Taxonomy Term en 22029 Green Building Materials 101: A Syllabus Supplement

College professors: here’s a curriculum module for introducing students to healthier and lower-impact products and materials using BuildingGreen articles.

Intended for design professionals, BuildingGreen provides an independent “living textbook” that integrates perfectly with green building courses while exposing students to the most cutting-edge sustainability strategies and real-world green building case studies.

The first half of the course goes topic by topic, while the second half goes product category by product category, using MasterFormat indexing. These can be broken into two eight-week mini-courses as needed.

Here we offer an Intro to Green Materials curriculum especially formulated for institutions that have access to the following articles through a campus-wide BuildingGreen subscription.

Don’t have a subscription yet? Find out how to get a no-strings-attached free trial for your campus.

Week 1—Welcome and Introductions

Lecture: Green building is about a lot more than products and materials

Video: TED Talk by William McDonough on Cradle to Cradle design


Week 2—Life-Cycle Assessment and Green Products

Lecture: BuildingGreen webcast, Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment: Promises and Pitfalls


Week 3—Greenwash and the Need for Third-Party Certification

Lecture: BuildingGreen webcast, LEED vs. Green Globes: What’s the Difference?


Week 4—Transparency

Lecture: Why transparency is paramount to improving the environmental and health characteristics of building materials


Week 5—Greener Products and Materials: Product Emissions and Chemical Hazards

Lecture: BuildingGreen webcast, Toxic Chemicals in Buildings: How to Find and Avoid the Worst Offenders


Week 6—Greener Products and Materials: Other Impacts

Lecture: Rules of thumb for greener materials and why we need to look deeper


Week 7—Issues on the Horizon

Lecture: Open discussion, Q&A, and feedback


Week 8—Occupancy and Operations

Lecture: Greening standard practice, and considerations after the architect is gone

2015-06-17 n/a 22001 Sustainable Design 101: A Syllabus Supplement

College professors: here’s a curriculum module you can use to introduce students to sustainable design using BuildingGreen articles.

Intended for design professionals, BuildingGreen provides an independent “living textbook” that integrates perfectly with sustainable design courses while exposing students to the most cutting-edge sustainability strategies and real-world green building case studies.

Here we offer an Intro to Sustainable Design curriculum especially formulated for institutions that have access to the following articles through a campus-wide BuildingGreen subscription.

Don’t have a subscription yet? Find out how to get a no-strings-attached free trial for your campus.

Introduction to Sustainable Design: Syllabus and Assigned Readings

Week 1—Welcome and Introductions

Lecture: Introduction to the green building movement

Video: PBS Architecture 2030 Ed Mazria – Design e2


Week 2—The Scope of Green Building

Lecture: Whole-systems thinking and integrated design; introduction to LEED and Living Building Challenge


Week 3—Looking Beyond Buildings

Lecture: Green building is about more than buildings.


Week 4—Land-Use Planning

Lecture: The importance of land-use planning in creating sustainable communities


Week 5—Site and Landscape

Lecture: Integrating buildings into the landscape


Week 6—Water Management on the Site

Lecture: Stormwater and innovative management practices


Week 7—Water Conservation

Lecture: Understanding and conserving what could become the greatest restraint on development


Week 8—Energy Conservation and Efficiency

Lecture: Green building begins with energy savings.


Week 9—Renewable Energy

Lecture: After reducing our demand, considering our energy supply

Week 10—Buildings and Health

Lecture: An unhealthy building cannot be a green building.


Week 11—Buildings and Wellness

Lecture: A healthy indoor environment extends beyond concerns about toxic chemicals and pathogens.


Week 12—Materials and Resources

Lecture: Understanding the environmental impacts of what goes into our buildings


Week 13—Material Health

Lecture: Understanding the health impacts of what goes into our buildings


Week 14—Building Durability

Lecture: Longer-lasting buildings are greener buildings.


Week 15—Looking Ahead – Climate Adaptation

Lecture: Today’s buildings must be adaptable to an uncertain future.


Week 16 – Wrap-up

      Lecture: Course review

2015-06-11 n/a 21926 What Is a Hygrothermal Building Assessment?

pete mug

Hygro refers to water, and thermal refers to heat. In buildings, you really can’t manage heat without also managing moisture. For example, if you increase how much insulation is in a wall, you may also be increasing the risk of moisture and mold problems.

There are four ways that buildings can get wet:

  • bulk water leaks (rain dripping through a hole in your roof)
  • wicking (groundwater being pulled up through a concrete foundation)
  • air leaks (condensation inside a wall assembly)
  • vapor diffusion (high interior relative humidity in the winter; high exterior relative humidity in the summer)

 And there are just three ways they can dry when they get wet:

  • drainage (intentional spaces between building components)
  • air flow (convective drying, like your hair dryer)
  • evaporation (low relative humidity and adding the sun for drying)

Frankly, four against three can add up to less than the greatest odds for drying.

When a building is examined from a hygrothermal perspective, both moisture and heat flows on, off, and through your building are systematically tracked and evaluated. We learn the balance between wetting and drying in your building: to correct the balance if you have a moisture problem or to keep the balance if you are doing a renovation or retrofit.

moisture meterMany buildings have lasted a hundred years or more, often getting wet—and even repeatedly—but subsequently drying because of uncontrolled heat loss or heat gain. If you make a building more energy efficient, you can shift the energy-moisture balance and damage that same building or compromise the health of occupants.

A hygrothermal building assessment means managing energy and moisture with equal intensity; not because it is a good idea, but because “it’s the law.” The law of physics, that is.

Click for a PDF version of this post.

Read more

How Water Moves Through Buildings

EPA Primer on Moisture Control Full of Strategies, Checklists

The Hidden Science of High-Performance Building Assemblies

2015-04-29 n/a 21922 Leaders in Sustainable Design Speaking at AIA Convention 2015

Looking for the greenest updates at Convention this year? Here is our quick roundup.

As architects and other design professionals from around the nation gather in Atlanta this week, they will find that the gap between design and sustainable design is narrower than ever. But if you are looking for the greenest talks of them all, look no further! Many of today’s greatest minds in sustainable design will be sharing their stuff—with everything from specifying healthier building materials to the latest on resilient design leadership to geeking out on energy modeling.

Don’t see your sustainability-related session here? Add it in the comments below! Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, May 13

Transforming Firm Culture and Process; Embracing Sustainability and Getting to 2030

Nadav Malin, Barbra Batshalom, Betsy del Monte

8:30 a.m.– 5:30 p.m., All Day Workshop, WE205, Room B304


How To Specify Healthy Building Materials

Mike Manzi, Stacey Glass, Tom Lent, Bill Walsh, Russell Perry

8:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. WE104, Room B407


EPA Target Finder, Portfolio Manager, and DoE AIA Design Data Exchange Tools

Karen Butler, Rand Ekman, Kevin Settlemyre, Zach Shelin

8:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. WE103, Room B309


Redefining the Rules: A Deep Energy Retrofit Workshop for Architects

Tate Walker

1:00 p.m.- 5:00 p.m. WE305, Room B405


Thursday, May 14

Non-Toxic, High-performance Assemblies

Paula Melton

7:30 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. TH107, Room B303


Defining an Agenda for Resilient Design

Alex Wilson, Mary Ann Lazarus, Z Smith

7:30 a.m. - 8:30 p.m. TH101, Room B206


The Good, the Bad, and the EUI (Energy Use Intensity)

Gregory Mella and Karen Butler

7:30 – 8:30 a.m. TH105, Room B203


Post Occupancy Evaluation: What, Why, and How?

Julie Hendricks, Julie Hiromoto, Shawn Préau

9:00 a.m.–10:00 a.m. TH204, Room B309


Social Media: The Secret Sauce

Mike Davis, Karen Robichaud

9:00 a.m - 10:00 a.m. TH212, Room B402


Dream Materials: What do you REALLY want to build with?

Paula McEvoy, Larry Strain, Brad Guy, Nadav Malin

9:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m. TH206, Room A412


Collaborative Achievement Awards Panel

Robert Miller

3:30 p.m.- 4:30 p.m. TH304, Room B304


The Energy Modeling Wizard Show

Kirk Teske, Kim Shinn

3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. TH318, Room A404


2015 COTE Top Ten: Designing for a Restorative Future

5:00 p.m. – 6:00 a.m. TH401, Room A412


The Intersection of Design and Performance: The Tesla Motors Lesson

Gregory Paypay

5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. TH408, Room A411


COTE Top Ten & Top Ten+ Celebration on the “Roof Top” at the Metro Atlanta Chamber

7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. 235 Andrew Young International Boulevard, NW


Friday, May 15

Work-Life Balance: Oxymoron, Juggling Act, or Opportunity for Change

Jim Nicolow

7:00 a.m. - 8:00 a.m. FR117, B405


Implementing Material Transparency into Firm Culture

Kirk Teske, Anne Harney, Robert Phinney

7:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. FR105, Room B302


Getting to 2030: Institutionalizing Sustainability in Culture, Systems, and Processes

Lance Hosey, Rand Ekman, Barbra Batshalom

2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. FR208, Room B406


Healthy Communities: Improving Health Impacts Beyond the Building Envelope

Richard Franko, Donna Laquidara-Carr, Christopher Smith, Esther Sternberg

3:30–4:30 p.m. FR305, Room B309


Thermal Programming and Profiling Using BIM Tools

Vikram Sami

3:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. FR308, Room B312


Lighting Workshop: Building Skins and Designing for Energy Savings

Margaret Montgomery

3:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. FR312, Room B313 SOLD OUT


Putting EPDs into practice: The EPD Summary

Marion Lawson, Erin McDade

3:30 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. FR307, Room B304


2030 Commitment Barriers and Successes

Marya Graff, Betsy Isenstein, Bill Sturm, Serena Sturm, Andrea Love 

5:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. FR406, Room B314


Saturday, May 16th

Collecting Rainwater - Integrated System Design For All Buildings

Gregory Mella, Celeste Novak, and Eddie Van Giesen

8:30 a.m. - 9:30 a.m. SA207, Room A411


Three Firms’ Approach to Integrating Research in Practice

Colin Booth, Z Smith, Andrea Love 

8:30 a.m. - 9:30 a.m. SA206, Room B206

2015-04-27 n/a 21312 Learn Sustainable Design without Having to Brave the Cold and Snow

A new round of online BAC Sustainable Design courses is starting up soon. Going out in the polar vortex is not a prerequisite.

I’m about to start teaching another round of my online course, Resilient Design, at Boston Architectural College (BAC), and this provides an opportunity to reflect on teaching at BAC and, more broadly, the online instruction in sustainable design offered through this program.

20 excellent online courses

I first started teaching at BAC in 2005, when the college’s online instruction program in sustainable design was just getting under way. At that time, BuildingGreen partnered with BAC to help design the curriculum, find the best instructors available, and promote the courses being offered.

Early on, when we had just a handful of courses, I taught Sustainable Design as a Way of Thinking, a course now being ably taught by my friend David Foley. Today, the online offerings totaling almost 20 courses are housed in BAC’s Sustainable Design Institute.

Last year, I rolled out a new course examining how to achieve more resilient buildings and communities. I’ll describe more about that below. I also participate twice a year in the week-long onsite intensives that are an integral part of BAC’s relatively new Masters in Design Studies (MDS) in Sustainable Design draws from a diverse international community.

But first, I wanted to share a few snippets from my teaching experiences at BAC.

A global student body

I keep running into students whom I’ve taught. Some are now sustainable design leaders at leading architecture firms. Others are policy makers working to institute sustainability and resilience into standard practice. Quite a few are from far away—people I’ve never met, but have been impressed with their activities.

In particular, when I teach in the on-site intensives I’m always blown away by the fascinating backgrounds of students—local students from the Boston area to students from Mexico, South America, the Middle East…most anywhere.

I’ve had students in the U.S. Military serving abroad and wanting to build skills for a new career. I’ve had students who have been in one career for decades and want to do something new. It’s incredibly inspiring to learn their stories and hear about their projects at BAC—particularly those projects that will serve to better conditions in less developed countries.

Coursework from the real world

My Resilient Design course is one of 14 online courses that start on March 23. With a maximum of 15 students, we examine the full range of resilient design measures at both building and community scales. We dive into building design, storm resilience, land-use issues, water, community, and food. And we have a great time in the online discussion forums.

With this offering of the course, I’m going to weave in some work I’m involved with in crafting LEED Pilot Credits on Resilience—so it will provide an opportunity not only to learn about resilience but also be part of an effort to enhance the way the LEED rating systems address resilience.

It should be a lot of fun.

Below I’ve listed the other courses offered this term. All are eight-week courses:

The half-semester, graduate-level courses are online, instructor-led, interactive, and asynchronous (meaning that students can access the materials any time). Courses may be taken individually or as part of the Institute’s Sustainable Design Certificate Program.

Up to 6 Institute courses are also transferrable as electives into the BAC’s online Master of Design Studies in Sustainable Design degree. See the for details.

To learn more (and register) go to, call 617-585-0101 or send an email to the BAC's Director of Sustainable Design, Shaun O’Rourke.

2015-03-02 n/a 21311 Have You Been Conflating Water with Energy? Here Are 5 Reasons to Stop

Until we stop talking about water as if it’s a clone of energy, water won’t get the respect it deserves or the attention it needs. Two sessions at NESEA’s BuildingEnergy ’15 conference, “Reinventing the Water Grid” parts one and two, are out to change that.

Policy wonks have been saying for years that water is THE critical resource on our planet—even more so than energy. Yet the time and attention that we devote to water remains a fraction of that we allot to energy.

I think that the problem is that we tend to talk about water conservation and efficiency as if water is just a clone of energy. Water and energy are similar in many ways, but there are key differences; until we appreciate these differences and embrace water on its own terms, we’ll continue to dis it.

Here are the five key differences that are confusing our approach:

1. Water is matter

Yes, at the subatomic scale energy and matter are more or less the same thing, but for us they are fundamentally different. Water is made of molecules; energy is something those molecules can gain and lose.

Why is this important? Just look to the first law of thermodynamics: conversation of energy and matter. On our little planet, we have a fixed amount of water that cycles through the biosphere and supports life. Energy, on the other hand, gets delivered to us daily in a constant, plentiful flow. Our biggest challenge right now is that the planet as a whole is capturing and holding onto too much of it!

