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.

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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

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Making Buildings Better One Camper at a Time

By Michael Chandler

One of the advantages to being part of the GreenBuildingAdvisor team is an invitation to Joe Lstiburek’s Building Science Summer Camp (that's me and him at right). This is an invitation-only gathering of 200 of the top building scientists, engineers, and architects in America. Of course builders and remodelers are invited too. I was there as a member of Peter Yost and Dan Morrison’s new Green Building Advisor project. Joe is on the Advisory team too. The experience was absolutely amazing.

Summer camp seems to be largely an indulgence-of-curiosity project for Joe. He just looks at the Building Science community, asks himself “who is doing interesting research these days?” He calls them up and offers them a chance to speak about what they are passionate about. The talks can range over a pretty wide area.

  • An engineer from Johns Manville talked about how the fiberglass insulation of today is different on a micro-structural basis to the fiber glass of five years ago and why that matters.

  • Dr. Pierre-Michel Busque talked about window leaks in Western Canada and various pressure assisted rain screen strategies that can to keep the walls dry.

  • Ren Anderson from the National Renewable Energy Lab talked about the reconstruction of tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kansas. NREL is value engineering advanced energy performance into the new homes being built there. He says they have found a way to get 58% better than code performance at no extra cost. They can get to 90% better than code at no extra cost by balancing energy savings against higher mortgage payment and factoring in a 40% increase in fuel costs.

BSC summer camp lecture for 200 from 8:30 am 'til 3:30 pm each day.

A presentation by Henry Gifford was particularly earth shattering. Recently the USGBC (http://www.usgbc.org/ ) had published a report from the New Buildings Institute (http://www.newbuildings.org/ ) that showed the LEED certified buildings perform 25% better than non-LEED certified “CBECS” buildings (www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cbecs ). Henry is a building efficiency expert in New York City and he sees these all-glass LEED buildings going up and he wonders how they can possibly perform better than the CBECS average. So he downloaded the data and discovered they were comparing mean data for all age CBECS buildings to median data for new LEED buildings. He made some adjustments and was able to demonstrate that the new LEED buildings were actually performing 30% worse than other buildings of the same age. His point was that using models to predict is a good start, but until we go back and test our work, we’re not doing building science we’re doing building theory (and getting pretty close to religion if we just take things on faith).

GreenBuildingAdvisor.com is announced!
This was a great set up for Peter Yost to step in and announce that Building Green Inc. (publishers of Environmental Building News) and Taunton Press (publishers of Fine Homebuilding Magazine) had partnered to build GreenBuildingAdvisor.com. One of their (our) initiatives will be to publish case studies of energy efficient and green homes; the main difference is that they’ll get the energy bills of these houses and talk about actual energy used, rather than predicted. I’m starting with four of Chandler Design-Build’s recent homes as part of the first wave. It’s an exciting project to see how the theory really works out over time as compared with other excellent builders across the country, if a little intimidating.

Energy Star for Homes’ recent spec boost is announced!
Not to be outdone, The National Director of Energy Star for Homes, Sam Rashkin, announced the latest “version three” release from Energy Star and their newest program, Advanced New Home Construction. The version three adds new ventilation, humidity control, water management, thermal bridging, HVAC installation testing, radiant barriers, and overall size limitations to Energy Star’s specs. Sam is a guy who likes to knock bee hives with a stick, and his announcement that energy star for homes was going to get a whole lot harder set the whole room to buzzing. His announcement of size limitations drew applause from the summer campers.
He went on to show what would be required to meet the Advanced New Home Construction standard; 50% better than code, triple glazed windows, super HVAC, and size limits… Even I was thinking this will work at $10/gallon, but maybe America’s not ready to go there yet. Saying “no more Hummer Houses” is one thing but it feels like he’s taking Energy Star away from the market. It’s a very interesting time to be part of the green building movement.

After class we reconvened at the clubhouse for feasting, drinking, and science discussion until late in the evening. I was welcomed to the club house by Betsy Pettit, the renowned architect/writer/speaker who is a partner at Building Science Corp (http://www.buildingscience.com/). Betsy and Joe renovated the 150 year old Massachusetts farm house into a very energy efficient building. You can read about the process at finehomebuilding.com (http://www.taunton.com/finehomebuilding/how-to/articles/remodeling-for-energy-efficiency.aspx?ac=fp).

Is Shismaref the new Greensburg?
There was a significant Alaskan contingent who told me they are really getting hit hard by global warming. The pack ice that protects barrier islands in the northern Bering Sea is coming too late in the season. The shores, which are a composite of sand and permafrost, are exposed to fall storms that they never experienced before and the islands are melting into the sea. This is problematic when there are villages on the island.

I spoke with people who were working on the social and logistical challenge of relocating villages to the mainland. Building durable, healthy, and energy efficient homes for people who have been subsistence living on remote islands is challenging enough, the social implications are very knotty. Many of the elders would prefer to sink into the sea with the rest of their way of life. The ethical and moral complications are mind boggling and the folks who are working on them, awe inspiring. To bring home the reality of what they are dealing with they brought along a gift from the community, raw bowfin and beluga whale and seal jerky with seal oil dip. I couldn’t bring myself to sample the seal oil but the raw bow fin was quite good. The rest may be an acquired taste…

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

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Classic and Durable Window and Door Trim Details

For durable window details look no farther than the oldest houses on your block. Build small roofs over windows and doors; recess them into the wall if you can. The trim details can be as simple or fancy as you want. For design guidence, look at classic houses.

I was driving through Maine last week and saw great examples of water shedding details on houses that have been around for 120-250 years.

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It's like Dr. Brusque said at summer camp a few weeks ago: "they built leaky houses 100 years ago too, it's just that the pigs have been torn down by now." What's left, is what worked.

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Inevitable Question: Does Green Building Cost More?

By Ann V. Edminster

Green building is more expensive because it’s better building. Learning curve, certification, and better construction details may come at a premium, but the cost will flatten out. The costs of not building green however, will keep going up.

When I teach about green building, someone in the audience always asks the inevitable question: “How much does it cost?” After answering this query several gazillion times, I’ve realized that it boils down to three questions:
1. What does a green rating cost?
2. What’s the learning curve?
3. What will it cost to change the way I build?

You pay for the rating, you get quality assurance
The first question is the only one with a simple answer. A green rating will cost whatever price is charged by the rater. It’s usually a small fraction of the overall cost of the project, ranging from several hundred up to a few thousand dollars. This depends on type of home(s), location, timing, and the amount of technical support you need.

What’s often overlooked is that most of the cost is for field verification. This is fundamentally a quality assurance activity – something that is all too frequently lacking in the home building industry. This is a good investment!

Learning curves: change: is inevitable – adapt or go belly-up
The second cost, while the hardest to predict accurately, can be addressed in a way that most businesspeople immediately grasp: organizations must absorb change routinely; this is simply the cost of staying in business. These ordinary learning curve costs come from developing new supplier relationships, recruiting and training new personnel, investigating new products and technologies, grappling with new requirements or regulations, and other things. But these costs drop off quickly.

