10 Critical Corporate Sustainability Trends

What trends are you following? I’m loving all the collaborations that include humor and unexpected creative connections. I think that’s the trend to follow.

10 Critical Corporate Sustainability Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond

If the global business community is to thrive in the long term — and carry us to that flourishing future we are trying to imagine and help build — it needs to continue to scale up the ambition and influence of its efforts. That’s much easier said than done, of course, though we are seeing a number of encouraging trends within the Sustainable Brands community that, while still nascent, are promising to deliver a lot of value for years to come. Here is a list of 10 such trends that are top of mind for our team at the moment:

1. The growing list of celebrities supporting sustainability-driven communication campaigns

A few celebrities have been at it for a while (case in point: Matt Damon, who keeps evolving his work with Water.org, as in this recent partnership with Stella Artois), but we have certainly seen a significant increase in the number of famous faces appearing in sustainability-driven campaigns of all sorts. The growing list includes Pharrell and will.i.am’s involvement in promoting circular models around plastic waste with Bionic Yarn and Ekocycle, respectively; fashion icon Amber Valletta’s participation in Fashion Positive and documentary web series “Thread”; Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, Ed Norton, Penelope Cruz, Robert Redford, Ian Somerhalder and Lupita Nyong’o’s vocal contributions to Conservation International’s Nature is Speaking campaign; and Olivia Wilde’s role in promoting H&M’s Conscious Exclusive collection, among others. And then there is social media celebrity Prince Ea’s “Dear Future Generations: Sorry” video, which just broke the record for most viral environmental campaign to date with more than 20 million views in its first 24 hours and over 50 million views in the first week.

Watch the H&M video Here.


Watch the Dear Future Generations, Sorry video Here.

sorry video still

2. Quality humor, edgy terms and instant meme-ability in marketing and advertising campaigns

Surprise, surprise — humor can be a strong weapon not just in mainstream marketing, but also in sustainability marketing. A few years ago, it did miracles for Rainforest Alliance’s Follow the Frog campaign, which at the time felt like an isolated incidence of something that was both sustainability-minded and funny. That is no longer the case, as multiple fresh cases have surfaced since then. My favorites of the last several months include Bolthouse Farms‘food porn data’, Organic Valley’s plan to Save the Bros, and this Superbowl ad for BMW’s electric i3 model: 

Watch the video Here.

bmw electric

3. Transparency campaigns gaining momentum but scrutinized ever more closely

Transparency campaigns are becoming more common and being delivered in a growing variety of ways — whether through traditional media campaigns as in the case of SeaWorld, dedicated interactive websites hosting public discussions with consumers as in the cases of McDonald’s, Monsanto and palm oil trader Wilmar International, or innovative digital tools such as Stonyfield’s sourcing plan portrayed with the help of Sourcemap. While these and other similar efforts that have sprung up in recent months are all praise-worthy for taking steps toward opening up beyond the norm, not all have enjoyed equally favorable reception — there is a rather natural expectation in most stakeholders that once a brand goes into transparency territory, it has to go all in and not bend even small parts of the story; else, the risk is that said campaign gets labeled inauthentic and does potentially more damage than good.

4. Intensifying collaboration between the peer-to-peer and mainstream economies

Last year, SB ‘14 speaker Jeremiah Owyang documented more than 70 cases of mainstream brands taking part in the peer-to-peer economy in various ways, and the list has only grown since. New layers of value creation from peer-to-peer models continue to emerge, and the intersections with mainstream value propositions continue to grow in diversity, as well. Consider the case of GoodGym, a quickly growing group of UK runners who combine regular exercise with helping local communities – whether by visiting isolated elderly people or repairing various kinds of infrastructure. This peer-to-peer model has recently found a way to create even more shared value by partnering with mainstream footwear brand New Balance:

Watch the video Here.

new balance

5. A growing ecosystem of players and initiatives around circular business models

A circular economy is a stunningly beautiful concept in theory, but until recently not many companies had taken specific steps towards making it a reality. It seems that has changed quite suddenly in the last couple of years, so much so that it’s getting hard to keep track of new players and initiatives entering almost daily now.

One of my current favorites is The Closed Loop Fund, an ambitious consortium of major brands that have created a $100 million fund aimed at providing municipalities access to zero- and low-interest loans to build comprehensive recycling programs. I am also impressed by creative new partnerships, such as the one between Goodwill and Uber, whereby Uber users could request a pickup for their donations to be delivered directly to their local Goodwill free of charge, or a new competition supported by Sprint and Net Impact that inspired students to generate new ideas about how to revive or reuse old smartphones and their components.

6. New horizons for city-brand partnerships in implementing new solutions together

The intersection of corporate and city sustainability is both exciting and relatively unexplored so far. It carries a lot of potential for win-win public-private partnerships, though it also requires deep knowledge and careful planning in a number of technical, social and cultural domains. Most brands seem to be in a let’s-wait-and-see position about it, but a handful are taking bold steps with ‘unusual’ experiments and partnerships. Ford, for example, has recently launched 25 fascinating mobility experiments and challenges with cities around the world, ranging from car-sharing on demand in London, to a vehicle sharing program for small communities in Bangalore, to remote-control-operated repositioning of vehicles in Atlanta.

7. Powerful synergies await us when our homes get truly connected and smart

Intuitively, it seems more than clear that there must be a number of fascinating upgrades coming to our houses and apartments to make them vastly superior and a lot more resource-efficient than they are now. Quite a few brands have had their sleeves rolled up, and tangible results are starting to surface. Whirlpool is one of the early active movers, having unveiled concepts for ‘homes with a conscience’ and ‘a socially networked kitchen.’ The company has also set up the world’s first retrofitted, live-in research, positive-impact home in partnership with Purdue University as both a working lab and a consumer engagement tool. Other major players include Wink, a new brand resulting from a partnership of GE and Quirky, which has released a number of smart home products under the entertaining tag line, “Like a robot butler, but not as awkward.”

Watch the video Here.

ge and quirky

8. Major pivots in favor of shifting product portfolios with sustainability-driven criteria in mind

To shift a significant enough fraction of a product portfolio to align with a new sustainability strategy, and set an industry precedent in the process, is no small feat. Few have accomplished that to date, even among brands commonly considered leaders in corporate sustainability. Chemical giant BASF stands out to me as a textbook example, having just gone through a process that evaluates 50,000 product applications in the company’s portfolio, representing sales of €56 billion. The analysis took a couple of years to complete, involved 1,500 experts, and resulted in more than a thousand — yes, a thousand — specific plans for changing or phasing out products. Some consumer-facing brands have taken similarly ambitious actions — CVS famously quit cigarettes for good last year; Panera Bread just announced it is committing to removing a ‘No No List’ of over 150 ingredients from its menu in an effort to eliminate artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners and preservatives; and big retailers Walmart and Target are both taking steps toward organizing subsets of their product portfolios filtered by sustainability criteria.

