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  1. Kate Michaud travels to Colombia

    Colombia’s history

    Given annually by Lea and Jeff Scherer (MSR emeritus principal), the Scherer Travel Scholarship is awarded to an MSR employee, based on a proposal that demonstrates how a proposed travel experience will benefit the office and society, as well as enriching the individual. In this first blog post (in a series of three), scholarship recipient Kate Michaud shares about her experience in Colombia.

    As a recipient of the 2016 Scherer Travel Award, I chose to travel to Colombia to learn more about how urban design has helped improve the lives of the average person. This past January my husband and I set off to explore Bogota and Medellin.

    To understand how Colombia became synonymous with drugs and violence, it’s important to understand its recent history. In 1948, a presidential candidate was assassinated in Bogota, and the ensuing riots started a 10-year period called “La Violencia.” The initial conflict ended with a power-sharing agreement between the liberals and conservatives that did not include a seat at the table for the communists. This slight by the mainstream political parties led the communist peasant groups to morph into left-wing guerilla groups (inspired by the Cuban revolution).

    Over time, the conflict between the guerilla groups and the government led to destabilization in certain areas of the countryside. To protect their land and other assets, wealthy landowners began to back right-wing paramilitary groups that were multiplying across the countryside.

    The Colombian drug cartels entered the scene in the 1980s. The cartels worked with both the guerillas and the paramilitaries to protect their coca fields and power within the government. By 1990 Medellin had the highest murder rate in the world. Murders, car bombings, and kidnappings were all too familiar news stories. While in Medellin, we visited Fernando Botero’s Pajaro de Paz (Bird of Peace) sculpture. The sculpture was damaged in a 1995 bombing that killed 23 people. Afterwards, Botero sent a replacement to the city, and today it stands next to the damaged bird as a symbol of hope.

    Since 1985, over 220,000 people have been killed as the result of the conflict. Three quarters of these murders have been civilians. Also during this time, five million Colombians have been displaced from their homes. Colombia is second only to Syria in the number of internally displaced citizens. To get a better understanding of the conflict, we visited the Museo Casa de Memoria. Part memorial, part museum, and part archive, the Museo is as much about remembering the atrocities of the past as it is about making sure they are not repeated. One of the exhibits featured an interview with a former FARC member who recounted her story of joining FARC, being captured by the authorities, and her subsequent reintegration into Colombian society. Listening to someone my own age tell this story was very sobering.

    During the times of extreme violence, the mayors of Bogota and Medellin began to imagine a better future for their cities and they began to take small steps to improve the lives of their citizens. Bogota mayor Antonio Mockus famously hired mimes to mock those who disobeyed traffic laws. Mayor Enrique Penalosa pushed forward major transportation, school, library, and park projects.

    On our trip we were able to see many of the new infrastructure and community spaces firsthand.


    Bogota “mejor para todos”

    Bogota is Colombia’s high-altitude, fast-paced, and extremely dense capitol city. With a population of eight million crammed into a mountain valley, it has approximately 18,000 people per square kilometer. This density is much higher than the 3,000 people per square kilometer who reside in the City of Minneapolis. To move all of these people around the city and relieve traffic congestion, Bogota created the “Transmilenio.” This bus rapid transit system has 12 lines that extend across the city, reaching into rich and poor neighborhoods. Articulated buses use dedicated bus-only traffic lanes. The stations more closely resemble a subway or tram station than a bus stop. Patrons pay when entering the station, and multiple doors open simultaneously for faster boarding and exiting. I have used bus rapid transit in other cities and countries, but Bogota’s system was by far the most comprehensive (and the fastest).

    After a few days of cramming ourselves onto crowded Transmilenio buses, it was a relief to wake up on Sunday morning, rent some bikes, and enjoy the Ciclovia. During this weekly event, the city closes 120 km of streets to traffic from 7 am–2 pm and opens them to pedestrians and cyclists. What’s even more impressive is that the network of streets that close are spread evenly throughout the city and are most often major thoroughfares. Food vendors, bike maintenance stands, and different kinds of entertainment line the streets along the route. Former parks director Gil Penalosa has described the Ciclvoia this way:

    “In Bogotá, the gap between these people is great, but that’s the case in other cities as well. But through the Ciclovía, they are in the same place, doing the same thing. These are people who don’t live in the same neighborhoods, their kids don’t attend the same schools, they don’t shop in the same stores, and they don’t eat in the same restaurants. But they are in the Ciclovía together. One can have an imported bike that is three thousand dollars, while the other has one that is 30 dollars…so be it. They are both having the same fun with their family, and they stop and chat. It’s a rare activity that can allow this integration to happen.”

    This weekly festival is very popular in Bogota and has spread to other cities across the globe. Minneapolis and Saint Paul’s Open Streets are a prime example.

    In the late 1990s, the city made a push to promote reading, writing, and culture by starting the BiblioRED program to construct new libraries throughout the town. We visited the La Esmerelda neighborhood to see the Biblioteca Vigilio Barco, designed by Rogelio Salmona. This exquisite, 21st-century library offers a large, day-lit reading room with spaces for group and individual study. Accessed across a bridge over a water fountain, the children’s library includes space for storytimes and low, child-viewing level windows. The building also houses a café, community rooms, art gallery, and an auditorium for performances. The views into the surrounding public park and the mountains beyond are spectacular; and most of the building is open-air to take advantage of Colombia’s temperate climate. The building feels like an extension of the park; very open and inviting for everyone. During our visit, groups of people were studying in the reading rooms, an art show about the peace process was on display, and teenagers were having a costume salsa dance party.

    Bogota wants to transform itself into a sustainable and inclusive city. Meeting these goals is going to take an enormous amount of work. From my time spent there, I believe they are up for the challenge.