What’s notable about the learning curve costs is that it’s common to attribute them to the particular green building project. However, in reality if you undertake the learning curve it’s because you’ve decided that green building is a sound business direction and will benefit your future market position. These costs are no different from continuing education, updating marketing literature, or developing a new website.

The bottom line depends on your shade of green
The third cost can be quantified, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer – it depends on where you start and where you want to be. Building practices exist on a spectrum, from bare-bones and barely-legal to net-zero-energy and beyond. Getting from point A to point B is relative.

Consider a Hyundai producer who decides to convert the production line over to Honda. The products are generally comparable in size, weight, and look. However, the Honda is (arguably) more durable, better-engineered, and more fuel-efficient. The Honda also costs a fair amount more. If, however, you’re a Hummer producer and convert to Honda production, your prices won’t increase (they may actually go down), and you’ll incorporate dramatic performance improvements – at least from an environmental impact perspective.

Similarly, builders of modest homes who upgrade to green may experience a cost increase. (However, they also may command a higher selling price or faster sales.) Builders of large homes may find opportunities to incorporate efficiencies without experiencing any significant cost increase. For example, a slight decrease in size combined with better up-front design may be a break-even proposition, or better windows and insulation may be offset by reductions in the size of the mechanical equipment. The premiums, when they exist, will disappear as energy prices head for the stratosphere and the value of green becomes more of a no-brainer.

Green building is an investment, not a cost
Answering this cost question requires that you identify exactly what green building practices or products you will use that differ from your status quo, and cost out those changes. This process means gathering detailed data from staff, consultants, and subcontractors and then value-engineering based on the outcomes. This type of analysis may be essential if you’re working for a production builder with stockholders to satisfy.

In a smaller, more informal company, just understanding what changes you will need to make may be enough. Either way, you’ll need to understand where you are and where you want to be on the Hyundai-Honda-Hummer spectrum. And if you do decide to re-tool your product line, keep in mind that it may not be realistic to expect your product to cost the same, or to sell at the same price point. It’s no longer the same product; it’s a better one.

--Ann V. Edminster is an architect and Principal of Design Avenues in Pacifica, Calif. She is also a GreenBuildingAdvisor at GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Friday, August 15, 2008

Are All Air Filter Ratings Equal?

By Dan Morrison

Don't let your lungs pay for bad air filters. Some 99% effective filters are only 10% effective when you change the sampling method. Particle size matters, and so does sampling method.

Our final speaker at Building Science Summer Camp (Day 2), Dr. Dieter Weyel, talked about filters, filtration, and ratings. Turns out, there are some pretty important differences. Particles, like everything else, have to obey the laws of physics. It’s just that our understanding of physics is skewed because we’re big enough that gravity affects us. Gravity affects some particles too -- when they get to be about 10 micrometers. But small particles, say 1 micrometer, can fly. Sort of. They behave like algae in the ocean; they just float around obeying the laws od oceanic currents. Algae are less dense than the salt water they float in, so they float. Small particles are less dense than the air they float in, so they float around moving in response to the air currents.

Big particles fall to the ground and you have to clean them up with a damp cloth or a duster. Small particles float around and you clean them with a filter. As it turns out, lungs are excellent filters. Problem is, clean lungs work better than dirty lungs. That’s where filters come in. There are three ways to measure the effectiveness of a filter:

  1. Count the number of particles it catches
  2. Count the area of the particles it catches
  3. Count the weight of the particles it catches

Dr. Weytal used 10 small particles (1 micrometer) and one large particle (10 micrometers) as an example. If the filter only catches the large particle:

  • Method #1 yields a 10% filter.
  • Method #2 yields a 92% filter
  • Method #3 yields a 99% filter.

For ratings, particle size and sampling method matter
HEPA filters must be judged according to method 1, counting the number of particles it catches. Counting particles isn’t very effective for particles over about 5 micrometers Weyal says, because larger particles tend to overlap.

According to Weyal, ASHRAE measures “sort of by area.” They dump particles into a duct, spray them through a filter, and probe for particles before and after the filter. They shine light through the filter; if there are a lot of particles, not much light gets through. They compare one side of the filter to the other and get a percent efficiency.

As it turns out, particles vary in density too -- a styrofoam peanut and a cork are of similar size, and they both float on water, but they have very different densities. So density matters too.

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Energy Star Raises the Bar for Home Builders

By Dan Morrison
A couple of interesting announcements at Building Science Summer Camp came from Sam Rashkin, the National Director of Energy Star for Homes: New standards that raise the bar and a new program for the best builders in the country: Advanced New Home Construction.

The new Energy Star specs include the following:
  • Thermal-breaks in walls -- When studs touch the inside surface and outside surfaces of a wall, they cut the R-value of a wall significantly.
  • Installing HVAC systems correctly -- EPA calls it “best practice installation;” Poor installations slash of the efficiency of an HVAC system by 35% (or more!)
  • Efficient water distribution, particularly for hot water. Hot water sitting in a tank waiting to be used, it cools. These standby losses at the tank are significant, but according to Energy Star, the standby losses in the pipes can be the same amount.
  • Better lighting, appliances, and plug-load management -- these loads account for over half of electricity use in homes : (major appliances: 24%, lighting: 18%, miscellaneous: 14%).
  • Size limits on Energy Star homes. The Home Energy Rating System (HERS), which scores Energy Star homes, inadvertently penalizes small homes by making it easier for very large homes to meet the energy efficiency requirements (not sure on the size limit yet, awaiting Sam’s answer).
  • Moisture control -- because tight houses have less drying potential, durability details must be well thought-out

These updates lay the groundwork for another EPA program: Advanced New Home Construction which will push the energy envelope 50% past 2006 International Energy Conservation Code. To get there, builders will:

  • ‘Super insulate the walls -- 50% more R-value in an air tight wall with perfect insulation and no thermal bridging.
  • Install ‘super-efficient’ high-performance windows which can block nearly 85 percent of solar heat gain while delivering R-8 thermal resistance (typical Energy Star windows block 70% solar heat and deliver R-3).
  • Install air-tight air handlers with high-efficiency variable-speed fans. HVAC systems often leak 35% of the air they transport. Half of that leaks out of the air handler. And today’s fans gobble up 70% more energy than necessary. Sealed air handler units are currently available and super-efficient fans are about three years away.
  • Install super high-efficient HVAC equipment -- SEER 18 (rather than 13) for air conditioning, >9.0 HSPF (rather than <8)>
  • Install solar domestic water heating system -- most solar water heaters can handle 50% to 90% of the water heating needs of a household.

The Advanced New Home Construction program is not open to all builders; it has requirements for participation. As such, EPA is looking for “the nation’s most energy efficient builders seeking recognition as environmental leaders” to join the Advanced New Home Construction program.

To learn more about the program, go to www.energystar.gov/homes next September.

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Monday, August 11, 2008

Day 2 at Building Science Summer Camp

By Dan Morrison

What did I do at summer camp? met with our advisors, learned about physics, ate food from from Alaska to Dallas, Miami to Maine. And there were cubans with cigars, too.