2. We pay for water coming and going

Because we don’t actually consume most of the water that comes into our buildings, but instead contaminate it (with dirt, human waste, and heat) and then send it back out into the biosphere, we spend an inordinate amount of resources treating it, mostly so it doesn’t make people sick after it’s released.

In some situations, we also pay attention to thermal pollution, especially heat from power plants when the rivers or lakes they are using as a heat sink get depleted by droughts.

3. Water is more seasonal than energy

In much of the world, precipitation patterns vary seasonally. Solar insolation also changes with the seasons, especially as you get closer to the poles, but that’s not where most of the world’s population lives.

4. Short-term storage of water isn’t hard

Storing water at the building or community scale for a week, a month, even a couple of months, isn’t that hard. Energy storage has made great leaps, but batteries are still limited and expensive, so storing enough for more than a day or two is a real challenge.

A week or a month is not enough time, however, to even out the seasonal fluctuations in rainfall, much less to deal with occasional cycles of drought. So onsite water storage is a great solution where rains can be expected year-round but not in the real challenging locations.

5. Extravagant use of water is more deeply entrenched in culture.

We’ve been using water to dilute and transport human waste for a few centuries in the western world—much longer in parts of the East. It’s hard for us to imagine not doing that. Energy, on the other hand, has only been cheap enough to waste for less than a century. We still have cultural patterns of relating to it differently, and we’re inventing new ways to use it, and to save it, all the time.

This more fluid relationship we have to energy may be the biggest reason for the relative ease with which we explore alternative solutions. When it comes to water, we’re stuck. That’s why the pioneers who are helping us rethink our relationship to water are such out-of-the-box thinkers. Come meet them at BuildingEnergy ’15.

Learn more

Not going to make it to BE15?


2015-03-02 n/a 21214 A Virtual Mastermind Group for Material Vetting

Want help researching and screening products for LEED v4 or the LBC Red List? Use this forum to share your questions and frustrations as well as your successes and advice.

By Paula Melton

Our recent webcast, Deep Material Vetting That Won’t Chew Through Your Design Budget, included a “homework” assignment: Chris and Scott of Re:Vision Architecture asked everyone to vet three to five materials they’re considering using in a current project.

Expecting that this exercise would lead to frustrations as well as triumphs, we have set aside this space as a forum for you to share how your research is going. Whether your project is pursuing WELL, LEED, Living Building Challenge, a different certification, or no certification at all, let’s help each other out and make the process easier for everyone.

If you haven’t already, you’ll need to create a free BuildingGreen login in order to post comments.

Be kind, and good luck!

p.s. Want to do some background reading on material vetting before you jump into the deep end? Check out these resources.


2015-02-17 n/a 20654 A View from Inside the Climate March

Maybe, if enough of us March, and plan, and make smart choices, we’ll have a chance at beating this thing. 

I’m not a frequent social activist. In fact, I haven’t been to a major rally since my college days. But when my teenage daughter gets excited about something I care about, I'm all in! And she was getting excited by the social media buzz about the People's Climate March. So, with some last minute scrambling, I headed down to NYC with family and friends to the big March.

By the time we succumbed to the FOMO (fear of missing out) and started making plans, the buses from our region were sold out, so we drove from Brattleboro to Manhattan. Driving to a climate march?? At least we had a full car (5 people), getting 40 mpg—so our 200 passenger-miles-per-gallon wasn’t that much worse than a full coach bus, at about 275 passenger-mpg.

We have to do this?

As we were getting ready, the main thought I kept having was about how absurd it is that we even have to demonstrate like this. The science is solid. The risk is real (even if predictions can never be 100%), so why does anyone still need convincing?

But then I remember this all-too-convincing analysis from Ezra Klein:

“If you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system — to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities — you would create climate change. And then you would stand back and watch the world burn.”

Klein points out that those who are likely to be worst hit by climate change have the least opportunity to prevent it and that we, as a society, are notoriously bad at sacrificing now for benefits far off in the future.

So we have to march. Maybe, if enough of us March, and plan, and make smart choices, we’ll have a chance at beating this thing.  

Blessed Unrest

The shear number of organizations that came together at this event is astonishing: a physical manifestation of the unorganized movement that Paul Hawken chronicles in his book Blessed Unrest.

On the ground this diversity was both enlivening and challenging. Some of the corporate green-building types I was walking with were not so happy about the strident anti-capitalist chants coming from a group just behind us. And vegan activists were out in force, shaming beef-eaters with specs on how much methane comes from cows. “Do You Have a Steak In It?”

Also impressive was the age range of the marchers. In our little carload we spanned six decades, but that was not unusual among the marchers.

Belly of the Beast

Before we even got to the starting line, part of our contingent was getting worried about catching their bus back home at 5:00, so we joined the cheaters who were ducking out onto the sidewalks to leapfrog ahead, and we got to see some other platoons. Thanks to groups with great props like Bread and Puppet and a bunch of swordfish on bicycles, parts of the March felt more like a parade. “The Revolution Will Not Be Motorized.”

The cultural cacophony got loudest when we entered Times Square, where our tapestry of color and sound--and message of restraint--clashed with the high-tech orgy of consumerism.

We were just approaching Times Square, heading towards the much-anticipated block party on 11th Ave when the organizers sent a text acknowledging how overwhelmed they were: “The march is so big that we're asking people to disperse just before they reach 11th Ave and 42nd St.” It had already been a long day for us, so we ducked into the subway and had a smooth ride back home. It was a great adventure—I just hope it’s a sign that the winds are changing!


*Cecil is Chief Program Officer at Urban Green Council.

2014-09-22 n/a 20371 Foam-In-Place Insulation: 7 Tips for Getting Injection and Spray Foam Right

Quality installation of the two types of site-manufactured foam insulation is no easier than fiberglass batt and no less important. Here is how to avoid the most common problems.

By Peter Yost

There are two ways to site-install foam insulation: injection and spray. Injecting foam is most often done in closed cavities in retrofit applications; spray foam is most often done in open cavities and in new construction. The formulations and methods of installation are different for closed-cavity and open-cavity foam installations. Photos: Henri Fennel (L); Peter Yost (R)One of my first research projects when I started at the NAHB Research Center in 1993 was looking into a new insulation: Icynene. We were evaluating its performance as a spray-applied, open-cavity insulation as well as an injection foam in closed cavities. I was enamored: this seemed to be a miracle insulation that installed itself, sealing up tight even in the toughest and most complicated building cavities.

At about the same time, the NAHB Research Center was developing an installation quality program for fiberglass batt insulation, notoriously difficult to get installed right. I scoffed; we would never need that for these foam-in-place systems!

Twenty-plus years later, it’s clear how wrong I was. What looked as easy as point-and-shoot with the foam gun has a lot of complexity. As insulation consultant Henri Fennell recently said to me, “Properly installing site foam insulation is way more challenging than fiberglass batts. It’s partly because performance expectations are high and partly because you are actually manufacturing onsite.”

Fennell has been injecting and spraying polyurethane foam insulation for more than 40 years. I recently got the chance to spend quite a bit of time with him at the Energy Center of Wisconsin’s Better Buildings, Better Business conference. Here are Fennell’s seven top tips for ensuring that manufactured foam insulation jobs—both injection and spray—get done right.

Tip #1: Understand the two systems

Part of getting site-manufactured foam right is understanding how injection and spray foam differ. Many of us have gained some exposure to the point-and-shoot method of applying spray foam, but foam injection also has a big place in the industry.

The striking rotunda of the Frank Lloyd Wright Guggenheim museum in New York City places all of the art in concave exhibition niches on the exterior of the building. The sloped floor and wall junction created a void and thermal bridge at this junction, which led to moisture and discoloration problems on the interior. Photo: Mr. Littlehand. License: CC BY 2.0.As Fennell explains, the level of expansion for the two is identical, but the rate of expansion is different, as injection foam must expand slowly in order to reduce pressure (too much pressure can blow out wall cavities). Spray foam sets up in seconds, injection foam in minutes,” he explains, with the expansion rate controlled by the amount and blend of catalysts in the mix.

He adds, “While most of us may be more familiar with—and therefore more ‘comfortable’ with—spray foam, foam injection has its place, particularly in retrofit. In fact, temperature, pressure, and personal protection requirements are all easier with injection than spray foam systems.”

Tip #2: Get the ratio right

Two-part spray- and injection-foam formulations require the right ratio of the “A” and “B” components for a proper chemical reaction to occur and thus for the insulation to be of good quality.

“Being off-ratio can result in poor foam quality and also toxicity issues,” notes Fennell. “This is a complex chemical process happening in the field, which requires care and full-time quality-assurance capabilities.”

There are a lot of variables that can affect the ratio and the mix—all of which can be addressed with the right equipment. For about $5,000 to $10,000, foam rigs can be outfitted with a “fault-interruption ratio” (when the mix goes off ratio, the rig shuts down) and a temperature monitor and will also produce printouts as proof of proper ratio.

Tip #3 (Spray foam only): Watch your lift thickness

A lift is a single layer of foam, sprayed in one pass. Each spray-foam product should be installed at the specific lift thickness recommended by the manufacturer. One manufacturer allows for as much as 6 inches, but most recommend or require lifts no greater than 1.5 to 2 inches.

Infrared-guided foam injection proved to be a relatively easy and effective fix to the problem. Images: Henri FennellIn closed-cell spray-foam installations, if the lift is too thick, the heat generated by the chemical reaction that forms the foam can result in chemical decomposition or even ignition. “Manufacturers call this either ‘burn-out’ or ‘charring’,” says Fennell (see Massachusetts Fires Tied to Spray Foam Incite Debate).

With open-cell spray foams, there are typically no heat-of-reaction issues, but the expansion rate (about 100:1 compared to about 30:1 in closed-cell spray foam) can result in the formation of large voids in certain types of open-cell foam, affecting the material’s R-value.

“Controlling lift thickness in the field is a relatively simple matter, only requiring patience and attention to sequencing,” says Fennell.

That doesn’t hold true, however, in tricky spots the spray nozzle can’t reach well, like rim joists and outside corners. “It can be difficult, if not impossible, to follow manufacturer lift-thickness requirements for spray foam formulations in these locations,” relates Fennell, who recommends a couple of approaches: start the job with an injection mix to hit the tough spots first, and then purge to switch over and spray-foam the rest—or carry small injection-foam kits for convenience.

Tip #4: Get the substrate right

The temperature of the substrate is a big deal in winter installations; really cold substrates can pull enough heat out of the reaction that the spray foam does not expand properly or bond to the substrate adequately. Substrates that are too hot can also cause quality issues. Manufacturers provide high and low temperature limits for each product formulation.

Installers either need to match substrate requirements (such as moisture content or temperature) to the conditions as they occur, or modify the environment before installing. “We routinely used concrete curing blankets to insulate when we installed foam when cold-weather conditions required this approach,” says Fennell.

Some substrate materials can present challenges of their own, including bond-break materials like polyethylene sheeting. The high moisture content of wet framing and sheathing materials and pressure-treated lumber can also prevent bonding. “Each of these situations requires experience and often pre-installation pull-testing to get the installation correct,” cautions Fennell. “Allowing time to dry out the building, or for it to dry naturally, may be called for; plan ahead.”

Tip #5: Honor “wait” time, even when you don’t want to

“With each lift, think of the previous lift as the new substrate,” says Fennell.

This is because of heat and pressure. He explains that with spray foam, you’re waiting for the previous lift to cool enough, while with injection foam, you’re waiting for the previous layer to finish expanding.

In this way, patience translates to quality, but it’s easy to see how more time on the job could make proper installation more expensive.

Tip #6: Match the foam product to the application

Matching the properties of the foam product to the application is a big part of quality installations.

“It’s all about the chemical clock,” says Fennell. “A slow-rise injection foam reduces the pressure; a fast spray-foam system sticks to the substrate, even overhead. If you are injecting foam in a 6-inch, 100-foot conduit under a roadway, you will pick a different product and installation procedure than you would for an open framing cavity.”

Tip #7: Assure quality in the field

This mobile spray rig is setup in a box truck and looks more like a lab than a piece of jobsite equipment. Set up this way, the box can be climatized as needed. Note the setup includes ratio, usage, and temperature monitor with auto shut-off. Photo: Henri FennellFennell no longer does spray-foam installations as a contractor; instead he keeps busy advising owners, contractors, and trades on proper injection- and spray-foam installations.

Fennell uses a system of project-specific submittals and onsite quality-assurance methods to deliver good results, he says. “I have a suite of about a dozen or so submittals that I draw from for each foam project,” including product warranties, installation requirements, and safety data sheets, states Fennell (see Safety Sheets Getting New Format—And Some New Data). “My set of quality-assurance protocols is used during field applications to assure that the manufacturers’ recommendations are met throughout the course of the work.”

Is there an easier way?

Getting all this right may seem formidable, but consider the alternative: Fennell spends quite a bit of time remediating problem spray-foam installations on projects that do not use full documentation, comprehensive quality management, and fault-interruption ratio and temperature monitors.

This adhesion test is quality control assessing the bond between the installed foam and the substrate. Adhesion tests like this can be done prior to the installation as part of project assessment and done during or after job completion as. Photo: American Air Barrier AssociationThe foam-in-place industry has enjoyed tremendous gains as building projects and consumers have seen the versatility and performance of its products, but there could be plenty of bumps in the road if the industry—possibly in coordination with federal agencies like OSHA or the EPA—doesn’t take the lead on installation quality.

2014-08-18 n/a 19367 The Cover Image That Set Off a Firestorm

The divide between the worlds of design and sustainability is persistent, but returning to core values can bridge it.

By Nadav Malin

For me, the creative tension between beauty and green performance came to a head in 2006, when I began working with the staff of Architectural Record on their new magazine: GreenSource. (GreenSource is no longer a separate magazine; it’s now an insert in the products magazine SNAP. And I’m no longer involved with it.)

Pictures first

As GreenSource’s executive editor, I was the “technical guy” who could help make sure that we’re talking about sustainability topics in a meaningful and defensible way. I learned a tremendous amount from that team, beginning with the power of using images to tell a story. I had always been a words-and-data kind of guy, so when I saw how they developed a story by leading with the visuals, it really blew my mind. That was quite a shift from the early years of Environmental Building News, when we tended to write an article first, and illustrating it was sometimes just an afterthought.

