Code Changes And Incentives Are Critical For Energy Independence

Our municipalities (and eventually the states) could reward people for deciding to build houses to meet the “initial 50% reduction target” of Architecture 2030 or to the Passive House standard.

Clovers at Blarney Castle Garden
Clovers at Blarney Castle

Patricia hit the nail on the head in her last post, No Blarney here! – Turning up the Heat:

Where are the codes and incentives?

Or rather, how do we get people to build and renovate houses to energy efficiency levels that are significantly above code?

The Architecture 2030 website has a great reference on how much beyond code you must build to achieve their interim and final energy efficiency goals. For example, in California’s we have a new 2008 version of the energy efficiency code, usually called “Title 24.” To meet the Architecture 2030 interim goal of buildings that use half as much energy as their conventional peers (the “initial 50% reduction target”), buildings in California need to be 10% more efficient than required by this new building code.

We all want this to happen, of course, and it’s relatively inexpensive to do so. But without incentives, it’s not going to happen. That’s why I’m working on the Menlo Park Climate Action Plan for example – we need the incentives.

And incentives will help. Have you ever wondered why so many Californians have bought Toyota Priuses, despite the fact that they are pretty expensive compared to regular cars, and you don’t save that money at the gas pump? It’s not because Californians are so green – although we are. It’s because there was an amazing incentive. If you bought a Prius or other hybrid, you could get a pass to drive in the carpool lane on California freeways – as a singleton! What does everyone in California really want? To get where they’re going faster! It didn’t cost the state much, and it got a lot of efficient cars on the road quickly. That’s the best kind of incentive.

Our municipalities (and eventually the states) can do the same kind of thing. For example, they could reward people for deciding to build houses to meet the “initial 50% reduction target” of Architecture 2030 by:

  • Expediting the building permit for free
  • Waiving some fees
  • Promising quick turnaround on inspections
  • Providing an automatic bump of 2% in their FAR requirements as a variance (floor area ratio – or how much of the lot can be covered by a house)
  • Bonding the builder’s house guarantee
  • Accepting Passive House PHPP modeling software results for certification
  • Providing a tax break for houses that are Passive House certified

Those are just some of the options that municipalities have. Even just stating, in their climate action plans for example, that they have a goal of meeting the Architecture 2030 targets, or supporting the building of Passive Houses, would go a long way.

People want to do the right thing. They’re even willing to pay extra to do the right thing. But they often don’t know what the right thing is. And if they don’t have an incentive, they might do the wrong thing, or just something else, with that extra money that they’d be willing to spend. Many people, if they had the right “nudge,” would happily put more insulation in their new house or their remodel, and forgo the most expensive marble countertops. They’ll get the same resale benefit, they’ll save money over the life of the house, they’ll feel better about themselves, and they’ll actually make a significant individual difference in our planet’s future.

Let me know your thoughts, and if you have examples of code changes or municipalities providing incentives for efficiency in buildings, especially significantly surpassing code requirements, I’d love to hear about them.

Slideshows About The Passive House Concept

Bronwyn Barry's Passive House Conference Report
Bronwyn Barry's Passive House Conference Report

I was contacted the other day by Bronwyn Barry, a designer and rater at Quantum Builders, and a member of the Passive House California organization up in Berkeley, so I did what any normal internet user would do – I Googled her. And I was excited to find, as one of the first results, a slideshow she’d made and put up on Slideshare. It’s a trip report from her visit to the 3rd Annual North American Passive House Conference held in Duluth last November. And, not only is Bronwyn’s presentation there, but there are several others, including one from Tim Eian, a German-born architect now working in Minnesota, and several others:

I also found, when rummaging around the network, this presentation from Katrin Klingenberg, the co-founder and director of the Passive House Institute US, made at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center – it includes a video as well as the PowerPoint presentation she used.

I find these presentations to be very helpful in understanding the Passive House concept better. Each time I review one of them I get additional nuggets of information to use as I work to get Californians to build passive houses and super-efficient houses instead of conventional ones.

First Shot, or Swan Song?