    Medellin “trabajamos por vos”

    More than any other city in Colombia, Medellin has made a dramatic transformation over the past decade. In the 1990s, the city had the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world. Bombings in public parks and fights on the street between drug cartels and the police diminished Medellin’s public life. “For me, 1991 was a key turning point for the whole country. It was the worst and the best moment—a time of complete crisis and a moment of hope,” Catalina Ortiz (Colombian architect) says. “It was truly a moment where everyone felt it could not get any worse—we had to do something.”

    In 1991, a new constitution was written to give more power to localities. Most notably, they now had the right to elect their own leaders. Medellin had a series of influential mayors during this time who realized that the violence in the city couldn’t be addressed through policing alone. They began to look at the role public spaces and transit could have in helping rebuild the city’s sense of safety and community.

    One of the first radical transit projects completed in Medellin were the Comuna 13 escalators. This neighborhood was one of the most crime-ridden in the city. The steep hills and winding roads made it hard for both residents and police to traverse parts of the neighborhood. These six new escalators climb 384 meters up a steep hillside. What was once a 34-minute uphill hike has become a six-minute ride. Houses on either side of the escalators have been painted with murals by Medellin’s street artists. City employees are stationed at each level to assist residents and monitor the escalators. At the top of the hill sits a community center with meeting and classroom spaces for the public.

    To bring public transit into Medellin’s other steep hillside comunas, the city built a gondola lift system called the Metrocable. The first line opened in 2004 in the Santo Domingo neighborhood—an area with hills so steep that even short buses common in other neighborhoods could not fit on the winding streets. This condition meant trips to downtown Medellin could take up to two hours because residents would have to walk uphill from the metro station at the bottom of the valley. With the Metrocable, the trip is now 30 minutes and costs only 80 cents, which is considered affordable for most Medellenos. In 2008, the second Metrocable line was added in Comuna 13, and another two lines are expected to open this year.

    As a tourist, the best way to explore the city is taking a ride on the Metrocable. It offers incredible views of the city, and you’re able to see neighborhoods up close, which would be extremely difficult to see under other circumstances. As you climb uphill, the streets get narrower until they are replaced by sidewalks, and eventually those sidewalks are replaced by dirt paths.

    In addition to making it easier for neighborhood residents to travel out of the neighborhood, the Metrocable also makes it easier for the city to bring in services. Community centers, health centers, and library parks have opened near the stations. Medellin has opened 10 library parks since 2005, mostly in previously under-served portions of the city. The library parks feature enhanced community amenities, such as meeting rooms, classrooms, computer labs, and offices where residents can access city services. They share a site with recreational fields, community gardens, and playgrounds. City officials made good design a priority for these buildings. They wanted the spaces to convey “education with dignity.” Locals call them the “sexy libraries.”

    Medellin is working to improve the lives of its residents. “Trabajamos para Vos” (we work for you) is the city’s motto. Medellenos do not dwell on their past. They are all pushing for a better future in a way that seems to permeate the entire city.

  2. Dan Vercruysse travels to Cambodia

    Given annually by Lea and Jeff Scherer (MSR emeritus principal), the Scherer Travel Scholarship is awarded to an MSR employee, based on a proposal that demonstrates how a proposed travel experience will benefit the office and society, as well as enriching the individual. In this first blog post (in a series of five), scholarship recipient Dan Vercruysse shares about his volunteering experience in Cambodia.

    A major focus of my travel plan was learning about culture through service work dedicated to the development of rural areas. Because of Cambodia’s ongoing recovery from the Khmer Rouge occupation in the 1970s, there a number of NGO’s that provide many opportunities for this kind of volunteer experience.



    A note on volunteering–my experience suggests that a fair bit of research on the organization you are thinking about working with is in order. It is worthwhile to explore their available materials and ask yourself these questions:

    1. Do they publish external audits of their work and finances?
    2. Do their programs use foreign (from the organization’s home country) staff, or do they employ local people to lead and operate the programs?
    3. Does the organization provide packaged “experiences” with fees and costs related to overhead, housing, and meals, or will you be setting this up on your own, possibly to the financial benefit of the locals?

    All of these are considerations that I discovered along the way are important facts related to ethical volunteering. These observations are not intended to question the benefits provided by different volunteer opportunities, but rather a suggestion that you gather the best information to make the right choice for you.

    My search arrived at the Trailblazer Foundation as the organization I wanted to work with. I liked that their efforts were varied, with a focus on providing clean water to rural villages (a very real need); activities were carried out and lead by local people (I would just be assisting them); there were no fees that would go back to an organizational structure in a different country, allowing me to make a donation directly to Trailblazer Foundation where it would be more impactful.

    If anyone out there is interested in learning more about Trailblazer Foundation, I encourage you to contact me directly or visit their website:


    Well drilling

    One of the Trailblazer Foundation’s (TF) primary activities is drilling wells in rural communities that lack consistent access to nearby safe water sources. The process begins with TF’s three-person crew and a volunteer or two loading their well truck with supplies and driving out to the recipient village. Upon arrival, we set up the drilling rig, which consists of a three-pole frame with a mount for an auger motor. The motor is set in place and metal cutting pipes are attached to it–the frame also has a centering yolk at its base to ensure the pipes remain straight as they cut the shaft into the ground. The auger motor has an inlet valve that is connected to a nearby water source–this allows the cutting pipes to have water pushed through them to both assist in cutting the new shaft, as well as flush the shaft of any debris (soil and gravel).