At GreenSource it went more like this: Here’s the topic, here are the images, here’s how they’ll flow, and, oh, ok, looks like we can fit in about 800 words of copy, so that’s what you get to write.

Beauty or performance?

We spent a lot of time selecting the case studies for each issue. As you can imagine, the conversations typically involved two narrow perspectives. They would suggest projects that would look good on the page. I would suggest projects that had good performance data. We’d haggle back and forth, until we had a set of projects that we were all happy with—or at least that we could all live with.

One of the most interesting of those debates was about this building—Jeanne Gang’s Aqua tower in Chicago. As you can see, it’s quite compelling visually. The Architectural Record folks really wanted us to cover it.

I had some concerns—it doesn’t look particularly energy efficient, and the designers couldn’t get us energy use data—not even predicted energy use. That had me squirming quite a bit.

But there was a broader sustainability story here, about connection of occupants to the outdoors, an enormous green roof in Chicago, redeveloping a brownfield site. Finally, I gave in and agreed that we could include it. “Just don’t put it on the cover,” I said…

Balconies as radiator fins

Having this project on the cover touched off some interesting conversations. The choice was justifiably attacked in online forums such as the Society of Building Science Educators, as well as on the GreenSource website. Anyone with an engineering mindset doesn’t see beautiful, biophillic forms in those curvaceous balconies: they see radiator fins releasing heat into the cold Chicago air. And no, there are no thermal breaks separating the balconies from the interior slabs; products that could do that do exist, but using them was deemed too expensive.

I love how this example illustrates how our understanding of an object’s performance affects our perception and colors our aesthetic choices.

Bridging the beauty–sustainability gap

I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently to facilitate great conversations on how to bridge the divide in the design world between beauty and sustainability. In March, I helped Interface organize and host a two-day workshop that brought together design leaders and sustainability leaders from 20 architecture firms to explore this question. The conversations there were framed by Lance Hosey of RTKL, who shared ideas from his book The Shape of Green, and Bob Harris of Lake|Flato.

The second opportunity was at this year’s Living Future (un)Conference in Portland, Oregon, where I organized a session on the topic with Julie Hiromoto of SOM. Participating with us as panelists were Joann Gonchar of Architectural Record and Susan Szenasy of Metropolis. These comments were first presented during that session.

3 lessons from the field

From the wide-ranging and thoughtful conversations that happened in both these settings, I see a few key opportunities:

  1. Beauty is more than skin deep, and not just a visual thing. As Paula Melton describes so well in “Green is Beautiful,” once we expand our understanding of beauty to include all the ways in which occupants—and others—experience a building, there is much less separation between beauty and sustainable performance. In fact, as Amelia Amon of Alt.Technica explains, beauty is a core aspect of performance.
  2. Most designers care about sustainability. When they fail to integrate it into their designs, it’s usually because they lack the know-how and confidence to do it well. They need better tools to support their efforts in this regard.
  3. One way to improve outcomes all around is to improve collaboration throughout the design and construction process. That collaboration has to start with an exploration of values and move into accountability for goals that are derived, collectively by the whole team, from those values.
2014-06-09 n/a 18968 When Drying Out Buildings, Do You Worry About Mold or Trolls?

A recently approved U.S. patent for drying out building spaces defies common sense and could squeeze builders whose only “sin” is dehumidification.

I love reading Lew Harriman’s stuff; he is a good writer and building scientist. Take, for example, Preventing Mold by Keeping New Construction Dry. It’s a straightforward yet compelling presentation of biology and building science, mold and building materials, and how to dry out new buildings.

The process won’t surprise you: isolate the space to be dried; take moisture readings throughout the drying process; and use mechanical equipment such as dehumidifiers and air movers to accomplish the drying.

Who owns moisture measurement and convection?

So here is the surprise: I read this Harriman piece because it was cited in US Patent 8,567,688 B2. On October 29, 2013, after nearly 10 years of review, “Moisture Reduction and Mold and Moisture Preventative System and Method in Construction” was granted, based on the following claims, which I’ve paraphrased. (In patent law, the “claims” define the protection of the patent. The claims in this case appear surprisingly lacking in any technical terms.)

  1. The patent is for a process to prevent mold, mildew, or structural damage, made up of these steps: measure moisture content with a moisture meter; determine need and extent of drying based on a moisture content threshold; run at least one drying device; and substantially seal off the space to be dried.
  2. Use moisture content readings, in relationship to the threshold, to decide if drying should be continued or ended.

Can common-sense steps like these really be patented?

Cease and desist the drying!

If that’s hard to believe, an apparent shell corporation called Savannah IP (it incorporated in Oregon on Dec. 16, 2013, a few weeks after the patent was approved) is now serving builders in the Pacific Northwest with Notices of potential patent infringement, letting them know that for just $150 per house, the builders can license its patented drying process.

One might call Savannah IP a patent troll: a person or company that enforces patents against infringers, attempting to collect licensing fees when in fact the person or company (the troll) does not produce the patented item or provide the patented service. Apparently, trolling has long hours: I tried to reach Savannah IP by phone to discuss the patent and their attempts to enforce it, but I have not heard back.

 “A weak defendant”

If this continues, someone is going to call someone’s bluff. Much of this post is based on what I have learned from my longtime friend Hal Bohner, who happens to be a patent attorney.

“Sometimes a patent owner might sue a small entity first before taking on the big guys,” says Bohner. “In this way, he hopes to get a settlement or a court judgment against a weak defendant, and he can then brandish the settlement or judgment against stronger entities. The patent owner might also need to build up his war chest in order to be able to fund the bigger legal battles.”

Should builders go on the attack?

To prevent this sort of misfortune, it is also possible that some entity seeks a “declaratory relief” legal action. Bohner continues: “In this case, an entity who had received a demand letter from Savannah IP [or an organization representing that entity, say a trade association representing a Pacific Northwest builder], would bring a lawsuit against Savannah before Savannah sues anyone. The declaratory relief action would ask the court for a determination that the patent is invalid.”

Another option is for someone to request that the U.S. patent office re-examine the patent.

It’s worth noting that in this specific case, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has reached out to members that might be targeted by Savannah IP and offered general legal information. A recent NAHB press release also supports legislative change to curb patent trolling.

Maybe the big guns will fire first

I wouldn’t be surprised if a big gun in the business of drying out buildings (such as Polygon—formerly a Munters division—or ServPro) decides to step in and attempt to shut this right down.

The key is any of these actions will cost someone money, possibly quite a bit of it: Savannah spending legal money to make money off the patent; builders or a trade association spending legal money to prevent the loss of money. The long and short of this process is likely to be quite ugly and will ultimately cost homebuyers money.

But what did you expect when mold and trolls are involved?

Hal Bohner, true to form, asked me to finish this sad story with a heartening one: “Take a look at the 2013 Patents for Humanity Award recipients,” he asks.


2014-04-21 n/a 18960 GreenSpec Introduces Faster, Deeper Search

BuildingGreen is bringing its members changes to the industry-leading GreenSpec tool, making it easier on the eyes and faster to find products.

On April 19, BuildingGreen, Inc. rolled out a new GreenSpec tool to its members that has a new design and makes it easier and faster to quickly find greenest-of-the-green products for your project.

Things you love that we didn’t change

GreenSpec will continue to be offered to BuildingGreen members as an integral part of our website. Here are some other things about it that aren’t changing:

  • More than 2,600 product listings (with more added every day, and outdated or sub-par products weeded out) from more than 1,900 manufacturers.
  • Listings screened to the highest achievable benchmark in every key building product category—from windows to insulation, from paints to toilets, from flooring to ICFs.
  • We tell you why a product is green with our Green Attributes and measurable criteria.

What’s new and improved

Now for what we’ve improved on.

  • Powerful search function lets you drill down through the entire product database.
  • Use either Masterformat 2004 section or homebuilder categories to organize your search.
  • Filter by products that contribute to key LEED 2009 credits (LEED v4 coming soon).
  • Use faceted search to add or remove terms to widen or narrow your search and get the most relevant selection of products for you. (You’re probably familiar with this kind of search from shopping with major Internet retailers.)
  • Zoom into specific product information (including Declare and HPD information) or zoom back out to the product-category level for an overview with a single click.

More to come

This change includes a new look for GreenSpec and marks our shift over to a new platform. We’ve been running it in beta for more than two years, so you may have already experienced it—and we’ve had a chance to work out the kinks.

Now that we’re on this new platform, we have a lot more in store, so stay tuned—and let us know how we can serve you better by contacting us or by commenting below. And of course—go and use the tool!

2014-04-18 n/a 18461 Testing Pressure-Sensitive Tapes: Rounds Two and Three

Tension and pressure, tears and creeps. The Wingnut Test Facility (WTF) gets dope-slapped in our latest round of experiments.

Peter and Dave put tapes to the test at Building Energy 2014.
Photo Credit: Walter Pearce

NOTE: Want to get into more sticky business like this? Read the whole blog series!

The Wingnut Test Facility, or WTF, conducting new PSA tape testing in preparation for the NESEA BE14 Demonstration Stages, learned how half a dozen or so tapes are performing on half a dozen different substrates. We also learned, to our surprise, that pressure, or “bellowing,” may not be as important a factor as the wing nuts first thought. (For background on WTF and its prior tape tests, see “Shocking Truth About Tapes Emerges from Wingnut Test Facility!”, and to find GreenSpec listed tapes, see Flexible Flashing.)

Dave Gauthier and I decided two things at the end of our last round of testing:

  • We needed a more-realistic, longer-term, “straight-pull” tension test.
  • We needed a test that reflected the “bellowing” pressures that tapes see in real installations, driven by wind events.

Round Two: ASTM D3654 – Method A

More than one PSA tape test manufacturer told us that ASTM D3654 - Method A was the best tension test to use.

This testing rig permits room-temperature shear tests. This testing rig permits room-temperature shear tests.
Photo Credit: Chemsultants

We tested about a half dozen tapes on about the same number of substrates under two application conditions: warm-dry and cold-damp. After application (none of which used any primer, by the way), all testing was done outdoors, with the testing sheltered from wind and UV but exposed to outdoor temperatures and relative humidity. We started this round of testing on December 2, 2013 (and it will continue for at least one year to move the tests through a full range of outdoor exposure). Our selection of tapes and substrates was driven in no small part by what products and applications our SEON high-performance building guild wanted to see us test.

It’s now been more than 90 days, and we have results we are willing to share (download the Excel spreadsheet). The spreadsheet results are set up by key days—1, 3, 7, 21, 45, and 90. There are a LOT of results, and they can be pretty dense, so here is a summary.

Caption: Peter Yost loading the tests after the tapes have been applied to the substrates with the same number and intensity of passes with a stiff plastic “squeegee.”Peter Yost loading the tests after the tapes have been applied to the substrates with the same number and intensity of passes with a stiff plastic “squeegee.”
Photo Credit: Peter Yost
  • We have not (yet) seen much of a pattern favoring warm-dry application of tapes to substrates; at day 90 days, there were an equal number of tape failures for each condition. That’s a bit of a surprise, frankly.
  • Quite a few tapes on rough OSB let go within the first week.
  • A broad range of tapes are performing well on rigid insulation: XPS and foil-faced polyiso.
  • Some tapes have expressed “creep;” the 1 kilogram weight is enough of a load to cause the entire tape to slip down from its original 3-inch contact area with the substrate.
  • The “solid” acrylic tapes (Pro Clima and Siga) are performing well regardless of conditions and substrates. (These are tapes we recommend in GreenSpec.)
  • The two butyl tapes (Pella and FlexWrap) have struggled with the wood substrates and are giving mixed results so far on the two rigid insulations.
  • Vycor (modified bitumen) performed poorly on wood substrates but has performed well to date, regardless of conditions, on the XPS and foil facing

Round Two Caveats & Test Changes

Dave and I feel we made some mistakes in this round of testing.

Note how the single wire puncture in each of these three tests has resulted in tape tears.Note how the single wire puncture in each of these three tests has resulted in tape tears.
Photo Credit: Peter Yost
  • While we chose a full kilogram to “force” differences among the tapes, it does seem to be a bit of an overload, especially for tapes designed to give or stretch.
  • Hanging the weights by way of a wire puncturing the tape has resulted in tape tear failures that, while interesting in and of themselves, mean that we lost the opportunity to compare those tape adhesives (all four tape tears were Pella and Tyvek tapes).
  • We used a Siga tape supplied by one of our SEON builders that turned out to be an interior tape. Oops.
  • Our SEON builders and architects really wanted to see popular tapes, such as Tyvek and ZIP, tested on a wide variety of substrates, not just the ones for which they were designed.

In February 2014, WTF started a new round of “ASTM D3654 – Method A-like” testing. We’re going to look at Pella, OC FlashSeal IR, Tyvek, Siga Wigluv, and ZIP tapes on four substrates: rough OSB, Tyvek housewrap, XPS, and foil-faced polyiso (Our SEON builders and architects really wanted to see popular tapes, such as Tyvek and ZIP, tested on a wide variety of substrates, not just the ones for which they were designed). Fixing our mistake with the weights, we’re coming down to one-pound weights, and a new clip attachment that won’t produce the same stress. We're testing with cold-damp application and damp-warm tempering.

NOTE: It may look as though we are missing the Pro Clima Tescon Vana and some other high-performing tapes/substrates with this new round of testing, but the “older” test lives on, and these tapes just don’t seem to mind the puncture-loading and greater weight.

Stay tuned for end-of-summer results on this new testing.

Round Three: “Bellowing” and the WTF Pressure Pig

In addition to temperature and moisture-content changes that can stress the tapes and their adhesive bonds to substrates, wind can make elements of any exterior barrier system—like sheet goods and tapes—bellow back and forth with positive and negative pressure cycling.

Dave and I wanted to make some sort of WTF rig to simulate this sort of tape stress. So one of Dave’s more creative guys at his SIP plant made up the WTF Pressure Pig.

The first version of the WTF Pressure Pig was rigged for connection to a pretty standard shop compressor and pressure gauge reading up to 150 psi. Photo credit: Peter Yost.