A commercial real estate development (image by MK Media Productions, CC 2.0 licensed)

The NAIOP, also known as the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, released a report last week “showing” that building green is not a winner in terms of payback. Apparently timed to coincide with a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on improving building energy code standards, the report found, according to a New York Times/ClimateWire article, that:

A 50 percent energy improvement beyond federal standards is technically impossible. A 30 percent target is achievable, but only by adding a million-dollar solar system that could take up to 100 years to pay for itself

In the same article, several energy efficiency experts raised questions:

Jeffrey Harris, a vice president at the pro-efficiency group Alliance to Save Energy, said these claims have a sturdy foundation in laboratories and in the real world. He pointed to the Energy Department’s data on high-performance buildings, as well as other databases containing information on existing buildings. Engineers and green-building leaders, he said, “are not breaking a huge amount of sweat in getting beyond 30 percent in code.”

Throughout the green building blogosphere numerous rebuttals started flying. On the news site for Costar, a commercial real estate information site, Andrew Burr wrote:

The study overlooked a number of highly cost-effective energy efficiency measures that are common in new buildings, such as light occupancy sensors and louvers that affect shading and heat gain, several people in the industry said, while integrated design strategies were not implemented in the models at all.

On the Yudelson blog, Jerry wrote:

In what is currently the world’s largest LEED Platinum building, the Center for Health and Healing in Portland, Oregon, engineers and architects were able to find savings measures that led to a 60% decrease in energy costs while spending 10% less overall money; this is not some computer-based study, it’s a realized project that was occupied in 2006.

Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030 was particiularly scathing:

In other words, NAIOP intentionally kept out of the analysis all the readily available low-cost, no-cost and cost-saving options to reduce a building’s energy consumption. This deliberate omission is glaringly apparent in their press release and in the NY Times article. In fact, they take so many inexpensive, energy-saving options off the table that it is impossible for the imaginary building to reach commonly achievable energy-consumption-reduction targets.

In one regard, you could say the NAIOP’s conclusions, when interpreted narrowly, are meaningful – if you build an energy hog building without considering the site, without performing integrated design, and using simplistic efficiency measures, you’re not going to get a good payback. What’s amazing about this, though, is that there are so many real-world counterexamples to the claims this report makes. It’s surprising NAIOP was willing to go public with it. And you have to ask “Why?” – in what way is this report in the long-term interest of NAIOP? Given the Federal, state and local juggernaut of energy efficiency regulations, isn’t it in their interest to figure out how to achieve on a mass scale what individual builders are achieving on a smaller scale? That’s the approach that keeps their constituents competitive, that creates jobs, and creates wealth.

Passive House-like Renovation of an English Victorian Terrace House

Cohen house

On the Zerochampion blog, guest poster Robert Prewett from architecture firm Prewett Bizley writes about the ongoing renovation of a Victorian row house with “extreme sustainability” as the primary goal. The renovation is making use of many concepts from the “passive house” approach, including using the official passive house modeling software for validation:

A mechanical system with a high efficiency heat recovery unit will ensure that almost all of the energy contained within the air will be transferred into the fresh air being fed to each room. Together, these measures add up to an 80% reduction in energy required to heat the house. Initial calculations using the SAP software were encouraging and these have been lent further authority by modelling the house using the ‘Passivhaus’ software developed in Germany.

Although the reconstruction has just begun, they seem well on their way to demonstrating that passive house techniques apply even to this very old-fashioned type of extremely inefficient building.

Menlo Park Climate Action Plan Research

Menlo Park Train Station
Menlo Park Train Station

Just about two weeks ago, my friend Matt Harris, an architect with a green building practice, sent me an email:

The City of Menlo Park has this Climate Action plan and they are looking for community input. Would you be interested in formulating some kind of response that would of course include our plug for passive house initiatives. Maybe we can get them to include some passive home or even passive building information or plans or guidelines in the Climate action plan. They have already cited “commercial buildings” as a target energy hog in the city for action in the action plan.

So we’ve been working on this. We got together last weekend to come up with a strategy, then Matt wrote the first draft while I was in Finland last week. I did some editing this weekend, and now he’s got it again.

I wanted to share some of the information I discovered while researching our recommendations for the plan.