9. Radically local supply chains that are logistically possible, commercially viable and brand-aligned

Make no mistake — these kinds of models are coming, one way or another. Multiple forces are pushing in that direction, including revitalization of urban environments, the slow but steady evolution of 3D printing, and novel partnerships driven by reenergized engagement of local stakeholders-turned-business partners. A great example of this last force is the Backyard Hoodie project, a collaboration led by The North Face that launched an experiment aiming to produce a hoodie — from seed to garment — from within 150 miles of the San Francisco Bay Area. While the pilot round wasn’t 100 percent successful (the process had to rely on one step outside the 150-mile range), it is showing tremendous promise that will surely prompt other major brands to play with similar concepts.

10. The mighty force created by combining employee engagement with impact investing

For almost a year now I have been intrigued by two novel types of dual-purpose employee-engagement strategies designed to make a difference for employees and external beneficiaries alike. One is a new type of corporate partnership that micro-lending platform Kiva has been perfecting with partners such as HP and Google, allowing employees to lend to aspiring entrepreneurs in over 80 countries. The second strategy, popularized by HIP Investor, involves rethinking how 401(k) packages are put together so that employees can be confident that their retirement accounts are on a good trajectory while acting as impact investors at the same time.

I hope that you’ll find the rather brief analysis of these 10 trends useful, and I’d love to hear whether you agree, disagree, or have other trends to suggest as equally important in the Comments section below! We’ll be exploring these 10 trends in a lot more depth at Sustainable Brands ’15 San Diego in early June and I’d love to chat in person there if you join us.

Dimitar is the Director of Content Development at Sustainable Brands. He joined the team after earning a Master’s degree in Management Science & Engineering – focused on sustainable business – from Stanford University. Before Stanford, Dimitar worked in international development… [Read more about Dimitar Vlahov]

The Creative Climate Awards – Call for Artists!

Are you an artist who focuses on climate change? Please submit to The Human Impact’s Institute’s annual competition – The Creative Climate Awards!

2015 HII Creative Climate Awards Call to Artists
What Are the Creative Climate Awards?
The Human Impacts Institute’s Fifth Annual Creative Climate Call for Artists brings together the visual arts, performance art, and film to install climate-inspired public works throughout New York City.

Our Creative Climate Awards use the creative process as a tool to inspire audiences to explore the consequences of their actions, think critically about pressing issues, and to make the environment personal. These events are an opportunity to creatively engage tens-of-thousands of people in positive action around the challenges posed by climate change, while having
your work seen by our judges—some of the top artists, curators,
and international leaders in the world.

For 2015, we welcome artists and artists’ collectives working in
the following disciplines: 2D work, performance, and short
film (up to 15 minutes).

This Year’s Competition Call to Artists:
2D work, short films (up to 15 min), and performance pieces
that “Make Climate Personal and Practical” for the Creative Climate Awards

Developed by: The Human Impacts Institute (HII)

Cash Prizes: First place: $2,000 and more TBA! sponsored by TECO in NYC

Only online submissions accepted here: Creative Climate Awards Submissions

Deadline: No later than 11:30pm, Monday, June 15th

Events Dates:
Opening Party: Monday, September 21st
Exhibit and Performances: Sept 21st-Oct 22nd
Closing Awards Party: Monday, October 22nd

the future 2



Elon Musk Announces Tesla Energy

Elon Musk just turned the fight against climate change on its head. He announced and explained the roll out of the Tesla home/commercial energy battery using normal human conversational language, and humor, addressing a huge global problem without making it sound dire or quoting stats or percentages. Simply stated: “I think we collectively should tru to do something about this, and not try not to win the Darwin Awards.” . The plan: Fossil fuels cause global warming. We have the sun. The sun shines only part of the day. We should store the energy in batteries. Here’s how. Watch Here!

Tesla Now Has An Energy Division, And It’s Making Batteries To Power Your House

The PowerWall will store excess solar energy, take power from the grid when it’s cheapest, and provide back-up power in emergencies.

Elon Musk has a vision of a world powered entirely with renewable energy and sleek-looking batteries built by Tesla.

After much speculation, Tesla finally announced its secret new product: a series of battery systems for homes, utilities, and businesses. The batteries are all under the umbrella of what the company is calling Tesla Energy.

It’s more exciting than it sounds.

The batteries can provide backup power during grid outages, store excess solar energy for when the sun isn’t shining (instead of sending it back to the grid at wholesale prices), and store power from the electric grid when it’s cheapest—instead of tapping into the grid when energy usage is at its costly peak. This means that electric vehicle owners can store energy during the day and charge their cars with that energy at night.

Musk, Tesla’s CEO, hammered home his vision during a livestreamed press conference. After walking on stage, the first thing he did—before announcing anything about Tesla Energy—was show a picture of a coal plant and a graph of the growing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

“I think we collectively should do something about this, and not try to win the Darwin Award,” he said, referring to cheeky awards given to people who die in especially stupid ways. “The obvious problem with solar power is that the sun doesn’t shine at night. Even during the day, energy generation varies. It’s important to smooth out that energy generation and retain enough so that you can use it at night.”

The Tesla Energy batteries are a way to do that—and to hear Musk tell it, they’re much better than other storage batteries that have come before. “The issue with existing batteries is that they suck. They’re expensive, they’re unreliable, they’re sort of stinky, ugly, and bad in every way,” he said.

Tesla’s product for homes, called the PowerWall Home Battery, is made up of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, a control system, and software. It comes in two versions: a 10kWh/$3,500 pack, ideal for backup power applications, and a 7kWh/$3,000 version for daily use. That cost excludes installation and the inverter, so the real price could be significantly higher. The PowerWall is available to buy on Tesla’s website now, with shipping in the next three or four months.

“It looks like a beautiful sculpture on the wall,” said Musk. The PowerWall is stackable (up to nine can be stacked at once) and can be mounted in a garage or on the outside of a house.

While it’s not cheap (though as many have pointed out, it’s cheaper than some editions of the Apple Watch), Musk imagines that the PowerWall—which is already out in the wild as part of a pilot project with 300 customers of SolarCity, the solar company run by Musk’s cousin—could be used in remote parts of the world where electricity is intermittent or expensive.

Tesla’s battery system solution for larger customers, the PowerPack, is “designed to scale infinitely,” according to Musk, who speculated that 160 million PowerPacks could transition the entire U.S. to renewables.

A number of business customers, including Amazon, Target, and Jackson Family Wines are already using it.

Amazon Web Services, for example, is planning to launch a 4.8 mWh pilot of the batteries in northern California as a way to make intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind more reliable. Jackson Family Wines already has 21 Power Packs installed, providing 4.2 MW of storage capacity.

Tesla is also working on a handful of utility projects, with companies like Southern California Edison and OnCor.

Tesla’s new Nevada battery factory, the Gigafactory, will produce 50 million kWh of lithium ion batteries by 2020, and Musk hinted that a big chunk of that production capacity will be used to make PowerWalls and PowerPacks. As we mentioned previously, one of the Gigafactory’s goals is to lower lithium-ion battery costs by 30%, and having dedicated production for storage batteries could make sure that it’s always working at full capacity.

In order to create any sort of battery-powered renewable energy revolution, Tesla can’t be the only big player. It isn’t—as Musk pointed out, other companies make battery packs already. But Tesla is also planning to open-source all patents related to its batteries, including those for the Gigafactory, which will itself be the first of many Gigafactories. We have the solar panels and the wind turbines: The next step for renewable energy is batteries.