We took a piece of OSB as the substrate, kerfed out a strong eighth-inch slot, and then adhered a piece of PSA tape.

Then we added pressure to the nozzle and read the pressure as the tape bulged and eventually—at about 3 pounds per square inch (PSI)—peeled and leaked air. We scratched our heads and wondered what relationship 3 psi had to the pressures a building enclosure might see.

Holy Smokes did we get dope-slapped!

1.0 pounds per square inch (psi) = 6984.7 pascals (Pa)

Three psi is what you might expect a building to experience at ground-zero in an F4 tornado or a Category 5 hurricane. PSA tape failure at that point is not the central problem…

So, we decided that modifying the WTF Pressure Pig to exert pressure somewhere in the range of a blower door test (50 Pascals) or an air barrier test (75 Pa) made a ton more sense. Dave cleverly rigged up an air mattress pump to the Pressure Pig, and we switched out the 120 psi capacity pressure gauge for an Energy Conservatory digital pressure gauge (maximum capacity of 2,000 Pa). And when Dave re-piped the Pressure Pig, he had the air flow set perpendicular to the pressure inlet so that varying the bleed valve moved the pressure from positive to negative—voila, bellowing (based on the Bernoulli principle).

You can just see the PSA tape bulging right of the “slit” in the OSB with a pressure loading in the 2 – 3 psi range. Photo Credit: Peter Yost

Time for dope-slap number two: at even just ±100 or so Pa, ANY tape on ANY substrate is barely stressed at all, at least that we could observe with a series of 10 pressure cycles or bellowing events. What does this mean for Round Three testing?

With the lever valve almost all the way open, the air mattress pump is creating a negative 76 Pa suction on the PSA tape on the plywood, about the same pressure (75 Pa) used in testing air barrier materials. Photo credit: Peter YostWe think it means one of two things: either we really don’t need to worry about the stress bellowing places under real conditions on real buildings, or, we need to set the WTF Pressure Pig to cycle many hundreds of times over the course of a MUCH longer time frame, OUTDOORS, to reveal the real nature of the stress and possibly differentiate tape performance in this way. Looks as though we will be hitting up WTF research underwriters real soon, either Coke or Pepsi or actual building product manufacturers who make tapes and substrates.

2014-04-02 n/a 18282 When Weatherizing Increases Radon

Air sealing and other energy retrofits in our homes can raise or lower radon levels. The only way to know is to test.

This blog post first appeared on

We are always trying to avoid unintended consequences of our best efforts to improve home performance. A good example of this is radon gas and air tightness levels in homes during energy retrofits. How are the two levels related, and what can we do about it?

Airtightness and radon levels

There are five main factors that drive radon levels in homes:

  • radon concentrations in soil gas around the home
  • the pressure difference between the inside of the home and the soil around it
  • the air-exchange rate of the home
  • the moisture content of soil around the home (more moisture means less radon gas movement)
  • entry pathways, their number and size

When you make a home more airtight, the good news is that you could be reducing the entry pathways and reducing the pressure differential between the soil and home. The bad news is that you are also significantly reducing the air exchange rate in the home. So, what really happens?

The short answer is: it depends.

One study (“Assessment of the Effects of Weatherization on Residential Radon Levels” EPA600//SR-94/002) showed inconsistent relationships between airtightness and radon levels. In my own home, air sealing and insulating throughout the home increased radon levels in the basement significantly, but purposeful pressure management has kept living-space radon readings consistently below 3 picocuries per liter (pCi/L).

Research was conducted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the Energy Center of Wisconsin (ECW) on this topic in 2011, but results are not yet available. In general, if you look at the list of the five factors above and figure that energy-efficiency upgrades affect three of the five, it is not surprising that the impact on radon levels of energy upgrades may be very case-specific.

Measuring Radon Levels

Quite often you will hear that radon tests in individual homes are unnecessary because EPA radon zone maps show low levels of radon, or neighbors report low levels from testing in their own homes. Unfortunately, neither the county-level zone maps nor surrounding homes’ radon levels say much about individual homes and their radon levels.

So, with all this uncertainty, and maybe really because of it, we should be measuring radon levels in homes in which we are improving energy efficiency. You just have to test.

There are quite a few options for testing radon in homes. I like to break them down into three groups: short-term, long-term, and continuous.

  • Short-term testing is typically 2 to 7 days with either activated charcoal-based or electret ion detectors. These are relatively inexpensive tests that you can generally get at a hardware store. The advantage of this test type is that you get quick results.
  • Long-term tests tend to be 3 to12 months and are based on alpha particle tracking. Many states supply this type of test kit to homeowners. The disadvantage with this type of test is that you have to wait a long time for results.
  • Continuous electronic monitors tend to work through an ionization chamber, with readouts that give you a running average.

In general, these radon tests are pretty accurate, with least confidence in the short-term testing because radon levels can vary pretty widely over time. I have run all three types of radon tests in my own home, and I have generally found quite reasonable agreement.

Radon mitigation techniques

Radon mitigation relies on two primary approaches: depressurization under the basement or first-floor slab, or dilution. There is a great EPA table listing radon mitigation techniques, installation costs, and operating costs. In new homes, installing a passive or active system that depressurizes the slab is only about $350; but just about any of the techniques in existing homes can run into thousands of dollars.

Radon and Real Estate

This is tricky. Most states and the EPA protocol do not require radon tests as part of real estate transactions but do require notification to potential buyers if testing has been done previously. Bit of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; except that EPA has a fairly aggressive education/dissemination program to encourage radon resolution as part of real estate transactions. See the EPA “Home Buyers and Sellers Guide to Radon.”


It is certainly tempting to avoid this whole issue in the long list of tangled and vexing interactions we need to consider in green buildings.

But in the long run, do enough research and testing to eliminate the concern—or test after your work to determine what might need to be done. Most people would not think of skipping the worst-case CAZ test (which measures gas leaks and carbon monoxide from combustion appliances) because they were afraid of the cost implications of combustion safety. Think of radon testing in the same way.

2014-02-24 n/a 18257 Insulated Vinyl Siding: Worth the Extra Cost?

Two studies indicate some benefits to using insulated vinyl siding, but more data is needed to win over this skeptic.

Setting aside the overall environmental profile of the oft-demonized PVC (check our coverage in this month’s EBN feature “The PVC Debate: A Fresh Look”), I’ve been getting a lot of questions about insulated vinyl siding—the vinyl siding with form-fitted expanded polystyrene (EPS) insulation permanently built into the back side of the double-four courses of vinyl siding.

Thanks to claims being made by the Vinyl Siding Institute and specific manufacturers, I’ve been hearing questions like these:

  • Does the EPS act as a significant thermal break, since it is continuous on the exterior of the building’s frame and sheathing?
  • Does insulated vinyl siding make a building more airtight?
  • What impact does the EPS have on the moisture performance of conventional, wood-framed exterior walls?

Intuition vs. numbers

It’s pretty easy as a building-science wonk to dismiss this product: the added R-value of EPS is R-2 to R-2.7.

Also,the long strips of EPS are only step-jointed, and therefore not airtight. And eliminating or significantly reducing the free-draining and ventilating space—which are touted as so important to the moisture performance of conventional vinyl siding—is certainly a significant moisture-management change.

Fortunately, we don’t need to rely entirely on speculation. Two recent field studies include evaluation of the hygrothermal performance of insulated vinyl siding:

Increased R-value

The industry study focused on thermal performance: increased exterior wall R-value, decreased thermal bridging, and increased airtightness. The study evaluated five different products from a range of manufacturers installed on five single-family detached homes, in five cities spanning three climate zones.

Standardized testing showed a range of increased R-value from 2.0 to 2.7; modest reductions in thermal bridging (as qualitatively assessed from thermal imaging); average increase in building airtightness of 11%; and utility bill savings ranging from 1% in Indiana to 11% in Colorado.

Conclusion? Insulated vinyl siding provided measurable but quite modest improvements in the thermal performance of these retrofitted existing homes.

Next time around, I’d like the Vinyl Siding Institute to measure airtightness under both pressurization and depressurization. (I checked with Newport Ventures, and airtightness testing was only under depressurization.) It would be interesting to see if pushing the insulated vinyl siding out and off the wall assembly (during pressurization) would generate different airtightness results than pulling it in (during depressurization). Both pressurization and depressurization are relevant to air leakage in real-world buildings.

Improved drying capacity

The NAHB Research Center study was a 22-month field investigation in Maryland (mixed-humid climate) comparing structural sheathing moisture content of multiple conventional wall assemblies that had wall claddings ranging from brick to stucco to conventional and insulated vinyl siding. The study included water injection testing (in August) at or near the structural sheathing layer. The water injection was designed to simulate leaking that might accompany a multi-day storm.

Both the insulated and conventional vinyl siding showed among the best drying capacities. The insulated vinyl siding performed the best (lowest structural sheathing moisture content) when there was no wetting event, and the conventional vinyl siding performed the best after the water injection testing. The slightly better drying capacity of the insulated vinyl siding was attributed to the warming of the insulated wall cavity by the siding insulation.

Conclusion? The introduction of the form-fitting insulation to the vinyl siding did not significantly reduce the drying potential of the vinyl siding in this field study.

Reasons are elusive

I have to admit to being quite surprised at the superior drying ability of the insulated vinyl siding; I would think that filling most of the free-draining space of conventional vinyl siding with form-fitted EPS insulation would significantly reduce both free drainage and convective drying between the vinyl siding and the rest of the wall.

It’s quite possible that the specific conditions of this field test—including the mild climate—explain some portion of the results; it would be great to test this supposition with field-testing in harsher climates and different wall configurations, varying more than just the exterior claddings.

What do customers think?

Enough building science; what is the demand for this unique product in the marketplace?

I asked Brian Knowles, project consultant with a Vermont company that installs quite a bit of vinyl siding, Jancewicz & Son, what he thought of the insulated vinyl siding products.

“The studies confirmed what my general sense of the insulated vinyl siding was,” says Brian. “The modest improvement in thermal performance is less of a selling point than the improved stiffness and sense of robustness that the insulated vinyl siding provides.”

Based on Brian’s estimates, the cost premium is significant: the insulated version of a colonial white siding, compared with the conventional product from the same manufacturer “carries a 50% cost increase” just for siding materials, he said. “The trim and finishing components for insulated siding are also at a premium and should be considered as well,” Brian adds. “However, the increases are much smaller,” up to 20%.


Editor’s Note

While the issues Pete has focused on here are about the hygrothermal performance of insulated vinyl siding, he and the rest of our GreenSpec editorial team took a more holistic view when deciding whether to list insulated vinyl siding.

We don’t list vinyl siding due to life-cycle concerns, so if we add the performance benefits of the EPS, are those issues overcome?

We’ll look for more data on an ongoing basis, but we are not currently listing this type of cladding. Our team is simply too concerned about the many health and environmental problems associated with PVC.

EPS also has its own problems—such as its use of flame retardants—and we’re not seeing enough evidence that insulated vinyl siding provides benefits that clearly overcome these problems. And speaking of performance benefits, if people are replacing a home’s cladding and choosing an insulated product, we think it makes more sense to consider a deep energy retrofit that would provide much greater R-value and airtightness than this product can offer.


2014-02-20 n/a 18252 4 Resources Help Draw the Shades on Poor Window Performance

Predicting performance and rationally selecting window coverings—from awnings to films to cellular shades—is incredibly challenging, but real help is on the way.

Photo: Paul Sable. License: CC BY 2.0.There is a lot of interest in just how much (and at how low a price point) window coverings can improve building thermal performance.

Both the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been working on this issue; electric utilities would like to know how window coverings can fit into their efficiency programs; and both building professionals and consumers need objective guidance on how to compare window coverings—to each other and to window replacement.

Where does our industry stand on assessing thermal performance of window attachments, or coverings? There are four new or emerging resources that paint a more complete picture.

For the last several years, BuildingGreen has been working with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) on evaluating window coverings and their role in energy savings (as documented in our EBN feature article “Making Windows Work Better”). This effort was financially supported by DOE and was driven in no small part by a dedicated group of about 15 industry professionals in a project Advisory Committee.

Similar to the Efficient Windows Collaborative website, the centerpiece of the Efficient Window Coverings website is a selection tool. The main difference between the two selection tools is complexity.

Selecting windows is far from simple, but the number of attributes evaluated is relatively small and is exactly the same from window to window. Evaluating and selecting window coverings is complicated by the wide range of coverings—interior/exterior, adjustable/fixed, fabric/plastic/wood/metal—and the numerous functions the window coverings can serve or feature, as well as the choice of window over which coverings are installed.

The Efficient Window Coverings website selection tool currently covers 19 types of coverings and includes 18 distinct attributes.

Some of the attributes are assessed qualitatively (such as view, privacy, ease of egress), but others—like thermal performance, including insulation, airtightness, and solar heat control—will move from qualitative to quantitative assessment.

For some classes of products (such as venetian blinds, vertical louvered blinds, roller shades, solar screens, cellular shades, window films, interior and “storm windows,” and awnings), modeling programs like EnergyPlus and WINDOW have the capability of accurately predicting solar-optical, thermal and energy performance. However, for several other classes of products (such as pleated shades, drapes, Roman shades, roller shutters, louvered shutters, etc.), this capability is still under development. That leads us to the next new resource on evaluating window coverings.

Energy Savings from Window Attachments

LBNL recently completed a major modeling study: “Energy Savings from Window Attachments.” The study evaluated the thermal and optical performance of eleven window attachments for twelve cities, four residential building types, two HVAC systems, and three baseline window types.

Simulations began with the use of WINDOW and THERM for calculating thermal and optical performance of baseline windows with coverings, and then these results were pulled into EnergyPlus for modeling at the whole-building level. All of this required years of development work to bring the often thermally and optically complex window coverings into modeling capability.

Given all of the variables in this modeling study, it is not surprising that the results are quite varied and complicated. Here are some generalizations:

  • In northern and central climates (where heating energy is greater than cooling energy), interior window panels, exterior storms, and cellular shades save the most energy.
  • Combined critical design parameters of window attachments (designated “A” through “D” in this modeling study) were developed because of variability of design parameters between window attachment types and even within any one attachment type. These parameters were emissivity, reflectance, transmittance, and deployment (position for adjustable or operable attachments).
  • In southern climates, not surprisingly, the combined design parameter “A” (low emissivity, high reflectance, low transmittance) provided the greatest energy savings.
  • What is a bit surprising is that interior window panels and exterior storms maintained good energy savings in southern climates, with all exterior shading devices (solar screens, awnings) also doing well.
  • Deployment had a huge impact on results for operable/adjustable attachments.

