Tuesday, March 17, 2009

NESEA versus USGBC - Round ?

There has been a fair amount of Twittering the past few days about the seemingly somewhat heated forum exchange between NESEA and USGBC at last week’s NESEA (Northeast Sustainable Design Association) conference in Boston. A fellow Twitter, Stephen Del Percio wrote a thoughtful blog post about the exchange. The post also links to an additional blog post, and a very insightful and somewhat scathing paper titled “Lies. Damn Lies.” by Henry Gifford, a well-respected NESEA member. I also had the opportunity by chance to speak to someone yesterday who was at the forum. He is a long-time member of NESEA as well, and his added insight was very interesting.

I was very glad to hear and read about this forum and exchange taking place. It’s needed, especially as LEED becomes even more mainstream than ever before. NESEA too, in my opinion, is ahead of USGBC’s efforts with respect to building solid, durable, energy-efficient buildings; NESEA focuses on hard building science and they’ve been at it for over 30 years. LEED is younger and still finding its footing in some respects, and there is little focus on how buildings actually work and perform. Certification after all, is given almost entirely on anticipated performance –per a model, versus actual.

Unfortunately, however, I don’t know that NESEA has done a good enough job at getting the word out about themselves as a whole, i.e.: the organization/members/research/energy-efficient building etc., whereas USGBC has. Honestly, you don’t hear much about NESEA day-to-day, whereas you sure hear a lot about USGBC and LEED. Why is this?

USGBC has done an amazing job at marketing, embracing and educating about green design -even if admittedly, it’s not perfect. But they have taken a crack at it at a much bigger level then NESEA has and are indeed, working towards changing the market place. Perhaps NESEA hasn’t been as dominant with marketing because the organization is more regional, being that it is the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association? I don’t know for sure, but I also don’t think that’s entirely the issue.

One point of contention at the forum exchange was Gifford’s paper. I read it when it first came out and was happy to see him take USGBC to task on its findings, those being that LEED buildings are 25-30 percent more efficient than the average. These findings were presented in 2007. It turns out however, that statistics were, well, tinkered with a bit, and involved a “leap of faith” as Brendan Owens, USGBC’s VP of Technical Development, said. In effect, the final report sounded a bit better than the actual truth. I don’t think USGBC did this maliciously by any stretch of the imagination but I was disheartened to learn that the findings had been tinkered with so that report said what they wanted it to say, rather than laying out the facts. After all, it is a bit crazy that LEED certification rewards a building based on a model rather than actual performance data based on two years of operation, as Gifford suggests. To boot, we keep building all these “green” buildings that look sexy but are not durable material wise/envelope system wise, nor are they energy-efficient, again starting with their building envelope. It pains me to see glass buildings with an R-value of about R-3 or R-4 being touted as sustainable. It’s an energy hog. Period.

At the same time however, I don’t agree with Chris Benedict’s statement -and she is an architect whom I have much respect for, that “[she] would like LEED to go away, and [she] would like the USGBC to disappear from the face of the earth.” Although she is correct in stating that anyone with LEED AP after their name is now seemingly seen as the expert, versus those who have been deep within energy-efficient design for years, it is not fair to cast LEED AP's or USGBC off as being incompetent, which is what I infer from this statement. The organization is not by any means, and is working each day against a lot of odds towards building a better built environment. Are they perfect? Again, no. I have problems with the rating system. But again, they are trying at a much broader level than I see NESEA doing.

Making Green Make Sense
The basic fact is, USGBC has a huge amount to learn from NESEA and NESEA has a huge amount to learn from USGBC. Put these two factions in a room together for a while and I have little doubt that the ensuing rating system developed would far exceed any we’ve seen thus far from USGBC. Yet from this exchange –what I know of it, I feel that NESEA acted more like a toddler having a temper tantrum than someone willing to come together. USGBC seemed able to stand up and admit some faults on the other hand. That doesn’t make the USGBC stupid/wrong nor does it make NESEA superior/right. Pointing fingers doesn’t get anyone anywhere, and right now, we have a gluttoness built environment to deal with and an Earth to save. We need everyone to play on the same team. Marc Rosenbaum, another NESEA member, said it best in his comment that there weren’t many solutions discussed, and that it was mostly a rant. Well, now that the ranting is over, let’s get to work. Together.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Foreclosure Plan for a Green Future

The Heartache
The New York Times had a great article -albeit also very disheartening, in Sunday's paper (02.08) "In Florida, Dispair and Foreclosures." The article centered around Lehigh Acres, a once middle-class exurb of Fort Myers. Lehigh Acres was born on speculation, built on acres of farm land originally bought in the 1950's by a Chicago pest control baron and partners. The developers plotted out 100,000 lots but forgot about essential things like schools, open space, parks, and businesses. It was the quintessential car oriented suburb, forcing families to travel to reach these essentials. The lots sold however, through the 80's and 90's, and so did the houses. Eventually though, the boom started to bust. By the 2000's, lots sold remained unbuilt, and houses changed hands several times in a few months. This was not a community growing any longer, but a community floundering, as foreclosures rise, and the area sinks into oblivion.