The 9 limits of our planet

I think Johan Rockstrom summed it up in the article below when he said let the planet place the boundaries of our development. That may seem stifling but with the surge of renewable energy innovation and technological advances assisting the sustainability movement, we have a chance to come out on top of this crisis. This time period is a chance not to try to out-do ourselves with technological fixes to our own self-made problems but to beat ourselves at our own game. If adapt and thrive is the name of the game humans like to play, then play within the ecosystems boundaries and do more with what we have been given. To solve the climate crisis with innovative, preventative thinking, would be the most noble of all undertakings. I dare us to try.

The 9 limits of our planet … and how we’ve raced past 4 of them


Johan Rockström says humanity has already raced past four of the nine boundaries keeping our planet hospitable to modern life. Writer John Carey digs into the “planetary boundary” theory — and why Rockström says his isn’t, actually, a doomsday message.We’ve been lucky, we humans: For many millennia, we’ve been on a pretty stable — and resilient — planet. As our civilizations developed, we’ve transformed the landscape by cutting down forests and growing crops. We’ve created pollution, and driven plants and animals extinct. Yet our planet has kept spinning along, supporting us, more or less stable and in balance. Going forward, scientists have recently proposed, all we need to do is stay within some limits, nine upper boundaries for bad behavior.

But of course, being human, we haven’t.

In a startling January 2015 paper in Science, Johan Rockström says humanity has already raced past four of the nine boundaries keeping our planet hospitable to modern life. The climate is changing too quickly, species are going extinct too fast, we’re adding too many nutrients like nitrogen to our ecosystems, and we keep on cutting down forests and other natural lands. And we’re inching towards crossing the remaining five boundaries (see image).

Rockström (TED Talk: Let the environment guide our development) is the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and his paper is co-authored by 17 colleagues. “The planet has been our best friend by buffering our actions and showing its resilience,” Rockström says. “But for the first time ever, we might shift the planet from friend to foe.”

Rockström conceived of the idea of planetary boundaries back in 2007, and published his first landmark paper on the topic in 2009. The new paper digs far deeper. A key underlying assumption is that the extraordinary climate stability of the Holocene Epoch, which began when the last Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago, has been crucial to human development. This period of planetary calm enabled our ancestors to emerge from their Paleolithic caves to cultivate wheat, domesticate animals, and launch industrial and communications revolutions. As a result, the world now has 7.2 billion people—and almost that many cell phones.

9 planetary boundaries

But now, this stability is under threat. The paper concludes, for instance, that the “safe” concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (which cause climate change) is about 350 parts per million. At today’s level of 400 ppm, we’ve already blown by the boundary and risk dangerously high temperatures and sea levels, crippling droughts and floods, and other climate woes. Similarly, Rockström and his team calculate, we’ve already lost 16 percent of the biodiversity in many regions of the planet, more than the “safe” level of about 10 percent.

Crossing those two boundaries — climate change and the health of the planet’s ecosystems — is especially worrisome because doing so “can shove the Earth into completely different states,” says Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute and the new paper’s lead author. Cut down enough tropical forests, and the reminder will flip from rain forest to savannah, for instance, and all the benefits of forests will be lost. Or raise the planet’s temperature enough to cause ice sheets to collapse, and less of the sun’s heat will be reflected back to space, causing the warming to accelerate.

“For the first time, we have a framework for growth, for eradicating poverty and hunger, and for improving health,” Johan Rockström

We’re already close to points of no return, Rockström and many others believe. “What scares me absolutely the most is that we may have crossed a tipping point in the loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet,” he says.

Time to throw up our hands in despair? Not at all, says Rockström. “Ours is a positive — not a doomsday — message,” he insists. The beauty of the planetary boundary analysis is that it charts a path to keeping the planet “safe” for humanity, he believes. For instance, nations can slash their carbon emissions to almost nothing, thus pulling the Earth back across the climate boundary. Similarly, we can triple or quadruple agricultural yields in Africa with no-till water-saving methods, keeping us from the brink on forest and biodiversity loss. “For the first time, we have a framework for growth, for eradicating poverty and hunger, and for improving health,” says Rockström.

Slim and athletic at 50, and a man of boundless energy, Rockström has been taking this message on the road. He’s given talks at TEDGlobal and at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He’s met with scientists, politicians and executives — and earned accolades like “Sweden’s Person of the Year.” “Johan has incredible skill to be able to work with policy people, business executives, NGOs, and still keep his own research going,” says Steffen.

Even critics of the planetary boundary concept say he’s made a mark. “I can see how he has had a pretty big influence,” says Linus Blomqvist, director of research at the Breakthrough Institute, an `eco-modern’ think tank that has been perhaps the idea’s most vocal critic. “He’s brought the questions of global change and human effects to new forums and new debates.”

The boundary idea also is inspiring new scientific questions. Geological history shows that the planet can flip to a dramatically warmer or colder state lasting thousands of years when it crosses the climate boundary. But are there similar tipping points for other boundaries in Rockström’s analysis? For instance, if we keep pouring more nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers into rivers, lakes and oceans, do we just get a related increase in harmful algal blooms and “dead” zones from the excess nutrients? Or might the whole aquatic system suddenly flip to a new state less conducive to human life?

Another key unanswered question is whether (and how much) crossing one boundary might change the other boundaries. Imagine if a combination of nutrient pollution and ocean acidification killed most of the seas’ plankton, dramatically reducing the oceans’ ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere. That would accelerate global warming—and require carbon emissions to be cut below today’s calculated boundary level. But the details of such connections — and many other possible ones — are unclear. “What frustrates me is that we still don’t understand how these boundary points interact,” says Rockström, who together with his collaborators is now seeking funding to explore the many possible interconnections.

The research has not been without controversy. Some critics have seen the planetary boundaries idea as the intellectual stepchild of the now discredited 1970’s “Limits to Growth” and “Population Bomb” notions that the Earth will inevitably run out of room and resources. “A lot of countries hate the idea of planetary boundaries,” says Steffen. To them, it suggests that the planet’s available space has all been used up, so that they are unable to follow the path the West has taken to development and prosperity.

Some argue that humans are clever enough to thrive even if the Earth does lurch away from the stability of the Holocene. But why take the risk?

This particular criticism is a fundamental misreading, supporters say. “The planetary boundary research liberates us from limits to growth in a decisive way,” Rockström explains. “It says, ‘here is a safe operating space where we can have unlimited growth.’” True, the existence of the climate boundary means that developed nations must slash their carbon emissions to near zero in just a few decades. “But there is nothing to hinder solar and wind power and higher efficiency,” Rockström says. “The world economy can grow even in a decarbonized space.”

Others argue that humans are clever enough to thrive even if the Earth does lurch away from the stability of the Holocene. The planetary boundary concept “ignores the ability of humans to adapt and change, which is the hallmark of civilization,” says Ruth DeFries, professor of sustainable development at Columbia University and author of The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.