This last generalization is completely expected, but how did the LBNL modeling study address the sticky issue of just how occupants use adjustable window attachments? That leads to the next new resource on efficient window coverings.

Residential Windows and Window Coverings: A Detailed View of the Installed Base and User Behavior

The LBNL modeling study of window attachment energy performance used the results of this DOE-sponsored window attachment market and user behavior study conducted by D&R International. Two very compelling results of this study are:

  • Inexpensive horizontal blinds are by far the most common window attachment (62% of installations).
  • While dependent on time of year and day, adjustable window attachments simply don’t get adjusted very much; they tend to stay up if they are up and stay down if they are down. 75%–84% of window coverings remain in the same position during the day, and 56%–71% of households don’t adjust coverings on a daily basis.

This study has big implications for energy savings:

  • Poorly performing, inexpensive horizontal blinds can be replaced for significant energy savings.
  • Assumptions made about user behavior of adjustable window attachments, or opportunities to improve energy savings by users more optimally adjusting their window attachments, can significantly affect the energy savings window coverings represent.

And while automation of window coverings was not a part of either study, it is easy to see that automation will have a big impact on energy savings of adjustable window coverings (and price, of course).

Has all this work on assessing window attachment performance really helped folks select the right window covering? Not yet, but that leads us to the latest development regarding efficient window coverings.

Certification and Rating of Attachments for Fenestration Technologies (CRAFT)

DOE has released a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for the development of CRAFT. From the FOA:

“The awardee will develop performance verification, and labeling standards for residential and commercial fenestration attachments. The successful applicant will also develop a Program to rate fenestration attachment energy performance and provide accurate and useful product comparison criteria, allowing end users in residential and commercial markets to assess the relative energy cost/benefits of fenestration attachments.”

As a part of this process, LBNL will continue its extensive modeling of window coverings to support CRAFT.

And at some point, we hope that just as the Efficient Windows website has become the main tool that the building community uses to select NFRC-rated windows, the Efficient Window Coverings website and selection tool will become the main way that building professionals select CRAFT-rated window coverings.

2014-02-15 n/a 18036 Your Picks: 10 Hottest Green Building Topics of 2013

Boora Architects is designing a 22,000 ft2 early childhood center addition for the Earl Boyles School in Portland, Oregon. Boora has switched to mineral wool as its standard insulation material for rainscreen walls like this one, in part because of toxicity concerns with foam insulation materials. Image: Boora ArchitectsCan we replace foam insulation? What does energy modeling really tell us? Find out what you, our readers, have picked as this year’s top 10 stories!

Our resident number-crunchers have spent hours slaving over metrics to bring you … your own most-read BuildingGreen stories of the year. Ta-da!

We just have to say, you guys have great taste. If you don’t see your favorite article listed here, though, tell us what it is—and why—in the comments.

And don’t forget that BuildingGreen members can collect CEUs—for LEED, AIA, and ILFI—for many of these popular articles. Just read the story, take the quiz, and we do the reporting for you.

10. On the grid, off the grid

Islandable Solar: PV for Power Outages” reveals a conundrum of grid-connected PV: it can’t be used during a power outage! Click through to learn about your three options for greater resilience (and check out #8 too).

9. Say it after me: AH-ge-pahn

Yeah, it’s spelled like “age pan,” but we swear it’s got a lot going for it, starting with German engineering (and pronunciation). Learn more about “Agepan: A Vapor-Permeable, Wood-Based Insulation Board” in our product review.

8. Awesome products!

Last month, we selected our favorite forward-looking products for 2014, and you selected our story as one of the most popular articles of the year. Our choices solve key design and environmental problems, but more importantly, Lloyd Alter called them “sexy”!

7. Taking charge of our own pee and poop

No, this isn’t about toilet training in the conventional sense, but “Waste Water, Want Water” should help any design team learn about the environmental costs and advantages of onsite wastewater treatment.

6. The future of green building

What should the state of the industry be ten years from now? We don’t know if “Three Imperatives to Create the Future of Green Building” answers that question definitively, but it certainly tries, and a lot of people clearly want to know!

5. Awesome products for LEED v4 projects!

Actually, “Finding Products for LEED v4—A Guide” doesn’t focus much on individual products, in part because manufacturers are still playing catch-up to design some that meet the stricter requirements of the latest generation of LEED. But this article is a perfect intro to the product-related details of v4, if we do say so ourselves.

4. The mismeasure of buildings?

“All models are wrong, but some are useful,” statistician G.E.P Box famously said. “Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment: Taking the Measure of a Green Building” starts with Box’s assertion and explores why architects can and should use building LCA—but shouldn’t pay much attention to the decimal places.

3. Why energy models don’t work but we should use them anyway

Speaking of wrong but useful, “Energy Modeling: Early and Often” explores why early-stage energy modeling is crucial, looks at tools for doing it, and provides expert advice about a truly integrative design process that’s improving building performance around the world.

2. Everybody must get stone

In a world where recycled plastic is the ultimate in “green,” maybe it’s time to return to the Stone Age. “Stone, the Original Green Building Material” makes the case that the environmental attributes of this natural, minimally processed material make it a perfect fit for many green buildings.

1. How we learned to stop insulating with plastic and love mineral wool

And…drum roll, please! “Can We Replace Foam Insulation?” is the year’s most popular article. Despite its high performance, foam has problems: it’s made from non-renewable resources, often has huge global warming impacts, and is almost always laden with toxic flame retardants while still being highly flammable. Leading architects shared their stories with us about their struggles—and triumphs—with reducing their use of foam insulation or even eliminating it altogether.

2013-12-19 n/a 18000 Battles Over LEED in the Military Are Still a Distraction

A recent memo hints that the Department of Defense will accept Green Globes certification for buildings—but that was already the case.

Nine out of ten news whisperers agree: this is a dog-bites-man story, not the other way around. Photo: Iamliam. License: CC BY 2.0It started with a press release from the Green Building Initiative, developer of the online Green Globes tool—“Department of Defense Recognizes Green Globes for Assessing Building Sustainability”—and it spread from there to many of our favorite blogs and green building news sites.

The press release claims, “Following the lead of the General Services Administration (GSA), the DoD recently recognized Green Globes as an approved program for DoD facilities.”

Dog bites man

There are two things wrong with this.

First of all, it isn’t news. As we reported in “4 Reasons the Battles Over LEED in the Military Are a Distraction,” DoD has always kept a loose rein on building certification systems. The Army and Navy have pursued LEED aggressively, whereas the Veterans Administration tends to prefer Green Globes. “We didn’t want to lock ourselves into one particular green rating system,” Lt. Col. Keith Welch told us back in March. The United Facilities Criteria (UFC), which is effectively the military’s own building code and was updated last spring, requires LEED Silver or equivalent. “Equivalent,” in practice, has always included Green Globes.

Second of all, DoD did not “follow the lead” of GSA in regard to green building rating systems: it is on the ad hoc committee convened by GSA to determine which systems are suitable for federal government use, and hence it was instrumental in the decision to recommend Green Globes along with LEED. The idea that DoD would not follow its own guidance in this regard, especially given its long history of accepting Green Globes, is absurd. (See “Sustainable Federal Buildings: What’s the Law?” for background on this process.)

What will change—if anything

The GBI press release was loosely based on a November 10, 2013, memo sent by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense. Among other things, the memo states that DoD branches must have an “auditable process” for sustainable building and clarifies that “the auditable process shall include green-building certification of those facilities through any of the systems approved for federal use” through the ad hoc committee process mentioned above. At this time, that includes Green Globes, but the memo doesn’t mention any systems by name.

And in all likelihood, since this has pretty much been DoD’s policy all along, very little will change. The Navy was an early developer and early adopter of LEED in the 1990s. Though it’s not impossible, there is no indication that after years of investing in LEED expertise, they will turn around and start using Green Globes instead.

The Army is likewise committed to LEED, along with ASHRAE 189.1. “Based on recent DoD analyses,” Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy and sustainability, told me in an email, “we anticipate that buildings built to the UFC will achieve at least a LEED Silver rating and probably higher, at no additional cost.” Kidd did not mention Green Globes.

Enough with the spinning

This is not the first time we’ve gotten misleading “news” on this volatile topic.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), developer of LEED, released a doozy earlier this year touting GSA’s alleged preference for LEED (right agency, wrong committee)—and after the ad hoc committee really made its recommendation of both LEED and Green Globes for federal agencies, USGBC sent media alerts claiming “LEED Green Building Program Remains Preferred Rating System for Use in Federal Buildings.”

The reality is that green building in the military goes far beyond USGBC attempts to ignore Green Globes, and beyond the alleged David-and-Goliath narrative—see this AP story that’s also making the rounds—that GBI would like us to buy into. (Despite GBI’s ties to the timber and plastics industries, the narrative features them as the David figure.)

Here’s the bottom line: most people in the military and throughout the federal government prefer LEED as a way to document sustainable design, and a few prefer Green Globes. The government’s largest building owners have been using LEED since its inception, and the Federal Guiding Principles for sustainable design were originally based on LEED.

A misleading press release, regardless of who’s responsible, cannot change history and is unlikely to change the future.


2013-12-11 n/a 17999 Biophilia in the Real World

Biophilia is supposed to be about our innate connection to nature. So where do TV windows and artificial breezes enter in?

I shoulCan you tell if this living wall is real or fake? Does it matter? Biophilia experts are reviewing the research and responding with their own ideas. Credit: Spaceo. License: CC BY 2.0. d have known I was in for something unexpected when I walked into this year’s Greenbuild session on “biophilia”—humans’ love of living things—in a dark, windowless auditorium.

The irony of the setting was not lost on the four presenters of “Biophilia; Moving from Theory to Reality.” Amanda Sturgeon, vice president of the Living Building Challenge; Margaret Montgomery, principal of NBBJ; Mary Davidge, of Mary Davidge Associates; and Bill Browning, partner at Terrapin Bright Green, joked about how they hoped the lack of daylight wouldn’t lull us into an afternoon nap as they spoke.

Humor aside, the surroundings served as a reminder of the barriers that have mostly kept biophilic design in the realm of pie-in-the-sky ideas.  Dense urban forms mean that rolling vistas and soft, clean breezes are hard to come by. As the presenters spoke, it was clear that we have not found all the answers to dealing with real-world constraints—questions linger about the use of artificial nature, for example—but new metrics are beginning to broaden the reach of biophilic principles, making these design elements more achievable for more building types.

Does technology have a place in biophilic design?

Biophilic design focuses on the human response to nature (see “Biophilia in Practice: Buildings that Connect People with Nature”), but reactions are often difficult to quantify or trace to their source. Do we like seashells because of the texture, the patterns, or the colors? Research is helping to pin these answers down and provide backing for decisions that may have design and construction costs. However, quantifying the human response to nature has also raised the question of whether technology can be used to simulate the same connection.

Browning brought up one 2010 study that found that, since sounds of traffic correlate closely with the sound of ocean waves, humans can be prompted to perceive the sounds of traffic as tranquil if they are primed by the image of a beach.A study from the University of Washington found nature scenes displayed on TVs in office settings offered some benefits, but weren’t as effective as direct views through glass windows.  Credit: The University of Washington

Another study by Peter Kahn et al., suggests that, although real nature is better than technological nature (a term Kahn uses to describe everything from wildlife television shows to robotic pets), technological nature is better than no nature. In an experiment that evaluated the stress levels of office workers with glass windows overlooking natural views compared to a group with plasma TVs displaying real-time images of a natural setting, the TVs helped the psychological well-being of the office workers—but only the group with the glass windows experienced lower heart-rates.

“Thermal and airflow variability” is the concept of introducing a little natural variation into the mechanized comfort conditions that prevail in commercial interior spaces. Passive heating, cooling, and ventilation are often touted as biophilic, but can natural variations be effectively provided mechanically?

Browning relayed being at a convention center and feeling a gust of air as if “a door had just been opened.” He later found artificial scents and automated bursts of ventilation were being used to keep people invigorated and engaged. Scents have long been used for marketing purposes so that people associate pleasant feelings with a brand (ever walk into an Abercrombie & Fitch store and almost choke?), but they are one of the least-explored aspects of how biophilic designs can reproduce the sensory experience of being in nature.

Striking a balance with metrics

If the thought of relying on artificial systems to inspire feelings of connection to nature makes you uncomfortable, you are certainly not alone. All of the presenters agreed that it is better to incorporate real nature before thinking about automated or artificial systems. But toeing the line is difficult: after all, the point is to integrate the natural with our inherently technological infrastructure, and environmental degradation continually limits our options. Consequently, the newest metrics seem to aim for inclusivity, albeit still somewhat cerebral.IslandWood, an educational center in Washington, honors the area's history of logging with this replica of a suspended saw blade. Metrics in the Living Building Challenge might recognize this as contributing biophilic design by fostering "place-based relationships". Credit: HB Lozito

The Living Building Challenge includes some expected metrics for biophilic design such as natural shapes and forms and light and space but, according to Sturgeon, also focuses on place-based relationships and “evolved human-nature relationships”. Sturgeon gave the example of IslandWood, an outdoor education center that teaches environmental stewardship but chose to embrace and commemorate the area’s logging history by suspending from the ceiling a replica of a massive saw blade. Focusing on the natural history of the place, rather than direct natural forms themselves, broadens what constitutes biophilic design.

At the request of Google, Terrapin Bright Green has also formulated a set of biophilic metrics (see “Green is Beautiful”), which consists of 14 principles categorized into three headings: nature in the space, natural analogues, and nature of the space.

Nature in the space includes some of the most basic tenets of biophilic design—dynamic and diffuse light, the presence of water, and visual connections to nature—but other elements leave much more room for interpretation. Natural analogues encompass biomorphic forms and patterns, such as natural wood finishes or spiral-like shell patterns, and nature of the space calls for areas to be designed to play off biological instincts—to feel sheltered or to inspire exploration, for example.