    The motor is repeatedly lowered and raised via a hand cranked pulley system, with extension poles added each time, driving the cutting head deeper and deeper. Once the cutting head has reached a depth with a consistent water supply, a PVC tube with an end cap and inlet slots cut into the sides of it is lowered, section by section, into the newly cut shaft until to reaches the bottom. Gravel is then dropped into the shaft to set the PVC well column position and create a place for the ground water to collect. The remainder of the PVC column is packed in place with a sandy soil mix until the shaft is full. The water that was pumped into the motor/cutting pipes is then redirected into the PVC column, pushing water through the PVC column/well shaft to flush the entire system of gravel and sand debris. This takes a bit of time, allowing for the crew to rest (and if you’re lucky, enjoy a lunch prepared by the villagers!).

    On another day, the drilling team comes back to the new well site to construct a concrete pumping base and PVC well head/pumping assembly. The team decides on the best location for the well pump and begins to layout the concrete base. Once outlined the base receives a layer of course gravel with a site mixed concrete perimeter to start the setting of a structural clay tile border curb (think light-weight bricks). This curb wraps the perimeter of the base. Then a small splash guard wall is constructed to help manage water and make sure the well head location is not eroded over time. Additional concrete is mixed and the entire assembly receives a parget coat, with remaining concrete being used for the base slab. While this is happening another crew member cuts and assembles PVC sections that make the well head assembly. The well head supports the manually operated pump, which consists of a smaller diameter PVC pipe section (handle) that fits within the main horizontal outflow pipe–this pumping rod has a small disc attached to its end with holes drilled into it and a “custom” (recycled rubber) washer that act as the pump’s seal and gate by which the water is allowed to flow out when the pump is in operation. Once the well head/pump is installed, the concrete base assembly is painted, and numbered for long term identification. This final touch completes the well drilling process.

    Keep in mind the well alone does not provide a safe (for consumption) water source, its function is to provide a consistent, easily accessible water source for household use after filtering.


    Biosand water filters

    The Trailblazer Foundation’s (TF) shop in the town of Siem Reap is the home base of their programs. This is where the fabrication and materials preparation for their biosand filters takes place, in addition to test gardens and offices. Most mornings, upon arrival the staff and volunteers begin by taking apart the steel molds used to cast the concrete biosand filter housings. This is achieved by unbolting the two halves of the mold and using a manual crank press to pull the interior part of the mold (which makes the void of the concrete housing) out of the newly cast filter body. Once all of the mold components are removed, the concrete filter housing is moved to an area where they continue to cure before being ready for painting and installation. The steel molds are then cleaned of any residue from the previous cast, oiled, and then reassembled/bolted back together in preparation of a new casting. The TF crew prepares the thin copper tubing that will be cast into the filter housing’s wall, which is the means in which water makes its way from the bottom of the filter to the pour spout on its side. This piece of the process requires detailed experience to ensure once completed the filter will function properly.

    The casting process is kicked off by the loading of their on-site concrete mixer with cement, sand, and gravel. This gets mixed until a good consistency is obtained and ready to pour. The concrete is transferred to the molds manually, bucket by bucket until the mold is full. Then, the mix inside the mold must be rodded to ensure consistency throughout the mold. Once completed, the next step is to take a heavy rubber mallet and beat the sides of the molds starting at the bottom and working towards the top. This process helps to work any air bubbles within the mix to the surface, thereby reducing the potential for any open voids in the final concrete housing and protecting the integrity of the filter walls. All of these steps can be somewhat physical. (If you’re not used to Cambodia’s high temperatures, this is likely where you will want to take a little water break.)

    The other main activity that happens in the shop is the preparation of the filtration materials that go inside the completed water filter. The materials are simple, but do require some effort to ensure they are clean and fit for use in the filter. There are two sizes of gravel used in the filters, each has to be sifted and washed and rinsed a number of times make sure there is no remaining dust or contaminates on them. They each then get pre-packaged into smaller bags, each sized for one filter. Another main component of the filer is sand. Preparing the sand requires multiple steps, starting with two grades of sieves (wire mesh filters). Sand is shoveled onto the large void sieve and manually shaken through to remove any larger debris that exists within the sand pile. Then it is shoveled onto another fine grain sieve and manually shaken through–this takes some patience and muscle and can make for sweaty work! Once completed, the sand is then transferred to a washing area where each five-gallon bucket receives five to seven rinses to both wash away any remaining dust and/or organic materials, such as dead leaves, grass, dirt, as well as let very fine grains float away so any chance of clogging the filter is minimized. Each filter requires six buckets of washed sand (about three full five-gallon buckets). It is also pre-packaged in recycled fish food bags, one for each water filter.

    On delivery day, the crew and volunteers load the delivery truck with the housings and materials to deliver and install seven complete biosand filters to rural villages. The loading/unloading process requires a bit of muscle, with each concrete housing and sand bag requiring at least two people to get them in and out of the truck. Once ready the entire group gets the luxury of experiencing the beautiful Cambodian countryside from the back of a truck–the all-time best way to see Cambodia! When you arrive at the recipient village, the truck and crew goes from location to location and unloads the materials to assemble the filters in-place. The order of operations is:

    1. Locate long-term filter location–they’re heavy (150 kg, or 300 pounds, when filtration media is installed), so this first step matters.
    2. Rinse out the concrete filter housing to remove any dust.
    3. Set and level housing.
    4. Fill the filter half-full of water, so when the larger gravel is placed in the bottom this prevent pockets of air from being trapped in the sand.
    5. Place larger gravel at bottom of housing.
    6. Place smaller gravel layer over larger gravel layer.
    7. Place sand layer over gravel layers.
    8. Fill the filter with water and let it run until the water stops pouring out of the tube, this equalizes the water level.
    9. Set plastic diffuser plate over filter media layers.
    10. Set galvanized lid on top.

