Roundup: This Week’s Classics

Links
Links

I surf across hundreds of articles a week as I learn more and more about green building, energy efficiency, and climate change. Most are interesting, but a few become touchstones that I end up talking about with others, and returning to again and again. Some candidates for that status that I found in the last week are below:

Passive House Presentation In San Francisco Thursday 23 April

The "Hammer Man" kinetic sculpture at the Frankfurt Conference Center
The "Hammer Man" kinetic sculpture at the Frankfurt Conference Center

On Thursday 23 April (tomorrow as I write this) I will be giving a brief talk about passive houses and my recent visit to the 13th International Passive House Conference in Frankfurt last week. The talk will be in San Francisco at the Prana Restaurant on Howard St., starting at 7pm.

[I] will provide a report on the 13th International Passive House Conference… This is the premier conference on passive homes, homes so energy-efficient that they don’t require a furnace or air conditioner to keep their occupants comfortable.

This meeting is designed for those interested in green homes to meet each other and discuss the topic. It is for anyone interested in building a green home or remodeling homes with green technologies/techniques. Learn about the techniques used and meet some of the green building thought leaders in the Bay Area. Architects, professional builders, suppliers, real estate agents, and anyone else with a special love of green homes are welcome to join in the discussion to help further general knowledge and interest. A great place to meet others with similar interests!

The location is:

PRANA RESTAURANT
540 Howard St
San Francisco CA 94105
415-278-0495

For more information, visit the Green Making Meetup site.

I hope to see some of you there!

My “Testimony” at Menlo Park City Council Last Night

Menlo Park City Council Chambers Sign
Menlo Park City Council Chambers Sign

I went to the Menlo Park City Council meeting last night to provide an in-person comment on their Climate Action Plan (CAP) draft. The draft has been circulating for comments for a few months and last night was the presentation of the comments from council staff to the council. As you may recall, my friend architect Matt Harris and I [intlink id=”450″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]provided a comment on the CAP[/intlink].

I have never been to a Council meeting before, so it was a new and very interesting and very long experience. The meeting started at 7pm, and the review of the CAP comments was agenda item F.2. Section F of the agenda was the most meaty, but even so it didn’t start until about 9pm. Agenda item F.1 consisted of staff recommending that the council find the traffic impact of a new development on El Camino Real (Menlo Park’s main street) was “not significant.” This consisted of a 1/2 hour presentation by two staff members who concluded that the development did not require installing “No Left Turn” signs at two intersections. The builder of the project, as well as the residents in the area agreed with staff on this point. It still took about fifteen minutes of council discussion to eventually agree. One of the council members did note that it seemed like a lot of effort to go to determine that no action was really required.

Anyway, that got done, then it was Climate Action Plan (CAP) time. The staff presented a summary of the comments, along with a request that that the council direct staff on how to proceed. Staff’s recommendation was that the draft plan be cleaned up with minor revisions, and published as version 1, acknowledging its shortcomings as delineated in the comments. They also recommended that the council further direct staff to begin work on a second version of the plan, addressing those shortcomings for publishing, with a target of publishing the second version in less than a year.

After the presentation from staff, the council accepted comments from the public. This was about 9:45 or later. There were two commenters. I was first, followed by someone from the Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens Committee, who recommended following staff’s proposal (as did I).

After introducing myself, I said:

First, I want to express my appreciation to the Menlo Park City Council and the staff for initiating the Climate Action Plan, and for soliciting and considering our comments on the first draft. (I was a commenter.)

I just came back from an energy efficient building conference in Germany. All over Europe they’re constructing and renovating buildings of all types, from single family residences to apartment buildings to schools to office buildings, to use 80-90% less heating and cooling energy. There are over 30,000 of these energy efficient buildings in Europe now, from Scandinavia to Italy and Spain, and the number is rapidly growing. They’ve avoided millions of tons of CO2 emissions. The city of Frankfurt, as well as other German cities, have committed to use these energy efficient approaches for all new and renovated municipal buildings. And the EU will soon be requiring all new buildings and renovations to meet the standard starting in 2016.

Energy efficiency of the built environment provides one of the best sources of leverage for municipalities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I’m happy to say that the initial version of the Menlo Park Climate Action plan suggests providing incentives for energy efficiency of new and renovated buildings. Future versions of the plan should then include specific performance standards for which incentives will be offered or specify that the planning commission will provide such a list, as well as the associated incentives.

Simply specifying a certain number of points on a LEED assessment or on a Green Point Rating assessment does not guarantee energy efficiency. Instead, I recommend the city specify specific energy efficiency performance standards, such as HERS, the German PassivHaus certification, or the TRNSYS building performance modeling tool.

The council thanked me and asked if I would be willing to provide additional information on these topics. I assured them I would. Then I sat down.

I stayed for another half-hour while the council discussed the CAP, then left to walk home at 10:30. They were still going, and there was still agenda item F.3 to go, which didn’t look it would start until after 11pm.