The takeaways

Research seems to be telling us that if we can’t have nature, then technological nature is better than nothing. But leaders in biophilic design don’t take that to mean they should blindly embrace artificiality. Instead, they have used this research to reaffirm how deeply we feel a connection to nature and have taken the hint that indirect experiences of nature offer benefits, too, responding by broadening the perception of biophilic design from literal depictions of nature to more inventive, project-specific forms.

2013-12-05 n/a 17914 3 New Ways to Learn Building Enclosure Commissioning

With the need for BECx rising, the industry is working to train designers and other specialists to do the job.

Recent BuildingGreen resources give a pretty good picture of just what building enclosure commissioning (BECx) is and how its use is on the rise in high-performance buildings. But a logical follow-up question I get asked a lot is: how can I get the necessary education to become proficient in BECx—or actually get credentialed or certified as a BECx agent or expert?

There are several questions wrapped up here, and I want to take them one at a time to keep this complex topic at least somewhat straight.

Caution sign: Construction in progress

Although there are a number of significant efforts under way on BECx, this is a relatively new field, at least in terms of standards, courses, professional exams, and credentials or designations.

All of these issues need to be addressed for different target audiences—trade professionals (in vocational education), technicians (two-year schools), and construction managers/engineers/architects (four-year university programs)—as well as different building professional designations: a building enclosure commissioning agent versus a building enclosure specialist.


One effort is the combined and integrated work of the National Institute for Buildings (NIBS), the ASTM E2813 working group, and the Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC).

NIBS is working with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on certifying the organizations that will give BECx examinations. BETEC has developed a full matrix of BECx course content. ASTM E2813 has developed minimum core competencies for fundamental and enhanced BECx service providers and intends to offer a certification for BECx field professionals.

The group is developing course materials and exams for three different “tiers” or levels of expertise: trade school, 2-year college, and 4-year academic programs for specialists. Philip Schneider of NIBS told me the credential probably won’t be available for two to five years, and he thinks that the initial focus will be on the 4-year specialist level.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professional Development for Engineers

Meanwhile, the University of Wisconsin–Madison has developed a two-day BECx professional development engineering course, including an examination and two certifications. The exam has two parts, reflecting course content and the two certifications on the commissioning process and building enclosure science. The course will be offered in late May 2014 (a course brochure is available).

Joint Committee on Building Science Education

For quite some time now, DOE’s Building America program has been trying to work with colleges and universities (particularly land grant schools) to develop coordination and integration of building science education materials and approaches to high-performance buildings.

In the latest effort, the National Consortium of Housing Research Center’s Joint Committee on Building Science Education is working with the Associated Schools of Construction to develop and amass building science education resources and minimum requirements for two and four-year schools.

This effort has a decidedly residential slant, and is not as formally focused on building enclosure commissioning, but the principles and processes have a lot of crossover with the more commercial building-focused BECx.

What is an aspiring building science professional to do?

I wish I could tell you that there was one clear course of action, educational pathways, or credentials to qualify you as a bona fide building enclosure commissioning agent or expert. But we are simply not quite there yet.

We are making significant progress, and demand for qualified BECx professionals is likely to continue to grow, but perhaps the best advice at this point is:

  • Get as much building science education as you can find.
  • Study the “mother” BECx resource—NIBS Guideline 3—from cover to cover.
  • Get out in the field to gain experience in how building science applies to the design, specification, and construction of high performance buildings.

On the first point, I want to put in a quick plug for a course we developed here at BuildingGreen: Fundamentals of High-Performance Building Assemblies. This four-unit online course provides methodologies for how best to design and manage details to achieve superior hygrothermal—moisture and thermal—performance.

2013-11-11 n/a 17809 Can A Pending Standard for LEDs Prevent Another Lighting Debacle?

LED light quality is still not very good, but a new California standard could change that, and prevent another CFL-style consumer rejection.

Cree's TW Series LED Bulb provides impressive 93 CRI light quality yet costs less than $20.
Photo Credit: Cree

LEDs provide some of the most efficacious lighting available today, with some products offering over 100 lumens per watt, or lpw—an incandescent bulb is a paltry 15 lpw. Unfortunately, as consumers know from compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which have never been fully embraced, energy efficiency can come at the cost of light quality. Unless something changes, LEDs could become the next CFL, offering energy efficiency at relatively affordable prices, but with poor color and durability and limited dimming ability.

In this month’s Environmental Building News, we look at two products, Soraa’s MR16s and Cree’s TW Series LED Bulb, that offer innovative LEDs with demonstrably superior light quality to standard products (see Soraa: New LED Technology With Improved Color Quality). These lamps, however, are an anomaly in an LED industry where light quality plays second fiddle to efficacy.

Current standards

There are now thousands of LED products available, and the number is growing by the day, as computer chip makers and other manufacturers—many with no previous lighting background—enter the LED market. Most of these LEDs have a color rendering index (CRI) of about 80: the standard set by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Energy Star for CFLs, and also the standard used for rebate programs involving LEDs. (Color rending index uses a scale from 0–100, with 95–100 similar to natural light or incandescents.)

Why 80 CRI?

The origin of the 80 CRI standard traces back to when fluorescents were first adopted for office use, according to Michael Simnovitch, energy efficiency director at the California Lighting Technology Center.

 “80 CRI is just enough color to see white, and the minimum color that is acceptable in an office space,” he told me. Yet that same standard was then applied to CFLs used in people’s homes. Eventually, “Forces were set up to drive down the cost of fluorescent technologies,” claimed Simnovitch, “and at low price points, there is not much you can do to promote color quality and longevity.”

As a result, CFLs’ green glow, flicker, and other quality problems caused a backlash that the lighting industry is still trying to manage.

“Race to the bottom”

California has invested heavily in marketing these CFLs, but this effort has resulted in less than 20% adoption, according to Simnovitch, and light quality is largely to blame. To keep history from repeating itself, some industry experts are starting to demand higher-quality light from LEDs.

“Everyone is saying that 80 CRI is OK,” said Jim Benya of Benya Lighting Design. “It isn’t. It is a very distorted light source.” He stated, “We have to get away from this race to the bottom.”

In high-end retail spaces, where sales of consumer goods require quality lighting, retailers have already shifted over to 90–95 CRI LEDs, or are still using inefficient 95–100 CRI halogen lamps. Yet people question whether the difference between 80 and 90 CRI in LED is noticeable to the consumer in the home and is worth the added cost and energy penalty.

Simnovitch responds that the real issue is whether consumers notice the difference between the 100 CRI that they are used to in an incandescent lamp and an 80 CRI LED that doesn’t have a full color spectrum; people definitely notice that difference.

Soraa's Vivid MR16 LEDs provide a full light spectrum at 95 CRI. Note parts of the visible spectrum are missing from other light sources particularly CFLs.
Photo Credit: Soraa

The California Energy Commission’s new standard

Concerns over light quality have prompted action, and in late December 2012, the California Energy Commission (CEC) agreed on the Voluntary Quality Light Emitting Diode Specification for residential LED lamps. The CEC standard will be used to determine rebate eligibility for LEDs in California and includes tougher light quality standards of 90 CRI, a 4-step MacAdam ellipse for color consistency, noise- and flicker-free dimming from 10%–100%, and a minimum 5-year warranty.

The CEC is giving the LED industry through 2013 to catch up, but in 2014 the state’s rebate program will be tied to these tighter standards.


The CEC’s action is not taken lightly. There are reasons the DOE and Energy Star chose 80 CRI as a standard: it saves energy, and bumping the standard to 90 CRI will result in less efficacious lighting (LEDs lose 2 lpw for every 1-point increase in CRI above 80).

Benya argues that the tradeoff in efficacy is worth it. “We are simply going to have to give up some efficacy to gain light quality,” he said. “Until we start having this discussion, we are going to be making crappier and crappier LEDs.” And Simnovitch agrees, adding, “Our world is still at 15 lpw, so even if we move to 30 lpw [with wider adoption] it would be the largest energy saving leap in history.”  

Fortunately, the efficacy of high-CRI products is improving, and the cost is even coming down. Cree is now offering 93-CRI lamps that meet the new CEC standard, providing 13.5-watt (60-watt equivalent, 800 lumen, 59 lpw) and 8.5-watt (40-watt equivalent, 450 lumen, 53 lpw) light for less than $20, and less than $10 in some areas with rebates. These lamps are not as efficacious or inexpensive as the company’s 80 CRI versions, at 84 and 75 lpw for their $10, 9.5- and 6-watt products, respectively, but 59 lpw is still impressive.

This balance between cost, performance, and market conditions is not an easy one, however, and not all manufacturers are capable of engineering a high-performing bulb at a reasonable cost. Even Philips has succumbed to pricing pressures, quietly ceasing production of its L-prize winning, 92 CRI, 100 lpw LED lamp—the darling of the industry for a year or two and a BuildingGreen Top-10 award winner—replacing it with a less expensive 80 CRI version.

A bright but tenuous future

LEDs are at a crossroads. They are the future of lighting, consumers are starting to notice them on store shelves, and they are affordable to more than just early adopters, but are manufacturers going to continue to bet that 80 CRI is “good enough”? And will consumers care? California placed these same bets on CFLs years ago and lost. Will the new CEC standard change the odds for LEDs?


2013-10-16 n/a 17787 Putting the Duct Back in Ductless Mini-Splits

A would-be HVAC designer wonders if a ductless mini-split head can be hidden in a closet and connected to conventional ductwork.

This post by Scott Gibson first appeared on Green Building Advisor.

A ductless minisplit head isn't everyone's cup of tea, at least not aesthetically. One reader wonders if he can still get the benefits of a ductless system if he hides the head and makes his own ducts. (Photo: Fujitsu)A ductless mini-split head isn't everyone's cup of tea, at least not aesthetically. One reader wonders if he can still get the benefits of a ductless system if he hides the head and makes his own ducts.

Ductless mini-splits have a lot going for them. These high-performance air-source heat pumps operate efficiently in much lower temperatures than standard heat pumps, and they don't suffer the same energy losses due to leaky ducts. A tight, well-insulated house may need only one or two wall-mounted heads to maintain comfort, summer and winter.

It's the "wall-mounted" part, however, that not everyone warms up to. As is the case with Jerry Liebler's wife, as Jerry introduced in a recent Q&A post at Green Building Advisor.

Liebler is convinced a Mitsubishi Hyper Heating system would meet his heating and cooling needs. But his wife “dislikes the looks of mini-split indoor units." Liebler's proposed solution is to place the head in a closet along with a small air handler and an outlet duct through the floor.

"A 'shelf' would run horizontally around the mini-split and the outlet duct of the air handler," he writes. "With the closet door closed there would, in effect, be a 'plenum' above the shelf, pressurized by the air handler."

Liebler thinks the air handler's motor would overcome the friction losses of the ductwork. Ducts through the closet floor would be connected to conventional ducts to distribute heated or cooled air.

"Has anyone done something similar?" he asks. "See any problems?"

That's the topic for this Q&A Spotlight.

Have you thought of a ducted mini-split?

As GBA senior editor Martin Holladay points out, many manufacturers (including LG and Fujitsu) make ducted mini-split systems.

"You don't have to invent (and cobble together) your own ducted mini-split unit," Holladay writes.

Yes, Liebler says, but none of them are capable of heating and cooling more than a couple of rooms, and "none offers the cold-weather heating of the Hyper Heat units." (Mitsubishi says those units will operate at 13ºF below zero.)

"That's right," adds Dana Dorsett. "The very low-temp units are only compatible with certain heads, none of which are mini-duct cassettes.

"I've never seen anybody hacking a standard head with a separator, but I'd think mini-split would have a hard time managing the coil temp with the outside air flow influences imparted by an air handler driving air through the coil," Dorsett adds. "The control algorithms for the mini-split's control are optimized for its own blower pulling and delivering air from a low-impedance, equal-pressure air path."

Using the basement as a return plenum

Jin Kazama suggests Liebler install the mini-split as intended in a main room of the house and then design a "simple recirculating air system with a simple fan or multiple fans that mixes all of the building air together."

In Liebler's view, his proposal is about as simple as it could get—and his wife won't have to look at the mini-split head.

"With a duct branch to each room and each room having a return grill into the basement, in effect the air handler will move the house [air] past the mini-split so the mini-split's temperature sensors, etc. will see the average conditions of the whole house," he says.

"What I'm proposing is just what you suggested, a simple ducted air recirculation system, to which I've added the ability to hide the mini-split by closing a closet door. I think this system will work much better than any attempt to use ventilation air to equalize temperatures."

Sorry, it just won't fly

Keith Gustafson remains unconvinced.

"I do not think your solution will work well," he says. "The mini-split relies on throwing the air and has a controller that tries to make assumptions about what is going on in the room. I suggest you build the inside into a false soffit or a floor-to-ceiling bookcase to hide its looks. Room to room, install a ventilation system in the closet you propose," Gustafson says.

Kazama is sticking with his suggestion to buy a ducted mini-split, even if the efficiency is lower than the ductless configuration Liebler wants to use.

As for Liebler?

"I'd be a rich man if I had a single dollar for every time I've been told something won't work and proceeded anyway, almost always getting the exact results I expected," he replies. "It will work; the performance penalty, especially when it's really cold, of the ducted systems is simply unacceptable."

Our expert's opinion

Working with Mitsubishi specs, architect Steve Baczek suggests this as a way to hide a ductless mini-split head. (Image: Steve Baczek)Peter Yost, vice president of technical services at BuildingGreen and technical director at Green Building Advisor, had this to say:

Nothing like going to the source. I spoke with David Hazel, regional manager – channel development, with Mitsubishi Electric.

“No way,” says David, unequivocally, when I described Jerry Liebler’s proposed hidden and ducted installation. “Any type of restricted, ducted, or pressurized installation such as this will void the warranty.”

I also happened to mention this issue of mini-split “unsightly” indoor unit heads to Green Building Advisor  and Passive House architect, Steve Baczek. “I have had plenty of clients object to the heads and propose this: design a flush-mount shelf with the appropriate clearances (see detail). Stick this indoor head pocket in all sorts of neat places: the backside of an adjacent closet, kitchen soffit, above a pantry door, stairwell… The idea here is that while the head is still completely visible, it is much less obtrusive in a flush mount.”