Here’s the first set – an annotated list of sites from which I got a lot of great information and inspiration both for this project as well as my high-level goal of having all homes built in California be zero-net energy by 2018.

Aggressive Home Efficiency

  • Architecture 2030 – The Architecture 2030 challenge includes the following goal for 2010: “All new buildings, developments and major renovations shall be designed to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 50% of the regional (or country) average for that building type.”
  • California Public Utility Commission Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan – The CPUC plan includes four “Big Bold strategies” strategies for significant energy-savings, two of which are: 1) all new residential construction in California will be zero net energy by 2020, and 2) all new commercial construction in California will be zero net energy by 2030.
  • Passive House Institute (Germany) – Already familiar to regular readers, the Passive House Institute, Darmstadt, Germany, a research institute dedicated to residential energy efficiency and systems, has shown that actual built structures can achieve 80-90% heating and cooling energy reduction based on their design guidelines. Over 9,000 “passive house” structures, including single family, multi-family, and apartment buildings, have been built in Europe that perform at or near energy goal
  • Passive House Institute (U.S.) () – The U.S. affiliate of the German Passive House Institute
  • Many green building standards have set zero (or near zero) net energy use for residential buildings as a progressive goal for structures and building codes in the near future, including the Leadership in Environmental and Energy-Efficient Design (LEED) standard’s residential rating system, Architecture 2030, and Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rated Checklist residential rating system / Green Building Guidelines for New Home Construction. Several California municipalities have adopted local building codes inspired by Architecture 2030 that exceed the 2005 California Building Energy Efficiency Standards:

I’ll keep you updated on our progress on getting these changes into the Menlo Park Climate Action Plan. It’s exciting to consider that Menlo Park could be on the forefront of the effort to get to zero net energy in ten years!

Update on California Passive Homes

UC Berkeley
Berkeley - site of this week's Passive House California meeting (image by basykes, CC 2.0 licensed)

Nabih Tahan, who spoke two weeks ago at a BuildItGreen event on the passive house concept, just told me about Passive House California. They are “a group of building professionals from the San Francisco Bay Area working together to increase public and media awareness of Passive House.”

You can check their website for more information, including their meeting this coming Sunday in Berkeley:

Date: Sunday, February 22
Time: 3:00PM (new participants) | 3:30PM (returning members)
Place: Babette Gee’s office: 950 Gilman St. Suite 210 (at 9th), Berkeley, CA

By the way, Tahan also provided me with some corrections and updates to [intlink id=”393″ type=”post”]my post about his talk[/intlink], which I’ve updated.

Nabih Tahan on Passive Houses and European Home Building

Nabih Tahan's passive house remodel in Berkeley
Nabih Tahan's passive house remodel in Berkeley

Last night BuildItGreen’s South Bay Professional Guild hosted Nabih Tahan, a Berkeley-based architect who was recently featured in a New York Times article on passive houses. Nabih discussed the passive house concept and how it is being applied in Germany and the rest of Europe, as well as his experience building Low Energy Houses (Niedrigenergiehaus – the generation of homes before the passive houses) in Austria and remodeling his conventional house in the Berkeley flatlands into a passive house.

The term “passive house” reflects the concept that these houses do not have heaters to provide warmth. Instead, they  “passively” recover heat from all the other activities in the home – such as cooking, lighting, and even human activity. To enable this, a passive house is highly insulated, with an airtight building envelope, so that no heat can escape. To keep the air quality high, passive houses use “heat recovery ventilators” or “energy recovery ventilators” with air-to-air heat exchangers to constantly replace the old inside air with new outside air, while keeping the heat from the old air inside.

Passive houses typically use about 80% less energy for heating and cooling than conventionally-built houses.

(See more about passive houses in this post on my blog, and the Passive House Insitute U.S.’s web site.)