But why take the risk, especially if humanity can take reasonable steps to stay within the boundaries, Rockström replies. “Is it worth undermining the Earth system to create vast benefits for this generation, assuming the next generation will be more innovative?” he asks. Plus, adds Steffen, “anyone who says we can cope with a four to five degree warmer world, and a biologically impoverished world, hasn’t thought about it.”

The Breakthrough Institute frets that some boundaries seem arbitrary because they have no known threshold. And since it’s already obvious that the world must cut carbon emissions and boost agricultural yields, “those planetary boundaries kind of seem irrelevant,” says Breakthrough’s Blomqvist.

Not to Rockström. Instead of endlessly arguing with climate skeptics about supposed uncertainties in climate science, he says, it’s possible to show the overwhelming evidence of an acceleration towards the eight other boundaries too — forests, depleting ozone, chemical loading etc. “It creates a more healthy discussion than yes or no on climate change,” he says.

That’s an approach that others find compelling as well. Obviously, we need swift action to fight climate change, says Joe Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, and a former U.S. Energy Department official. “But apparently, however we have been explaining that to people, they don’t get it.”

Will the world get the planetary boundary message? We’d better, Rockström says. “We may have entered the most challenging and exciting decade in the history of the planet,” he says. “We have a responsibility to leave the planet in a state as close to the Holocene as possible.”

Featured image by Reto Stöckli/NASA based on data from NASA and NOAA.

Beam Me Up

Beam Me Up

By Adele Weder Ema Peter/courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

beam me up 1

Got wood? At 29.5 metres, WIDC, in Prince George, BC, is the tallest mass-timber building in North America.

Michael Green likes to think big, talk big, and build tall. He schmoozes with government power brokers, innovative engineers, and audacious developers. In his Vancouver studio on a silver-skied January morning, though, the crowd is considerably more ingenuous: a class of high school students ferried in from the Sunshine Coast. “Once in a while, we say, Let’s just dream up some crazy idea, like building an art gallery underneath Stanley Park,” he tells the spellbound teenagers, illustrating the concept with a rendering of a subterranean gallery shaped like a starfish. “The what-ifs are an important part of being an architect.” Then he segues into the biggest what-ifs of his career, the ones that have brought him international attention. What if we were to start building our cities with a strong, fire-resistant, renewable resource? What if that resource were wood? What if British Columbia could lead the way?

A posse of Vancouver architects, engineers, manufacturers, and consultants are doing just that by working with wood that can be carved like stone and cantilevered like I-beams. Their designs are reaching heights and widths unfathomable even five years ago, and they are leading a paradigm shift in construction. It’s not just that they’re building with new, stronger boards; they may well also have found an eco-friendly replacement for concrete and steel.

Engineered wood—so-called mass timber—is not entirely new. Glued laminated timber, or glulam, comprises multiple layers bonded together, and can be found in nineteenth-century British churches and fifty-year-old American bridges. But today’s glulam is manufactured with computer technology at increasingly high levels of sophistication, part of an alphabet soup of innovative products: cross-laminated timber (CLT), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), laminated strand lumber (LSL), parallel strand lumber (PSL), and nail-laminated timber (NLT). CLT, for example, is a kind of jumbo plywood that was invented in Switzerland in the 1990s. It has become steadily more popular in Europe over the past ten years but until recently hasn’t been available in North America. When Vancouver architect Greg Dowling designed his family home a few years ago—the first CLT-built house on the continent—he had to import the panels from Austria. Four years ago, Nordic Engineered Wood and Structurlam Products began manufacturing the product in Montreal and Penticton, BC, respectively; they are still the only two certified construction-grade suppliers in North America.

Today’s CLT panels can be thirty centimetres thick and eighteen metres long; when used in tandem with contemporary glulam beams and other wood products, mass-timber frameworks approach the load-bearing strength of old-growth timber, concrete, and steel. In Japan, rigorous seismic testing that replicates the effects of the 1995 Kobe earthquake has shown them to be as strong and resilient as those made of more conventional materials. And their large, thick components are much more fire-resistant than traditional two-by-fours, which have greater surface areas to feed the flames. Light a fire under a glulam beam or a CLT panel, and it would take hours to ignite. By then, the fire department would long since have arrived.

beam me up 2

Ema Peter/courtesy of Michael Green Architecture Cabin in disguise Drywall panels clad WIDC’s contemporary CLT structure and enhance fire-resistance.

Vancouver firms are using the latest mass-timber technologies to design brilliant spaces. Their buildings—such as the new Fort McMurray International Airport terminal, by Office of McFarlane Biggar; the University of British Columbia’s Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, by McFarland Marceau; and the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, by Perkins + Will—have won acclaim for their technical and pragmatic elements, and as welcome antidotes to the austere glass, steel, and concrete palette of contemporary modernism.

Fast + Epp, led by Paul Fast, engineered the CIRS building and is poised to create its next landmark: a high-rise UBC dormitory designed in partnership with Acton Ostry Architects and Austria-based Architekten Hermann Kaufmann. The university was one of three winners of a nationwide competition backed by industry bodies and multiple levels of government to nurture tall wooden buildings in Canada. If built as planned by September 2017, the residence will soar eighteen storeys—making it far taller than any other mass-timber building on the planet. That is, unless another “plyscraper” goes up in the meantime. (The two other winning designs are for a twelve- to fourteen-storey building in Ottawa and a thirteen-storey tower in Quebec City.)

More important than height, though, is pushing the envelope by creating new benchmarks. “We’re in the business of showing this is possible,” says Brent Sauder, UBC’s director of strategic initiatives. “That’s the role of universities.”

While the UBC project trudges through the approval process, the University of Northern British Columbia, in Prince George, lays claim to the tallest mass-timber building in the Western hemisphere. Designed by Green, the Wood Innovation and Design Centre rises 29.5 metres. Although it contains just six floors, its frame is nonetheless taller—by twenty-eight centimetres—than a nine-storey structure in London that once held tallest-timber bragging rights. Green strategically placed a double-height main level and mechanical penthouse, but technically adhered to current Canadian building codes, which limit wood-frame construction to six storeys.

From the street, WIDC (pronounced “widdick”) projects a strong dose of urban cool, with its distinctive (for Prince George) height and glass-clad slickness. As you move closer, you notice massive supporting columns just inside the glazed facade. That’s the idea: the framework is on the inside, protected from the elements.

Even deeper inside is a truly immersive experience, with wood above, below, and beside you. It speaks to a West Coast sensibility: it’s hard to imagine this building in, say, New York or Toronto. Some of the detailing is uneven compared to that of Green’s other finely wrought mass-timber works, such as North Vancouver City Hall and Ronald McDonald House BC. Perhaps one should expect such hiccups in a pilot project, especially as Green wasn’t on site when WIDC went up. On the other hand, we can take this building as a useful proviso for the entire industry. If North America is going to shift to mass timber en masse, every player in the development chain will need to get up to speed with European construction standards—which, at the moment, are considerably higher. Special fasteners, for example, still have to be imported from Austria and Germany. The North American industry will have to retool if it wants to keep pace with its counterparts across the Atlantic.