Steve used the Mitsubishi spec sheet Hazel suggested to get the dimensions right for the closet shelf. Seems like the best of all possible worlds?

I doubled back with David Hazel of Mitsubishi on Steve’s detail and he had these comments:

  • Mitsubishi recommends that this type of “pocket” installation include the unit projecting 2–3" out from the face of the wall, just to be sure that when the indoor unit is in heating mode (when the louvers are angled down for delivery) all of the conditioned air is delivered unobstructed into the room. This is not an issue during cooling since the louvers are set either horizontal or even slightly tilted up for cooling.
  • Just how much the unit actually needs to project will be based on the model; different indoor units have slightly different louvers, and that can affect the needed projection.
  • Be sure that the pocket is indeed isolated (like a microwave oven shelf) so that the indoor unit is truly and entirely in the space being conditioned.
2013-10-03 n/a 17735 WUFI Without Worries: Doing More Good than Harm with Hygrothermal Modeling

Using WUFI for educational purposes? No worries! Predicting performance is trickier, though. (Photo: Evil Erin. License: CC BY 2.0.)WUFI doesn’t kill buildings. Poor design, specification, and workmanship kill buildings.

Last year, BuildingGreen made a modeling software program one of our Top-10 Green Building Products for the first time—the WUFI hygrothermal modeling software from Fraunhofer IBP and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (see “Using WUFI to Prevent Moisture Problems,” an EBN building science primer). We did this because managing moisture as intensely as we manage energy is key to building durability and indoor air quality (IAQ).

But after taking the two-day WUFI training and working with WUFI PRO 5.2 for a while, I began worrying about just how much I might be misusing or abusing this powerful and complex modeling tool.

I thought it made sense to reduce that worry by taking Building Science Corporation’s Advanced WUFI one-day workshop. I would like to tell you that today I am less worried about myself and other dilettante users of WUFI—but frankly, I am now more worried than ever.

That’s because, as with any modeling software, getting something wrong in WUFI can lead to wasted materials and money. It’s one thing to use more energy than you expected, though, and quite another to have your building quietly rotting from the inside out. Getting something wrong hygrothermally can be devastating in terms of overall building durability.

No worries here…

There are essentially three ways to use just about any modeling software for buildings, and WUFI is no exception.

1. To better understand the principles underlying building performance: Any of the five different WUFI modeling programs* do a great job of improving users’ understanding of hygrothermal principles with the deep and broad “help” function they all have. The help sections (online) are well organized, generally well written, and fully referenced. And the WUFI-ORNL free version is explicitly set up and characterized as an educational tool. Finally, there is a reasonably active WUFI forum, continually monitored by ORNL professionals.

2. To conduct sensitivity analyses when substituting materials or changing environmental conditions: WUFI is also nicely set up with the ability to run “cases” within the same project file. You can easily label the cases to represent the variable(s) around which you are doing sensitivity analyses. And then you can check out the quick graphs for total water content and layer-by-layer, and results graphs.

Modeling is a marathon, not a sprint

Once you move from education to analysis, making sense of the results—particularly when comparing cases with targeted different inputs—requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of the hygrothermal properties of individual materials and the overall performance of assemblies.

Users cannot simply sit back and press a “Pass/Fail” output to compare different cases. It can easily take as many as 20 cases to fully explore and identify determinant parameters for the whole building assembly’s performance.

3. Woody Allen and WUFI

Weren’t there supposed to be three ways of using a model in the list above?

Well, yes, but the third—using models for prediction—is where I invoke Woody Allen (famous for comically anxious soliloquies, like this one from Hannah and Her Sisters that lasts for almost a minute-and-a-half).

Using WUFI to predict the performance of various assemblies in different climates can require substantial field experience, actual hygrothermal testing of building material properties, importing site-specific weather files, and even adjustment of hygrothermal data within the WUFI materials database. I'm not afraid of rot. I just don't want to be there when it happens. (Photo: Sir Mildred Pierce. License: CC BY 2.0)How many users of WUFI are actually doing this?

I also worry about two more important aspects of the WUFI proposition:

ASHRAE Standard 160 contains standardized conditions designed for use in modeling programs, including WUFI. A tab for ASHRAE 160 conditions is part of all WUFI program settings (for North America). And yet, I meet or talk to building scientists much too often who do little more than scoff at this potential setting and strongly recommend not using it at all. There is real concern that the standard conditions in ASHRAE 160 are unnecessarily complex and overy conservative.

You don’t need a modeling tool to err on the side of caution and substitute materials that cost more. Yet it’s not common knowledge that this aspect of the tool is flawed, so many are probably using it, not realizing its assumptions are questioned by many experts.

Do you get what you pay for? To move from the WUFI-ORNL version (free) to the WUFI Pro 5.2 is €2500 (about $3,350 U.S. or $3,480 Canadian, and this does not include any training). Pretty steep. And although I am not questioning the great coordination and cooperation between German and North American building scientists, I wonder just how focused WUFI is on the needs of our building industry, compared to the needs of the German building industry.

Not only is there a much wider array of climates (including cold-humid and hot-humid) in North America, but also there are major differences in building materials. In Germany, cementitious and masonry materials are much more prevalent; in North America, we are more likely to use light-frame construction, either steel or timber—both of which are harder to model and can be more moisture-sensitive (metal creates thermal bridges where condensation can collect, and wood is porous).

Enough worrying; cut to the recommendations

All building professionals need to understand moisture management as well as they understand energy efficiency. I recommend:

  1. Mastering use of the vapor profile approach to assessing the qualitative hygrothermal performance of any assembly.
  2. Deepening your understanding of building assembly hygrothermal performance by downloading the free WUFI-ORNL program, focusing on the Help sections.
  3. Take an introductory course in building science that includes vapor profile analysis and WUFI-ORNL, confining your use of WUFI to education and sensitivity analysis.
  4. For any assembly about which you have hygrothermal performance misgivings, sign up with one of the scarily few WUFI masters, or work with the building science professional from one of your trusted product manufacturers to assess your building assemblies. If your trusted manufacturer does not have a WUFI pro on staff, move on to a more trustworthy manufacturer partner.

I can’t emphasize this last one enough: we need to reward building product manufacturers who have:

  • invested in the extensive product testing required for their individual materials to be properly populated in WUFI
  • acquired or developed staff with the necessary hygrothermal expertise to understand how their products actually work in building assemblies

NOTE: I want to thank two leading building scientists who have generously worked with me on this article, as well as on developing my WUFI understanding and helped me worry less: Achilles Karagiozis of Owens Corning and Chris Schumacher of Building Science Consulting, Inc. The opinions in this article are my own but have been in no small part developed with the insight of both fine gentlemen.

*WUFI-ORNL—the free version; WUFI Pro 5—the 1-D program; WUFI 2D; WUFI Plus—the 3D program; and WUFI Passive—the one designed for North American Passive House projects

2013-10-01 n/a 17524 Is PVC Banned in LEED v4?

Is LEED v4 leading architects to arbitrarily avoid PVC, to the detriment of their projects? The Vinyl Institute says it is. We check the facts. Would PVC-containing products like these carpet tiles from InterfaceFLOR be banned under LEED v4? The short answer is "no." | Photo – InterfaceFLOR


The vinyl industry has been vocally opposed to the new LEED v4 MR credits, even going so far as to characterize MRc4 Option 2 as a ban on PVC. The Vinyl Insitute, which represents PVC polymer makers, warned BuildingGreen in an email that LEED v4 “can actually lead architects and designers to make bad decisions in order to secure credits so they can market their buildings.”

Does LEED v4 ban PVC? Let's look at the details of the new rating system. (And check out our new webcast for more detail on this and related issues.)

LEED-NC v4 does not ban any building materials

It’s important to note that LEED-NC v4 does not actually ban any building materials. MRc4 is optional, and only 25% of permanently installed products have to meet the criteria in order to achieve Option 2—but we still wondered if a product containing PVC could still contribute to MRc4. The answer is decidedly “yes.”

PVC is on the banned list in Cradle to Cradle (C2C), but any product with an HPD or a manufacturer inventory can contribute to Option 1: as long as the ingredients are disclosed, it doesn’t matter what they are. Contributing to Option 2 would certainly be more challenging, particularly for products that include certain phthalates (plasticizers that make PVC flexible), but it’s still quite doable.

Some complications for PVC, but no dealbreakers

A full GreenScreen assessment, which would value a PVC product at 150% of its cost under the MRc4 requirements, would disqualify PVC because its life cycle begins and ends with Benchmark 1 hazards,  Clean Production Action’s Lauren Heine told us. However, the List Translator, which would value a product at 100% of cost, doesn’t take the whole life cycle into account, so materials that don’t have toxic components in their use phase won’t have a problem passing through this screening process. Although PVC often contains additives like phthalates and even heavy metals like lead that are likely to be on red lists, “the PVC molecule itself is pretty benign” and doesn’t appear in the List Translator, Heine said.

PVC also doesn’t show up on either of the relevant REACH lists, so products that meet those criteria can also count for Option 2, even in U.S. projects.

The bottom line? There are multiple pathways for PVC-containing products to contribute to maximum points in this credit.

The Vinyl Institute makes its case

When I pressed him on how MRc4 could act as a ban on PVC, Dick Doyle, president of the Vinyl Institute, told me that “people are going to go for the easiest thing” and that “they will cut to the chase with C2C.” (I'm isn’t sure that the inventors of C2C—William McDonough and Michael Braungart—whose Platinum certification criteria have never been approached, would agree.) Doyle noted the influence that LEED has with government agencies and worried that health advocates “are going to be very active in helping the community know that you have many better options than PVC.”

Asked for an example of how LEED v4 could lead an architect to make a bad choice for a building, Doyle told me that designers could be forced to look for alternatives to PVC roofing, which is generally recognized as durable. However, non-PVC options such as TPO, EPDM, and standing-seam metal are also very durable, as we have reviewed in EBN. (Not to say that those materials provide a free ride in terms of avoiding toxic chemicals, as discussed in EBN.)

What do you think?

Did we miss something here? Do see see LEED v4 as being unfair on PVC or any other material? (Venturi-type flow-through vacuum generators or aspirators—this is not about you!)

Also, look for our new EBN feature article and webcast brought to you by LEEDuser, to demystify this and other complexities of LEED v4's MR credits.

2013-08-27 n/a 17477 Attack of the Mountain Pine Beetle! (And How Green Buildings Can Make the Best of It)

Forests destroyed by mountain pine beetles can be made into valuable engineered wood products.


The mountain pine beetle has killed millions of acres of forest across the western U.S., including most of the western slope of Rocky Mountain National Park.
Photo Credit: USDA Forest Service

Balancing our need for timber along with the other environmental and financial benefits of forests has always been a challenge, especially in areas where forests and wildlife are integral to local communities.

On the western slopes of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, the trees are an integral part of the hiking experience, yet the trees along the trails that I used to run are now all dead and brown or gray as far as the eye can see, killed by the mountain pine beetle.

In this month’s EBN feature, Engineering a Wood Revolution, I look at the use of some of this less “desirable” wood to make engineered wood products and explore whether they can provide a renewable, carbon-neutral building material. In the end, I came away with a better understanding of forestry and carbon sequestration and thought, “This just might be crazy enough to work.”

The Fall and Rise of America’s Forests

Human history is rife with examples of forests being clear-cut without any concern for the social or environmental consequences.

Despite progress in convincing people that forests are valuable assets that should be managed, according to the State of the World’s Forest 2012, published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 321 million acres of the world’s forests have disappeared in the past ten years (the equivalent of about 500,000 square miles, or nearly twice the size of Texas). Much of this forest loss is due to demand for land rather than for wood.

Here in North America, we are a little more fortunate. Though we have cut down massive swaths of forestland over the past two hundred years, we now have 15.5% of the world’s forests, with approximately 745 million acres in the U.S. and 995 million acres in Canada. In fact, forest growth in the U.S. has been outpacing demand.

But that does not necessarily mean our forests are “out of the woods.”


Invasive species like the emerald ash borer and fungi like annosum root rot have devastated trees east of the Mississippi, but no pest has caused as much widespread destruction as the mountain pine beetle.

This natural member of the Western North American forest ecosystem normally infects weakened or aging pine trees and is a necessary part of the forest ecosystem, but drought conditions and abnormally warm winters brought on by a warming climate have made unprecedented swaths of forest vulnerable to attack.

As the beetle burrows into a tree, a fungus that hitches along for the ride inhibits the tree’s ability to defend itself from attack. The fungus also stains the wood blue, lowering the value of the wood. The trees die but remain standing until toppled by storms or gravity, and the wood can be difficult and dangerous to salvage and sell as lumber.

Since the beetle outbreak began in the late 1990s, approximately 33 million acres of trees have been killed in Canada, with another 4 million acres lost in the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. The extent of the die-off places watersheds at risk from contaminants, and the standing dead trees present a significant fire and safety hazard as well as providing another potentially significant source of atmospheric carbon as the trees burn or degrade.

Seizing the moment

Here we have an opportunity to make the best of a bad situation.

Trees damaged by climate change that will add additional CO2 to the atmosphere if we leave them as is are now being harvested and used in engineered wood products. Instead of creating a carbon feedback loop, this lower-value wood can be used in structural products to sequester carbon.

It’s not ideal, but the net benefits are cumulative when this wood is used structurally in place of more energy-intensive, CO2-producing steel or concrete.

In the feature article, you can see images of cross-laminated timbers (CLT) from Structurlam and the engineered wood ceiling of the Richmond Olympic oval: both use beetle-kill wood.

2013-08-01 n/a 17254 Green Globes May Be an ANSI Standard At Last

The latest version of Green Globes for New Construction focuses on novel ways to measure energy performance, but details are hard to come by.

Portland VA medical centerThere seems to be a lot to like about the new Green Globes for New Construction, which was apparently launched earlier this week.

I say “seems to” and “apparently” because, despite repeated requests, I have not been allowed to view the rating system myself or to interview anyone involved in its creation.

As you read the summary below, be aware that the Green Building Initiative (GBI) has not released any public-comment drafts or the final rating system to the public—opting instead to release only media alerts and a document it is calling a “white paper” (PDF—more on this document below).