Tahan’s talk covered a huge amount of ground. Some of the high points included:

  • A description, with a number of photos and a video, of the current German and Austrian technologies for building houses and multi-family residences. These homes are built in factories, by automated, computer-controlled machines, and assembled in a few days on site. Because all the pieces are designed to high tolerances, the building sites are very quiet – if you hear a power saw on one of these sites, you know someone made a mistake.
  • He showed a picture of “model home mall” in Austria (here’s something similar in Germany – in German), where more than 40 of these pre-built home builders have built 80 model homes that you can tour. The homes range in size and style from modest single family houses to large mini-mansions, to apartment buildings.
  • I asked what one change in the U.S. would make it easier to build passive houses here. He said better windows and doors. Insulated and well-sealed windows and doors, often with triple-glazing and special coatings on the glass, comprise a key component of passive houses in terms of keeping the building envelope airtight. There are many manufacturers of these components in Germany and the rest of Europe, but none to very few in the States. In fact, Tahan is currently in discussions with investors on starting a factory to build these components, in partnership with an Austrian company.
  • For his Berkeley house, he decided to work with a U.S. supplier, Sierra Pacific, to demonstrate that the passive house standard is possible in the California climate with local products. In any case, buying the windows in Austria would have cost less than buying them here, but the cost of shipping would have made the Austrian windows more expensive.
  • In building a passive house, airtightness is as important as the insulation – they work hand in hand. And it’s the most difficult part, especially in the United States where buildings are not constructed by computer-controlled machines.
  • In Europe, building a passive house costs 4-5% more than conventional construction, but it saves 80% of the energy. Currently it’s a somewhat bigger premium to build a passive house in the States, due to lack of suppliers and know-how.

The passive house concept and approach is clearly a component of a zero-net energy home program. Reducing the amount of energy a home uses means it’s a lot easier and cheaper to generate that energy onsite. Architects like Tahan will be a key enabler of getting to the [intlink id=”329″ type=”post”]2018 goal of 100% zero net energy homes in California[/intlink].

This was an excellent talk, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from Nabih Tahan, and attending more BuildItGreen functions. If they’re all at this level, they’ll be a great resource for getting California to the goal of 100% zero net energy new houses by 2018.

Update (2/13/09): Nabih tells me that the Passive House California Group has just set up their website, where you can read about their next group meeting and other topics.

Avoiding The Cliff Ahead

Uluwatu Temple, Bali (HDR)
A cliff in Bali (image by seanmcgrath, CC 2.0 licensed)

My green building and blogging colleague Barry Katz just had a post about James Howard Kunstler on his The Future Is Green Blog. Kunstler is one of the “dystopians” featured in a  New Yorker article last week. Kunstler is not sanguine about what the future is going to look like for us and our descendants. He thinks that not only is global warming likely to cause a disaster, but so is the current, or an upcoming, financial meltdown. Barry writes:

In his view, anything short of ending our dependence on cars for personal transportation is a doomed enterprise.

In his blog ClusterF**k nation, Kunstler writes:

I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable — since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote.

Could the terrible things he predicts happen? In the New Yorker interview he provides as an example and a warning the famous fall of the Roman Empire – the city of Rome itself went from a population of over one million in 100 AD to less than 50,000 in a little over 400 years. And there certainly have been many other similar collapses in history – even in pre-Columbian North America there were multiple population collapses due to resource overuse (and genocide, but that’s another topic).

The difference today – at least we hope – is that we have some Cassandras – Al Gore, Kunstler, the IPCC, me and Barry Katz, among many others – warning us, and we have the means and opportunity to take the warning. The question is, do we have the will to put the pedal to the metal to address the problems? For me, I see that as doing the following, and doing it much faster than anyone is actually predicting is possible today:

  • Immediately stop wasting energy – this means getting our houses and commercial buildings more efficient, both new and existing ones; getting more efficient cars on the road
  • Build out utility scale renewable energy as fast as humanly possible
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy generation (e.g., photovoltaic roof panels and paint, mini-wind turbines, ground source heat pumps) and get them cheap enough to deploy everywhere
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy storage – effective energy storage is one of the key sticking points for my vision of zero net energy homes and for accelerating the decline of traditional power plants
  • Figure out a way, or several ways, to get some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere – reforestation is a start (and can make a significant difference, according to this study)
  • Finally, make structural changes to the rules and incentives of life so people will work closer to where they live, will be able to take public transit in a reasonable way, choose to build highly efficient homes not because its the right thing to do, but because it’s the law, or there are other concrete benefits, and so that businesses will find it’s profitable to save the world – whether it’s through being more efficient themselves, or by helping the rest of us “do the right thing”