Rebuilding Green Communities
Reading this article, I thought of all the unfinished houses which now exist all across the United States. I also thought about the great green housing movement, and the NAHB's Green Building Program. And I had an idea.

Instead of focusing on new homes, that is, homes which haven't even been built yet, why don't homebuilders get with communities such as Fort Myers and figure out how to make existing communities, which have existing infrastructure, work, as well as turning the communities into green communities? It would of course mean creating a master plan for communities such as Lehigh Acres. And it would mean demolishing many of the existing homes (all material being recycled of course) to make way for essentials such as schools, community centers, libraries, businesses, open space and parks, and more. But the process would rebuild communities, create jobs, and create an economy for the community. In addition, while many of the homes are empty as the result of foreclosure, they could be rehabbed to be more energy and resource efficient. Insulate the homes better, add PV and/or solar domestic hot water, incorporate natural ventilation strategies, create constructed wetlands in open space areas, and so much more.

Making Green Make Cents
You may argue with me that this isn't possible or that it's idealistic. But personally, I would argue that it makes sense -and cents. We cannot forge a green future focusing soley on what's new and shiny; we must also fix what is broken. And there is a lot that's broken. To let communities such as Lehigh Acres exist as they are is nothing short of us shutting the door to a closet and calling it junk. That may work fine for storing old clothes and toys, but it doesn't work for the built environment. This is an incredible opportunity for us to repair and restore -which is exactly what sustainability is about.

Image is from NY Times article "In Florida, Dispair and Foreclosures"

Friday, February 6, 2009

Making Tax Credits Make Sense

Because They Certainly Don't Make Cents
I spent the past few days wrapping up a sustainability report for a homeowner. Part of that involved some research into incentives, from state to federal. Being that for the majority of my career I have worked in the commercial sector, I needed to learn more about residential credits and incentives. Now, I knew that the tax credits for homeowners for home improvements were pretty paltry, but now that I REALLY know, in reality, they are nothing short of pathetic; they make no sense -or cents, at all.

Take the federal tax credit for window replacement as an example. The windows must be Energy Star qualified or meet IECC (the International Energy Conservation Code). The tax credit? Up to 10 percent of the cost, which at first seems like a great deal. Until you read the next part, that being a maximum cap of $200. Um, I'm sorry, but that credit barely covers the cost of one replacement window -maybe, let alone the installation and labor costs associated with it. My parents replaced the windows in their house 10 years ago, a 2,800 square foot home, at a total cost of $14,500.00. Two hundred dollars doesn't make much of a dent in that, and even a 10 percent credit on that amount is only $1,450.00. I asked them if they saw a drastic decrease in their utility bills as well, and their answer was a small drop, but nothing to jump and down over. And even if the drop was say, $50 each month, that's a payback of 24 years -minus the $200 tax credit. In all seriousness, a homeowner may not fancy that as much of an incentive.

Making Cents
It seems to me, with all our talk of reducing our dependence on foreign resources, and reducing CO2 emissions into our atmosphere, that we would want to make our existing homes more efficient. And in all seriousness, I know that's what we all DO want to do. So, you would think that incentives and tax credits to homeowners undertaking energy efficient improvements would make much more hard economic cents than they do. So why don't they? In addition, a higher tax credit on energy efficient home improvement measures could actually help with stimulate the economy by creating green jobs -or heck, just jobs, green or not. People would want to insulate their homes, want to replace their heating and cooling systems, want to purchase more energy efficient appliances, want to install domestic solar hot water systems, and so forth. And with a tax credit that made cents, it could reduce the payback time to something more viable to any homeowner. Twenty four years for a payback is too long, but 8-10, maybe even less? Now you've got my attention.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Making Green Make Cents with BIM

Last Friday and Saturday I had two separate conversations with BIM (Revit) masters. Friday's conversation was with Jay Dougherty, Microsol Resources and Saturday's conversation was with a fellow Twitterer (whom I just met Saturday also), Gregory Arkin, Cadd Centers. BIM for those who don't know, stands for Building Information Modeling, and the main program 'doing' this is Revit, by AutoDesk. I have a bit of experience with it, i.e.: tip of the iceberg experience, having been trained at the basic level two years ago. I do recognize the power of the program however, and always have (even if I admit I kicked and screamed a bit at first -learning a new program can be painful). The potential it has is unparalleled, because when working with it, you are literally and figuratively building the building in 3-d; any other computer drafting program is really now nothing more than 2-d lines on paper.