Just the same, WIDC is galvanizing the industry through its physical presence and the new academic program it will house—North America’s first master of engineering degree in integrated wood design. Guido Wimmers, a German-born, Austrian-trained architect and engineer, is setting up the program, which will welcome its inaugural cohort in January 2016. He was part of the Austrian team that showcased an all-wood, ultra-energy-efficient house in Whistler at the 2010 Winter Olympics. He points out the challenges that cheerleaders sometimes neglect to mention. “People will only build wooden high-rises if it’s economical,” he says. “To be economical, you have to be fast. To be fast, you have to be prefabricated. To be prefab, you have to be absolutely precise. And our culture”—he means North America’s—“is not yet ready for that level of precision.”

It was Wimmers who in 2007 helped introduce Green, along with his then partner Steve McFarlane and engineers Eric Karsh and Robert Malczyk, to mass timber, by leading them on an eye-opening tour of contemporary buildings in Innsbruck, Austria, before they attended a conference 200 kilometres away in Bregenz. The four Canadians left Europe determined to bring the idea of mass timber back home; Wimmers travelled to Canada to oversee the passive-house project and never left.

His master’s program could be the key to helping the Canadian industry attain that Euro-level of precision. Manufacturers here will be most competitive if they acquire the capabilities to precut and route openings for mechanical vents and electrical outlets prior to shipment to job sites, Wimmers explains. That crucial time saver is what helps make European mass-timber buildings look as seamlessly crafted as high-end furniture. Wimmers and others are optimistic about the UBC tower, though, in part because Hermann Kaufmann is exceptionally skilled and experienced in mass timber. And a $5 million premium from the Canadian Wood Council will help the university and the other two winners offset the cost of doing things while this way of building gets off the ground. “One of the objectives of this project,” says Sauder, “is to get to the point where there is no premium needed.”

While the Ottawa and Quebec City towers will also serve as landmarks, the UBC residence will almost certainly have the highest profile, given the renowned design team behind it. (The two others will be designed by Windmill Developments and Nordic, respectively.) It will also be a bellwether for the entire continent, predicts Karsh, co-principal with Malczyk at Equilibrium Consulting: “If UBC can build an eighteen-storey tower on a budget of $190 per square foot, that could be the game changer.”

In the wake of the Canadian design competition, the United States Department of Agriculture launched one of its own—and enlisted BC expertise to help create and manage the process. Vancouver-based Cees de Jager, general manager of the Binational Softwood Lumber Council, helped coordinate the competition here and is doing the same with its American iteration. Kelowna-based expert Oscar Faoro is the project manager. Why enlist Canadians? “You go where the talent is,” de Jager says, cheekily.

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Ema Peter/courtesy of Michael Green ArchitecturePuzzle pieces Innovative LSL panels form a sixty-seven-metre-long atrium at North Vancouver City Hall.

Among the new lumberjacks, Michael Green is the most ardent and vocal promoter of engineered timber. The 237-page Case for Tall Wood Buildings, which he co-authored with Karsh, was the first comprehensive report on the subject; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (the Chicago firm behind the Willis Tower, among others) published its own report a year later. Like most of the others, Green is not far from fifty—but his coltish mien and casual attire make him appear considerably younger. He has plunged into subcommittees, speaking engagements, and media interviews with messianic zeal. His 2012 TED Talk was rock-star perfect; it began with him perched on a cubic metre of engineered wood. “I’m standing on top of one tonne of stored carbon dioxide,” he declared, before urging the rest of the world to shift from mainstay skyscraper materials to wood as a way of halting climate change and housing the 3 billion people who will join the planet in the next twenty years. He called for skyscrapers of thirty or forty-five storeys, or more. He closed by declaring, “The race is on.”

The international media love-in for Green and his manifesto has intensified recently, with stories in the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and The Economist, to name a few. The new benchmark monograph Solid Wood: Case Studies in Mass Timber Architecture, Technology, and Design cites four projects from Vancouver firms—OMB, Perkins + Will, McFarland Marceau, and Green’s own firm, MGA—among the five in its section on North America. But the book’s author, Joseph Mayo, concurs that Green’s ability to fire up the media has made him the “poster boy for tall wood.”

There also have been professional setbacks—particularly, missing out on the UBC tower. Green and Karsh were finalists, and Green felt betrayed when the commission went elsewhere. “The two authors of the very idea of tall wood buildings in North America were not selected,” he says, referring to himself and Karsh. “I’ve already built the one of the tallest in the world. This is a Canadian idea, not an Austrian idea.”

Green is moving on now, planning a mass-timber high-rise in Paris and a seven-storey office and retail complex in Minneapolis, for Houston-based Hines Interests. The latter building is the kind of project that would be a prime candidate for the USDA competition, and Green is a dual citizen. It would be a sweet irony if a Buy America project turned out to be designed by a Vancouver architect.

Cees de Jager, meanwhile, is darting in and out of meetings, poring over the shortlisted USDA entries. The stakes are high: If the winning design ignites media and public interest as anticipated, it could help re-energize the US lumber industry. If that happens, it might shift the industry’s attention away from the Canadian mavericks and back to where it usually resides. “There are some very high-profile American firms in that race,” says one insider involved in the competition. “Once the winning projects are identified, they will blow everyone out of the water.”

De Jager, for his part, is bound by confidentiality rules for now, but he believes that regardless of who wins, the entire continent will come out on top once the paradigm shifts: “Anything that increases the consumption of wood is good for Canada.” Good for our architecture, too. “Wood has always been embedded in our culture,” says UNBC’s Wimmers, who is now in the process of becoming a Canadian citizen and already thinks like one. West Coast architects drew international attention fifty years ago with their post-and-beam concoctions, and he sees a similar glory period on the horizon. “I’ve been to conventions, and at a conference in Chicago: it’s these BC architects that are being talked about. This is a new chance for Canadian architecture to be on the leading edge again.”

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Ema Peter/courtesy of Office of McFarlane Biggar High-flying The Fort McMurray airport boasts one of the largest laminated-wood ceilings in the world.


Why Apple Bought 36,000 Acres of Forest

Why Apple Bought 36,000 Acres of Forest

The simple answer: Apple uses a lot of paper, and it feels bad.

As Apple invests in tech startups and new data centers, now it’s also spending money on trees. The tech giant just helped buy 36,000 acres of forest in Maine and North Carolina through a partnership with the nonprofit The Conservation Fund.

Why invest in trees? The company uses a vast amount of paper in packaging, and wanted to find a long-term sustainable source for it—and a way to help protect those resources. Though Apple wouldn’t disclose the exact amount of paper they use, Lisa Jackson, the company’s VP of environmental initiatives, writes that the amount the two forests can produce is only equal to half of the virgin fiber used to package the iPhone, iPad, iPod, Mac, and Apple TV last year.

The company didn’t invest in the forest just to harvest trees for their own needs. Instead, in a unique model, Apple is helping to save large tracts of forest that are at risk of being parceled up and sold to developers.

Around 15 years ago, as the market for paper pulp went global, large U.S. forest companies started to sell vast swaths of land. “All told, roughly 90 million acres of land sold in a very short time,” says Lawrence Selzer, CEO and president at The Conservation Fund. “It was the largest sale of private lands in the history of the United States.”