    This assembly process is then followed up with instructional directions to the villagers who will be using the filters. This is important, because even though you can run water through the filter immediately, it is still not safe to use for drinking. The sand filter requires a period of conditioning–time to allow the proper biological agents to become established. This includes things like good bacteria that will help to kill bad bacteria, as well as establish an anaerobic layer within the sand that will not support harmful organisms that require oxygen to survive. This process requires that each filter have approximately five buckets (20 gallons) of water run through them each day for two weeks before it can be used for consumption. This process is very location specific. If you were to relocate the filter in the future, you would have to undertake this process again to ensure that the good biology within the filter had been recalibrated to the new collection of harmful organisms.

    This process is repeated house after house until you have an empty truck, a good work out, and great memories. Throughout the entire day while making deliveries, volunteers get a firsthand chance to see Cambodian village life in action and ask questions. This is a truly fulfilling process for everyone.

    Cambodian lifestyle

    In the United States, roughly 20% of the population lives in rural settings, while in Cambodia, it is just the opposite, with 80% of Cambodians living in rural villages. Therefore the following observations about village living depict the lifestyle for the vast majority of Cambodians. It is worth noting that much of Cambodian lifestyle (in cities or villages) is grounded in the country’s lack of material resources and struggling economy. The effects of the Khmer Rouge occupation 40 years ago are still present and continue to shape lifestyle today.

    The traditional village house is constructed on columns, so the sleeping and indoor living space is elevated to the second level. This allows for the house itself to act as a cover for the ground beneath it, which serves as most families’ outdoor kitchen, living, and storage spaces–this results in Cambodians being very connected to their environment. The house itself is generally constructed of wood members, with either wood siding or thatched walls, and a metal or thatched roof. The structures are built in ways that support natural ventilation and allows for relative ease of repair. Wood can be a scare commodity, so it is not uncommon to see other non-traditional materials used instead. Cambodians are extremely resourceful and inventive when it comes to the reuse of materials.

    Village living is a pretty social affair, with neighbors and friends stopping by often to catch up on the latest news. Much of this interaction happens on the lower outdoor level, which is commonly outfitted with a variety of seats and tables for meeting. Meals are taken there as well, with outdoor wood-fired cooking tables and raised platforms where families sit to eat.

    Kids are abundant, and the old adage, “it takes a village…” is in full effect. Kids enjoy a level of freedom rarely seen in western culture. At an early age they are allowed to explore and investigate their surroundings as they wish. Before long they also become contributors, helping to secure food for the family by hunting and gathering anything edible they can find.

    Many village families raise some sort of livestock (cows and pigs), however it was explicitly stated to me that these animals are an important source of income and thus too valuable for the families to consume. This has resulted in villagers having a very diverse and inclusive diet–living off the land and rivers, considering anything edible as fair game. An average day’s meals might consist of fried rice noodles for breakfast, a lunch of dried or spiced ground fish over rice with some herbs and garden vegetables, with a dinner of grilled frog (note: Cambodians love to eat frog), indigenous papaya, and fried red ants or grasshoppers.

    Agriculture is at the heart of village life. The cultivation of rice is the mainstay of the village economy, with an emerging focus on village families growing an array of fruits and vegetables to support the developing tourism industry in many parts of the country. I was lucky to be in Cambodia just as the rice crop was transitioning from beautiful lush green fields into a warm golden color that signifies their fully ripe condition ready for harvest. The harvest is a village wide task, with families helping each other to bring in the crop from their fields. Larger and wealthier communities might be able to afford the cost of renting gas-powered harvesting equipment, but the majority of farmers do it the old fashioned way, by hand with a sickle. Once cut, the rice plants (stems and fruit) and collected into bundles to dry in the field. When ready, the bundles are gathered up and the fruit is removed from the stem. The individual grains are then laid out on tarps or mats to dry in the sun until they are ready for sale. During this time, country roads are lined with these blue tarps and grains everywhere you look.

    For greater access to foods and goods, villagers will go to their local market. They can be found from large to small with an incredible range of offerings. In many ways markets act as the center of a community where people connect with others, discuss current events, and establish their local economy through buying and selling. I was completely fascinated by the energy and activity of the markets I visited and made it a point to go to as many as I could. Markets are often organized by what is being sold, with the following sections being represented in some way: clothing, jewelry, electronics, household goods/hardware, repair services (i.e., metals, motors, etc.), prepared meals (think, noodle diner), butcher meats, sea foods, fruits, and vegetables. Building upon my comments about the Cambodian diet, I sought out the most unique foods (to western tastes) I could find–these are my favorite photos from the entire trip!

    Rural families have limited access to services, businesses are generally found in or around urban centers. One benefit of being in Siem Reap (a medium-sized city) for three weeks was the ability to see a variety of shops. Cambodians often observe less defined boundaries between different portions of their lives. The work day, family time, and socializing are often interwoven into the day. It is not uncommon for someone to work hard at a task and then take an impromptu break to chat when a neighbor stops by, or shift from stocking shelves to a parenting task because their child is with them while they work. Many shops are tied to the owner’s living spaces facilitating this erosion of boundaries. Prosperity is scarce, resulting in a culture that works hard and openly embraces the mixing of priorities allowing them to fulfill multiple rolls at one time.


    Sustainable choices

    In past posts I have described a few ways in which Cambodian lifestyle incorporates a number of sustainable practices, living lightly off the land and sea. I do not want to mischaracterize the reasons why their culture lives this way–these practices are most often adhered to out of necessity. The wholesale destruction of the country’s infrastructure as a result of both American bombing campaigns to weaken Vietnamese forces, as well as the Khmer Rouge occupation in the 1970s, is still taking its toll on the population today. Since that time, Cambodia has experienced a higher than average amount of political unrest and governmental instability. Additionally, the effects of globalization, in which First World countries benefit from the resources and production of goods in Third World countries, has disrupted local economies and made it difficult for Cambodians to gain in prosperity. All of these factors have contributed to a society where making the most of what you have is paramount.

