in an urban environment; you can’t compost on your own. There are a lot of rodent problems, but if you live in the suburbs or have a yard, that’s also an option that would really be a onetime purchase of a composter. And you can do it yourself and not have to hire a company to do it. There are different types of things you can compost. Not every facility’s capable of composting the same things another facility might be able to compost — just like recycling — which is why we find that clients and consumers all have difficulty recycling, right? Cause I can recycle these things in my office, but I can’t recycle these things at my home. And vice versa. The same thing goes with composting. If you are simply putting the compost into a barrel and turning it once a day, once a week for several months, while it breaks down, you can’t do the hard compostables like meat, dairy, or the compostable plastics. You need to introduce heat into that process in order to have those breakdown commercially. So, that’s the difference between a more mom-and-pop-shop operation and a commercial operation, which has a composting facility that introduces heat to break down those things that are more difficult to compost.


So Ben, in your kitchen at home, what kind of things do you compost there that maybe you wouldn’t be able to compost in an office? Or maybe if I lived in a different state, like how did you figure out what you could compost?


When we were searching for our compost companies, we looked at what types of things they were able to compost, and most composters will have a list of things that they accept and things that they don’t accept. And it’s very specific. So when we were looking for composters, we found ones that were able to take the compostable plastics because we also believe that those plant-based compostable plastics — if we are using single-use items — should be able to be composted, not set to a landfill.


I always think about like, why can’t you recycle a plastic bag? Why can’t you throw your straw or your reusable silverware in the recycling, even though it is plastic? Knowing that at some facilities, those things that cotton gears, and they stop up the machinery, it means the whole facility needs to halt and people actually have to go into the machinery, pull it out, restart the machinery, and it’s actually increasingly dangerous for that kind of action to be happening. So being more aware of what we’re putting into a recycling stream or a landfill stream and knowing what it is that we have at our hands to put into those streams is really important.

LIZ RESENIC (08:48):

Yeah, one of the interesting things from touring a commercial construction demolition waste hall facility that I walked away with and I felt like this whole new perspective was “trash as commodity” that, you know, a commercial waste hauler, who’s going to a construction demolition waste site that is diverting the streams — that is revenue for that facility that’s diverting the streams. So, they’re not looking to falsify their numbers because that feeds their bottom line directly. Any aggregate is being sold. Wood chips are being sold. Fines, glass metals — that is all revenue for them. And I just had never thought about that. I think it’s something that is probably so prevalent in a commercial construction demolition waste facility versus, you know, I think that we as consumers also need to realize that appropriately cleaning our recyclables or at home recyclables is extremely important to avoid contamination in the waste stream because we are downstream affecting that municipal recycling facility that’s accepting our trash from commoditizing those plastic bottles or aluminum cans or whatever that might be — cardboard.


I actually think that it’s important to check with your hauling company because when we were at waste management, they said that it didn’t matter for plastic and metal. And that’s an important point that you bring up, right? We sit here in the same office, we recycle the same things, and we both have two different thoughts about how it gets recycled.


The one thing that I was thinking about was a story where there was a large amount of paper being recycled, and they had to bundle it all up at the waste facility. But within that bundle was a bottle of chocolate syrup. Like you’d use for chocolate milk.

LIZ RESENIC (10:30):

It’s just such a classic image, right?


It’s so classic. And when they compressed it all down, chocolate syrup went everywhere, and it ruined the whole bundle of paper that they were able to potentially really recycle, and it became waste.

LIZ RESENIC (10:44):

You know, I think that that is something that the recycling industry is facing more and more is as we try to move toward single-stream recycling there’s confusion as to what goes into that single stream. Versus if you keep them separate: a) you’re keeping plastics with plastics; if there’s contamination in the plastic, it’s much easier to clean than if there’s contamination in cardboard. Just kind of thinking about how do we, kind of, accommodate either single-stream or separated waste streams for recycling specifically.


To kind of wrap all this up: If you ever have any questions about what to recycle or what to compost or what to throw away, reach out to your waste hauler. It’s what they do, and giving you the right information to get them a good product to be able to resell is what they’re all about. And they will be more than happy to have a conversation about trash with you.


Yeah, I was shocked about how enthusiastic that woman was that we met from waste management. I was like, “we’re going to talk about trash now.” And she was like, “we’re going to talk about trash now!”

LIZ RESENIC (11:49):

One thing that I really would like to go back to when you were talking about composting, Ben, is this notion of what occurs right before composting. We were just at an event that was hosted by the District Department of Energy and the Environment.


Wait, Liz, are you talking about the event where we won an award?

LIZ RESENIC (12:07):

I may in fact be.


That’s exciting. Tell us more about this event where we won an award.

LIZ RESENIC (12:16):

You should know that we did recently get honored. We’re very humble to accept it, a sustainability award from the District Department of Energy and the Environment. And at that awards reception, this caterer that I was very, very, very impressed by was serving very thoughtfully curated foods that were using food scraps. So, it was really pushing this net zero food waste campaign. As I was sipping on carrot peel soup that was absolutely delicious, I was thinking about, you know, maybe I should stop a few of these food scraps before they hit my trash. I’m not really a composter yet, but inspired by Ben’s composting skills. And then they were using parts of produce that I hadn’t even thought of, you know, the pit of a tomato or the skin of a tomato to create, you know, kind of an interesting tomato sauce. They were just really, really, really repurposing food in a way that I really hadn’t thought about beyond just kind of putting everything in a pot and calling it vegetable stock.