Some of that land went directly to developers, but the majority was sold to short-term investors who are now starting to sell it off. “Every time these lands are sold, they’re subdivided,” says Selzer. “That fragmentation accelerates the loss of ecological value, forest economic value, and dramatically accelerates the conversion to non-forest uses like development. So this situation represents the greatest land conservation challenge in the U.S. today.”

Apple put up money for The Conservation Fund to buy two massive chunks of working forest. Now, the nonprofit will set up conservation easements in place to ensure that the land will be managed sustainably in perpetuity, with local government or a nonprofit as a watchdog, and never subdivided. Later, the nonprofit will resell the land—knowing that it’s protected forever—and then use the profits to invest in a new large forest to repeat the process.
“What Apple’s doing is essentially investing in the forest to start this whole chain,” says Selzer.

While Apple could have simply bought more paper from other sustainably managed forests, they wanted to have a larger impact. “There are plenty of sustainably managed forests,” says Selzer. “But the biggest threat in terms of land conservation that we face in this country in the loss of these intact forests. So this was a way for Apple not only to address their virgin fiber needs, but to do something extremely positive about land conservation. It’s about making sure in the future there are forests to produce this fiber.”

The forests will be managed by local companies that sell to a variety of customers, so Apple alone won’t benefit. It’s part of the company’s bigger goals to help restore the environment, as Jackson told BuzzFeed:
If we take the approach of just buying sustainably sourced paper, we’re not making the world a better place—we’re zeroing out. Apple has been really clear that we want to leave the world better than we found it; that’s one of our values.

The Conservation Fund hopes that other corporations will be inspired to follow Apple’s lead.

“The forests we’re losing in this country are the last, greatest forests that we have, and once they’re lost, you can’t put them back together,” says Selzer. “So we have a window of opportunity and we hope others will step up.”

Chloe and Theo take Hollywood

World Premier of Chloe & Theo and its Extraordinary Behind-the-Scenes Story


Connect4Climate hosted the world premiere of Chloe & Theo Wednesday night, a film demonstrating how storytelling motivates people to do extraordinary things. In the film, a homeless girl (Dakota Johnson star of 50 Shades of Grey) befriends an Inuit, who has traveled to New York City from his tiny Arctic hometown with a big message for world leaders: “My world is melting. Please help us.”

chloe and theo

Prior to the screening in the Preston Auditorium at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC, an esteemed panel—including film producer Monica Ord, founder and president of Prospero Pictures Martin Katz, director of social responsibility at MTV International Julie Allen and moderator Joe Wagner from Fenton Communications—discussed the power of film and how it can truly transform society.

“Film can change people’s lives and have far reaching effects on how we live,” said Wagner prior to introducing the panel.

He first introduced Ord, an entrepreneur focused on critical global social and health issues, who explained that she heard Theo’s true story from a friend, who challenged her to do something about it, so she did.

Ord told the crowd of more than 200 people that Theo told her friend “a passionate story of what was happening to his people” and that “he wanted someone to come up with a famous person that could go to the Arctic and maybe bring some awareness.”

Ord called Theo and asked him what she could do and he asked her to get someone to help him. So she called Richard Branson and “he cleared his entire schedule and a month later we were all in the Arctic traveling by dog sled.”

Ord confessed that she had no knowledge of climate change or filmmaking, but was committed to getting this project done.

(L - R) Director of social responsibility at MTV International Julie Allen, panel moderator Joe Wagner from Fenton Communications, film producer Monica Ord, and founder and president of Prospero Pictures Martin Katz during the panel discussion prior to the screening of the world premier of Chloe & Theo. Photo credit: Riccardo

Wagner then asked Katz, producer of the award-winning, historical film Hotel Rwanda, to talk about “what is the essence of film that enables one to create these connections and render such powerful responses and can this be applied to the subject of climate change?

Katz responded by asking a few questions himself. “Can film be an agent for social change? Can the arts be an agent for social change? Can anything but the arts be an agent for social change? I can’t think of how to change people’s perception or behavior except for the arts. That’s why governments who don’t want people’s behavior to be changed sensor the arts.”

He told a story about how Hotel Rwanda impacted people including a young man from Italy that watched the movie as a high school student and was so inspired by the film that he wanted to be a journalist to affect change in the world. Katz concluded saying, “I think that film can be a catalyst for those who can be social agents who can affect change in the world and I think that’s a great thing.

Wagner next asked Allen about MTV’s audience and wondered if she feels that she has “more of a chance to impact young minds and render change or is it the other way around?”

“I feel it’s MTV’s responsibility as a global media company to bring issues like climate change and other issues that affect young people all over the world to the forefront,” Allen responded. “We play a very important role in raising awareness of these issues. But, it’s very important that we do it that’s appealable to the mainstream.”

“We find the best way to relate to them is by producing entertaining, informative, sometime funny content that they are going to relate to and weaving messaging into that programming.”

The Connect4Climate team joins the panel on stage. Photo credit: Riccardo

Sir Richard Branson and John Paul DeJoria are executive producers of the film, which is scheduled for release in August.

I had the chance to interview Ord after the screening and I asked her what she hopes people will get out of her film. “If people will just step up and do what they can … they can truly make a difference. They just have to go for it,” she replied.

The film is a must-see that will capture your attention and pull at your heartstrings. You’ll want to encourage everyone you know to see it and hopefully it will motivate you to step up and truly make a difference.

For a glimpse of the film, watch the trailer below where you get to meet Chloe, a young woman who has been searching for something to believe in. She comes face to face with an Inuit Eskimo named Theo, who was sent by his elders to send a message to humankind. Chloe and Theo inspire each other and through the help of a kind lawyer named Monica (starring Mira Sorvino), they are able to help Theo tell his story in an attempt to help his people and all of humankind.

Watch the video here

What to do with the leftovers – by the pros


You buy a head of parsley, use one tablespoon of it, and then the rest sits sadly in a glass of water in your fridge. You feel increasingly guilty and incompetent each time you see it there, cursing your lack of culinary creativity. Now you can learn from the pros what to do with it. Blue Hill Restaurant in The Village is closing down for a month and replacing its high end dishes with a pop-up dedicated entirely to the leftovers. A roster of guest chefs and vendors includes Alex Raij, Claudia Flemming, Danny Bowien, and more. Read on for more details!

Olafur Eliasson – How to Do Good Art

Olafur Eliasson is without question someone by whom anyone who ever looked at a painting, a smart piece of industrial design, or installation project and said to themselves,’ I wish I had thought of that’, should be inspired. He’s done it all and all of it with a mind towards practical use, be it physical, emotional, political, or spiritual. His work crosses all boundaries and sets the bar for the voyage from concept to reality. Read on and spend a few minutes inside this dynamic mind. Watch his TED talk. You won’t be the same afterwards.

Olafur Eliasson on How to Do Good Art

On the eve of his exhibition at the new Fondation Louis Vuitton, the artist discusses his work — which includes a school, an architecture practice, a charity, a cookbook and a herd of Icelandic sheep, and which is meant to make the world a better place. Really.


Unfinished wooden sculptures at Studio Olafur Eliasson, which occupies a converted brewery in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.

