Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New Home!

I forgot to post this message. This was our temporary holding place for blogs and content ideas while we built GreenBuildingAdvisor.com.

We built it and we've moved in. Come visit.

You'll find:
  • A Green Building Primer with 20 Questions and 20 Answers aboiut green building and remodeling, and design.
  • A Green Building Encyclopedia with hundreds of pages of articles on every aspect of Green Building
  • Daily blogs from some of the best in the business
  • Green homes -- real world examples of people building and remodeling green, including actual energy use
  • A Green Product guide featuring over 1,500 products deemed to be green by the editors of BuildingGreen LLC, publishers of GreenSpec.
  • A construction detail library with over 1,ooo construction drawings
  • A green building strategy generator helping you wrap your arms around how to green your particular project from the start.
We're pretty happy with what we've come up with, and we hope you will be too.

Daniel Morrison
Managing editor, GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Little-Known Wick-Stop in a Foundation

By Dan Morrison

Even though I stopped working at Fine Homebuilding ten months ago, I still get letters from readers asking questions about the articles I developed. Here's one from an engineer in Tennessee asking a question about a drawing we ran in Scott Gibson's article Does Fiberglass Insulation Still make Sense? The article featured a drawing illustrating how insulation is used: in basements, walls, and roofs. It shows a good system and a better system. On both sides of the drawing there's an arrow pointing to the joint between the footing and the foundation wall with a label that says "Paint on damp proofing"

The reader wrote:

To whom it may concern –
I recently purchased the winter 2008 issue of “The
best of Fine Homebuilding.” Cover article is Energy-Smart Homes.
Scott Gibson’s article titled “Does Fiberglass Insulation Still Make
Sense?”, starting on page 26, ends on page 31 with a cross-sectional view of a
house with all of the recommended types of insulation. At the bottom of
the page there is an arrow pointing to the line between the footers and the
poured concrete walls labeled “Paint-on-damp-proofing”. Was this
intentional or is the arrow suppose to point at the outside surface of the
concrete wall? I’ve never seen anyone paint anything on top of the footers
before pouring the walls. Please clarify.
Many thanks,
Jackson, TN
My response to Brian:

Nope, not an oversight. The capillary break staop water from being absorbed
through the footing into the wall and up to the framing. If you’ve got foam sill
sealer on top of the foundation wall then the wall framing is probably safe, but
the concrete slab can still absorb water through the footing. I know, I know,
but there’s foam under and around the slab. If that’s the case, then you’re
probably fine. But when you ask Joe Lstiburek, Bruce Harley, and Andres
Dejarlais to give you a drawing, you get plenty of belts and suspenders.

The main point is that this is a spot most people never realize is
a good wick-stop. Does everybody do it? No. Does anyone? Probably. If you don’t
use continuous rebar between footing and foundation, the building inspector may
have a problem with it because this is technically a slip joint, but using a
keyed joint (as is shown) fixes that problem.

Thanks for noticing
the little things,
Brian's response back to me:

Thanks for the quick response.
Damp-proofing the
footer-wall boundary makes sense and is defiantly something I plan on doing
that I understand the reason for it.
Again, thanks for your
reply. I’ve enjoyed reading your publication and am looking forward to
reading the next issue.
Brian Cotton, PE

Always happy to help. That was some of the most fun of working at Fine Homebuilding -- getting good info to people that care.

--Dan Morrison is the managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Environmental Consequences of Excavation

Pete and I visited some job sites in Southern California last week. One site, a rather large home buing built to be a net energy producer, was an excellent example of how important integrated design is. Here, Peter talks with the builder and the structural engineer, Bruce King about how the team re-thought the foundation system.

One of the challenges in this part of the country is earthquakes, so most foundations need to be somewhat over-engineered. The original design was for a pier and grade beam system which required a huge amount of excavation. Bruce wondered if switching to a mat slab would be a better use of materials and on paper it seemed like it was. Once the team started moving dirt around, though, the builder asked some questions. Bruce sat back down at his desk with a fresh pencil and discovered the hidden environmental cost of trucking out dirt and trucking in gravel.