That’s what I do. I was just going to say, at my house, whenever I peel carrots or potatoes or whatever the vegetable is, I just have a Ziploc bag that I keep in the freezer. And when it fills up, I make a pot of vegetable stock and it’s quite delicious.

LIZ RESENIC (13:32):

So to go back to the award that Ben had mentioned: You know, it’s an award that Gensler won, really recognizing our firmwide stance on sustainability and on resilience and how we are gathering metrics and quantifying that data to really understand our true environmental impact. And yes, that is at a global level, but it also kind of went down to the local level as well. And looking at Gensler D.C.’s impact on the local built environment market. And at that award ceremony, it was wonderful to also see our clients recognized. We were onstage alongside the Founding Farmers restaurant group, which is actually a project, uh, several projects that Ben has worked on with that organization that’s making enormous strides and initiatives in the District and beyond.


You’re right, Liz, [it was] great to share the stage with Farmers Restaurant Group. They’ve started a campaign called Our Last Straw, and it is a coalition of restaurants and businesses in the District to reduce our plastic straw consumption, which has been banned in Washington, D.C., and we are currently in a transition period to remove those straws. Founding Farmers has always had sustainability at the root of its mission, so it was great to see their efforts recognized that go above and beyond your standard business practices.


So, this sounds like a great time to talk about some client work that we’ve done that really embodies sustainability. Liz, I think you wanted to talk a little bit about some of that too.

LIZ RESENIC (15:04):

Well, one project that we did highlight within our submission for the sustainability award from DDOEE was our work with the American Society of Landscape Architects at the Center for Landscape Architecture. That was really taking an existing building within the D.C. market that was inefficient in its energy use and its water use, and really transforming that space into something that operated at a much higher level, you know, from a whole upgrade to the HVAC system, to even implementing, you know, new lighting design, which was also tied to their pursuit of the WELL building standard at the end of the day as well. And that project is, you know, obviously special to us for getting LEED Platinum as well, but looking at, you know, real change to the building market, the most sustainable building that you can choose is the existing one. And you can update and renovate that and really see energy cost savings with it, really retune it and get it to be a much more well-oiled machine. And, you know, obviously that’s a case of an existing building, but there’s obviously opportunities and other commercial spaces that are maybe in aging buildings where you’re just kind of a percentage of the overall footprint.


Yeah. I was thinking about existing buildings and sustainability. One of the projects that literally, just before we came into this room to record the podcast, we submitted their final review for construction for this new project that we’re working on. And the client there is also in an existing building, down in what will be called National Landing. And we worked with that client to take their employees from two floors where everybody had their own office to be just one floor, all open office seating, which I think is a really big trend right now. But in doing that, we also had a lot of discussion early on in the project about the organizational mission, conserving energy, conserving water, conserving materials, planetary health consideration for human health and wellness is really important as well. Every single aspect of the design of the project went back to sustainability. And I don’t think in my career working as a sustainability consultant, I’ve had a client so passionate about the topic that we’ve had the design team members asking us for work, the design team asking us for advice on what their participation in the project looks like, that every move is in the name of sustainability for the design of the project. And it went all the way from energy efficiency for the mechanical system at a base building level with the developer and owner of the building, all the way down to the fact that in their pantries, they have no paper products. They went ahead and purchased all reusable plates, cups, dishes, silverware — the whole nine — and a had a whole bunch of dishwashers that are all Energy Star certified. And basically, all-in down to their operations had decided sustainability was going to be a part of their project.

LIZ RESENIC (18:11):

One of the things that I love about this project that you’re talking about right now is that it even is in the carpet fibers themselves, that the Interface carpet that they selected is actually produced from discarded fishing nets. And it’s interesting to me, especially because I have two squares of that carpet at my own apartment as entry and exit mats into my apartment. And I had no clue that those were made with recycled fishing lines, which are a huge waste stream that is really in an environmental issue right now, and it is seriously polluting the ocean. So, it goes straight to the heart of that client’s mission of conserving the earth and the oceans beyond anything I could’ve really imagined there.


Greg, I’m glad that you mentioned the operations portion of that project because that’s one thing that we as designers need to be mindful of. We could design a sustainable space, but at the end of the day, our clients are the ones who are living in them and have to operate them. So, we try to help guide those conversations towards the end of the project and even while the project’s being developed. So that, from an operational standpoint, our clients have a better understanding of how this might play out. So, work with events and catering in your office, work with your suppliers for procuring more sustainable products. It could be as simple as changing out one number in a purchase order to have something that’s 100 percent recycled versus 50 percent recycled.


The cool thing about that is you don’t actually have to do it while a project is happening. And so often people are like, “What can I do? We just finished a project. Everything is set.” You can always make those operational changes or investigations right in the middle of it.