Unfinished wooden sculptures at Studio Olafur Eliasson, which occupies a converted brewery in Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin.Credit Nigel Shafran

“Irony or not?” said Olafur Eliasson, looking around the meeting table. At his studio in Berlin, the answer is almost invariably “not,” but perhaps here an exception could be made. Eliasson and a few of his staff were finalizing the title of a new book chronicling the five-year history of the Institut für Raumexperimente, a small art school that Eliasson ran until February. The title under consideration was “How to Make the Best Art School in the World.” “It would be nice to piss off the very academic art schools,” Eliasson said. “I do think we had the best students in the world. But is irony really the economy I want to support?” In the end, Eliasson and his staff agreed that such good-natured braggadocio was pretty harmless in irony terms, although the cover would be designed so that at first glance the book would appear to be titled simply “How to Make.” Eliasson had also ensured that the book would include a photograph of a puppy that one of the students had met on a field trip. “Every book should have a picture of a puppy in it,” he told me, “because it just makes you so happy.”

If, like me, you operate under the assumption that irony is automatically more sophisticated than earnestness, it is confounding to enter Eliasson’s world. One of the most extensive private holdings of his work belongs to the advertising executive Christian Boros, whose appointment-only museum in the Mitte district, the Boros Collection, was originally built as a Nazi air-raid shelter but over the years has also functioned as a banana warehouse and a notoriously debauched techno club. This is the nature of Berlin, where things cascade with contradictory meanings, where “post-” is a ubiquitous prefix, where hipsters chase oblivion in the ruins of old dogmas. Irony is almost always a safe bet here, not least in the expat art scene. So you arrive at Studio Olafur Eliasson with certain expectations, and when you find that, on the contrary, it is one of the most earnest places you have ever been, you start looking around for the cracks.


Clockwise from top left: ‘‘Inside the Horizon,’’ a recently completed installation at the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris; ‘‘One-way colour tunnel’’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2007; ‘‘Your waste of time,’’ 2013, for which chunks of ice were transported from Iceland’s largest glacier into MoMA’s PS1 gallery; ‘‘Your wave is,’’ a three-dimensional mesh of light-emitting cables hung over the Palazzo Grassi on Venice’s Grand Canal in 2006.

Clockwise from top left: ‘‘Inside the Horizon,’’ a recently completed installation at the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris; ‘‘One-way colour tunnel’’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2007; ‘‘Your waste of time,’’ 2013, for which chunks of ice were transported from Iceland’s largest glacier into MoMA’s PS1 gallery; ‘‘Your wave is,’’ a three-dimensional mesh of light-emitting cables hung over the Palazzo Grassi on Venice’s Grand Canal in 2006.Credit Clockwise from top left: Iwan Baan; Ian Reeves/Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Matthew Septimus; Santi Caleca.

Eliasson was born in Copenhagen to Icelandic parents in 1967. His most celebrated work to date is 2003’s “The weather project,” for which the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern was converted into a gigantic, artificial solarium, attracting over the course of six months two million visitors, who often felt compelled to lie down on the floor, spelling out political messages with their bodies or just gazing at themselves and each other in the mirror on the ceiling. My own favorite work of Eliasson’s is “Your waste of time,” an installation at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City last year that consisted of several chunks of ice, detached by seasonal melting from an Icelandic glacier, that had been fished out of a lake, shipped to New York and installed in the refrigerated gallery. There they sat for nearly four months, crystalline but also surprisingly grimy, stout as rock but also frail enough to need their own microclimate — individual and real and lost.

A lot of Eliasson’s works are like this: irruptions of the elemental into a museum setting, as if the building had sprung some mythic leak. Others are harder to convey in a high-concept pitch. When I visited the studio, Eliasson was working on a commission for the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a major new museum that opened in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris last month. In addition to taking over the ground floor for the Fondation’s inaugural temporary show, he would be constructing a permanent “grotto” from which the Frank Gehry-designed building could be flatteringly viewed. Although Eliasson showed me plenty of sketches and models for the exhibition, I never quite formed a clear idea of what he was planning to do, apart from that it involved mirrors and curves and tinted glass. This side of Eliasson’s practice takes the form of a highly refined fun house, subjecting you to experiments in human perception that don’t sound like much until you see them firsthand. The intended effect often seems to be a pre-intellectual wonder, so that you will have basically the same experience as the 5-year-old next to you. There’s a reason why Eliasson feels an imperative to appeal to the broadest possible audience. He believes that in normal life we have a tendency to hurry along on autopilot, seldom questioning our deeper assumptions. Art, by goosing the senses, can make us more conscious of our positions in time, space, hierarchy, society, culture, the planet. In the long run, this heightened consciousness will result in change for the better — emotionally, socially, politically.


Clockwise from left: ‘‘The weather project’’ of 2003, which drew more than two million visitors to the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern;  ‘‘Your rainbow panorama,’’ built on top of the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark in 2007; an interior view. <em>Andrew Dunkley & Marcus Leith; Ole Hein Pedersen; Studio Olafur Eliasson.</em>

Clockwise from left: ‘‘The weather project’’ of 2003, which drew more than two million visitors to the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern;  ‘‘Your rainbow panorama,’’ built on top of the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark in 2007; an interior view. Andrew Dunkley & Marcus Leith; Ole Hein Pedersen; Studio Olafur Eliasson.Credit

In other words, Eliasson has a faith in the improving power of art that has been out of fashion since Victorian times. But his ambitions aren’t bounded by his studio. He is on friendly terms with Bill Gates, Kofi Annan and Michael Bloomberg, and regularly attends the World Economic Forum in Davos to discuss public policy with the people who make it. “I don’t go there to meet world leaders,” he joked. “I go to become a world leader!” In fact, he already talks like a politician much of the time, with a habit of disappearing into a haze of generalities and wonk-speak and anecdotes of uncertain relevance. The concepts he draws on — inclusivity and engagement and trust and so on — seem to have been filtered to ensure that you could no more be offended by his statements than you could be offended by the colored lights he puts in museums. Yes, he has given a TED talk.

And yet the longer I spent with Eliasson, the harder I found it to cling to my cynicism, because he’s such a good advertisement for sincerity. One of Eliasson’s friends, the author Jonathan Safran Foer, told me over the phone that he found spending time with Eliasson “overwhelming, whether overwhelming in the sense of at times feeling almost too much, or overwhelming in the sense of being really moving. You sit down with Olafur for a meal and he picks up the fork and stares at it for a moment and you think, Oh my god, he’s either inventing a new fork or wondering how to get forks to people who don’t have forks. ” He added: “After I’ve spent an hour with him I feel like I need a nap, but it’s because he has more curiosity than anyone I’ve ever met, and a greater belief in a person’s ability to be useful and to change things. Somehow he lives his entire life with the urgency of someone who just walked out of the doctor’s office with a dire prognosis.”