Building science summer camp is an invitation-only information and consumption festival held during the first week of August each year and hosted by Building Science Corp. Officially calld the Westford Symposium on Building Science, summer camp attracts the best and the brightest in the commercial and residential building fields. There is also very good food, beer, wine, and cigars.

Classes are held during the day at the Westford Regency Hotel and Conference Center, networking and feasting opportunities are at the clubhouse each night. The classes are taught by whoever Joe Lstiburek, one of the founders of Building Science Corp, wants to invite. Typically these teachers are amoung the best in their respective fields. This year was no different.

Opening remarks by Pete Consigli:
“They ate all of the whale blubber” (John Woodward brought whale blubber and seal oil for us lower 48-ers to try. I guess it was pretty good.)

Today's first speaker: Pierre Brusque
According to the official Summer Camp brochure:

Pierre Busque is an engineer with Levelton in Vancouver, BC. He has over
twenty years of experience in one of the most miserable places in the world to
build but one of the most attractive to live in - the building science version
of beauty and the beast. He will regale us with stories of metal roofing
in Whistler, curtain walls and the Qube, historic buildings, recladding of
schools in Sayward and a few lawsuits. He has so many images of building
porn that he is on a most watch list. The second most important thing to
know about Mr. Busque is that he is a talented guitarist - the band is in for a
Vancouver has had its share of water problems. The rotting condo catastrophe is the most famous, but there have been water problems in the area for a long time. One reason, according to Mr. Brusque, is that there is tremendous variation in rainfall, both amount and distribution, among towns in the area. From desert to rain forest, and from slow and steady rain to sideways gully-washers. But weather variation isn’t a problem if designers (architects and engineers) don’t try to impose their home town’s weather patterns on a different city.

When designers from occasional gully-washer cities underestimate the power of constant light rain, they can do as much damage as a designer from the desert underestimating a gulley washer. Brusque: “Small leaks over a long period of time will really cause your building to go to crap.” Big leaks followed by long dry spells are easier to overcome than little leaks that can never dry out.

There are four basic causes of building failure:
  • Ignorance
  • Carelessness
  • Negligence
  • Greed

Ignorance, according to Brusque, is the only one we can do anything about. Designers need to look at local solutions, talk to local experts, and don’t forget to talk to old trade contractors. Pierre showed us a sill fan flashing design that a roofer showed him -- without cutting the metal (Stay tuned, I’ll make a short video using paper as a model). “They don’t build them like they used to -- well, buildings leaked 100 years ago too, but the real pigs were torn down.” The good ones have remained. The guys that built the good ones know how to shed water.

He also offered four rules about windows:

  • Treat all windows like they are leakers, because they really are.
  • Storefront windows should only be used under cover (this includes residential)
  • Because all windows leak, a sub-sill membrane with upturned edge is necessary
  • Never fasten a window through the sill. Even if the manufacturer demands it. If you must break this rule, elevate the membrane at the fastener with a shim to direct water away when it leaks through the hole (this tip from Ray Moore in the audience).

A liquid membrane that Pierre likes is called Siplast, a PMMA membrane (polymethyl methacrylate).

More speakers to come!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Green Remodeling is a Process of Discipline and Discovery

By Tommy Strong

Some parts are up to consumers, some are up to us. We guide the discovery process and use a disciplined construction process to boost value whatever shade of green our clients aim for.

Despite the economic upheavals in the housing market, about 8 million new homes were built last year. And we’re building them greener than ever. That’s a good thing, but improving the existing housing stock will have a much greater affect on greening America than even gargantuan efforts taken on the new construction side.

When it comes to building and remodeling, green, smart, and quality, are all the same thing.
Smart remodeling (and building) is an ongoing evolution and the notions of green are simply the next step in construction evolution. As a production manager for a remodeling company, my primary task is doing my job efficiently, in smarter ways, with value added. I don’t care how you define green, as long as you let me build smart.

Green remodeling involves a balance of products and processes; there are two areas of opportunity to influence our client’s choices during the sales process, but we are limited by their level of understanding, desire, and commitment.

During the sales process we can influence product choices
We’ve been including a free duct blaster test as a part of high end remodels and this year we started offering energy audits. We look for opportunities to tie in envelope upgrades within the scope of the current and future remodel plans. For big energy wasters, we suggest fixing them regardless of the scope of work and clients never balk (would you balk at a mechanic who ignored severely worn tires because you hired him to change the oil?).

When gauging a client’s level of green, we start by showing them low-maintenance no-brainers like durable PEX plumbing systems and healthier paints. Making sure they see the obvious benefits is easy, and once they understand, then they become curious. We ask questions, exploring their living habits, and talking about water and energy conservation, we can find out if their wishes include better hot water delivery—if so, we steer them towards tankless water heaters—or super-efficient ceiling fans, in which case we point towards one rated as Energy Star. [Some follow up about desire]. Bath fans are another easy upgrade: they are bigger, badder, quieter, and more expensive than they used to be — and worth every penny. Sucking moist or stale air out is as important as circulating air for interior air quality.

To take it up a notch we’ll talk HVAC upgrades or spray-in insulation, both of which offer big benefits, but an additional level of up-front financial commitment (we are talking thousands of dollars here). For our clients committed to maximum efficiency we go beyond conservation and look towards contribution -- think photovoltaic panels, solar water heaters, rain water collection, etc.

The main point is that by following their lead on budget items we can dial in on where to lead the conversation next. We look for opportunities to sell green building, and we want to be ready to take it as far as they want.

To go deep green, we need trade partners who are up to the task: suppliers who want to help install their products, engineers and designers who will specify them and fellow contractors who will take the ball and run with it. These specialists must know the products, or be willing to learn about them. We lean on them pretty heavily because we can’t be their technical expert, and we can’t spend all our time talking people in to a different (smarter) way of doing things.

During production (and demo) we are in control of the details
Levels of commitment to the products vary wildly among clients, but our commitment to the process varies little. The tactics may change but strategies don’t. We keep consistent quality with durability and ‘best practices’ checklists learned from 17 years of remodeling. These standards and checklists help us stay focused on whatever we can do to tighten and refine the building envelope. Things like cladding, flashing, and drainage which are conditions begging for improvement. Advanced framing techniques that increase opportunity to add insulation and cut thermal transfer. Air flow management that controls temperature and humidity, and therefore, comfort.

Our systems and practices attempt to squeeze value from every square foot, no matter how many square feet there are. We do this by examining every inch of floor, wall and ceiling space for maximum benefit. Some value choices aren’t necessarily green per se, but they’re good design. For example: it often makes sense to thicken a bathroom or kitchen wall -- plumbers and electricians like the extra room to work with utilities and fixtures; designers and architects like the extra room to play with things like built-ins and pocket doors. It costs a little more but the square foot of floor space is used well.

