1. MSR at the 2018 ILFI unConference: Part 2

    The Living Future Unconference (LF18) is always simultaneously awesome and hard. On one hand, it’s amazing to see case studies of projects with high aspirations for sustainable design—actual built projects that are net zero energy and net zero water made out of nontoxic, sustainably sourced and manufactured materials. Amazing!

    Then again: A number of architecture firms have signed this thing called the AIA 2030 Commitment. Buildings are responsible for 40% of US carbon emissions. These firms have committed to reducing the energy usage in our new buildings by 70% compared to the baseline for each building typology we work on, and by 80% starting in 2020. But the average energy use reduction across project types, among firms reporting their progress is less than a 50% reduction. The hard truth is that we, as an industry, are not meeting this goal.

    The distress in the room at this year’s LF18 2030 Challenge report-out was palpable. Designers who care deeply about doing their part to reduce carbon emissions are distraught that we are not succeeding.

    Over the course of the four days of sessions and workshops, I kept wondering why we can’t routinely deliver buildings that meet the 2030 Challenge. We know how to do it technically; we’ve done it before. The equipment is tested. The products are off the shelf. The data is out there showing that this stuff works. Combined with ambitious design thinking on the part of ourselves and our clients, astonishing (but also quietly balanced, aesthetically perfect) things are possible. We want to be doing this work. Why is it so difficult to make a 70% reduction a reality?

    In my mind, the barriers boil down to two major factors, underscored by the case study projects shared at LF18.

    1. Energy and water aren’t expensive yet, and codes don’t require extreme efficiency. This fact is tough for designers and clients alike at the moment. It means the right choice is currently not the incentivized or required choice. It means naysayers do not have to work hard to argue against best practices when the payback period for a given strategy is decades.
    2. The other major, big picture factor is the urgent need for committed collaborators.


    Collaborators meaning consultants. A great mechanical or structural engineer is fundamental to the delivery of a high performance project. When the engineer is not on board with the spirit of a high performance project, the architect and client will simply never know what could have been possible.

    Collaborators meaning general contractors and subcontractors. Sustainability and health goals in buildings can fly or die at the hands of the general contractors and subcontractors who physically build the project. How can the builders be empowered to own their sphere of influence when it comes to making a sustainable project happen? How can we better support collaborators who are already performing their trades in more sustainable ways, or those who want to do better?

    Collaborators meaning clients. Designers may have the technical expertise to deliver net zero energy and water and the knowledge base to specify healthy materials, but we can go only so far if the client is not 100% on board.

    We can’t change #1 (but we can keep talking about it) for the moment.

    Item #2, however, should be our top priority. We are always looking for good collaborators. Going where others have not gone before takes guts. If you are this collaborator, we want to talk to you. I’d love for next year’s 2030 Challenge reporting out to be different. Let’s hit that 70% reduction target. Or better yet, let’s strive for all of our projects to embody the conservation ethic of net zero. We want to do this work.

  2. Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center featured in Architect Magazine

    Architect Magazine features an article on the unique truss design of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center. You can also view a short video on the project.

    The article features a quote from MSR Principal Tom Meyer: “[I]t is a kind of bellwether project for the future of sustainability,” Meyer says. “A lot of buildings in the last generation are unnecessarily complex,” but the near-net-zero-energy bee center “has a kind of modesty. It’s not cheap, but the money that’s spent on it is [spent] toward performance.”

  3. MSR at the 2018 ILFI unConference: Part 1

    Knowing your values at a gut level is relatively easy. Articulating your shared values as part of a practice strategy is harder. Translating firm-wide values into professional practice on a daily basis is an exercise in determination, commitment and patience. Attending the International Living Futures Institute unConference this year in Portland, Oregon proved to be a great resource for understanding how a range of practitioners from the single to the multi-national, have translated their values for sustainability and ethics into how they run their firms and projects.

    Our firm’s strategic goal is to be the leading design firm that achieves inspiring, generative impacts across the board on every project by 2026. Embedded in this statement are aspirations about leadership within the profession, achievements in design excellence, and exploration of sustainability and high-performance through a design approach which yields creative, engaging, and yes, inspiring outcomes. Ambitious, across-the-board goals require specific, incremental, and consistent action. This year’s conference presented lessons learned from a range of businesses and organizations who have made similar commitments, offering different pathways for translating written goals into implemented business strategies.