Editor's note: please excuse my cruddy video editing skills. I just wanted to slap this together for a free-lance writer to watch as background info for an article. The picture and sound quality are not what we will get once Rob gets back from Virginia and edits this thing for real.

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Monday, September 29, 2008

What’s Wrong With the Home Energy Audit Industry?

By Michael Chandler

Conflicts of interest seem to abound, consumers balk at the price of an audit, and nobody is leading change.

As satisfying as it is to build new high performance homes I have to admit that if I really cared about stopping global warming and conserving energy I’d re-focus my company to perform home energy audits and work that would stop the outrageous waste of energy in our existing housing stock. The reason I don’t do this is mostly because I’m having so much fun building new homes but also because I don’t see any way to do energy audits in a way that would make a profit.

Until recently I could assuage my guilt by recommending that people in existing homes call one of the larger Energy Star raters in our area. But now they have stopped performing energy audits on existing, occupied homes. It turns out that they couldn’t figure out how to make a profit at it either. So here is the paradigm we are dealing with here in North Carolina. If you want a home energy audit performed on a home you are living in you most likely will have to deal with an auditor who is operating out of a beat up truck with a laptop and answering machine in his spare bedroom. You’ll call and if you’re lucky he’ll get back to you within the week and maybe he’ll be able to get to your house within the month and he may or may not get your report and recommendations written up and back to you with an invoice in a timely fashion.

What is wrong with this picture? How can we fix it?
Existing homes are MUCH more difficult to analyze and do meaningful blower door and duct blaster testing on than new construction. You’ve got furniture, clutter, and old plaster and paint to protect. The HVAC equipment may be 20 years old and not have any service manual. The bath fans and kitchen hoods are likely to be badly under performing and need to be tested individually. You really can’t do a good job solo. And you’re not likely to get it done before lunch. At a minimum you need to plan for 6 hours on-site with two workers in a high liability environment and another 2 hours off site typing up the report. The going rate for this is $600 to $800 and homeowners bitterly gripe about that minimal cost. Can you write a logical, sustainable, business plan that has you sending employees into occupied homes, risking knocking over lamps or tracking mud on carpets and has a coordinator to answer phones and schedule visits and follow up at this rate? The answer is no.

How did we get in this fix?
It’s the un-intended consequence of well-intentioned actions once again. Back in the Carter administration we had “the moral equivalent of war” to save energy and we sent out home weatherization teams into the homes of the poor and needy to help them stop wasting energy. We used a lot of low paid part time barely insured do-gooders who were willing to work for cheap and forgo health insurance to be “part of the solution”. And they shut down and went away once the coop subsidy dollars got thin.

Can we make a new model work where auditors actually earn $1,200 to $1,800 per audit and can afford to have a professional organization and pay taxes and insurance and grow a professional crew of home energy auditors? Hard to do in a culture that is accustomed to valuing this as a nasty job that ought to be subsidized by the government or (I’m serious here) utility companies. Let’s put Exxon in charge of retrofitting Hummers to burn less gas while we’re at it and let’s set the rate low enough that they’re guaranteed to lose money.

The market is trying to adapt. We’re seeing insulation and weatherization companies offering home energy audits. Seems logical enough, call one number and get the diagnosis and the prescription filled from the same source. But people who have no problem with the energy company doing the energy audit somehow are more likely to see a conflict of interest in having an insulation company do it. My dad used to say “if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail” and the concern is justified.

But what we have isn’t working. The public expects energy audits to be free or cheap and we have something like 75 million homes in desperate need of energy remediation to even get close to current watered down code requirements. Additionally we have thousands of homes ten years old and less that are wasting energy despite being built in compliance with the in-adequate codes of their time. We need a new paradigm and we need it soon.

In the commercial sector companies like Advanced Energy are going into existing factories and replacing outdated electric motors with new energy efficient ones in exchange for a percentage of future fuel savings. I don’t see this working with home weatherization but we need to at least be thinking outside of the box here. Our electrical distribution system is at its limit. Even if we could build more electric plants we are losing the capacity to reliably move this additional power to where it is needed. So, as a society, our best investment is in energy conservation in our existing building stock, both residential and commercial. We’ll never get there if we ensure that building diagnosticians are underpaid and unable to make up for it by selling and installing the products they need to fix the problems they encounter.