Our demolition approach is less like tear-out and more like surgery, with instruments and masks. The attitude is remove, re-cycle, and ReStore. Old aluminum window frames and copper supply lines don’t go to the dumpster; they go to the salvage yard. And many items we take out of a particular home can find another home somewhere else. Hardware, doors and windows, even commodes are in enough demand that the Habitat for Humanities of the world will come pick them up. And it means fewer trips to the dump for us.
Surgical demolition should be mapped out with a solid 3-point plan:

  • Isolate—reduce the impact of major renovations on the rest of the home by controlling security, traffic, and of course, dirt.
  • Protect —go the extra mile, even if means 1/8 in. at a time: I’ve pulled 300’ of shoe molding so we could better protect a hardwood floor all the way to the baseboard.
  • Remove — pay attention to negative air pressure and reduce dust for the people living there and the people working there.

The next big thing in the marketplace—no matter which marketplace—is always right around the corner. Despite the fog of economic uncertainty we know some things: gas, oil, and kilowatts won’t get cheaper. Quality construction is a concept that continues to evolve and we continue to roll with it. During a green remodeling project we elevate the quality and number of products whenever we can through education and options; through our processes, we maximize value no matter what selections are made. As we do, we make the best buildings we can, those that stand the test of time--the most valuable commodity we have.

--Tommy Strong (CGR, CAPS, CLC) is Vice President of Construction Services and co-founder of Brothers Strong, a design/build firm in Houston

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Day 1 at Building Science Summer Camp

By Dan Morrison
What did I do at summer camp? Met with our advisory team, learned about physics, ate food from from Alaska to Dallas, Miami to Maine. And there were cubans with cigars, too.

Building science summer camp is an invitation-only information and consumption festival held during the first week of August each year and hosted by Building Science Corp. Officially calld the Westford Symposium on Building Science, summer camp attracts the best and the brightest in the commercial and residential building fields. There is also very good food, beer, wine, and cigars.

Classes are held during the day at the Westford Regency Hotel and Conference Center, networking and feasting opportunities are at the clubhouse each night. The classes are taught by whoever Joe Lstiburek, one of the founders of Building Science Corp, wants to invite. Typically these teachers are amoung the best in their respective fields. This year was no different.

Each day opens with a rundown by the chef, Pete Consigli, on the menu.
Summer camp participants do their best to out-do eachother each year with their native cuisenes: The Alaskans bring halibut and salmon, the Texans bring a steer and slow roast the brisket, North Carolina barbeque, Maine clams and mussels... Pete's opening comments this year: "The food at summer cam can be summed up three ways: Best quality, huge variety, and a hell of a lot of it."

Even smart people get confused.
Dr. Lstiburek likes to say that he's not a consultant, he's an insultant. Dr Anton Tenwold added another layer to the title game: Confusant.
After recently retiring from the USDA Forest Products Lab, physicist Anton TenWolde has discovered that what he thought he knew, is really stuff he doesn’t know. Dr Tenwolde's eyes lit up when someone raised a hand during his presentation to say "I'm confused."

But there's a lot to learn from the stuff Dr. TenWolde doesn't know. Here’s what I learned:

  • A lot of water in houses comes from people, but it isn’t all from respiration (breathing). A lot can come from transpiration (sweating) too -- up to 3 lbs of water per day per person. Coupled with respiration, a family of five dumps up to 33 gallons of water into a house every day.
  • Foundations add a lot of water to a house too: .4 kg per square meter per day (about a gallon per 44 square feet) evaporate from bare soil in a crawl space.
  • It takes six weeks for a sliver of wood to come to moisture equilibrium with its surroundings. And then Lew Harriman asked if we could all undlerline that in our notes: SIX WEEKS for a teeny piece of wood to come to equilibrium with its environment through sorption. So the oak flooring probably ought to be in the room for more than a couple of days before installation.

Houses can be a huge part of the solution to our energy problem
Ren Anderson works at the National Renewable Energy Lab and is interested in Net Zero Energy Houses. It's pretty well known that we can use a lot less power in houses, today he talked a lot about the challenge of syncing up local power generation with grid demands. Many houses can generate a lot of power with PV, but can they provide electricity to the grid when the grid needs it most -- during the hot part of the day when everyone flips on the AC?

I learned:

  • Today’s houses are much bigger than houses from the fifties and they use much more energy.
  • While today’s big houses use less energy per square foot, it’s total energy use that’s important because we don’t make power by the square foot, we make power by the kilowatt.
  • Small houses are more efficient at space heating than large houses -- they use a smaller percentage of total energy for space heating.
    Large houses get better RESNET scores than small houses because RESNET is based on performance per square foot. For this reason, it (and Energy Star) are biased towards larger houses (but the Energy Star bias may be changing).
  • It is very cost effective to slash home energy use by 50%. The second 50%, to get to zero energy, is less cost effective at current energy prices. If energy prices go up (which they may) higher efficiencies will be very cost effective too.
  • PV panels on houses can provide peak power needs to the grid if they’re turned to face west rather than south because their generation curve will be shifted an hour or two later in the day -- just when houses need the most electricity.
  • 80% of the houses in America are built by 20% of the builders. Production builders risk going the way of GM if they don’t lead the world in energy efficiency.

At the clubhouse, I learned that more and more regional green building programs, such as Earth Craft House from Atlanta and Earth Advantage from Oregon, are expanding. Earth Craft is in six southeastern states and Earth Advantage is moving towards New England. This may mean that the big National programs need to get their acts together and start making sense.

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Monday, August 4, 2008

Annette Stelmack's Green Story

Immigrant parents, hard work, and frugality formed my character, a child put sustainablity into context.

I first learned about sustainability from my parents. Both of them emigrated from Germany after World War 2, my father when he was just 17. He arrived at Ellis Island with little more than a small suitcase and a sponsor (his aunt) in Colorado. I grew up with the mentality that you didn’t throw anything away. We used things until they fell apart.

That was not all my parents passed on to me. My father was a bricklayer and later moved into building homes, my mother was a seamstress. During the year I would work for my mother, who did work for interior designers, which is how I was introduced to the trade. During the summer I would get to spend some time with my father at his drafting table looking over blueprints or out at the jobsite mixing mortar, helping with the rough carpentry, hanging sheetrock, and painting. Between my father in the construction industry and my mother’s connection to design it was as if I were destined to be involved in making the home a more beautiful and nurturing place as an interior designer.

After years of focusing on my interior design career my son was born. This changed the way I looked at everything! In particular, it made me realize just how much waste there was in the world and in particular the building industry. I started recycling and doing all that I could at home, but it just wasn’t enough. I needed to do more to make the world a better and cleaner place, not only for my son but all children.

Shortly after this, in 1998, I attended EnvironDesign2. It was here that I was first experienced firsthand inspiring speakers such as Paul Hawken, Ray Anderson, Sim Van der Ryn, William McDonough, Michael Braungart and Bill Browning. This was a pivotal moment in my life -- I decided that this is what I had to do. I was so moved that I came home from the conference on a Sunday afternoon, sat at my computer and typed all of my notes right then and there. That weekend launched the formal greening of my career and it wasn’t long before Associates III, the firm that I was co-managing, had fully embraced green design too, going so far as to form teams to implement green in all we did companywide. I was so passionate about green that I ended up being on most of the internal task forces. After completing our book “Sustainable Residential Interiors” with my colleagues at Associates III, I knew it was time to focus exclusively on sustainability. I have recently started a sustainability consultant company - working with designers, architects, manufacturers, homeowners - supporting their green journey. I also volunteer for the USGBC CO Chapter chairing the Green School Advocacy committee and am the incoming chair for ASID’s National Sustainable Design Council. My next venture will be grassroots outreach programs for kids on green issues and environmental stewardship.