    For this post, I wanted to write about what lies ahead for this country that is the recipient of many international aid programs, but still struggles with economic instability. Cambodia is now poised to make important decisions about their natural resources, which could either uphold their sustainable lifestyle or relent to strong economic factors that could provide much-needed income. In recent years there has been a significant increase by corporate interests in the exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources. These include: increased wood harvesting from its deep jungle regions, the expansion of mining activity throughout the northeast provinces (home to some of its rarest indigenous plant and animal species), as well as the rapid rise of uncontrolled development in fragile beach and jungle environments, related to the growing tourism industry. In a country with such widespread poverty, decisions about how best to manage their resources are likely considered with an emphasis on addressing immediate needs rather than long term benefits. Like environmental questions in many parts of the world, the prospect of making money now versus biological wealth in the future is very complicated. It’s not all doom and gloom though. There are some great organizations and community development programs that are working hard to educate the population on the downfalls of unregulated growth and lobby against the selling of their natural resources.

    While planning our trip, I came across Chi Phat, a somewhat remote village in the Cardamom Mountains that is working to change their economy from one that has been supported by illegal logging and poaching (due to a lack of other viable options), to one that is built upon ecotourism programs showcasing their environment while preserving its beauty. They offer an array of tours and programs that allow visitors to enjoy both environmental and cultural aspects of Cambodian life. This nascent ecotourism approach has proven popular with visitors and is appears to be bolstering the village economy. The entire operation is led by locals who organize the activities, provide fresh cooked meals, act as guides, and coordinate a variety of lodging options. This shift in practice, from an economy built upon environmentally depleting activities to one based in protecting their natural resources is an excellent example of how making responsible choices, in the face of difficult financial challenges, can result in mutually beneficial outcomes.

    To reach the village we had to tell our bus driver that we needed to be let off on the side of a highway at a certain river crossing–not an actual bus stop. From there we embarked on a two-hour boat ride upriver into the mountains, giving us a chance to take in the river villages and see some of the landscape we would be touring.

    Upon arrival we checked into the Chi Phat village community center where we confirmed our lodging for the night and received instructions for our departure the following morning. We stayed in a traditional village house with a wooden room, mosquito-netted bed, and a traditional splash tub/shower. We had access to electricity for specific windows of time, allowing for fans until 9pm . . . after that it was sweaty time! That evening we walked around the village, followed by a communal dinner at the village center with other tourists who were signed up for a series of activities in the coming days. Meals consisted of simple rice dishes and fresh fruit.

    The next morning after breakfast, we headed out on our tour with a diverse group of fellow hikers (Swiss, French, and German travelers). Our guide, a young Cambodian man who grew up in the village, wasted no time hitting the trail. Despite wearing only thin flip flops, he walked at a pace that was hard to keep up with! That morning we traversed both grassy plains as well as dense jungle. Midday, our guide quickly prepared a fresh meal right on the trail–a stir fry of fresh vegetables, fried egg, and rice. We then continued on for more jungle hiking, which was great because it provided much-needed shade from the high temperatures. That afternoon, we arrived at their jungle base camp, which consisted of a few open-air sheds with simple corrugated roofs. These provided: a kitchen, dining table, restroom, and sleeping platform. Our group set up hammocks with bug nets, before settling in for a great meal with our fellow travelers. We spent the evening (which happened to be Thanksgiving night!) comparing and contrasting our different cultures and practices. We discussed politics, universal healthcare, paternal family leave, gun control, etc.–no major issue was left untouched. It really was a delightful and educational evening in the Cambodian jungle.

    The next morning, after a typical fried noodle breakfast, we commenced hiking again until we came to a large swampy grassland clearing in the jungle. Our guide told us how at night this area acted as a watering hole for elephants that live in the area. While we were not able to see anything as majestic as elephants in the wild, the scenery was breathtaking. Our next destination was a picturesque jungle waterfall where we stopped to relax and swim at the waterfall’s base. Some of our group climbed part of the way up before jumping in, while the more daring guides ran to the edge and jumped from the top! It was a refreshing break from the high temperatures. After another on-the-fly lunch, the group continued on back to Chi Phat where we ate a great dinner at a village restaurant and prepared for the journey out of the mountains the following day. The village arranged for an adventurous motorbike ride by a local villager to take us back out of the mountains where we could catch a bus onto our next destination.

    This brief excursion into the interior of one of Cambodia’s remote mountain ranges allowed us the opportunity to enjoy the diverse mountain landscapes and appreciate the value of good stewardship of these fragile environments. This brand of ecotourism is becoming more popular with tourists, who are interested in experiencing native habitats within Cambodia while putting their tourism dollars towards programs that help preserve these environments and support local economies.

  3. Rachelle Schoessler Lynn named ASID Designer of Distinction

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    MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (July 11, 2016) – Given that Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors and 70 percent of their waking hours sitting down, it’s comforting to know that interior design experts like Rachelle Schoessler Lynn are leading efforts to enhance those environments and counter their negative impacts.

    This weekend, Rachelle will be presented with the national Designer of Distinction award from the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) following its annual Chapter Leadership Conference, held this year in downtown Minneapolis. This award is the highest honor for personal achievement and social consciousness in the interior design field.