Clockwise from top left: cooking using the Studio Olafur Eliasson cookbook; Brooklyn Bridge as seen during Eliasson’s ‘‘The New York City Waterfalls’’ project in 2008; from the ‘‘Grey Sheep’’ series, 2013, featuring Eliasson’s own herd of Icelandic sheep, bred to rehabilitate the Icelandic economy; at the studio, two of the 90 staff members who assist the artist; an advertisement for the ‘‘Little Sun,’’ a solar-powered LED lamp distributed worldwide

Clockwise from top left: cooking using the Studio Olafur Eliasson cookbook; Brooklyn Bridge as seen during Eliasson’s ‘‘The New York City Waterfalls’’ project in 2008; from the ‘‘Grey Sheep’’ series, 2013, featuring Eliasson’s own herd of Icelandic sheep, bred to rehabilitate the Icelandic economy; at the studio, two of the 90 staff members who assist the artist; an advertisement for the ‘‘Little Sun,’’ a solar-powered LED lamp distributed worldwideCredit Clockwise from top left: Fg | Architektur & Indechs; Julienne Schaer/Courtesy Public Art Fund; Studio Olafur Eliasson; Nigel Shafran; Maddalena Valeri.

Eliasson has 90 people working for him. Few of them have job titles. Four days a week they all eat a healthy vegetarian lunch together in the light-filled canteen upstairs, with a rotating schedule for washing the dishes afterward. Initially, I found the atmosphere at the studio rather too good to be true, like a hippie cult before night falls. But when I joined Eliasson for lunch on my second day at the studio, I sat there eating my roasted carrots and enviously contemplating how much better my life would be if I, too, received that bounty of vegetables and sunlight and intelligent chatter. Sebastian Behmann, who heads Eliasson’s architecture practice, told me that you can track how long someone has worked at Studio Olafur Eliasson by how much healthier they look every year (and indeed many people have stayed on for a decade or more). Last year, Studio Olafur Eliasson published its own 368-page cookbook of sustainable vegetarian recipes.

This is just one of the unpredictable byproducts of the studio, which often resembles a sort of ongoing Apollo project. Others have included the art school, a full-scale architecture practice, a series of publications, a charity and a herd of Icelandic sheep. As motley as these pursuits may sound, Eliasson would argue that they all emerge from a single mind-set, and that they’ve all been made viable by his years of practical experience as an artist. “If you can make a show in Venice, which is the most difficult damned thing one can do, not just because working with Italians is a mess, but also because you’re in a city on water in the middle of nowhere and getting a hammer and a nail is impossible . . . you can make a show on the moon,” he told me. “So as an artist, you become an entrepreneur by definition. . . . The art world underestimates its own relevance when it insists on always staying inside the art world. Maybe one can take some of the tools, methodologies, and see if one can apply them to something outside the art world.”


 Eliasson at work.
 Eliasson at work.Credit Nigel Shafran

For instance, sheep. “It started with the financial crisis,” Eliasson told me when I asked about his herd. “Björk said everybody must think innovatively. So we started buying up lambs to rescue the Icelandic economy — but I think we ended up burdening it! My mistake was I wanted to turn it into an art project. Still, it was a nice excuse to go to the countryside and drink vodka and play with the sheep.” Eliasson began breeding lambs whose meat would be particularly well-suited to Moroccan tagines, with the intention of selling diced, marinated lamb to delis in Iceland. “I just couldn’t convince my partners that people in Iceland would eat tagine.” In the end, the lambs were slaughtered, their meat frozen and their wool knitted into 20 “secular prayer mats.”

Other ventures have been less quixotic. After they adopted two children from Addis Ababa, Eliasson and his wife, the art historian Marianne Krogh Jensen, started 121Ethiopia, a project that works to improve the lives of children in Ethiopian orphanages. 121Ethiopia operates on a modest scale. Little Sun, Eliasson’s other philanthropic enterprise, does not. Developed with the Danish engineer Frederik Ottesen, the Little Sun is a very efficient solar-powered LED lamp, cheerful in design and lightweight enough to wear around the neck on a lanyard. Since the lamp’s debut in 2012, more than 200,000 have been distributed, over a third of them to regions in Africa with no electricity, the rest at venues like Tate Modern or Coachella. While Eliasson was still discussing the Institut für Raumexperimente book, I was taken upstairs to the Little Sun workshop to meet Felix Tristan Hallwachs, who heads the project. “We’re not going to solve the Ukraine crisis, we’re not going to solve IS [Islamic State],” he said. “But in theory if everyone has a light at home and can study, then you have less chaos in the world, probably.”


One of Eliasson’s hanging sculptures in the studio.
One of Eliasson’s hanging sculptures in the studio.Credit Nigel Shafran

If there isn’t much irony at Studio Olafur Eliasson, I came to feel, it’s not because irony is proscribed. Irony doesn’t offend anyone and it doesn’t go over anyone’s head. Irony is simply not required, because the things you can achieve with crusading sincerity are self-evidently so much better. At worst, you could argue that Little Sun makes Eliasson’s talk about the power of museum art look a bit vaporous by comparison. But at Studio Olafur Eliasson the distinction between art and direct intervention is barely even recognized. Hallwachs told me: “Olafur’s work uses media from photography to oil paint to all kinds of installations and architecture. Now business is part of the range of media as well.” Eliasson told me that he was hoping to present a work at the next G7 conference that would evaluate the German public’s degree of trust in Chancellor Angela Merkel and perhaps in the process inspire a renewal of the European relationship with Africa. I asked him whether, in order to achieve such an ambitious and specific political objective he would need to make a new type of work, something more targeted, more explicit. Possibly, he replied — but he would be just as likely to bring along something like “Riverbed,” which consists of a riparian landscape constructed inside the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen from 180 tons of Icelandic bluestone. For Eliasson, art need never be marginal, and art need never be just a carrier for a message. Art can change the world with the sheer intensity of its art-ness. Or, perhaps, by helping to get the artist in a room with the energy minister of Nigeria.

If Eliasson had his way, the same “everyone’s invited!” quality that makes his work so appealing to institutions might sometimes be pushed to extremes that would leave even those institutions flustered. Before I left the studio, I related to Eliasson something that happened to me in July last year at Warm Up, the Saturday afternoon dance party held in the courtyard of MoMA PS1. It was oppressively hot and muggy on the outdoor dance floor, and halfway through the afternoon I had the idea of going inside to spend a few minutes with “Your waste of time,” the piece with the chunks of ice, to cool off. Arriving at the gallery, however, my friends and I found that it had been locked for the duration of the event, so we could do no more than press ourselves against the chilly door. When I told Eliasson this story, he looked genuinely pained. “What a pity!” he kept saying. “What a pity! I would have left that door open.” But would he really have wanted drunken revelers slithering over this ancient ice that he’d imported from thousands of miles away? “If the ice melts and disappears — well, maybe it’s beautiful that there was once an iceberg, and then there was a party and now the iceberg is gone.” He pointed out that this would have been an excellent metaphor for man-made climate change. “People underestimate how robust art is.” He added: “If we don’t believe that creativity as a language can be as powerful as the language of the politicians, we would be very sad — and I would have failed. I am convinced that creativity is a fierce weapon.”

“Inside the Horizon,” a specially commissioned grotto by Olafur Eliasson, is now on view at the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. An exhibition of Eliasson’s work, the inaugural show at the Fondation, will open on Dec. 17 and run until Feb. 16, 2015.