Somebody smarter than me needs to figure out how to lick this problem and get word to the next president as soon as possible and start turning this ship around.

--Michael Chandler is a builder and master plumber near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His website is www.ChandlerDesignBuild.com

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Green Houses Guaranteed to Save Green Backs.

An Oklahoma home builder puts his money where his mouth is

By Christina Glennon

There is a lot of noise in the green building world these days. With green being used by everyone from product manufacturers with dubious claims of recycled content, to all natural material advocates unwilling to accept anything but a straw bale house as green. Consumers are left feeling confused, overwhelmed and unconvinced that green makes sense for them. But Oklahoma’s Ideal Homes has found a way to stand out from the crowd with their Guaranteed Utilities program for all new houses. Ideal Homes will guarantee that energy used for heating and cooling will not go over a pre-determined amount during the first 25 months after the close.

This is nothing new to Ideal Homes, who for six years has participated in the Environments for Living (EFL) program which guarantees each home’s heating and cooling use. EFL homes must meet energy-use performance guidelines set by the program and verified by a third party evaluator. EFL collects load calculations from the third party evaluator, in this case Guaranteed Watt Saver Systems, Inc., and the house plans from Ideal Homes. Using this information a computer model simulates the gas and electricity energy required to heat and cool each home. If the home’s use exceeds the guarantee, EFL will pay the difference.

Ideal Homes has now added this guarantee to all of their new homes. According to Vernon McKown, Ideal's co-owner and president of sales, "Now the home that keeps you comfortable all year long also guarantees to save you money on heating and cooling costs . . . it gives homebuyers peace of mind and confirms our energy performance claims." Ideal Homes is making the green payback concrete, by quietly cutting through the green noise.

--Christina Glennon is an administrative assistant at Taunton Press in Newtown, CT

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Greening My Home, Step 1: Biodiesel

By Dan Morrison

Air sealing and insulating are a great first step, but switching fuels is a lot quicker and easier. I'll do the insulating after I get a bonus check!

Standing in the cold dark December night pouring diesel fuel from a five gallon jug into the side of my house is where I think it really clicked: Houses are a huge consumer of oil. I had always gotten up-tight about gas mileage in my cars and trucks (I had a full sized Ford pickup at the time), but it never really hit me how much our houses gobble up.

Five gallons would maybe be enough to make it through the night, but it was about 10 degrees outside and I had two young children inside. So I made a few trips to the gas station and back pondering all the gas I was chugging into the side of my house.

Thousands of people pour hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into their house every year. Actually, we burn 5 billion gallons of fuel oil every year (or we did in 2001)

An easy way for my family to cut our carbon footprint and our foreign oil consumption was to switch to biodiesel. Even though it's a 20% blend of biodiesel, my wife and I feel 80% better about our carbon emissions.

Biofuel cost a bit more than regular fuel oil but we don't really care. Regular fuel oil is bad; biodiesel is better. Now that the price of oil has skyrocketed, the extra premium paid for biodiesel is barely noticeable. Maybe we feel 85% better now. And it feels a heck of a lot better to see the oil truck with big green leaves on the side pull up to top us off.

To find a dealer, I went to biodiesel.org and searched their listing. Hale Hill Farm was one of the closest (Bantam Fuel is closer, but they don't sell 20% blends, only 5%), so we called Hale Hill. Even though we're a little ways away, they deliver to us because they want to spread the word.

The first time the delivery driver came, he had a look at our system to make sure the fuel was compatible with our boiler, lines and tasnk, gave the thumbs up, and started pumping. The service is excellent, the drivers friendly, and the office staff pleasant.
What an interesting way to do business...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Classic Trim Details Do More Than Just Look Good

By Dan Morrison

Well detailed walls push water away from the foundation with trim elements. Flares, frieze boards and foundation water tables aren't there just because they look good. Their job is to protect the house from water.

(Click the "comments" icon to turn on or off the photo caption)

They look good because their proportions are well thought out. Rules for proportions were figured out thousands of years ago by Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

They're worth following.

-- Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com