What does green building mean to me?
When I look at green building and design, at its core level it is about the synergy of the project team. The key to success, no matter the type of project or effort is having a common alignment of vision, mission and goals with sustainability as the primary focus.

--Annette Stellmack is the incoming chair of the sustainablility committee at the American Society of Interior Designers

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Free Means You Don't Have to Pay

By Dan Morrison

My home state of Connecticut has figured out that the projected budget surplus, which became a projected budget deficit, will actually be a surplus again. That’s pretty good news. Maybe it went from projected deficit back to surplus because they cut a few million here and there after the initial surplus projection was scaled back. And I suppose, that’s the fiscally responsible thing to do: when it looks like my paycheck will be a little short for the month, I don’t generally whip out a credit card, I look for places to cut back. Working from home is my favorite option, but sometimes the wine and beer budget just has to take a hit.

A rainy day fund looking for an umbrella
Now that Connecticut has a little extra cash, they’re (we’re?) looking for ways to spend it. Naturally, the folks who got trimmed want some of their money back. This seems fairly reasonable. One thing that the legislature and Governor are talking about is home heating aid for low income families. They want to give folks money to buy heating oil (or gas, or electricity) this winter because the price of energy is so high and Connecticut gets cold in the winter. On the surface, this sounds like another reasonable idea -- poor folks ought to be able to keep from freezing. But what it really amounts to is a big subsidy for big oil companies -- “Raise your prices all you want, the government will foot the bill so that people continue to pump oil into the side of their houses.”

A radical idea: use less oil and gas
CT spent over $24 million last year on energy assistance (more than $13 million came from the Federal Government) Will it happen again next year? Yes. Is it likely to happen indefinitely? It’s a good bet. $24 mil is quite an annual gift to the oil and gas companies (The Feds donated $450 million last year). We’re spending millions of dollars every year on energy Band-Aids. By spending money once on home energy audits, air sealing, duct sealing, and insulating, we could cut the energy use in CT homes by a bunch -- 40% isn’t unreasonable at all. It would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, put money in people’s pockets (or rather stop pulling it out), lower air pollution, decrease oil spills (did you hear about the 400,000 gallon oil spill near New Orleans last week?) and create green jobs to boot. Everyone’s a winner. Well, almost everyone.

If we’re going to dig our way out of the energy mess we’re in, we need to look long term and weigh options honestly. Home energy assistance programs may help families in the short term, but they keep families, states, and our country (Land of the Free) shackled to big energy bills in the long term.

Free means you don’t have to pay.

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Monday, July 28, 2008

Do Window Shades Save Energy?

By Peter Yost

While theoretically impossible to actually "save" energy, interior window shades can indeed keep summer heat out and winter heat in. The real question then becomes How well do they perform, and under what circumstances?

In the summer, shades keep out heat, but also light
Interior shades can reflect back out light energy that would otherwise be converted to heat energy. According to the authors of the best resource on the topic, Residential Windows (Carmody, Selkowitz, Arasteh, and Heschong), “drapes can reduce the solar heat gain coefficient of clear glass from 20 to 70 per cent.” That's a pretty big range -- how well they exclude heat depends on the shade's color (silver would be the best, black would be worst), and their proper use. They can’t block anything if they are not closed, and when they are closed, you of course can’t see anything out the window, and you need to turn on a light inside (so, Laws of Thermodynamics notwithstanding, are they really saving energy?).

Exterior shading, on the other hand, performs better all around: it can deflect 100% of the direct solar gain, does not depend on occupant operation, and does not eliminate views. So, interior shades do work to reduce direct solar heat gain, they just do it rather poorly in the grand scheme of things.

In the winter, shades let reduce radiant heat "loss"
You will see claims of up to R-8 by some manufacturers of interior shades in terms of reducing heat loss. Just as with insulation in a wall cavity, the insulating value of a window shade depends on a continuous air barrier being right next to it. How many of these interior thermal shades have an airtight seal around their perimeter? None that I have seen; instead, convective currents short circuit their thermal performance. It is hard to say just exactly what their performance is, because there is no standardized third-party testing of window shades, as there is for windows. But be happy with a couple or so “R”s, not R-8. And once again, you have to operate the shades to get their best performance. Leave them down or closed on a day that turns sunny, and you have a net loss of energy. Open or up at night—oops.

Interior shades can make rooms more comfortable; they have been shown to boost thermal comfort (raise the mean radiant temperature) by as much as 5°F. But just as with overall energy efficiency, improvements in thermal comfort with interior shades depend on how well the windows work to begin with. Improvements are highest and most noticeable with older, poorly performing windows. That bears repeating: Improvements are highest and most noticeable with older, poorly performing windows. Or put another way, good windows work better than shades.

So, interior shades can keep your house cooler in the summer (during the day) and warmer in the winter (at night). But for real energy savings and overall performance, go with high performance windows and exterior shading, and relegate interior shading to handling privacy. After all, you put these “holes” in your walls for the views and the free light!

--Peter Yost is Director of Residential Services at BuildingGreen

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Why Do You Build Green?

Last May I asked builders, designers, and other folks at NAHB's National Green Building Conference why they build green. Here's what they said:

More to come after West Coast Green and GreenBuild...

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Are Heat Pumps Green?

By Dan Morrison

An article in the Home and Garden section of the New York Times "Time to Worry About Heat Bills" By JAY ROMANO (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/24/garden/24fix.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y) talks about a winter heating option that will save you money: electric heat pumps. With the price of gas and oil skyrocketing, the article reasons, an electric heat pump will be a money saver this winter and eventually end up "paying for itself."

But is it green?
Not if you're getting your electricity from the grid.
  • Coal plants have an efficiency of about 31%; put another way, almost 70% of the energy contained in a lump of coal is lost as heat when it's burned at a coal plant.
  • And along with that heat, tons of carbon dioxide are dumped into the atmosphere when the lump of coal is burned.
  • And strip mining for lumps of coal leaves a mighty big footprint on the land.

I sure wish I could convince Henry Gifford to let me publish his manuscript on why heat pumps are not such a great idea.

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Thursday, July 17, 2008

What’s wrong with this picture?

a) The rim joist is too heavily notched.
b) Using framing cavities as duct runs frowned upon by codes and professional associations.
c) This passed the framing inspection.
d) All of the above.

The answer is d, all of the above.

While it appears that this rim joist isn’t structural (there are studs below it), The Engineered Wood Association says that when cutting multiple holes in a rim joist, the spacing between the holes should be at least twice the length of the longest side of the longest rectangular hole. And according to Joe Lstiburek, the photographer, this also passed the framing inspection.

This leaves option b, “Using framing cavities as duct runs is a bad idea”. This photo shows both stud and joist cavities being used as return air ducts. In their duct design guide Manual D, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) recommend not using panned joists for return ducts, and the 2006 IRC and IECC codes prohibit joist cavities for supply ducts. It’s too bad that neither does both.

