Thoughts: Lessons from the Y2E2 Experiment

In my view, the Jerry Yang & Akiko Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building at Stanford University is unsuccessful in so many respects and in total – but we can chalk that up to the experimental nature of the building. But still, one would hope that diligent experimental design would have produced a better experiment. This is one experiment that should end so that another can be started. Accept the failure and learn from the lessons.

Reference Point – The Leslie Shao-Ming Sun Field Station at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve of Stanford University. This is a truly amazing structure and space. It embraces sustainable functionality and efficiency, and maintains productivity while continuing to evolve as challenges get addressed.

Architectural – A few of the individual failures include (a) bathrooms opposite faculty offices [see hallway photo at end of this entry] – demonstrates no consideration of how faculty operate, (b) staff administrator offices with no outside windows – the only personnel who typically stay in their offices 8 am to 5 pm and you suppress natural sunlight to their workspace?, and (c) low-height ceilings in lab offices that are reached by going down one floor then up half a floor? There are many more. An exercise for a YCISL workshop could be jotting down the Y2E2 Features on the walls of the red atrium stairwell, and creating a list of failures – and doing a value analysis. Lesson: Ask. Gather information. Do your homework.

Functional – What would one expect to be the main functions of an academic building at Stanford? Teaching? Research? Study areas for students? As for teaching, there is just 1 formal classroom – someone was thinking “one-size-fits-all.” Conference rooms have been partially re-purposed for teaching but you can guess what happens when a space is used for something other than its intended function (many are not great as conference rooms either). Regarding research, look at the distance separating the various researchers in a group, and the distance of faculty offices from their laboratories –  hardly encourages research and collaboration. As for study areas, I would acknowledge that there are a number of small meeting rooms that students can use to meet for group work or discussion – a reasonable success. Even the scattered sofas and padded chairs are a plus – but it’s less than what was in our previous building, the Terman Engineering Center (TEC). Lesson: Focus quality on main requirements.

Operational – During off-hours, the building is locked and inconvenient to access even for legitimate use. Then there’s package delivery for which there is no system – delivery persons are constantly looking for anyone to sign for a delivery so they can move on to their next stop. Yes, there are the “neat” thermostat-controlled actuated louvers that let cool air in on the 1st floor at out the top of the atria – but is there any fresh air in the basement (where the labs and research students are?) Lesson: A little compatibility testing (even simulated) can be a huge value differentiator. Fail often. Fail fast. Do something about the failures.

Social – Sadly, a net zero social environment is acceptable here given the politically combative environment that exists because of logistical arrangements. The social environment is net zero and is reflected by typical long empty hallways and distance between co-workers (a logistical failure). There was a good-intentioned idea to create theme areas in clusters but it resulted in broken existing ties and turf wars. Social is another area where Y2E2 scores well below TEC. Lesson: Sustainability should attract people, not repel them.

Health – The flame-retardant soaked artwork in the atria (especially in the red atrium where food service takes place) showed a lack of care for environmental health. But also look at the lack of water fountains as well as poor ventilation in the bathrooms. Then there are the hard, unpadded staircases and lack of real sunlight in the inner spaces (mental health not considered). Lesson: Sustainability should nurture a healthy ecosystem.

Environmental – One of the most interesting positive features of Y2E2 is the enhanced thermal transfer between floors because of the non-carpeted floors – I mention this to all visitors as a smart feature. But among some of the less-than-smart things is that building warmth is dependent on actual bodies in the building. Whereas the Sun Field Station anticipates the time people will arrive for work and initiate heaters/coolers to get to a comfortable temperature by the appropriate time, Y2E2 will only heat up when a critical number of bodies get in (if they get in). Cooling is just as unreliable with a central controller determining the delivery of cool air with no regard for how individual spaces are used – again “one-size-fits-all.” On the “positive” side, TEC was worse at heating//cooling. Lesson: Sustainability savings through discouraging occupancy is a net loss.

Logistical – It is mind-boggling how usability was not at the forefront in Y2E2’s planning and design. I’d like to mention even one user-friendly logistical arrangement in Y2E2, but I can’t think of one (right now). How about a simple enough problem needing a forward-thinking solution such as bicycle parking? Nope, just as bad as it was at the TEC. Could’ve just visited a truly bicycle-friendly university campus such as UC Davis. There is the cafe in the red atrium first floor – glad there is a food outlet in the building but it’s situated next to the classroom and a couple of key conference rooms (which have clear glass sides facing the cafe so there is massive distraction in meetings), and its ordering line and waiting area extends into an entry area so traffic jams are common. Lesson: Usability supports sustainability.

Technology – What would it have taken to make the VoIP jacks a different color from the Ethernet jacks? And one has to check in and out a VoIP audio conference speakerphone? Yes, most conference rooms have a Smart Panel to connect a laptop and connection points in the floor and elsewhere – but reliability should be higher. Yes, we have group videoconference units – but they are underutilized because of scheduling policies and lack of support. Lesson: Efficiency also involves time savings. Make it convenient.

Sustainability – I’d like to think that this was a sustainability experiment, but at this time, I wonder whether this was more of a psychology experiment – one in which people’s tolerance for pain, suffering and sacrifice – in the name of sustainability – were tested. This observation has led me to decide that the discussion of sustainability in the YCISL program needs to focus on efficiency, productivity and enhanced health so that intrinsic motivation is optimized, and solutions actually solve problems, not create new ones.

In the picture below: Y2E2 Green atrium area at 9:33 am on Tuesday September 18, 2012. Empty. Un-used. Un-productive. Sustainable – yes.

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