Disagreeing With The New Yorker On Stimulus Vs. Sustainability

Eustace Tilley Considers Electric Cars
Eustace Tilley Considers Electric Cars

I’m a big fan of the New Yorker, and read most issues cover to cover. Their politics usually align with mine, and I always enjoyed Hendrik Hertzberg sticking it to the Cheney administration. But I have to take issue with some of their economic opinions. In particular, David Owen’s Talk of Town, Economy Vs. Environment, in the March 20 issue got me hot and bothered.

Owen’s basic position seems to be that to be sustainable we can’t spend, and if we spend we’re not sustainable. Therefore, the stimulus package and a long term goal for sustainability are incompatible. (With the subtext, apparently, that stimulus is more important.)

I have several issues with Owen’s position. For example, Owens doesn’t say much about spending on sustainability – there $15 billion of that. Much of that, because it’s focused on energy efficiency, will result in improved productivity. It turns out you can get a lot of productivity from sustainability improvements. It’s one of the magic tricks – called the “triple bottom line” – you spend less or the same up front, you save more, and you’re healthier and more productive. In this case sustainability is actually directly improving the economy. Continue reading “Disagreeing With The New Yorker On Stimulus Vs. Sustainability”

The First Passive House: 17 Years of Warm, Healthy and Comfortable

The kitchen of one unit in the first Passive House (photo by xxx)
The kitchen of one unit in the first Passive House (photo by H.G. Esch)

I just ran across this delightful article about the first Passive House, built in Darmstadt Germany in 1992. The article describes the process the builders went through to model and design it, a four unit residential block, then to build this new type of building, even creating the new highly efficient windows and doors by hand.

The article follows the building through its first 15 years of operation (it’s still occupied). The team led by Dr. Feist instrumented the house thoroughly and did extensive measurements throughout its first fifteen years to validate their models. When Amory Lovins saw the house and the measured results in in 1995, he said:

This is not just a scientific experiment, this is the solution. You just need to redesign the details in order to reduce the additional costs – and I’m convinced that is possible

This was followed by a “working group on Passive Houses” which then went on to bigger pilots, and the now snowballing Passive House movement in Europe, driven by Dr. Feist’s PassivHaus Institut. They did prove “it was possible” to build Passive Houses economically, and the results are there for everyone to see.

It’s a compelling and inspiring story of theory and practice, tied together with instrumentation and measurement, achieving a real breakthrough in buildings – a potentially world-saving breakthrough.

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.

Green Building Incentives – Arlington County’s Approach

Court House Plaza
Arlington's Courthouse Square (image by Helgas Lobster Stew, CC 2.0 licensed)

I posted last week about my project, along with some other Menlo Park residents, to get some [intlink id=”606″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]incentives for energy efficient buildings[/intlink] into the Menlo Park building code. I put out a tweet on Twitter the other day to see if any of my “tweeps” had suggestions for me. Chris Cheatham, of the Green Building Law Update blog, turned me on to the Arlington County (Virginia) incentives.

The Arlington criteria are based on LEED certification levels, which mean they’re not as focused on energy efficiency as I’d like. On the other hand, the nature of the incentives themselves are very interesting. Arlington County is rewarding builders who achieve LEED Silver rating or higher with FAR (floor area ratios) “bonuses” of .15 to .35. This represents an additional 1,500 square feet of building on a 10,000 square foot lot.

Chris’s most recent blog post is focused on an interview with Joan Kelsch, an environmental planner for Arlington County, about the next update of the county’s incentives. When asked “Why LEED as the criteria for the incentives?” Kelsch responded:

LEED is the most widely accepted and understood green building rating system.  Until building codes call for more energy efficient and water efficient buildings, I think LEED is a good tool to guide more environmentally responsible development.  LEED addresses issues broader than just building code – indoor air quality, materials choices, embedded energy issues, waste management, etc.  I think LEED has played a critical role in helping the market transformation toward greener materials and process and will continue to do so.

I recommend taking a look at Chris’s post for the whole story.

I’m not sure a FAR bonus would work in Menlo Park, but it’s interesting to see what types of incentives municipalities are considering to encourage green building.

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.

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.

Biohaus: First Certified PassivHaus in the U.S.

Front View of the Waldsee BioHaus
Front View of the Waldsee BioHaus

The other day I posted about one of the [intlink id=”565″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]first passive houses built in the U.S.[/intlink] I just ran across another passive house example – this one is the first U.S.-built home to be certified to the German Passivhaus standard. The house was built at the Concordia  Language Villages in Minnesota in 2006, partially funded by the first-ever grant to a U.S. recipient by the German environmental foundation Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU).

Under the guidance of architect Stephan Tanner of INTEP, LLC, a Minneapolis- and Munich-based consulting company for high performance and sustainable construction, Waldsee BioHaus is modeled on Germany’s Passivhaus standard: a highly-efficient building design (beyond that of the U.S. LEED standard which improves quality of life inside the building while using 85% less energy than comparable U.S. structures.

The building materials and mechanicals were primarily sourced from local suppliers, although a few components were imported from Germany. These were items that either were not available (at that time) in the States, or which were provided by sponsored by the funders. Here’s another link to Waldsee Biohaus information.

It’s fascinating to me that only a handful of these houses have been built here in the States so far. Each of the houses I’ve posted about uses 80-90% less energy than a comparable conventional house. Their build out costs are comparable to conventional houses in their area, and lifecycle costs are definitely less, based on actual measurements. The approach has been proven extensively in Europe, and has been shown to be effective in every country in Europe, not to mention multiple climate zones in the U.S. It’s simple and has just three key components. The European Community is moving to make passive house the EU standard.

But despite this, here in the U.S., where buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy usage, where we have Architecture 2030, a Federal mandate for zero energy buildings, and efforts like the California Public Utilities Commission’s 2020 project, none of our codes – state building codes, LEED, Green Points, or local codes, call out the three key components of passive houses as desirable, much less required. I think this has to change.

Your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments.

The First U.S. Passive House – Super-Efficient, Affordable

The Big Wall of Windows
The Big Wall of Windows

While the passive house concept is taking off in Europe, where over 10,000 passive houses have been built, there are still very few in the States. I have posted before about [intlink id=”393″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]Nabih Taleb’s passive house remodel[/intlink] in Berkeley, and I’ve heard about a few more which I’ll be posting soon. But this month the Taunton Press’s Green Building Advisor website is featuring an article on America’s first “passive house.”

Built by Katrin Klingenberg, a European-trained architect who is co-director of the Passive House Institute U.S., the house uses massive amounts of insulation – including 14″ inches below the slab, as well as up to 16″ in the walls. Klingenberg also took care to site the house for maximum solar gain in the winter, as well as many other details to increase the house’s energy efficiency.

The results have been excellent – although not without some learning opportunities. Those windows that allowed the sun’s heat to warm the house in the winter overheated it in summer. Klingenberg installed a grape arbor over the windows, and now its bare branches in winter let in the sun, and its leafs provide effective shading for the windows in summer, while also giving a beatiful view.

Klingenberg was not just after efficiency, but also affordability in this house. And the results on both sides were very good:

At $94 per square foot, the house topped the highest averages for new construction in the region, although not by much. With Katrin’s modest budget and her goal of using the home as a model for affordable housing, however, the cost was more than she would have liked. But she points out that this was a prototype that would likely cost less on a production scale. Besides, in her opinion, the successes in the area of sustainability, efficiency, and comfort were well worth the investment.