Framing cavities make bad duct runs because the leak and they’re connected to every part of the house via framing gaps and holes for wire and pipe. These leaks suck in air from unintended sources (outdoors, attics, garages, and crawlspaces). Along with this unintended air comes humidity, mold, dust, and whatever else is in these spaces (radon, carbon monoxide, gasoline, paint thinner, pesticides,). Not only does this poison the indoor air supply, but it increases the heating and cooling loads while decreasing the efficiency of the mechanical equipment. A bad idea all the way around.

— Bruce Harley is technical director of Conservation Services Group and author of Insulate and Weatherize (Taunton 2002). Photo by Joseph Lstiburek

Got a dumb building picture? Send it to dan [at] buildinggreen.com

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Green Products Don’t Make It Green

By Matt Golden
A green house can be built with un-green products and an un-green house can be built with all green products. Its about process first, then products.

In our common vernacular, “green” has come to mean many things, and at the same time nothing at all. It has become the de-facto term for environmentally sound – dealing with everything from healthy living to energy consumption and global warming. Clever marketing has people choosing hair products and hybrid cars based on their green status.

Greenwashing 101
By watering down the term to mean expensive products, we promote the idea that we can buy our way to greenness without delivering real solutions to the environmental issues we face. This is greenwashing folks, and it has a very real potential to derail the positive effect of the green sector. We run the risk of alienating consumers as they become jaded by marketing claims that don’t represent reality.

When we really analyze the choices and products being offered by the green industry, it seems that we are starting at the wrong end of the spectrum. Almost everything that is fed to consumers turns out to be the most expensive and often the least effective measures.
Installing solar electric panels on a house will cut the coal we burn and lower the electric bill, but it’s not the best place to spend your money first. We’ve been building bigger, more power hungry homes for years; do we really think the answer lies in yet another big purchase?

What matters are results, not products
If we really want to reduce pollution, stop global warming, and minimize our dependence on fossil fuels, we need to be honest and clear about how we’re dealing with consumers’ wants and needs, and frame “green” by results.

Housing is a great place to start. There are more than 125 million existing homes in the United States. According to the US Energy Information Administration, these buildings represent 21% of the total US carbon footprint. Clearly, we can have an immediate environmental impact by improving the efficiency of these existing homes. Solar panels, hybrid cars, tankless water heaters, bamboo floors, and no-voc paints are great products, but when you approach a building as a system, you realize that individual products, no matter how high tech, can not replace proper fundamentals like tight duct work, good insulation, and weather stripping. By making smart improvements and working with the basics (which are often less expensive) we can make houses work properly so that they become healthy, comfortable and efficient – at a fraction of the cost.

We need to focus on solutions to people’s problems, whether it is energy costs or allergies. Once we have identified the core of each problem, we can address the real world issues and make a real difference when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint.

Tips to avoid greenwashing
As we in the green building world market our services and solutions, there are some clear guidelines we can follow to ensure we are not engaging in greenwashing.
Get the big picture - Understand all of the environmental impacts of your product across its entire lifecycle and share that information with your customers.
Be honest - Don’t overemphasize benefits to hide shortcomings.
Walk the talk - Keep improving your environmental footprint, and encourage your customers to join you on that journey.
Prove your point - Draw on respected standards and certification programs for legitimacy of environmental claims.

We are not lacking the technology to get the job done. The solution lies in helping consumers make smart choices, and thinking in terms of entire systems not simply the latest products.

Related article: The Six Sins of Greenwashing

--Matt Golden owns Sustainable Spaces in San Francisco, Calif

Monday, June 30, 2008

Energy Value Housing Award -- Chino Valley, Arizona

An academic pursuit providing real world results

This luxury house won an NAHB Energy Value Housing Award (Gold) while also complying with several sets of standards including LEED, Environments for Living and ALA HealthHouse. It was designed to be healthy, durable and affordable - as should be the goal of any sustainable building. Every detail was carefully considered, making the home efficient to build as well as live in. Pre-manufactured components sped construction; thoughtful planning minimized site disturbance and preserved existing vegetation; meticulously installed insulation, a tight building envelope and a rainwater collection system minimize energy and resource demands. Methodical preparation and execution are likely responsible for this project’s high marks, but something else also makes it unique - it was built by university students.

At Yavapai College, in Prescott, Arizona, the Residential Building Technology Program immerses students in both the theoretical and practical sides of high performance homebuilding. Director Tony Grahame leads each class through every stage of design and construction to the completion of a marketable home. The students learn not only about the necessary integration of a building’s parts, but also about the cooperation that is necessary to make that building happen.
Although its source of labor may be atypical, this project is a great example of how smart design can facilitate increased sustainability within a typical budget. Some of the methods and materials used might have been new to the RBT students, but the guidance they received gave them an edge over experienced contractors without green building training. This point was clearly made by an NAHB Energy Value House judge’s comment - “if only every house built in the U.S. could have the oversight of this project - all of our houses would be energy efficient and durable.”

Builder: Yavapai College Residential Building Technology Program, Tony Grahhame Director
Architect/Designer: Yapavi College Architectural Design Students and Staff

Location: Chino Valley, Arizona
Completed: 2005
Cost ($/sf): $90/sq.ft (not including cost of student labor)
Size: 3202 sq.ft.

Foundation type and R-value: Combination - slab on grade xps foam at edge (R-5), crawlspace ICF (R-16), basement integral XPS and blown in cellulose ((R-26.5)
Wall construction and R-value: 2x6 @ 24” o.c., 2” XPS and 5 1/2” unfaced fiberglass batt (R-29)
Windows: Double pane, low-e, argon filled. SHGC = .30 - .59; U- factor = 0.30 -0.35
Roof construction and R-value: Engineered trusses, blown-in cellulose (R-38)
Garage: Thermally and pressure isolated from living space

Energy specs:
Conditioning equipment : 14 SEER AC system, 56,672/80,960 BTU dual stage direct venting gas furnace
Water heating equipment: Solar domestic hot water
HERS Rating: 90.5 (5 star +)

Water efficiency measures used in this project
· Low flow toilets, faucets and shower heads
· Water conserving dishwasher
· 1250 gallon rainwater collection system
· Gray water distribution system
· All hot water taps within 30ft. of hot water storage tank

Energy efficiency measures used in this project
· Whole-house Energy Star interior and exterior lighting package with CFL bulbs.
· Extremely tight building envelope (blower door test 0.96 @50 Pascals)
· Roof overhangs optimized for summer window shading and winter solar gain.
· Energy Star appliances including dishwasher, ceiling fans and ventilation fans
· Sealed ductwork, leakage measured at 0cfm @ 25 Pascals
· All ductwork is located within the conditioned space

Green materials and/or resource efficiency used in this project
· Decking, ICFs, wall and ceiling insulation all include recycled content
· Recycled cardboard and metal construction materials

Indoor air quality measures used in this project
· Balanced whole house air exchange system with MERV-10 and HEPA filtration
· All construction materials contain low or no VOC
· Low formaldehyde content in particleboard cabinets

Alternate Energy Utilization
Photovoltaic power: 2 KW
Solar water heating: 40.9 sq.ft. panel, 80gallon storage tank

--Rob Wotzak is Assistant editor at GreenBuildingAdvisor.com. Photos by Tony Grahame

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ann Edminster's Green Story

By Ann Edminster

Architect by accident, advocate by design.