    “Rachelle has been a leader in the field of sustainable interior design innovation for years, and we are thrilled to honor her successful career with the Designer of Distinction award,” said Randy Fisher, ASID CEO. “The future of interior design can be seen through Rachelle’s creative, considerate projects.”

    Far beyond a catalog of furniture, lighting and textiles, interior designers provide expert guidance on space utilization and product sourcing, and they can ensure the materials they use are healthy for both the environment and for individuals.

    “The future for interior design will revolve around sustainability strategies,” said Rachelle Schoessler Lynn. “We need to spread the knowledge of interior architecture to more deeply consider what materials and products are actually made from and how using these materials affects the whole lifecycle – the impact on water, the impact on energy usage, the impact on carbon emissions. We have important work ahead of us.”

    Rachelle’s work can be seen on projects ranging from interior of Minneapolis’s Red Stag Supper Club (the first LEED-certified restaurant in the state) to the design and workplace practice of 3M’s Corporate Headquarters in Maplewood. Rachelle also cofounded and led an independent architecture and interior design studio focused on sustainable design for five years. She is currently a senior associate at MSR (Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle), a Minneapolis architecture and interior design firm.

    “It is an honor to be recognized by ASID and my colleagues from across the country,” said Rachelle. “We’re still working hard on educating designers on what healthiness means. For me personally, I feel a moral and ethical responsibility to incorporate sustainability standards into all aspects of interior archtecture. We’ve evolved, but we still have a lot to learn.”

    Another Minnesotan will be recognized this weekend with a national award from ASID. Caren Martin, Ph.D., will receive the Nancy Vincent McClelland Merit award for her outstanding support of the interior design industry. Dr. Martin is a member of the Minnesota Interior Design Legislative Action Committee and has worked on the state’s licensing board. Dr. Martin is associate professor and director of the Interior Design Program and Executive Program at the University of Minnesota

    The American Society of Interior Designers is a community of designers, industry representatives, educators and students committed to interior design. Through education, knowledge sharing, advocacy, community building and outreach, ASID strives to advance the interior design profession and demonstrate and celebrate the power of design to positively impact the human experience in the places were we live, work, play and heal. Currently, ASID has over 25,000 members and 47 professional chapters nationwide, including one in Minnesota that also serves members in North and South Dakota.

    For more information on the Minnesota chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers, visit

  4. Trends in building, renovating, and retrofitting

    As a sponsor of the Library Journal Design Institute held in Bozeman, Montana, earlier this month, MSR had the opportunity to reflect on trends impacting the design of libraries with a mix of librarians, designers, and vendors. For the “Trends in Building, Renovating and Retrofitting” panel discussion, I shared three themes that MSR has been seeing in our work:

    1. Design for health and wellness

    Human health is a major trend in building design. Visually and physically connecting to the outdoors, encouraging people to move their bodies, and using healthy building materials are all ways buildings can support health and wellness.

    Connect to the outdoors

    Studies confirm that a visual connection to the outdoors increases focus, a sense of well-being, and productivity. A physical connection to the outdoors is equally critical. Fresh air, a change of scenery, and motivation to move our bodies in general, are all important. Urban libraries can provide access to the outdoors via green roofs or urban walking tours that link to the library. Libraries with more green space can reinforce wellness by connecting to local trails and bike paths, such as Bozeman Public Library’s “Main Street to the Mountains” trail, accessed right from the library grounds.

    Get people moving

    The critical nature of moving throughout the day to maintain good healthy has been a keen focus lately. A sedentary day has been shown to be as dangerous to our health as smoking. Wearables like Fitbit or Jawbone UP help remind us to get our steps in for the day. Libraries can also promote movement by encouraging the use of stairs by making them easy to find, more convenient to use, and even fun. For example, our design for the Missoula Public Library incorporates stairs that will play musical notes as you climb them.

    Sit-to-stand workstations for staff is a trend we’ve seen for some time. Today it’s finally affordable to provide them for all staff. The natural evolution of this trend is to provide sit-to-stand options in the public spaces, as well, to encourage movement and to accommodate different body sizes and needs.

    Use healthy building materials

    A critical component to designing for health is the use of healthy building materials. According to the Living Futures Institute, creator of the Living Building Challenge, some 90% of the building materials available today contain at least one chemical that is unhealthy for humans. It is extremely difficult to design a project without a so-called “Red-Listed” material (and will be until the product market catches up). Design professionals must demand healthy materials from manufacturers. Clients also have a role in promoting healthy buildings by demanding it from their design teams.

    2. Restore (not just sustain)

    In order to ensure a healthy future for our planet, we need our buildings to not only be sustainable, but also to give back to the environment.

    Incorporate renewables

    Photo-voltaic (PV) panels and wind turbines are becoming more commonplace and more efficient. These technologies have dual benefits: they generate energy and, due to their visibility, can also educate library-users about the critical role of renewable energy sources.

    Clean and replenish

    A type of concrete has been developed that helps to eat smog. Another heals itself. These kinds of cutting-edge technologies are just starting to come into their own. Capturing rainwater to use on site is common now. Regenerative design takes that a step further by recharging the local aquifer. Living walls and green roofs help reduce the heat-island effect, clean air and water, and store rainwater to contribute to the water cycle. They can also support birds, butterflies, and bees.

    Feed people and wildlife

    Community gardens and landscapes designed to feed wildlife and humans will become more prevalent.


    Regenerative design depends upon many systems working together. It takes an integrated approach to design that requires owner, design professionals, and the community of building users to be active participants.

    Given all the factors competing for our attention and time, people seek value+ experiences wherever they go—including libraries. Partnerships will become even more important as libraries expand offerings and reach, becoming one stop shops.