It was very interesting to see the wheels of local government moving (albeit slowly).

Report and Insights From The Passive House Conference – Part 1

A school in Reidberg, Germany, built using the passive house approach
A school in Reidberg, Germany, built using the passive house approach

I got back yesterday from the 13th Annual Passive House Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. My biggest takeaways from the conference are:

  • While the growth of passive houses in Europe is impressive, even in Europe there are still marketing challenges
  • The opportunity to use energy efficient buildings as a hedge against climate change is immense
  • We are way behind on energy efficient building here in the U.S. – in fact, essentially no one in the U.S. is doing this kind of building.

Over the next few days I’ll be posting about things I learned at the conference, and also about the implications of what I saw for building – and for climate change mitigation – in the U.S.

Not only are there more than 30,000 certified Passive House buildings in Europe, representing a lot of tons of CO2 averted, their level of building science and technology is very advanced. The exhibitors showed a number of innovative insulation materials (most of which are not available in the U.S.), many different very highly efficient window and door options (most of which are not available in the U.S.), highly efficient heat recovery ventilation systems (most of which are not available in the U.S.), and several innovative building technologies (available in the U.S.? I don’t think so). Even so, I thought the exhibition was remarkably small, with about 70 vendors, indicating that even in Europe, there’s a huge amount of growth potential.

Several of the presentation sessions reported on studies comparing the performance of buildings constructed or renovated using the [intlink id=”368″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]passive house approach[/intlink] – super-insulated, super-airtight, with heat recovery ventilation – to buildings using other energy efficiency approaches such as the European “low energy house” standard (which is more similar to U.S. energy efficiency codes). They found, as expected, that energy use in the passive house buildings, as well as comfort levels and measured air quality levels, were significantly improved. One study compared to identical apartment buildings, next to one another on the same street, one of which was renovated as a passive house, the other as a low energy house. Both buildings were instrumented with a variety of sensors, and then tracked over a two year period. The energy bills for tenants in the passive house were 1/3 those for the low energy house.

Obviously, these results reflect not only a savings for the tenants, but also a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, at a relatively low additional cost for the building.

Some future post topics:

  • What do you do if you want to build a highly efficient house, using the passive house approach, in the U.S.?
  • How does the passive house approach compare to other energy efficiency and “green” standards like California’s Title 24, LEED, Green Point Rating, and HERS?
  • How does the passive house approach work for buildings other than single-family residences?
  • If passive houses are so great, how can we get more of them in the U.S., and what will it take to make a significant dent in the U.S.’s greenhouse gas emissions via energy efficient buildings?
  • How do passive houses and  “zero net energy” interact?
  • How about passive houses in temperate and semi-tropical climates like California and Florida, where it’s not heating, but cooling, that takes the most energy?

If you have other questions about the passive house approach or the conference, let me know in the comments and I’ll tell you what I know or find some answers for you.

On The Road Today – Heading To The Passive House Conference in Frankfurt

I’m writing this here at San Francisco International while I wait for my flight to Frankfurt. I’ll be attending the Passive House Conference there this weekend. I’m expecting to meet lots of interesting people, see all kinds of energy efficiency components like windows, doors, and heat recovery ventilators, and learn a lot more about how building to the Passive House standard is going to help California and U.S. achieve energy independence.

Some of my goals include:

  1. Build relationships and potential partnerships with vendors of mid-price, Passive House-certified building materials and components
  2. Learn how people are building passive houses in temperate climates like Italy and Spain, that most closely resemble the climate in California
  3. Learn how builders and vendors are marketing passive houses in different countries in Europe and how that can be applied here in the States
  4. Create a level of excitement, vision, possibility, and expectation for turning the passive house standard into “business as usual” in California

I plan to blog several times during the conference and from Frankfurt – including lots of pictures.

No Manhattan Project, But Don’t Say No To Breakthrough Innovations

a polar bear and her baby
The polar bears say "keep the innovations coming - it's getting warm out here!" (image by Just Being Myself, CC 2.0 licensed)

While I agree with Joseph Romm on Climate Progress that we can’t count on a “Manhattan Project”-style endeavour to engineer our way out of the climate crisis in the short term, nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to have a certain expectation that technology will improve over the right timescale, so we can be ready to take advantage of it.

A few weeks ago Martin Brown had a great post on his Fairsnape blog on Recession Thoughts and Tips. One of his many excellent suggestions was

Stand in the future and observe the industry in 2016/2019 – climate change will not be ‘put on hold’ during the recession – so do you have a route to zero mapped out?

His suggestions apply, of course, not only in a recession, but also if you want to help make big changes happen. In particular, “Standing in the future” is critical for those who are trying to make changes in response to climate change to visualize how things must be (for us to survive) in 2020 or 2030, because only then can we figure out how to get there.