When I was about 11 years old, I volunteered at my town’s first, newly opened, recycling center. A couple of years later, I helped clean scores of seabirds that had been fouled with oil from the 1969 spill off the Santa Barbara coast. That summer, I had my first (glorious!) back country experience, in the High Sierra near Lake Tahoe. Many more backpacking trips followed that one, summer after summer. Those early experiences, an innate abhorrence for waste, and parental influence (I was the child of two activist English teachers – my father a far-left radical and my mother a deeply committed social welfare advocate) forged in me a reverence for nature and a powerful drive to protect the natural world that has never been far from the surface.

In college I studied architecture. However, by sometime early in my third year, or maybe sooner, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be an architect. I had no clue what else to do, though, so – knowing that a B.S. in architecture from Cal Poly would be a good meal ticket – I stuck with the program. My salvation was senior year abroad, in Florence, Italy. There I acquired a deep appreciation for development patterns that worked, in marked contrast to most American cities, and started to become aware of the huge negative impact of the automobile on human settlement.

After my Italian year and graduation in 1978, I found I had little interest in practicing architecture (the only architecture firm at which I interviewed designed gas stations!). And so I stumbled into technical editing and then writing, where I stayed for a number of years. I moonlighted, too, doing occasional remodeling projects, getting jobs by word of mouth. I never interned, never earned an architecture license. Over the years, though, I did learn quite a bit about how houses go together. I also became troubled by the amount of waste in my industry.

In the late 80s I began to hear about healthy building and ecological building, and eventually resolved that was where I belonged. Knowing that without external structure I wouldn’t acquire enough knowledge, quickly enough to suit me, I went back to school, enrolling in the Master of Architecture program at UC Berkeley in 1993. Since then, I’ve been completely immersed in green building (which, back then, really didn’t have a name).

My first job in the field was researching and writing for the Wood Reduction Clearinghouse, a project spun out of the Rainforest Action Network. From there I went to the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I wrote a book, Efficient Wood Use in Residential Construction: A Practical Guide to Saving Wood, Money, and Forests. Shortly thereafter I was tapped to be part of the USGBC’s effort to develop a national standard for residential construction – LEED for Homes. After two years chairing the LEED for Homes Materials & Resources Technical Advisory Subcommittee (MR-TASC) I became the co-chair of the LEED for Homes Committee, a seat I held for four years, until the program went into pilot. At that time I stepped down (while continuing to serve on the committee and chair the MR-TASC) in order to devote more time to implementation efforts. In the two-plus years since the launch of the pilot, I have taught hundreds of people about the LEED for Homes program and consulted to the LEED for Homes Provider in CA and to scores of developers, homeowners, production and custom builders, local governments, private investors, product manufacturers, and others who have wanted to better understand how to tackle the complex field of green building. It has been – and continues to be – a wild, exciting, and vastly rewarding ride, above all because of the amazing caliber of individuals with whom I work, and their remarkable unity of purpose.

Life Cycle Assessment is a Tool, Not a Silver Bullet

Are steel studs greener than wood? Is plastic pipe greener than copper? And is vinyl siding green?

By Peter Yost

There are few green building topics that produce more frustration and uncertainty than claims about the environmental footprint of particular building materials. Life Cycle Assessments, such as the ones listed below, seem like the perfect tool for summing it all up, but Life Cycle Assessments fall short for many reasons.

Getting reliable data is difficult at best
A life cycle assessment starts with a life cycle inventory. This means identifying and quantifying the inputs and outputs of a product from “cradle to grave” (mining, manufacturing, moving, installing, service life, and disposing of). This is no small task. And because much of the information comes from product manufacturers, the data can be incomplete -- manufacturers may not have all of the information or they may be unwilling to share it. When all products in a Life Cycle Assessment database are not scrutinized equally, conclusions drawn from the information may be misleading.

You can’t predict how many people will actually get cancer, only that a product could cause it
After the life cycle inventory is put together, it must be translated it into actual environmental impacts: global warming, human toxicity, ozone depletion, rainforest degradation, etc. This is called life cycle impact assessment (LCIA), and it gets pretty hypothetical. Many of these environmental effects require assumptions, such as how many lives will be lost from a particular cancer-causing output. These assumptions are impossible for normal people to evaluate, so we have to rely on someone else’s professional judgment.

They make apples to oranges environmental comparisons
The environmental impacts associated with a product are wide-ranging and measured in many different ways. For example, biodiversity may be gauged by the number of species going extinct and global warming by world-wide temperature rise. But how do we compare the two in relative importance? Again, it’s hard for normal people to evaluate the relative importance, so we must rely on trustworthy experts to weight each impact category in essentially an “apples to oranges” process. Is ozone depletion twice as important as the acidification of lakes? Pick your poison.

Setting boundary conditions is subjective and fuzzy
In any analysis, deciding what is on the table and what is out of bounds or beyond the scope is an essential first step. What does this mean in environmental life cycle assessment of building products? Three vexing examples provide valuable insight:

  • Open cell spray foam appears very green -- it insulates and air seals, it has no VOC off-gassing, uses water as the blowing agent, and it has proven to quite durable. But when considered in the greater context of a building, its excellent adhesion makes recycling or reusing the wood to which it is stuck difficult or even impossible. Should the insulation/air sealing properties be evaluated alone or should the effect on other building materials be considered?
  • Burning PVC is very bad -- when burned in uncontrolled conditions, PVC creates a serious environmental hazard. But if PVC waste from construction is rarely involved in uncontrolled burning, should this issue be included in the environmental profile of PVC plumbing pipe? Should burning be included in other PVC products, but not those used in construction?
  • Environmental regulations in other countries are often more lax that ours: A global manufacturer of paints has a good record of environmental compliance in the US, but a lousy record in countries with lax environmental standards. Do we consider the environmental degradation in other countries if we know the paint we are using is produced in the US?

Life Cycle Assessment is not a waste of time
Does this mean that Life Cycle Assessments and trying to compare the environmental profiles of competing products is a complete waste of time? Does it really matter which products we use from an environmental standpoint? The answer is that the environmental footprint of a product matters, but It should be put in the proper context:

  • Product selection should be among the last of the green building priorities. The energy efficiency, water efficiency, durability, and safety to human health of the building should be the top priorities.
  • Use building products manufactured and/or assembled locally and optimize the use of all construction materials (use fewer studs, design in 2 ft. modules, etc.).
    For the more complex LCA issues, go with product recommendations from a 3rd party, transparent, expert-based system such as TK.

Dive deeper:
Life Cycle Assessment for Buildings: Seeking the Holy Grail
Environmental Building News, March 2002.
Life Cycle 101
US EPA Life Cycle Assessment Research

Life Cycle Assessment tools:

--Peter Yost is Residential Program Manager at GreenBuildingAdvisor.com

Friday, June 20, 2008

Manual D is not (necessarily) Green

Manual D is about comfort, not energy efficiency. Its requirement in LEED-H makes green certification too expensive to justify the benefit.