    The Internet of Things (IoT) will also affect library design and operations in the quest to illustrate relevance and centrality to peoples’ lives. Libraries will become places of ultra-convenience, allowing visitors’ own gadgets to control and tweak their personal experience both inside and outside the building, before and during their visit. By being hyper-intuitive to use, libraries can stay in tune with how people want to access information and change their surroundings. Apps that show visitors where the best open seat is or where his/her study partner is located, or seats that vibrate every hour to remind users to get up and stretch, are examples of how the IoT may change library design.

    All three of these trends transcend building type. As highly visible buildings used by a large cross-section of the community, libraries can become exemplars by embracing trends that make a positive impact in their communities.

  5. MSR staff visits Havana, Cuba

    MINNEAPOLIS, MN (February 22, 2016) – MSR Design’s office will be closed February 25 through March 1 for an unusual reason: the firm’s staff will be in Havana, Cuba, exploring the city’s architectural treasures, urban design, and cultural heritage.

    “We’re all excited to see the city before it changes, before the inevitable rush of McDonald’s and corporate America,” said Josh Stowers, an MSR principal. “It’s a rare opportunity to see a place that has its culture and extraordinary architecture so fixed in time. We think it will make us better architects, interior designers, and technicians and that the whole shared experience will help us bond and collaborate better as a team.”

    MSR has been working for months to secure the educational visas and other logistical requirements for the trip, the third in a series of such group tours that have included Dallas and Milwaukee. Partially paid for by the firm, the trip will include four days of guided tours of Old Havana; Ernest Hemingway’s residence Finca Vigia; a variety of buildings representing pre- and post-Revolutionary Spanish, Colombian, and Italian architecture; museums; and a historic cigar factory. The group will also meet with leading Cuban architects and designers.

    The trip’s activities satisfy standards for professional continuing education requirements for the firm’s architects and interior designers.

    “Every culture’s architecture grows from its customs, values, materials, climate, and politics” said Tom Meyer, MSR principal and cofounder. “Here’s a place less than 100 miles from the US, which has been dramatically fixed in a time warp because of the embargo. Cubans have put into play what is available to make architecture that is functional and uniquely their own.”

  6. Design for human health

    We design for joy, beauty, function, sustainability, wellness, and health. These equally important values lead to solutions that balance the art and science of design. People are taking more control of their health by using wearable devices, accessing health information online, and checking their blood pressure with digital devices that report results to their doctors. Individuals make choices about the food they eat and their personal fitness routines. Yet people have very little control over health and wellness within workplaces and public spaces such as libraries or museums.

    Interior designers and architects today have access to an increasing number of resources that help them make better design decisions to improve human health within indoor environments. For example, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute has created the Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Registry, and the Materials Research Collaborative (led by the Healthy Building Network and BuildingGreen) has developed the Health Product Declaration (HPD) Collaborative.

    By age 17, humans have, on average, 700 chemicals within their bodies, according to Raefer Wallis’ “Protecting Health at Multiple Scales” presentation at the Greenbuild 2015 Conference in Washington, DC. These chemicals accumulate from the air we breath, absorption through our skin, and particles that get into our bloodstream and lungs through the water we drink.

    In 2014, Kaiser Permanente committed to purchasing furniture free of toxic flame retardants. Flame retardants found in furniture cushions are very toxic, especially when they catch fire and firemen are exposed to the toxins while fighting the fire. Halogenated materials used to replace flame retardants also pose health hazards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves 90% of the chemicals that are submitted for review. 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered into the EPA database as acceptable in 1976, and the database currently includes an estimated 83,000 approved chemicals. The EPA only has 90 days to review a submitted chemical, and it reviews about 7,000 chemicals each 90-day period. If the chemical is not reviewed within the 90 days, it is automatically approved to go to market. (Ref. 1)

    Designers need to look beyond the headlines that promote new chemicals to replace known toxic chemicals and conduct deeper research to determine whether the new chemicals are actually better. A classic example is microwave popcorn. Years ago, studies exposed a toxic chemical called diacetyl in microwave popcorn that caused “popcorn lung disease.” The discovery outraged popcorn customers and factory workers. Popcorn manufacturers responded by replacing the toxic chemical with a substitution called pentanedione, which was to be much safer. Studies have now shown that pentanedione causes more health issues than the original chemical, diacetyl. (Ref. 2)


    Reusing materials and furniture is viewed as better for the environment than building new products and tossing old furniture into landfills. However, in reality, emissions from furniture may actually increase as the piece ages, particularly with upholstered pieces.

    In order to make the best material recommendations for our clients, we need to evaluate their toxicity and environmental impact. MSR surveys all of the manufacturers that place product samples in our materials library to ensure that we have access to the healthiest, most sustainable product options. This process enables us to propose informed design solutions using products that are safe for people and the planet.

    We encourage everyone to think about how the indoor environments can improve our health in the same way we focus on eating healthy foods and walking 10,000 steps per day. Eventually, we hope to see more transparent labeling on all of the furniture and products that we use daily in our offices, public spaces, or homes.



    Ref. 1: “Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents” by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women American Society for Reproductive Medicine Practice Committee, and The University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, Obstetrics and Gynecology, October 2013.
    Ref. 2: Center for Disease Control NIOSH Science Blog, “Diacetyl and Food Flavorings,”

  7. From sustainable design to regenerative design

    As a sponsor of the Library Journal Design Institute held in Nashville earlier this month, MSR had the opportunity to explore the environmental impact and social benefits of sustainable design for libraries with a mix of librarians, designers, and vendors from across the country. The experience gave me an opportunity to think more deeply about the topic.

