Dishin’ Dirt From Bishop Ranch

Bishop Ranch’s new composting program is to recycle two million pounds of green waste a year


By Sharon Simonson

[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or General Electric Co., a Bishop Ranch location was first and foremost about engineers. But technical talent wasn’t the only consideration for the Connecticut-based industrial behemoth; environmental standards mattered, too, and the LEED certification of Bishop Ranch buildings did sway decision-makers, said GE Global Research Vice President Bill Ruh.

To date, Sunset Development Co., which developed and operates Bishop Ranch, has certified under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program of the U.S. Green Building Council three million square feet of the 4.5 million square feet of offices that it owns at the ranch. All but one of the initial buildings certified are Gold-rated. (There are 10 million square feet total at the ranch: nine million square feet of offices plus retail and hotel space.)

By the end of the year, Sunset hopes to have all of its buildings LEED certified, said Alexander Mehran Jr., a senior vice president and general manager at Sunset who oversees Bishop Ranch’s daily operations including its sustainability initiatives.

The developer already recycles more than 22,000 pounds of electronic waste annually and 380,000 pounds of paper, glass, bottles and cans, among many relatively mainstream initiatives.

Its latest initiatives are less so: a massive on-site composting campaign, which it began a year ago and is now expanding, and the publication of a 32-page pocket-sized field guide documenting the flora and fauna that populate the 585-acre business park.

The developer calculates that it has about 3.5 million square feet of landscaping at the ranch. It estimates that it will divert two million pounds of grass clippings, leaves and other green waste this year that it previously paid haulers to take away.

[pullquote_right]”The thought was wouldn’t it be cool if we could compost our own material and in turn use that on our site?”
Bishop Ranch Landscape Superintendent Del Fitchett[/pullquote_right]For the uninitiated, composting might seem nothing more than tossing a few banana peels in a remote locale and returning a few months later to find gloriously rich soil amendment. But the process is more exacting than that. The composting pile can be temperamental and needs consistent oversight, Mehran says. The company hired a consultant initially to guide the start up.

Mehran and Bishop Ranch’s landscape superintendent for the last four years, Del Fitchett, started the composting program. Fitchett spent 17 years as a golf course superintendent before coming to Bishop Ranch. While Fitchett said he suggested the composting to reduce water use and end pesticide and fertilizer use, which has largely been achieved, Mehran has been “key in pushing this and is very open to the ideas,” he said.

How did you start the composting program?

Fitchett: We did an initial study in the spring of 2011 and compiled what we spent on hauling away about 1,000 tons of green waste a year. It was about $75,000. The thought was wouldn’t it be cool if we could compost our own material and in turn use that on our site? We would save hauling fees, but the real benefit is that it is awesome stuff and we could use it on our landscaping.

So in October 2011 we started a pilot program with one pile that was seven feet to eight feet tall, 100 feet long and about eight feet wide. It took us about a week to build it. About three times a week we have a tractor that digs from the bottom and turns the whole pile over and that gives air to the microbes that take the grass and leaves and turn it into dirt. We also water it and a machine like a rotor rooter turns it. Every day we take temperatures at the center and both ends. We are trying to get it and keep it at 130 degrees.

We took some test spots and we planted flowers in compost-amended soil versus regular soil, and the plants that were in the compost were healthier and larger.

Mehran: It’s a pretty closely managed project. We have a dedicated person to deal with keeping the pile turned and working correctly. But there is a financial and a green payoff: It’s healthier for the soil, and it has reduced dump costs. We think it will pay for itself in two years.

So what is next?

Fitchett: We think we have our recipes right. We have nine months of experience, and we are going to go full scale here in the fall. There will still be a few things we send away that aren’t compostable, but I would say 90 percent of what we compost we will use on site.

What is the business purpose of the Bishop Ranch Field Guide?

Mehran: What we are trying to do at Bishop Ranch is to create a place, and it needs to evolve and be interesting and dynamic. Our natural surroundings are one of our biggest assets, the landscaping and the Iron Horse Trail. I came up with the idea for the field guide. I love the botanical drawings. We want connectivity between the office and the natural environment. There is a lot of wildlife around here—turkeys and birds and trees. We printed it about two months ago, and we have handed out more than 1,000 of them to tenants and others.

As a relatively young man coming to a mature family business, what do you bring that is different from your father and grandfather?

Mehran: It’s really easy for all generations to understand the green parts of sustainability, particularly in California because of the political climate and history. We are all on board and marching to the same drum. What I and others in my generation add is understanding the desires of Gen Y and what is important to them. My dad thinks I’m not paying attention or people who are working for me aren’t if they go outside and work on their laptops or sit in our lounge and brainstorm. I encourage that. GE is going to run its whole software center out of their offices here, and they want to enjoy outdoors, work collaboratively and walk to their apartments. A Gen Y person would be more apt to look at a LEED plaque and know what it is. That is what our generation brings to commercial real estate, which maybe has been lost on some of the old-school landlords.

Photography by Saul Bromberger/Sandra Hoover

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