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

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