Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Love Thy Neighborhood

 A local web design company demonstrates how to 'be the change' - from the ground floor up.

YIKES web design.
We Fishtown people can be nosy neighbors. Maybe it's because we're watchful folk who look out for each other. Or perhaps it's that we have an insatiable and profound curiosity for the world around us that leads us to snoop a bit.

Whichever the case, when YIKES, a sustainable web design business and certified B corporation, hung out their sign on Girard Avenue, I felt that curiosity rise - especially after hearing that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter had attended the grand opening of their eco-fabulous new office.

What is sustainable web design? What is a B corporation? And why does the mayor like them so much? YIKES co-founder Tracy Levesque sat down recently with Designer in Exile to answer these burning questions and more. Her dreams and goals tell of a wonderful story well on its way to coming true:

How long has YIKES been together?

It'll be sixteen years in January. But we've been here on Girard Avenue only since the end of July. For nine years previous to that we were at 3rd and Brown Street in Northern Liberties. Before that we were at our house.

What primarily do you do?

Website design and development. That's pretty much it. I, personally, do front end design, HTML, CSS, and graphic design for the web. I do WordPress development as well.

What makes YIKES a sustainable business?

Well, when we founded the business, there wasn't a lot of terminology for that idea. We didn't have terms like sustainable business, triple bottom line, or B corporation. We just knew that we wanted to be a socially responsible business. That's what people were saying back then. So the way (in which) we did things was always mindful of the environment, our employees, and the community around us.

And how do you do that?

We do things like recycle - it's much easier to recycle now, it was much harder to recycle back then. There was no curbside recycling. You had to take it to a place and you had to find a separate place that recycled plastics.

We also compost everything. All the office materials we use are environmentally friendly, right down to our cleaning supplies. We don't use paper towels, we use real towels in the bathroom and in the kitchen and wash them.

Our electricity is supplied by 100% renewable energy from the Philadelphia Energy Co-op. In addition, we offer our employees things like flex time, paid sick days, and two paid volunteer days per year. We really work hard with people when they have things like babies, crises, get ill, things like that. And we are B corporation certified.

Explain what being B corporation certified means.

B corporation label.
There's a certification process to be a B corporation much like the LEED certification process. It's based on a point system of evaluation. And your overall point score says whether you are certified or not. It's pretty rigorous; they look at all aspects of your business. It's really the only decent 3rd party certification process to measure how green and sustainable your business is. We were a pretty early adapter of the certification process.

We recently won an award for our (green) building project. B Corps recently had a retreat here in Philadelphia and they gave us this award. We were totally surprised.

Tell us more about your building. What makes it sustainable?

Well the office we were in before was nice, but it wasn't energy efficient, it wasn't green at all. That was the one thing that wasn't fitting into our mission. So YIKES began looking for a new building. We came across these two buildings in Fishtown that were a complete mess. They were blighted, vacant - holes all the way from the floor to the roof. They were completely water damaged. Shells. Actually, beyond shells. You can see the pictures of how they looked before.

Yikes Girard office interior before renovation.

Exterior of the building before renovation.

Facade renovation work.

Renovated facade.
And then I just fell in love with these buildings - they were gross, but I loved them. And I had my mind set that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to rehab these buildings, so I'm doing a LEED platinum certified rehab, tenaciously. We're not certified yet, but well on our way.

So did you partner up with some green-building professionals?

Well, as it turned out, I sort of tangentially knew Tim McDonald, one of the Onion Flats guys. And I called him up and asked him if he could come look at the property. We did a walk through and he said, basically, 'it's just a Philly row home - four walls and a roof - anything can be done.' So they became the architects for the project. (See the prior Designer in Exile post, The Tiny House of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, for more on Philly row homes and their implications for an energy efficient future).

New life for a building and the community.
Then after going through the whole financing process, finding financing for the project through PIDC, a city program, we found GreenSaw in Northern Liberties, who is our general contractor. Their specialty is using salvaged, recycled materials in building, and doing beautiful work. So I just fell into this, and I really enjoy the process.

How does your business intersect with the surrounding community in terms of purposeful change?

Blight removal. We took on two of the worst buildings on East Girard Avenue. And I'm not just about taking a crappy building, flipping it and moving on. You were talking earlier about your experiences with lamps made in China that went right to the landfill. Buildings are the same way. The home building industry tends to build to code with the crappiest materials from China - you know, (mass market) builder supplied, suburban, gross-looking places, and then they move on. And that's not what we want to do. We want to do justice to the buildings, keep the character of the community, and contribute to this commercial corridor, which is beautiful.