I call this blog “Keeping The Lights On” because I am optimistic that we’ll figure out how to have a decent life without CO2, that we’ll figure out how to keep the oceans from rising too much and losing too many species, and that civilization won’t collapse due to a financial crisis in the meantime. There are a lot of hurdles to be leapt to accomplish this, and many of them will be costly – but that means that someone’s going to make some money on them, so there will be incentives. And that’s the other half of the title – “Profitable Applications” – business can drive this transition, for profit. The big challenge is getting business ramped up fast enough to save our butts – I think it can happen, and even with the economy in its current sad state, we’re still seeing hopeful signs.

Well, that’s a couple of pages full of assertion and conjecture – I’d love to hear your thinking on this.

Zero Net Energy Homes Part 5 – Passive Houses

The Smith House - A passive house in Urbana, IL
The Smith House - A passive house in Urbana, IL

What if you didn’t have to heat your house at all, no matter the climate? Or at least, never turn on the furnace? Well, that’s practically what life is like in one of the “passive houses” designed with the principles of the PassivHaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. Recently featured in an article in The New York Times, No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’

… these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace.

The idea of keeping all the heat inside a house and all the cold outside has been around for decades, but it took a number of technological innovations to do so while preventing stagnant air and mold. Passive houses are characterized by extreme levels of insulation (R-40 or more) and extremely air-tight construction to prevent drafts and heat leakage, coupled with sophisticated mechanicals – called air-to-air heat exchangers or heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) – that constantly refresh the inside air with outside air, while making sure the heat stays in.

Because they use 80% less energy for heating and cooling, passive houses are going to be a critical part of the goal of zero net energy homes. The less energy that’s needed to operate the house – and heating and cooling typically is 40% or more of the energy use in a house – the less energy has to be generated with solar panels or a wind turbine, lowering the cost of energy generation and improving the payback period.

And the cost of building a passive house, at least in Germany, is typically only a few percent higher than building a regular house of the same size, and the energy payback and the savings versus installling a traditional central system – not to mention the improved indoor air quality – makes the payback quite fast.

Over 6,000 passive houses have been built in Germany, but their take off has been slower here in the States. There are about a dozen “official” passive houses – sanctioned by the Passive House Institute US, the U.S. arm of the PassivHaus Institut –  in the U.S., although there are a number of unofficial ones as well, including quite a few mentioned on their forums.

The take off in the US has been slower for a variety of reasons – the different climates across the country, the fact that the expertise is primarily in Germany, and that much of the mechanicals – like the HRVs – need to be imported from Germany.

I bet you’ll be seeing passive houses going up on your street any day now, as the concepts are propagated into practice. The PassivHaus Institut website even features a section on renovating existing houses to passive house standards.

Green Building/Green Energy Salon in Menlo Park on Thursday

Green energy/green building salon – first meeting is this Thursday night (1/29) in Menlo Park.

My Soul
Green things (image by WTL photos, CC 2.0 license)

I’m starting a green energy/green building salon, and the first meeting is this Thursday night (1/29) in Menlo Park. Sign up on this invite/RSVP page to let me know if you’re coming.

If you’re interested in green buildings like me, or are working out how to have a new career in the green economy, you should drop by!

As I’ve mentioned, I have a modest little goal to ensure that all 50,000 housing starts in California in the year 2018 are “zero net energy.” That means they’ll generate as much or more energy as they consume in operation.

Do you have a green energy or green building goal? Do you want to talk about it? Do you want to help me achieve my goal? Maybe we can help each other.

Right now is the time to kick start the green economy. There’s a lot of intellectual capital here in Silicon Valley, a lot of us are committed to seeing the world pull out of our energy nosedive, and working together we’ll accomplish more than working by ourselves.

This salon will be an opportunity to share, to learn, and to meet others with complementary goals. I hope you can attend!

The location is:

1225 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, California 94025 Get Directions