BIM Will Revolutonize Green Design
My conversations with both Jay and Gregory opened my eyes to just how incredibly powerful this program is. Revit can do more than just building your building in 3-d. And it can do more than do precise take-offs for cost-estimating the building (which it does, so no more rule of thumb bids -you can price a building to the penny). It can also model the building -and I am talking way more than the pretty picture modeling architects like. Revit, in concert with a few key plug-in programs (IES and Ecotec) can perform detailed building science modeling, such as energy use (electric, HVAC), carbon footprint analysis, natural daylight analysis, sun and shading analysis per building orientation, thermal envelope analysis of floor/wall/roof system, water use, and modeling far beyond this I am sure.

Currently, we can do this kind of modeling, but it's all a different program and done by someone else; i.e.: we have several separate models, pretty much all disconnected and not necessarily playing well with other programs. And to boot, generally all this kind of modeling isn't done. Why? It usually requires a different consultant for each model, which means additional services, which means more money and etc. etc. etc. So valuable information which could be gleaned isn't, and instead it is building as usual, rules of thumb and so forth; we're still living in flat world.

Now, think about having all this information -energy/resource use, daylighting levels, building envelope thermal attributes and etc., contained in one model, accessible by all consultants. Everyone can access the same model and everyone can have the same information at their fingertips and everyone, everyone, knows how the building works, breathes, lives. You can also have various design models to compare within the one model. Do we want this kind of insulation and this kind of window system with this HVAC system or that HVAC system? Model it. Analyze it. Find out your payback. Just click a button. Okay, maybe a few buttons. But it completely shifts each consultant's connection to the building design -it is now true integrated design; now we're living in round world.

Making Cents
Does Revit and the add-on programs mentioned cost more than the basic computer drafting programs in use today? Yes. But note the key word -drafting. The other programs out there today, such as AutoCAD, do not possess the power BIM does. They are in comparison, drafting programs, literally, drawing with pencil on vellum. You have little clue about how the building -a living, breathing entity, works with a drafting program. But when you consider the information contained in the one Revit model, the modeling capabilities and the fact that we will be designing more efficiently and more integratively, it doesn't make cents not to go with BIM. With BIM, we will be making green make cents.

Monday, January 5, 2009

“Demand Dims for Energy-Efficient Homes”

“As fuel prices fall, buyers reluctant to pay for green extras”

This title and sub-title are direct from a Friday, January 2nd Philadelphia Inquirer article. Upon reading the article, I discovered –to no surprise, that it was the higher cost of add-ons, such as solar panels and other “eco-friendly enhancements,” which had reduced demand. In essence, prospective buyers just don’t want to pay the associated increased first cost, according to the article, especially in these more challenged economic times.

The eco-friendly enhancements listed, aside from solar panels, were dual-pane windows, high-performing insulation and low-leakage ductwork. Reading this list, you might think that typically, single-pane windows, low to non-performing insulation and high-leakage ductwork are installed in a conventional home. I say this in jest of course, but still, it makes one wonder.

Just say no to add-ons –for now

Energy-efficiency doesn’t start with add-ons though. And you can build an energy-efficient home with conventional-performing insulation, like fiberglass batts, (and believe it or not, even single-pane windows). The key is first eliminating all air leakage through the building envelope (walls, floor and roof). This requires properly installed insulation –whether batt or spray-foam, sealing at various joints and junctures –like wall to roof and around window and door rough openings, to name a few methods. Second is to ensure a high/recommended R-value –and make sure you have eliminated thermal conductivity at studs (studs have a) low R-value to begin with and b) cold/hot air is easily transmitted through a stud into a building, it’s basic physics; click here for an excellent white paper/primer on thermal bridging). This is actually simple, and can easily be accomplished by installing 3/4-inch thick rigid insulation over top the exterior wall sheathing. Once you have a tight envelope, you have a more efficient heating and cooling system by default, simply because without air leakage, it will need to work less hard to keep the occupants comfortable. Working less hard means less money in utilities.

Making cents

Do these two measures require a bit more work on the part of the sub-contractor? Yes. Does a tighter building envelope require a ventilation system for proper air exchange? Yes. But I also believe these measures can be easily implemented by any homebuilder without having to change the basic design of the house, and with very little cost increase when compared to more costly add-ons. And taking into account that most homebuilders have each home down to a science, i.e.: they know the design, the material list, the sub-contractors, the profit and etc., I think this first step makes some green cents, for the homebuilder as well as the occupant.

Of course, I’d like to see homebuilders move far beyond these simple measures. In fact, I believe it’s imperative (check out the 100k house as a great example of energy/resource efficiency on a low budget). But it’s a start, and sometimes, even I’ll admit that baby steps can sometimes lead to giant leaps faster than we think. We also need to focus way more attention on our existing residential housing stock, making it more energy and resource efficient. Without that, we’ll have hardly made a dent (and on that front, click here for an e-book on my house –a circa 1920 brick twin, to see what I'm doing to increase its efficiency).

image is of thames & kosmos power house, a toy for ages 12+