We're here, we love being here. We love being a part of Fishtown events, the Fishtown Business Association. As an example, we're having a local food drive currently with Philabundance.

So what you're saying is that you choose to involve yourself with events that help foster the community. Your outreach is really about being a good business and interacting with the local community.

Yes. Like being involved with NKCDC. Even things like, 'ok, the tree's dead outside', but we're going to take care of it and replace it, and take care of our space.

Aside from making your office greener, how does a web business become more sustainable, specifically in terms of servers, computers and power?

People always talk about the paperless office that's green, but if you looked at the carbon footprint of many internet companies it would be obscene. A lot of electricity goes into keeping servers running, keeping computers up.

Interesting, because that seems like a core issue. Many big internet companies pride themselves on going green because they are, well, internet companies.

Yes. And some of them are investing in amazing wind farms and extensive solar projects. And that's great. They should be doing that because they're burning up a lot of electricity with their servers.

Tracy Levesque
We are powered by renewable energy and my goal in the next year is to get solar panels installed on the roof because this building is a 100% electric. There is no gas. It's just electric and water. With water we have low flow faucets and toilets and such. But our computers use up a lot of electricity, so our goal is to generate as much of our own power as possible. And for our clients we have hosts that use 100% renewable energy. We encourage our clients to use them as well.

And the computers, themselves, how are they energy efficient?

That's pretty much par for the course these days. Most of the computers and monitors are Energy Star compliant.

Well this has been an insightful discussion. Thanks for spending time with our readers. Now let's talk about something less technical. Tell us about your opening night. I heard you had a special guest.

Oh yes, our opening night party was so much fun. And the mayor came - that was awesome. Hundreds of people from the neighborhood came: clients, sponsors. A lot of restaurants sponsored us, Honey's, The Kyber Pass. The Franklin Fountain made a special ice cream flavor for us. It was a very special night.


Images by D.A. DeMers and free to use via CC license 3.0. Renovation images published with permission from Yikes, inc. Copy-editing assistance, Karl Natanson. More information about YIKES and their services can be found at www.yikesinc.com.  

And hey, be sure to stay updated with quick hits from our Designer in Exile Twitter and Tumblr feeds, including an upcoming chat with Mural Arts founder Jane Golden, and soon to be posted snippets from the recent Penn Future Climate Conference. Plus we'll on the job with my friend Mark, who makes a living picking up stinky things from behind Philly groceries and takes them to a compost where mother nature does the rest.--D.A. DeMers.

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  1. Great post. I'd be curious to know more about the specific HVAC system used on the building. The owner describes it as all electric, no gas. Do they utilize an advanced system?

  2. “I want you to understand that your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others.”

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  3. Answer re-posted from previous date due to technical glitch:

    Thanks for the great quote Marlynn, and to answer you, Frank, I went to the architect/contractor to get some pretty detailed specs:

    The answer to your question is yes, the system is somewhat advanced, at least in contrast to the typical gas forced-air systems or boilers with radiators in most Philly row homes. The specifics are as follows according to project proposal:

    The mechanical system chosen for the project consists of High Efficiency Electric Heat-pumps to provide both Heating and Cooling. The first and second floors will be a ducted system, while the third floor units will be ductless, with two wall mounted blowers. All systems will include a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV). The HRVs in the first and second floor will be connected to the duct system, where the third floor HRV will have its’ own ducts. Below are the descriptions of the selected pieces of equipment.

    Technical details...

    Commercial Spaces HVAC System:

    Outside Unit: Lennox Merit 14HPX Heat Pump (15 SEER)
    Inside Unit: Lennox Elite® CBX27UH Series Air Handler with ECB-5CB backup resistance heat
    Thermostat: Digital Honeywell series 3000
    Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV): Lennox HRV

    Second Floor Apartments HVAC System:

    Outside Unit: Lennox Merit 14HPX Heat Pump (15 SEER)
    Inside Unit: Lennox Elite® CBX27UH Series Air Handler with ECB-5CB backup resistance heat
    Thermostat: Digital Honeywell series 3000
    Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV): Lennox HRV

    Third Floor Apartments HVAC System:

    Outside Unit: Fujitsu AOU24RML1 (16.5 SEER)
    Inside Units: Fujitsu 9+9 ASU9RMLQ Wall mounted unit
    Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV): Lennox HRV.

    Yikes, Frank, hope that thoroughly answers your question... Did I just say yikes? Sorry didn't mean to confuse. Probably should've said gosh or something similar. OK, I'll stop writing now.

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