By Michael Chandler

I've been building solar and green for thirty years and have built homes that Energy Star certify at 76% more efficient than code and score gold on our North Carolina Green Building Program as well as NAHB’s green building program but I have never built a house that would qualify for even basic LEED-H certification and it doesn't seem likely that I will unless I get a client who specifically requests the LEED-H program over the alternatives. The reason for this is that my homes use oversized ductwork with air flow controlled by butterfly dampers and the LEED-H program requires that airflow be controlled through implementation of ACCA Manual D duct design.

What's the difference between Manual D and Manual J?
There is some confusion in the market about the difference between Manual D, which sizes ducts to best match the equipment and needs of the rooms served, and Manual J, which sizes the equipment to match the actual projected load of the home (and is a basic minimum requirement of Energy Star and most Green Building Standards including the NAHB/ICC National Green Building Standard.) The Manual D duct design standard forces HVAC installers to use 4" insulated flex for smaller rooms and 6" for medium sized rooms and 8" for larger rooms. In my market it’s calculation and implementation adds significant cost to the HVAC system especially on smaller, one-of-a-kind homes that LEED-h is hoping to encourage (the “top 25% of the most environmentally conscious builders” and all that). It is a good system and certainly worth rewarding but doesn’t really fit with the “mandatory minimum for green” in that it is more oriented towards optimizing comfort than saving energy, enhancing durability, or improving indoor air quality in the types of homes that would be reaching for LEED-h certification. It’s a comfort standard, not a green building standard.

The green home I'm building now won't pass LEED-H
We're building an aging-in-place home with a Hybrid Solar-Propane radiant floor heating & domestic hot water system with 15 SEER heat pump for AC and back-up heat that is better than 30% more efficient than code. The house scores gold in NAHB's Model Green Home Building Guidelines and North Carolina's Healthy Built Homes, but it will not qualify for basic LEED-h due to a "lack of comfort" in the AC design that will be used at most two months out of the year. If not for this requirement I think the house would likely be LEED-h Silver but I'm not going to pay to have the house scored when I know that it will fail because of this single requirement.

Seems like a missed opportunity to me.

NAHB is taking advantage of that opportunity
Last summer as we worked on the new NAHB-ICC National Green Building Standard the group discussed following LEED’s footsteps on this issue and decided that we shouldn't disqualify a house for a green rating because the bathrooms and bedrooms might occasionally be slightly less comfortable than the living room. So we awarded points for Manual D implementation but didn’t make it mandatory. The issue is to step lightly on the planet, not to assure that everybody is optimally comfortable at all times regardless of the additional cost.

--Michael Chandler is a home builder and master plumber in Mebane, North Carolina. His website is www.chandlerdesignbuild.com

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Greenest Beverage? Tap water. But What About Adult Beverages?

In a quest for discovering the most environmentally benign beverage for back yard bar-b-ques, one builder sifted through the options to help us drink greener.

I have nothing against water: I make coffee with it, paddle a canoe in it, and I even drink it every day. But it's not always what my empty hand is looking for when I settle down in the back yard and fire up the bar-b-que. Beer sort of hits the spot at these times. To determing whether I should be drinking cold beer in a can or cold beer in a bottle, I called my local recycling coordinator who wasted no time in telling me that tap water was my best choice.

Tap water wasn't what I was after, so I refined my query
Listening to NPR on the way home from work one day I heard that recycling 30 beer cans saved the equivalent of a gallon of gas. How many beer bottles, I wondered, would be equivalent to 30 beer cans. So I asked my local recycling coordinator He did some research and we ran the numbers. It turns out that 385 beer bottles has the equivalent embodied energy of 30 beer cans. He pointed out that there was some minimal adjustment needed to account for the transportation cost of imported beer so this calculation would be most accurate if applied to domestic beer in both bottles and cans. Ah-ha! I said, this gives me an environmental rationalization for buying that nice local microbrew!

Does this mean I get to "invest" in a kegerator?
Actually he replied, the kegorator idea is a no-go due to the carbon footprint of the refrigerator (regardless of the impact of the increased beer consumption). However, if you consider that there are 22 shots of bourbon in a bottle that likely has the embodied energy content of two beer bottles this gives you an environmental justification for drinking bourbon on the rocks (or mint juleps). If a single beer can equals 12.83 beer bottles it is roughly equivalent to six bottles of bourbon in terms of its carbon footprint.

As a dedicated environmentalist I find his logic irrefutable.

--Michael Chandler is a builder near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His website is http://www.chandlerdesignbuild,com/

[Ed's note: for some fun recycling facts go to http://www.oberlin.edu/recycle/facts.html]

Friday, June 13, 2008

Jeff Medanich's Green Story

The summer I turned sixteen years old, two major events occurred that would impact my life. I got my drivers license and my first job as a carpenter’s helper. The first made me mobile and the second provided me with a means to afford this mobility. I had the good fortune to be apprenticed to two “old school” craftsmen who were happy to share their knowledge and skills with a green kid. I realized right off that I had found something I really liked to do, was somewhat proficient at and that paid better than pumping gas or waiting tables which is what my buddies were doing.
Thirty-five years and many variations of homebuilding, remodeling and carpentry jobs later, I’m still in the building business and consider myself extremely lucky to have found a profession I thoroughly enjoy and that has always provided me with a means to meet the needs of myself and my family.

I first learned about energy efficiency in the late seventies. I was working as an apprentice carpenter and I knew a guy who was starting a business using a new insulation material, polyurethane foam. We were doing retrofits on existing homes and my job was to drill a two inch hole every sixteen inches around the perimeter of the house. He would then fill the stud cavities with foam and I would plug the hole. This was after the oil embargo of the mid seventies when everyone suddenly became energy conscious. After awhile, oil and gas prices dropped and miraculously there was seemingly no more energy problem. I knew in the back of my mind that there was something to this tight construction idea and began employing what are now called “Green Building” techniques on all my projects whenever I could.

Almost twenty years later, again I had the good fortune to go to work for one of the pioneer production green builders in the country. The founders of McStain Neighborhoods had been employing sustainable building and development techniques before they were referred to as green building but always had the environment in mind. This is where I really got the opportunity to research and develop cutting edge building technologies related to highly sustainable, high performance home construction.. I have also realized that much of what those “old school” guys that I worked with all those years ago taught me about framing, flashing and details to make buildings last longer is now a part of what we refer to as Building Science.

Green building has become a passion for me and I am of the opinion that there is simply no other way to build. In order to construct environmentally responsible, healthy, long lasting structures, you must take a holistic, systems approach to design and building.
I live in a house that is almost one hundred years old and it is still a safe, comfortable place to live and promises to be for many years to come. We have the ability to create buildings that people will be saying that about several hundred years from now. That’s exciting to think about and we owe it to our grandkids.

--Jeff Medanich is Vice President of Harvard Communities in Denver, Colo