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!

Sustainability and Energy Online Communities

Glass buildings
Glass Buildings In Helsinki (where I'm going this week, image by gadl, CC 2.0 licensed)

I have been discovering and joining a few interesting online communities focused on energy and sustainability issues. While it’s hard to keep up on everything that’s going on, they seem like a good source of like-minded folks with whom to discuss your ideas.

I’ll post about some other communities in the future.

BTW, I’m traveling to Finland for the week today. Posts might be coming a bit less frequently until next week, depending on my schedule of meetings when I get there.

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.

High Tech Innovations Vs. Low Tech

Bamboo thicket
Bamboo - Fast Growing CO2 Sequestration (Image by Joi, CC 2.0 licensed)

I read Technology Review for the latest innovations and breakthroughs in fuel cell technology, transparent solar cells, exotic new batteries and things like that. But there are tons of much lower tech innovations happening all the time. I happened to meet a guy the other night who’s working on a new startup related to building construction.

They’ve developed a new structural component – basically a really strong sheet of plywood – and some connectors, and they think based on their current testing results that they can build houses for 70% of the cost of regular 2×4 stud construction, much faster. They have almost no waste on the job site, and the waste in their factory is all reused. The system is fairly green as well – the feedstock for their plywood is bamboo, one of the best plants for taking up CO2 – and they use non-toxic glues and finishes. And their construction method will work very well for [intlink id=”393″ type=”post”]passive houses[/intlink] as [intlink id=”368″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]discussed elsewhere[/intlink] on “Keeping The Lights On”.

But just like the fuel cell breakthroughs, these low-tech innovations have a tough road to travel to success. For a new building process, you have to convince builders that it’s a better alternative, and that they’ll make more money faster. You also have to certify that the houses will stand up in an earthquake, weather a big storm (or ten of them, over the years), and do all the normal things that houses do in their lifetime. You can be sure that other innovators are coming up with competitive building technologies, all trying to accomplish the same thing as you – displace the old way. So not only do you have to deal with differentiation and other competitive marketing activities, but this also means the air around the head of your prospects is blue with pitches from every direction about “revolutionizing the industry” and “lower cost, faster” and “extremely green.”

If you accomplish all those things, and get a good competitive position, then you have to actually make the new materials and all the fittings, making sure you can address the trickier needs of real houses – which are not just square walls and right angle corners.

I think the new plywood-based approach I saw can address all these issues, but my point is that just because it’s good, it’s still going to be a difficult journey. That’s true of any new innovation.

I hope to do an interview in March with the “plywood people” and put it up on the blog, and I’ll be asking them how they plan to address all these issues as they ramp up. It should be interesting to watch them and other innovations in the building trades, especially in this time of massive investment in green building and energy efficiency.

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.

Green Building Salon – A Few Conclusions

|||| striaticon
Perception is reality when it comes to green energy (image by striatic, CC 2.0 license)

I was thinking about what we accomplished/learned at our initial green building/green energy salon a few days ago, and came up with a few top candidates:

  • Liability – this is one of the biggest issues at the front of mind for builders and architects – they have to guarantee their buildings, and that makes them very wary of new technologies. One big challenge for green building will be coming up with ways to break through that barrier (the other alternative, of course, is to wait long enough that the new technologies prove themselves – but even this needs to be optimized). For example, perhaps the government could help take on some of the liability to reduce the risk for architects and builders trying to do the right thing.
  • Perception – Silicon Valley, as one of the attendees pointed out, is way ahead of the rest of the nation in terms of our perception that “green is just an obvious thing to do.” The general idea that green is more expensive or that it requires privation is much more prevalent. So a big challenge for the green movement is to change that perception, which is a combination of both marketing (the next topic) as well as changes in the way green is delivered. Simple changes (see my CSA “box of veggies” post, for example) can make a huge difference in perceptions.
  • Marketing – half of us at the salon were high tech marketers. Green technology is a classic high-tech marketing problem. We’re facing a “chasm” that we need to get across. There’s a technology adoption lifecycle in green building just as there is in new IT technologies. Of course, that’s one of the things that we here in Silicon Valley are pretty good at (we wrote the book on it :-). So one good set of steps to move forward will be to articulate a “Crossing the Chasm” kind of analysis of green, and figure out where our “beackheads” are, and how to get a “tornado” going.

Most of the news about green energy and climate change focuses on the big multi-million dollar technical projects, scientific breakthroughs, and “parts per million.” But as we discovered at our salon, there is a lot of “ground-level” work that has to be done at the same time – whether it’s to remove obstacles for builders to build green, or to help consumers understand they can save money and get better services and, oh by the way, save a lot of energy at the same time.

The Power Of Small Changes

Kale
We get a lot of kale in our CSA box of veggies (image by terren in Virginia, CC 2.0 license)

There’s a perception that green is more expensive and less convenient, and, truth to say, that’s sometimes true. It is more expensive to buy your groceries at Whole Foods. And putting solar panels on your roof doesn’t really save you money for many years, if at all, (although it’s still less than buying a new car).

But on the other hand, we know that there are lots of green things you can do that actually save money – replacing your incandescent lights with compact fluorescents is one familiar example. And if you’re building a house, putting in lots more insulation than is required by code can save a huge amount of both money and energy, while making your home more comfortable.

Sometimes it’s small changes that can flip this perception. I have a recent example from my own life that brought this home to me (so to speak):

Continue reading “The Power Of Small Changes”

Green Building Salon Update

Pepperoni Pizza
Pizza - a good reason to have a salon (callme_crochet, CC 2.0 licensed)

We had our first meeting of the new Green Building salon last night, at a local pizza place. Despite a few last minute cancellations, there were enough people there to generate some excellent energy. It was an impressive group, including:

  • An architect who has built several LEED-Silver and LEED-Gold buildings
  • An interior designer whose practice has always been about “green design”
  • One attendee spent several years in Washington in the 1970s working on energy issues with Congress, then got sucked into high-tech after that first green energy bubble burst when Reagan was elected
  • One attendee has been a brand manager for numerous large consumer packaged goods companies on the East Coast, and has now come out West for a new life focusing on green.

I’ll be posting more about the salon in coming days, including deeper dives on some of the attendees, and on what actions have and will come out of the meeting.

By the way, the next salon will be on February 10 in Sunnyvale. You can get more information and RSVP here. My friend Rich Wingerter has taken over the scheduling of these, using Meetup. I hope to see you there!

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