    A consistent theme was that of a strong voice of leadership: from Amy Johns, Director of the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives at Williams College, to Tim Weller, Manager of Codes, Standards, and Sustainability at Allegion (a global hardware, security, and technology company), speakers showed that advocacy of values is critical at every step of a project – whether from planning through design of a single building or from acquisition of firms through reconciliation of international standards and regulations. These voices of leadership speak up at every opportunity: truly being the voice of the institutional values in rooms where decisions are made. It is imperative that as any and every decision is made, that these be held up against the stated values and goals; this ensures mindfulness in decision-making and ensures that no decision great or small pulls action away from aspiration.

    At the institutional level these champions are fundamental requirements to ensure the viability of achieving sustainable and performance goals, as they hold both individuals and collective decision-making bodies accountable at an internal level. But how can we make a difference when we take our values outside the walls of our practice? Chris Trott, Head of Sustainability at Foster + Partners, offered a great piece of advice: “If you can’t win the communication game, you can’t win at all.” It is all too common for performance achievements to be endless metrics or complex graphs; per Chris’ advice it pays to remember that as design professionals we need to connect and communicate our values and our achievement targets to our clients – individuals and groups without our same backgrounds in design and visualization. For us to succeed in bringing our values to life on a project requires our ability to clearly and succinctly communicate the value of investing in infrastructure and responsible material and assembly choices in ways which resonate with our clients.

    As we continue to make progress towards our strategic goal, our firm continues to nurture advocates at all levels: from practice management through project managers and design staff so that both internally and externally we have many voices at the table speaking up and out for our values. We continue also to explore new ways of communicating: using different graphic techniques and working towards standards that allow us to lay out target benchmarks and projected performance in ways that transform our clients into advocates themselves.

  4. MSR’s “Living Edge” proposal wins first place in Madison’s Reimagining Warner Beach Design Competition

    Clean Lakes Alliance, in partnership with Madison Community Foundation and City of Madison Parks, has announced MSR as the winner of the conceptual design contest to reimagine Warner Beach in Madison, Wisconsin. Clean Lakes Alliance aims to foster a renewed investment and pride in the city’s local beaches through the “Back to the Beach” initiative designed to highlight park assets and identify opportunities for improvement. The conceptual design contest called for participants to envision a future for Warner Beach in which the area is enhanced in terms of water quality, sustainability, community access and placemaking to promote health, happiness, and well-being.

    Perched along the shores of four of the Yahara Lakes, the City of Madison’s location has attracted generations of residents and visitors and created a unique genius of place for the Wisconsin State Capitol building. Lake Mendota’s predevelopment lakeshore consisted of fluctuating, routinely inundated forest, marsh, and wetland areas where plants, sun, soil, fish, wildlife, and other organ-isms maintained a dynamic equilibrium and clean, healthy lake. By contrast, much of the current lakeshore is blanketed with lawns or armored with riprap and bulkheads, drastically reducing the environment’s ecological contribution. Increased development and associated urban runoff, more frequent and intense storms and flooding, and encroaching invasive species have compounded the loss of natural shoreline. “The Living Edge,” MSR’s design proposal for Warner Beach, responds to these conditions by tripling the beach’s effective shoreline area along the 1/4-mile stretch of Lake Mendota. This replicable approach aims to build resilience in the face of climate change, enhance biological diversity, and restore ecosystem function. In addition to amplifying ecological perfor-mance, the increase in lake edge expands experiential opportunities for visitors and nurtures a natural affinity for the water’s edge.

    The Reimagining Warner Beach design competition continues MSR’s long-standing relationship with the City of Madison. The firm also designed the award-winning renovation and expansion to the Madison Central Library, renovation to the Madison Municipal Building (currently under construction), and a new learning center and greenhouse for the Olbrich Botanical Gardens (currently in design).

  5. MSR’s research initiative called Holistic Assessment Protocol (HAP) moves forward

    MSR’s research and development initiative known as Holistic Assessment Protocol (HAP) establishes an approach to pre- and post- project analysis to better understand outcomes and to inform future design success. A multidisciplinary team of architects, interior designers, sustainability experts, and outside research consultants has come together to compile reference benchmarks and standards during Phase I and to refine proposed categories of inquiry relative to the firm’s strategic goal (to be the leading design firm that achieves inspiring generative impacts across the board on every project by 2026).

