Talk to the Janitors
by George Mokray
(November 1999)

Back in the summer of 1970 or 1971, I was hitch-hiking across country and spent a week in Arizona at Cosanti, Paolo Soleri's workshop, before heading out to visit the site of Arcosanti, which at that time consisted of tents and a concrete batching plant, and then moving on to California. While I was at Cosanti, working a few hours a day helping to make the sand-cast bells that kept the place going, I met a young man who had just finished architectural school. One evening he told me about his finals in a design class.

His class was asked to design an apartment building. They broke up into teams and went to work. When the designs were to be evaluated, the teacher called in three architects to critique them. According to the young man, two of the architects were fine. They asked questions about aesthetics and design decisions and were generally supportive of the work the class had done. It was the third architect, the eldest of them, who was difficult. "He had only two questions: how do you get a grand piano up to the top floor, and how do you get the garbage out. It was so unfair!" said the young man. I knew in that moment that this young man hadn't a clue and probably never would. When I became a carpenter and had the opportunity to see architects in action, I understood why one of my carpentry colleagues called architects "pencils," and that the young man I had met in Arizona was the norm rather than the exception.

Yesterday, I went to the Salstonstall Building in downtown Boston for a Sustainability Roundtable brown bag lunch and a lecture on "Sustainable Design of Public Buildings: Examples From New York City," presented by Hillary Brown, Assistant Commissioner for NYC Department of Design and Construction. She gave a good presentation, even though the slide projector didn't work and the initiative is just barely out of the feasibility study phase. The studies identified the same thing that all such green building studies show: that the majority of cost savings occur in human productivity gains and in operations and maintenance over the lifetime of the building, rather than during its construction. She mentioned that one program they had had begun to use green cleaning materials in city-owned buildings and how that was already showing some significant savings, but didn't elaborate on that particular example.

At the end, the group was invited to brainstorm some ideas about how we could replicate or expand upon what Ms. Brown had shown us here in Massachusetts. I suggested that the NYC feasibility studies showed three "profit centers," and that perhaps the easiest of them to implement immediately was operations and maintenance cost reductions through green strategies and materials. I said that many businesses had already recognized that reality and had found that "Total Quality Environmental Management" worked only when they went down to the shop floor and asked the workers what they were doing and how they were doing it. I said, "You've got to talk to the janitors."

That was the only suggestion that wasn't written down on the newsprint tablet at the head of the room.

In the simplest terms, ecology is about housekeeping. It is never finished and it is always about cleaning up. How do you get the garbage down from the top floor? Who's going to talk to the janitors about what they really have to do? Perhaps this is a class issue. Perhaps this is a failure in the education of design professionals. Perhaps everybody is as clueless as that young man I met nearly 30 years ago in Arizona. Perhaps cleaning and taking out the garbage aren't exciting enough to generate anything but polite dismissal from the conversation.

One thing I do know, however, is that "sustainability" will always be a failure until somebody starts thinking deeply about how we take out the garbage, asks the janitors what works and what doesn't, and then puts green ideas into practice on a daily basis where the mop meets the floor and the brush meets the toilet.

George Mokray