And you can always improve. Those operations can always change and always improve. And some things may work and some things may not work as well. And so, it’s always an opportunity to tweak and improve.

LIZ RESENIC (20:07):

I think it’s huge. What you’re kind of hinting at is “don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Really think about “what is the next small action that I can make that is a quick win for this team?” And keep stacking up those wins slowly over time, because it’s not something that will happen overnight. You know, you’re going to have to have educational conversations with your office services team or with your IT team to get things to change. And I think that everyone will be on board, but they just need to have the full, kind of, scope of the conversation.


Liz, I’m glad you brought up the point about IT. Here in our office, several years ago, we realized that our printing systems were producing a lot of waste. At that time, when you printed a document, it went directly to the printer and was printed and sat there until you picked it up. That resulted in reams and reams of paper being recycled at the end of the day because people forgot to pick them up. They’d print them at another printer because they forgot that they had printed them already. And so, it created a lot of waste and a lot of financial waste as well.


To wrap up the discussion here, Ben and Liz, why don’t we talk a little bit about something maybe more personal that you can do in your office setting or your home setting to be more sustainable? And also, I would love to discuss some hopes and dreams for the future regarding sustainability for our work.


A few comments about what I can do personally: I always use my home as my test bed, and if it works out there, I try to bring it to the workplace and see if it can work here and share that news to our coworkers. As far as working with clients, I encourage everybody to come to the table at the beginning of every project with goals. Think about what sustainability means for you and your organization and how that can manifest in the built environment. Setting goals early and having those conversations can make a project more holistic and can really inform critical design decisions from the beginning.

LIZ RESENIC (22:02):

Personally, I’m a pretty big energy efficiency nerd, to the point that I have my own kilowatt meter, which you can buy over Amazon very easily. It plugs into any outlet in your home and you can plug in your refrigerator, your microwave, your entire home entertainment system. Maybe you have an aquarium. You can plug that guy in. A lamp, your hairdryer, and you can immediately be connected with the energy that that device uses. And then just having that information, knowing it, maybe will make you, you know, not leave the land pawn when you go to work in the morning or, you know, maybe consider a different home entertainment system that uses less energy or having some sort of surge protector to mitigate vampire loads, or finally, you know, buying that new refrigerator, that’s more energy efficient. Actually for Bring Your Kids To Work Day last year, we had an exercise where — and I think it’s always so fun to see, you know, the mini-me versions of our coworkers and our colleagues — and in my, you know, maybe I was pushing my agenda a little bit too much onto their children, but I brought in my kilowatt meter, and we had them look at all of these household objects that they would have, like a hairdryer or a table fan, and try to rank just perceived notion of what would you use more energy and then have them plug it in and see the energy that it is directly using. And, you know, being such an energy efficiency nerd, you know, what I want our clients to realize is it’s like going from a desktop to a laptop. You need to think about energy efficiency of your project in that same way. A desktop really bleeds energy and just kind of, you know, that’s why it has to be plugged in, but the laptop is portable. It’s conserving energy. It’s looking directly “where does the energy need to be injected in this moment to process specific task?” So if we’re thinking about buildings in that same way, we need to think about how do we program the spaces so that people who are using energy early or using energy late at night are all concentrated, and then we’re still providing that live energy throughout the day. Or how are we selecting the most efficient HVAC system or lighting system or domestic hot water heating system for this space, and really try to, you know, realize those goals and set real targets for what these components should be using in terms of energy.


That was great. When I think about a personal thing for me that ties me to sustainability, it’s so often my plants. I consider myself a really serious plant lady, and I have a bunch of them at home. I actually have been given a limit of them by my partner at home. And so now I can only be gifted plants because I can’t buy them myself, but I also have a number of plants in the office. And I think about plants in the office. And when people come by our desks and they talk about how green it is and how great it feels to be around the group, which in part I think is because of the people and part, because we have a lot of plants, but thinking about plants at that tiny scale for yourself at home or at your desk, but also incorporating it into projects is important. We talk about biophilia a lot whenever we’re designing and whether or not we’re going to have green-wall accents or plant boxes throughout the office, like we do in so many projects right now, that becomes really important. The other thing that I think is really important when we talk about sustainability is why sustainability is important and why design is important in our mind. I think that the reason that these two things kind of come together so nicely for architecture and design is that Gensler designed spaces for people. And so, being a part of the sustainability group here that’s helping our projects be more sustainable, it’s not only just for environmental stewardship, but it’s for the people that are inside the space. Healthier environments and considering the actual health and wellbeing of the occupants in those spaces is so important. And I think that the more and more we incorporate thinking about sustainability and wellbeing, the better our projects will be, and the better suited for the people that are going to occupy the spaces. All of our designs will be, too.


Greg and Liz, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to share with our listeners a little more about sustainability in your lives and the work that we all do together here in Washington, D.C., and around the world, really. We hope you all enjoyed today’s conversation and look for ways to live sustainably in your lives at home and at the office. Liz and Greg, thank you so much.

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The Gensler Design Exchange creates a dialogue between design experts, creative trendsetters & thought leaders to discuss how we can shape the future of cities.