    Focusing on beauty, performance, and human impact, the team’s data collection and observations encompass community, site, building, room, element, and body scales. During Phase II, the team will prepare recommendations for an office-wide baseline template, including metrics, data collection and analysis templates, and occupant survey questions. These recommendations will be tested on current MSR projects and used to establish add-on metrics for typology, scale, and other unique attributes.

  6. Haverford College’s VCAM building wins 2018 AIA CAE Education Facility Design Award

    Haverford College’s Visual Culture, Arts, and Media (VCAM) building has received an Education Facility Design Award of Excellence from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE). The award honors cutting-edge projects that represent exemplary practice in five key areas of educational facility design: enhancing the client’s educational program; balancing function with aesthetics; establishing a connection with the environment; respecting the surrounding community; demonstrating high-level planning in the design process; and integrating sustainability in a holistic fashion.

    Haverford College’s VCAM building provides students, faculty, staff, and the wider community with a new, highly flexible, 24/7 learning environment of intersecting spaces designed for interpreting and making visual media. Located in a converted 1900 gym, the facility fronts the historic Founders Green in the center of campus. Classrooms, labs, offices, and presentation spaces encourage trans-disciplinary collaboration and experimentation in digital media, film, 3D fabrication, and material culture. VCAM represents an intersection of the physical and the curricular in which modes of seeing, understanding, and remaking the world are activated in productive combinations. The center serves as a setting where students from different disciplines can work together and engage in social dialogue and hands-on production. The VCAM building includes exhibition and presentation spaces where students can share their work.

    The jurors described the VCAM building as “inherently about connection,” adding, “It has a spatial richness that, while inserting a new series of program spaces within a historic building, retains the experience of a single unified space.”

  7. First images of the new City of Minneapolis Public Service Building

    A design collaboration between Henning Larsen and MSR, the new City of Minneapolis Consolidated Office Building will focus on providing Minneapolis citizens with a customer-centric experience as the new public service face for the city. Situated next to City Hall, the building will help create an a contemporary workplace for city business that reflects the diversity of Minneapolis.

    It will introduce a wholly reimagined public service model. The design features innovative collaborative workspaces, integrated sustainability, and access to daylight as a contributor to a healthy work environment.

    It will truly be a building for everybody. The design invites the public into the building by placing public functions towards Government Plaza. Taking inspiration from the city’s abundant parks and lakes, the design incorporates open community space at street level, gesturing towards City Hall and activating the adjacent plaza. The new building’s main entrance will be oriented to minimize wind exposure, with its massing and facade oriented to optimize daylight.


  8. Tulsa City-County Central Library wins 2018 AIA/ALA Library Building Award

    The reimagined Tulsa City-County Central Library is one of six library projects to be honored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and American Library Association (ALA) with an AIA/ALA Library Building Award. A partnership between AIA and ALA’s Library Leadership and Management Association, the award honors the best in library architecture and design. This urban renewal project contributes to the revitalization of a second-tier city’s struggling downtown core by transforming a dilapidated, mid-century modern central library and inhospitable civic plaza into a prized community destination for active learning and creative engagement.

    The design team targeted three primary goals for the project:

    • Become a downtown destination that contributes to renewal of the urban core.
    • Create a library building that responds to 21st-century library needs
    • Be generative, positively impacting library users, the surrounding community, the library industry, and the environment.

    To achieve these goals, the design team crafted a building program and architectural response that includes:

    • Revitalized, humanized civic plaza and new public garden for programming and community events.
    • Clear, secure entry sequence in which all ways of entering the library collect into one main lobby area.
    • Parking garage with an enclosed two-story link to the library building.
    • Innovative, interactive education center for research and development of learning practices.
    • Maker space, including a recording studio and simulators, that brings hands-on learning to the library.
    • Destination children’s library with direct access to the garden.
    • Improved thermal performance of the entire building envelope, daylight harvesting and lighting strategies, and the first rooftop photovoltaic solar array installed on a Tulsa building.

    The jury described the renovation as “elegant and timeless.” One juror added, “It maximizes and revitalizes the surrounding neighborhood, which would inspire me to visit more often just to experience its beauty.”

  9. 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.

  10. 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.