    With the recent climate talks and landmark accord in Paris, living, working, and building sustainably has been top of mind for many. Given that buildings account for about 40% of overall energy consumption and nearly 45% of CO2 emissions, the building design and construction industry has a major responsibility to play a crucial role in reversing the warming of our planet.* To affect real change, the industry must reach beyond sustainable design to strive for regenerative design, which makes a positive contribution to the environment. This evolution will require education of those who fund, design, manage, and use buildings and will necessitate altering our collective daily behaviors.

    Libraries have a key role to play in the journey from sustainable design to regenerative design. Much of the public was first exposed to sustainable design through public buildings such as libraries. Today, most people have heard of common tools used to measure and reward green building efforts, such as the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification program, American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Commitment, and Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes system. Regenerative design will gain exposure (through programs such as the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge) as communities and campuses increasingly institutionalize green building practices and take them to the next level.

    Libraries should take a leadership role in sustainable and regenerative design for these five reasons:

    1. Libraries are visible

    Libraries are at the centers of their communities and campuses, literally and figuratively. Highly visible to many, they attract a wide diversity of users, ranging from persons of influence in the community or their own workplaces to young people who seek to shape their understanding of the world and their impact upon it. By setting a positive example, libraries serve as an important cog in the cycle of behavioral change.

    2. Libraries provide opportunities to engage

    Libraries have always been a place for public discourse on important topics of the time. Libraries offer formal settings for presentations and input sessions about sticky issues. Perhaps more important, libraries offer informal settings for in depth conversations about critical topics, or spontaneous discussions, on neutral turf.

    3. Libraries are models

    As public buildings, libraries can be demonstration sites. While green roofs and solar arrays are sexy and effective symbols of sustainable design, demonstrations and educational panels that highlight often-hidden methods for building smart (e.g., ultra-efficient mechanical systems, low-energy lighting solutions, or sustainable cleaning products) bring the nuts and bolts of green building to light. Given typically modest library construction and operation budgets, this demonstration packs even more punch, showing that building and operating responsibly isn’t out of reach for the average company, home-owner, or institution.

    4. Librarians are trustworthy

    Librarians are viewed as highly trustworthy people. Libraries are one of few places that are viewed as apolitical. Librarians are regarded as facts-only guides to knowledge. When libraries model best practices in design and operations, library users take note. When libraries convene a public conversation about important topics around sustainable behaviors, attendees know it’s in the spirit of learning and sharing knowledge without any hidden agendas.

    5. Libraries can champion good behavior

    Librarians are in a great position to shine a spotlight on positive behaviors of the library’s staff and customers. Ever wonder about the counters on bottle-filling stations that count how many plastic bottles were eliminated? Psychologists tell us that positive reinforcement is the most effective path to behavioral change.

    The building design and construction industry has a long way to go in addressing its role in climate change. The path is not entirely clear. In his recent National Geographic article, “Fresh Hope for Combating Climate Change” (October 15, 2015), Robert Kunzig references the late novelist E. L. Doctorow’s description of the writing process: “It’s like driving a car at night—you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” We don’t know everything about how to solve climate change issues, but the desire and passion to work toward solutions will go a long way toward getting us there. And we need librarians on the trip with us, helping to educate the public and support an important public dialogue.

    *Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

  8. Reflections on Greenbuild EuroMed

    Last week, Rhys MacPherson (MSR), Billy Weber (University of Minnesota), and I gave a presentation at the Greenbuild EuroMed conference in Verona, Italy, entitled “Cold Climate, High-Performance Affordable Housing.” We focused our talk on The Rose, a new 90 dwelling unit building in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that MSR designed to cut building energy use by 72% without compromising tenant comfort, infiltrate 75% of rainwater onsite, and renew a polluted part of the city through the use of healthy materials and a high performance air filtration system. The Rose also works within the inconvenient truths of affordability and social equity often glossed over in idealized sustainable design. Creating design strategies within a modest construction budget ($148/sf), we created replicable, ecologically responsible housing that can serve as a model for future sustainably designed multi-family housing projects. We used the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge as a framework to design a sustainable, equitable, healthy, and beautiful project that benefits residents and the greater neighborhood.

    During Greenbuild EuroMed, we talked with European designers and product reps about their accomplishments and sustainable design efforts. Although many European governments may have more rigid code standards than the United States, we found that the state of the art and level of commitment to more sustainably designed buildings is equally fervent on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. For example:

    • At the companion Smart Energy Expo, we learned about an intriguing home management system by Lucis. The NuBryte system interfaces like an iPad with a security system, calendar with alarm clock, intercom, weather station, whole house lighting controls, and monitor of energy usage. And it’s wireless. Slick is an understatement!
    • Engineer Thomas Hoinka gave a presentation focused on the fact that the building industry accounts for 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and solid waste generation. It is critical for the architectural design community to embrace energy reducing design strategies to reduce the impact going forward.
    • Google and one of its consultants presented the process they use to find healthy building materials and the robust database of such materials they have accumulated. They won’t share the database, however, saying it is proprietary information. Kind of cruel teasing us that way.
    • Another presentation by the building owner and the developers focused on a high-rise building in Italy that has reduced energy use by 45% partly by turning off the ventilation fans at night. An interesting conversation ensued about whether that counts as a design strategy.

    We toured buildings designed by Palladio, Scarpa, and many other great Italian architects while in the Veneto region. For me, the highlight was visiting Villa Rotonda and the Brion Cemetery. I was reminded of the power of design—intentional design and accretive design (that happens over time from use and accommodation). We live in a time when we can control so much of the built world. Watching Terminator Genisys on the plane home, I was reminded that control comes with responsibility to create buildings that share the goods of society equitably, use resources sparingly (or even are net generators of resources), and are beautiful.

    It was a great trip. I learned a lot.