The key challenge for that kind of thing is thinking big enough! Small example: If you’d asked me twenty years ago, or even ten, if it was every going to be possible to watch video on my phone, I’d have said “No, there’s just not going to be enough bandwidth for that to happen. I don’t ever expect that to be something we can do.” Was I ever wrong! And I consider myself open-minded and an outside the box thinker!

It’s very likely that the technologies and practices that get us out of a climate change disaster aren’t invented yet, or at best are in labs somewhere. Those of us – the rest of us – who need to take those inchoate and early ideas and turn them into market realities need a LOT of imagination to forcefully move the world out of its current ruts.

That’s why I often post news about discoveries coming out of labs, or going into the development process. Daniel Nocera’s [intlink id=”162″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]hydrogen reforming[/intlink], and [intlink id=”181″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]nanotechnology breakthroughs[/intlink], or technologies like or based on them, will be changing our lives in the next 10, 20, or fifty years – whether by mitigating carbon, or helping us store or generate renewable energy, or perhaps in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

If there are particular technologies you are watching, let me know in the comments – I’ve love to hear about them.

Climate Change and Sustainability Thoughts From Around The Web

Zeus
A mythical character (image by Eddi 07, CC 2.0 licensed)

A handful of good articles from the past few weeks, on climate change and sustainable building.

I hope you find these as interesting as I did – let me know in the comments.

Finally, New Green Standards to Update Local Building Codes

Commercial Buildings Need To Be Green, Too
Commercial Buildings Need To Be Green, Too

The National Real Estate Investor recently gave a rundown of the existing and new green building standards that local governments are starting to mandate. Of course, LEED led the list, along with the new ANSI National Green Building Standard, GBI 01-200XP from the Green Building Institute, expected this summer, and “Standard 189” a commercial building green standard under development by a consortium including ASHRAE and the USGBC (creator of the LEED standards).

Driving all of the new guidelines is the desire to assist property owners and managers in meeting a groundswell of statutes and ordinances regulating energy consumption. At the same time, the standards will help local and state governments tap a common set of benchmarks to measure compliance with the construction and renovation goals that they adopt.

The article goes on to describe some of the differences between these standards, pointing out for example that while the LEED standard has been called out in many municipalities as the mandate for green building, its original goal was to recognize the top 25% of buildings, not serve as a minimum target.

On the other hand, the National Green Building Standard is designed from the outset to be minimally prescriptive, and to conform to local building codes. Paula Cino, director of energy and environmental policy at the National Multi Housing Council (NMHC), one of the organizations that collaborated to create the NGBS, says:

The standard is written in mandatory language that’s easily verifiable. You don’t need that LEED Accredited Professional or consultant looking over your shoulder, telling you what you need to do. At the first level, the standard is designed to be achievable by 100% of the buildings out there, and was designed so that we were not requiring technologies that are untested or not commercially available. We made sure … there wouldn’t be issues with product availability, technical feasibility or things like that.

Along with all these standards comes the question of how to get builders to meet them – should they be mandated or incentivized?
Some proponents of sustainable design argue that tax breaks, assistance grants and other incentives are more effective than mandates for achieving meaningful reductions in energy consumption and deterring harmful effects on the environment. Standards tend to encourage minimal compliance, while rewards spur property owners to seek higher degrees of performance.
The battle amongst the standards is going to be interesting. The article doesn’t even mention the Green Point Rating system from Build It Green or the Passive House standard. Of course, those are both more traditionally focused on single family residential buildings than the larger commercial buildings that primarily concern the National Real Estate Investor. It does seem, though, that this proliferation of standards, while exciting, will eventually have to result in a shakeout, leaving one or two “winners” that everyone can learn and build to.

What Is Sustainability? And What Is it Not?

nuages_n&bl_Lune
Clouds (original name: Nuages - image by luc.viatour, CC 2.0 licensed)

In their special issue on Earth 3.0, Scientific American explores the concept of “sustainability” and the myths surrounding it as we face an uncertain future. In Top 10 Myths about Sustainability, they observe:

When a word becomes so popular you begin hearing it everywhere … it means one of two things. Either the word has devolved into a meaningless cliché, or it has real conceptual heft. “Green” (or, even worse, “going green”) falls squarely into the first category. But “sustainable,” which at first conjures up a similarly vague sense of environmental virtue, actually belongs in the second.

The article then goes on to cover a number of myths – many related to disinformation-type campaigns about the environment, global warming, and fossil fuels – like:

  • Myth 2: Sustainability is all about the environment.
  • Myth 4: It’s all about recycling.
  • Myth 6: Sustainability means lowering our standard of living, and
  • Myth 9: Sustainability is ultimately a population problem.

Definitely worth reading, if just for the review (for my well-educated readers) and to get a good, relatively unbiased view of some of the issues and realities of sustainability.

H/T to Texas Sustainability for the link.