But Mom, I Don’t Wanna Be LEED!

But Its Delicious!
But It's Delicious!

Remember when you were a kid and your Mom told you to do something “just because I said so.” Didn’t that make you not want to do it? But when she said “if you do it, I’ll get you some ice cream!” you were much more motivated, weren’t you?

Don’t tell me what to do; instead, make it worth my while to do the right thing – and then I’ll probably do it.

There was an interesting post a few days ago on the Consilience blog about local incentives and mandates for green buildings around the country:

I particularly like the Portland “feebate” program, which:

… allows the city to assess a fee against developers who have constructed buildings that only meet the state building code. But this fee is waived for buildings that achieve at least a Silver LEED certification. Buildings which achieve LEED Gold or Platinum certification will receive rebates for their accomplishment. This will be a self-sustaining program by using the fee revenues collected from those buildings which are not LEED certified to finance incentives for the green buildings.

The fact that the program is self-sustaining is critical in these cash-strapped times.

There are other approaches to incentives – for example, Sunnyvale’s new green building program includes FAR (floor area ratio) and building height incentives for achieving goals above the base mandate; for residential buildings, the bonuses include height and density, for multi-residential, and additional lot coverage for single-family homes.

What green building mandates and incentives are you particularly excited by? Answer in the comments section.

McKinsey & Co: Energy Efficiency is Like Free Money

We're leaving money on the table by not improving energy efficiency (image by pfala, CC 2.5 licensed)

Would you spend $520 to save $1,200? That’s the choice McKinsey & Co is offering to the U.S. about energy efficiency. In their new report on energy efficiency, released last week, McKinsey shows how the U.S. can reduce its non-transportation energy use by 23%, eliminate the emissions of 1.1 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually, and save $1,200 billion, for a cost of about $520 billion.

They do recognize that achieving these results requires some new thinking on our parts:

Such energy savings will be possible, however, only if the United States can overcome significant sets of barriers. These barriers are widespread and persistent, and will require an integrated set of solutions to overcome them – including information and education, incentives and financing, codes and standards, and deployment resources well beyond current levels.

The report not only provides the conclusions, but also the steps we can take to address barriers and achieve the desired results. They suggest an overarching strategy, including the key point that “energy efficiency is an important energy resource to help meet future energy needs…” and the need for an integrated portfolio of different approaches to unlock the full potential of energy efficiency.


Roundup: This Week’s Classics


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:

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

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.

Individual Action Is Not Enough

Someone entered this topic in an online forum to which I subscribe:

The main problem with lowering the carbon level is down to individuals, to behaviour, to good citizenship and that is the biggest challenge of all… how many times to you see careless behaviours? how do you change that?

I just had to respond. I think this attitude is the best way to make sure that end in the end, nothing good happens. I’m reprinting my comment on the topic below, unedited (even though you all know about passive houses already).

My response

Individual action will not solve the problem. For example, my hobby horse is highly energy efficient buildings such as the Passive House approach. They use 80-90% less energy than a conventional house, at typically 5-10% higher cost to build. Simply building only passive houses and remodeling to the passive house standard for the next ten years would reduce the U.S.’s carbon footprint by at least 20%. In fact, because the energy use is so low, there will be lots of excess solar electricity generated, so our carbon footprint might even go lower due to the compounding effects.

But people won’t build them without a) a large-scale education campaign for both builders and home buyers, b) incentives for builders and owners from cities, counties, and states, and c) a compelling business case for the suppliers of the highly efficient windows and mechanical systems required.

Passive Houses “tunnel through” the efficiency cost barrier to achieve their benefits at a relatively low additional cost. But even though they have a great cost/benefit ratio, they’re not going to take off without those structural changes. That’s why, instead of becoming a builder of passive houses, I’m becoming a lobbyist for passive houses. Builders can make a difference of 2-5 houses a year. As a lobbyist, I can make a difference of 100-1000 houses a year, or more.

Individuals weatherstripping their houses, and taking shorter showers, can slow down CO2 growth a bit, but turning it around takes large structural changes. Yes, those are driven by individuals, but they are not individual changes.

I use passive houses as an example, but there are lots more in other areas. Same is true for car use – it will take structural changes for people to be able to live nearer where they work. Or for food energy use – most people are not going to be able to garden enough to make a difference in the U.S.’s agricultural energy footprint – that’s going to take big changes in commercial ag. Some of those changes are happening, and that’s awesome, but it’s not going to happen by you putting in a garden, no matter how good and useful a step that is.

Thermal Bridges, Passive Houses in the UK, and Spray Foam

On the fence
Chain link fence (get it?) - (image by James Jordan, CC 2.0 licensed)

As I’ve been surfing green building sites and articles over the last week, I ran across these interesting items. I hope you find them useful.

Thermal bridging occurs wherever assembly components with low R-values relative to surrounding materials span from the inside to the outside of a building assembly.

  • What’s the UK doing about energy efficient building, you ask? They have a zero net energy homes initiative, where all new homes in the UK are supposed to be zero net energy by 2016. Probably not going to happen on schedule, according to an article from NewStart magazine, described on the Barefoot & Gilles site. (H/T to Sue Butcher for the link, via Twitter.)

Flaws in the government’s zero-carbon vision have forced ministers back to the drawing board. Is there a realistic way forward?

One wall design that is sure to become more popular utilizes 2×4 studs, 2″ foam board as a thermal break, 7/16 OSB or other structural sheeting using 3.5″ screws for fasteners. Then the 2×4 stud cavities are sprayed with 2″ of closed cell foam. The total wall thickness ends up to be 6-9/16″, standard for window and door jambs. The R-Value of this quiet and comfortable energy wall is 24!

There are still questions about the GHG impact of making and spraying the foam, although The Foam Man also points out that all insulation techniques involve tradeoffs, and some spray foams have a high quantity of soy-based content, which lessens their footprint vs. petrochemical-based foams.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

How Should Local Planning Commissions Reward Energy Efficiency?

SATOR Magic square
It's code for something! (Image by Marco Fedele, CC 2.0 licensed)

As I discussed in my earlier post, [intlink id=”602″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Code changes and incentives are critical for energy independence[/intlink], it’s going to be tough to change the energy efficiency of our building stock until building and planning commissions provide incentives to owners and builders to take those extra steps, and spend that extra money.

So the question then arises, what should these building and planning commissions incentivize? “Energy efficiency” is not a sufficient answer, obviously. In particular because building codes are all now claiming to be energy efficient already. E.g., California’s new version of Title 24 is our “Building Energy Efficiency Standard.” Indeed, a house built to the new Title 24 standards will be 20-30% more efficient than a house built to the old Title 24. However, compared to a standard like the Passive House Specification, or the Architecture 2030 interim goals for 2010, it’s significantly missing the opportunity for energy savings of 80-90%.

OK, I’m preaching to the choir on this topic, I know. But the question then arises, what should the building and planning commissions incentivize? Here’s what I’m thinking, as a quick first cut:

  • Passive House Certification
  • 22 points or more on the LEED for Homes Energy and Atmosphere category
  • X points (I don’t know the value for X yet) on the Green Point Rating system

My goal is to come up with several roughly comparable measures of advanced energy efficiency, any of which could be used to achieve the incentives. (Whatever they might end up being – I listed some in the earlier post mentioned above.)

I’m very interested to hear your comments on this list, and your suggestions for other additions.