Fancy schmancy ANSI

The most significant change to this version of Green Globes appears to be that it’s based on GBI/ANSI 01–2010—a green building standard developed through the ANSI consensus process.

GBI has been touting its “true consensus process” for years to compare Green Globes favorably with LEED. If you’ve been paying attention to the political wrangling around LEED and Green Globes over the past couple of years, you may be surprised to hear that Green Globes isn’t already an ANSI standard, but until now the ANSI standard developed by GBI and the Green Globes tool itself have been two different animals.

Because we don’t have access to the ANSI standard or the rating system at this time, we also can’t confirm whether it’s for real.

Energy performance

Politics aside, GBI is introducing some interesting new ideas for projecting a design’s energy performance. Green Globes markets itself as being all about streamlining, and it offers several alternatives to the typical ASHRAE 90.1 modeling process. Here are the four compliance pathways relating to energy, as outlined in the white paper “Green Globes for New Construction: Better Building Science for Better Results”:

ASHRAE 90.1–2010, Appendix G—This is the energy modeling comparison referenced in LEED. Designers develop and then compare a baseline building against their own design and calculate the percentage improvement.

Energy Star Target Finder—Target Finder is a predictive tool that draws on Energy Star Portfolio Manager’s benchmarking software. Although the point of Energy Star is to measure and benchmark actual energy and water performance, Target Finder gives a score based on the predictive data that a designer feeds into it. (And unfortunately, Energy Star is currently using data from 2003.) GBI hasn’t shared the specific performance metric that would be used here.

ANSI/GBI 01–2010 Energy Performance Building Carbon Dioxide Equivalent Emissions—This proprietary compliance path also appears to use Target Finder but focuses on greenhouse gas emissions rather than energy. Again, GBI hasn’t shared what specific metric would be used for rating buildings using this method.

ASHRAE Building Energy Quotient (bEQ)—The fourth method references a system ASHRAE began piloting in 2009. The concept with bEQ is that actual energy performance of the building is benchmarked against the energy model. It’s unclear how a design standard will use such a method and achieve accountability for energy performance during operation; there is no mention of ongoing reviews or proof of performance in the document. (A new “as designed” bEQ tool seems like a bit of a misnomer since the building has to be in operation to achieve the rating.)Internap data center

If the Green Globes system actually does require ongoing operational energy tracking for continued certification, that could really give the program an edge over LEED, which only requires ongoing benchmarking and recertification as part of its Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance rating system (although it is exploring use of a LEED performance dashboard to bring more buildings into an ongoing tracking system).

Emphasis on life-cycle assessment

From its inception, Green Globes has emphasized life-cycle assessment (LCA), and that hasn’t changed with this release.

Here LEED is in the position of playing catch-up by including the methodology in LEED v4—both because of LCA’s greater international acceptance and because some U.S. federal agencies like LCA for tracking carbon. (Many in the U.S. are skeptical of LCA’s use as a tool of accountability and/or marketing—sometimes for good reason. See “The Product Transparency Movement: Peeking Behind the Corporate Veil.”)

Unlike the LEED v4 drafts, the Green Globes system doesn’t seem to offer an option for whole-building LCA—but it does have options for both building assemblies and interior fit-outs. The Athena Impact Estimator tool is encouraged for assembly calculations, and third-party-verified LCAs or environmental product declarations (EPDs) are encouraged for assessing fit-outs.

Certification process

GBI has always marketed Green Globes as a faster, cheaper, and more streamlined method for achieving green building goals. The features that make this possible include:

  • A browser-based question-and-answer tool the group frequently compares to Turbo Tax
  • A lack of prerequisites for certification (“credits” only, though they aren’t called that)
  • Direct communication and consultation between assessors and members of the project team
  • Direct uploads of raw data instead of filling out templates (the assessor does most of the necessary calculations)

A site visit from the third-party assessor also distinguishes Green Globes from LEED, which relies instead on a mandatory building commissioning by a third party, in addition to its notoriously detailed documentation review process.

Where’s the building science?

When I saw the subtitle of the document GBI released along with the rating system launch—“Better Building Science for Better Results”—I expected to find information about the intensive focus on hygrothermal performance that is increasingly important as building envelopes get tighter and energy flows decrease to near zero. A new credit regarding building enclosure commissioning aims to address this issue in LEED v4.

The Green Globes document doesn’t mention airtightness, R-values, moisture management, or anything else having to do with hygrothermal performance, however, which leads me to suspect the phrase “better building science” here refers to LCA. I inquired about this with GBI but have not heard back.

Green Globes and LEED

With this launch, GBI is getting very aggressive about its competition with LEED. The “white paper” that it released along with the press release makes no secret of that. Here are some nakedly critical quotes from the document:

Green Globes for New Construction is the answer for the frustrated LEED project team looking for an alternative green certification process. The excellent customer service, overall ease of use, transparency of the certification process, national recognition, and swift response times surpass LEED.
Questions can be discussed with GBI staff or a third-party Green Globes Assessor so an informed decision can be made. This is where LEED fails and continues to get worse.

The document also quotes the well-known 2005 essay by Auden Schendler titled “LEED is Broken, Let’s Fix it,” but it seems to gloss over the “let’s fix it” portion of that essay and doesn’t acknowledge the massive evolution in LEED since it was penned. In all, the ten-page document mentions LEED by name 23 times. Is this a white paper or an anti-LEED screed?Green Globes process graphic

A word from the author

The paper was “a little hard on LEED,” admits coauthor Donald Martin, AIA, principal at Marston Design Studio. Martin, who is also a LEEP AP, defends the paper’s takedown of Green Globes’ rival, however. His comments to BuildingGreen focused on the notorious LEED bureaucracy.

“It’s just very easy to work with the people” at GBI, he said. “I have projects in the LEED system right now that have dragged on over a year” because it is so difficult to get questions answered, he says. (USGBC has acknowledged customer service issues and has opened up better communication lines with its technical staff.)

Martin also criticized the LEED process because no one comes to the building to verify that design and construction features such as recycling areas or bike racks were truly implemented. “With LEED, you could say whatever you wanted and get away with it,” he claims.

When I asked Martin for an example of a third-party Green Globes assessor catching a project in the act of lying for the sake of certification, he couldn’t provide one. Most of the advantages he pointed to were procedural: when a design team had neglected to update its energy model on the online questionnaire, an assessor caught the mistake and awarded them “several hundred extra points.” He described a collaborative relationship with assessors, who “help you” find ways to get more points if you’re “on the cusp” of getting to the next globe.

He added that verification doesn’t compare to commissioning, though, which is “definitely more technical. The commissioning agent goes through documents all day long; they are very good onsite at finding stuff” that needs to be adjusted. “I wouldn’t compare commissioning with verification.”

Green Globes does not have mandatory third-party commissioning, as LEED does, but Martin said it is virtually impossible to achieve two globes or more without it.

Back to the politics

The timing of this release and the document’s anti-LEED bent will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following the timber and chemical industries’ campaigns in regard to LEED and the federal government. (These industries’ talking points eerily echo those of GBI on topics ranging from LCA to certified wood to “true consensus.”)

There are two major policy decisions due out this summer that GBI may be trying to affect with this launch: the U.S. General Services Administration’s review of green building certification systems and the introduction of the Shaheen-Portman energy bill on the U.S. Senate floor.

An anti-LEED amendment to that bill, reportedly to be introduced by Senator Mary Landrieu (D–Louisiana), would redefine what counts as a consensus process and bar any non-ANSI-based green building standard from use by federal agencies.

I sent Sharene Rekow at GBI an email inquiring whether the group would be supporting Landrieu’s amendment, but again, I haven’t heard back.

Sending the wrong message

Representatives of GBI have not responded to multiple requests for comment by BuildingGreen.

This refusal to talk to the media detracts from the organization’s claims of greater transparency and is likely to backfire: one of the reasons Green Globes has failed to take off more broadly, despite what appear to be genuinely good ideas (who doesn’t want less bureaucracy in the process?), is widespread skepticism about GBI’s industry origins.

Tightly controlling the rating system’s distribution with this new launch sends the wrong message and misses a huge opportunity to demonstrate that GBI has outgrown its timber- and chemical-industry roots.

Tell us more!

Are you using Green Globes for any projects? Were you involved in its development? If so, please share your thoughts in the comments section. GBI seems to be trying out some interesting ideas, but it’s confoundingly difficult to get more details on how these ideas will be implemented in a real project.

2013-06-07 n/a 14139 The Hidden Beltway Lobbyists Who Shape Green Building Policy

Poison pill pushed by illegal lobbyists, or exciting, bipartisan energy bill that could change everything? It could be up to you.

Strategic Advocacy Solutions Green GlobesWe’ve been keeping an eye on the sweeping Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act (PDF), introduced by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D–NH) and Rob Portman (R–Ohio).

The common-sense bill, likely to come to the Senate floor any day now, enjoys broad support across the political spectrum. It would boost the national model energy code for both homes and commercial buildings, support commercial retrofits with financing help, and develop training programs for green building jobs.

Money changes everything

But there’s a fly in the ointment: let’s call it Musca lobbyistica. BuildingGreen received an urgent missive from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) this morning (emphasis added):


The chemical lobby is quietly leveraging its multimillion-dollar operation that would ban the federal government from using the LEED green building rating system…. They are carefully crafting an 11th-hour amendment that would require the federal government to only use green building rating systems that are American National Standards Institute (ANSI)-certified. This unprecedented governmental intervention is purposely designed to exclude LEED and create a monopoly for another systemthey fund and influence. 


By banning LEED, the amendment would cost the federal government money and jeopardize its ability to build green, demonstrate leadership, and continue to save American taxpayers money. LEED has long been recommended by federal agencies after extensive research.

The amendment would work by effectively upending the federal government’s definition of a “consensus standard”—only allowing certification systems developed through the ANSI process.

To get some background on why that's bogus and get a glimpse of the political underbelly of (anti-)green building policymaking, please read the rest of this post on our sister site,

2013-05-15 n/a 13195 Earth Measure—A Stone Product That’s Green from Start to Finish

Turning waste into a unique architectural product, Coldspring and Jason F. McLennan have teamed up on a new dimensional stone product.

photo of linear series coldspringAs the founder and CEO of the International Living Future Institute and its influential Living Building Challenge, Declare product database, and Living Future unConference, Jason F. McLennan has been busy setting a high bar for “green.” Now the former BNIM architect has crossed over into product design, as he is set to announce tomorrow the launch of a unique line of sustainable dimension stone products called Earth Measure, in a collaboration with Coldspring, one of the nation’s largest natural stone providers.

In a world in which green products are defined by recycled content and low VOCs, natural stone has arguably gotten short shrift, as we noted recently in Environmental Building News, in Stone, The Original Green Building Material. Stone is simply cut from the earth and processed., It emits no VOCs or hazardous airborne pollutants, it is water-resistant, will outlive most buildings, and can be reused after the structure is no longer usable. How can you build on that pedigree?

How about turning the relatively small amount of quarry waste produced by stone manufacturers into a valuable product? While working with Coldspring as a consultant, McLennan recognized that the offcuts from stone processing still had value beyond landscaping and aggregate, and with Cold Spring’s corporate goal of creating zero waste from processing, a partnership was born.

Beauty + quality = green

“Green products cannot be lesser in beauty and lesser in quality,” McLennan told BuldingGreen, adding that if we want green building products to succeed, “they have to be more beautiful and at least as functional or more functional than the products they replace.”

With Earth Measure, stone scraps of various sizes are cut into distinct patterns inspired by the natural world and biophilia. The Fibonacci series is based on spirals found in seashells and other natural elements:

 photo of fibonacci series coldspring

The Linear series is closest to standard dimension stone but sized in standard wood dimensions, making it easy to integrate the two materials:

photo of linear series coldspring

The MUD series looks similar to drying mud:

photo of mud series coldspring

The Reptile series mimics the look of reptile skin (photos weren’t yet available at press time).

“Though there are set patterns, there are infinite variations so a designer can create a unique interpretation of the pattern, every project can be unique, and they can substitute different materials,” McLennan says. “Coldspring has partners who can match glass elements using the most responsible stuff environmentally you can get”—including recycled glass and salvaged wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.”

Earth Measures can be used for everything from pavers to walls to flooring, so it can transition from exterior to interior and horizontal to vertical applications. “If you start mixing materials, there is so much you can do,” says McLennan . “It is just up to people’s imaginations.”

As green as it gets?

Seeking to minimize what is perhaps stone’s greatest environmental weakness as a building material, McLennan steers designers towards locally quarried stone to reduce transportation energy and match local geology. Since Coldspring owns quarries throughout the U.S., it can supply stone well within a 500-mile radius of a project, but if Coldspring does not have the desired material available, other quarries can be used as well.

Projects then work with Coldspring to ensure a pattern meets the designer’s vision and create a CAD diagram that can be proofed. Once cut, the stone is packaged and delivered to the site laid out in a manner that simplifies installation; Coldspring can supply or consult on any of the necessary mounting systems.

The packaging is reusable, so once unloaded, the bags can be sent back to Coldspring, and the company can even calculate embodied energy for carbon offsets. The entire product and delivery system is designed to minimize waste and to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

How much does it cost? McLennan couldn’t provide exact figures, but claimed that prices are comparable to other stone products and should be competitive.

McLennan set out to “produce something that is beautiful, functional, durable—all the things I’d like to see in the deepest-green products.” He adds, “If you want to replace a paradigm, you have to create a better paradigm.”

In a world of recycled plastic and tire products that usually look like recycled plastic and rubber, Earth Measure is a refreshing change.

2013-05-14 n/a 12734 This Week’s Un-News on GSA and LEED

Cool your super-efficient jets, green building world. We still have no idea what GSA is going to do about LEED.

As GSA goes, so goes the federal government? Maybe...maybe not.
Photo Credit: Shalom Baranes Associates

It’s been a long and confusing year for people who track federal green building policies.

Between the military’s LEED battle and the loooong interagency review by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)—both of which are sure to be complicated by sequester and politics in ways we don’t yet understand—we’ve had newsroom motion sickness for months.

A Friday press release from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), republished in Building Design + Construction and covered by Lloyd Alter at Treehugger, unfortunately hasn’t brought clarity to the conversation.

This is not the news you are looking for

We’ve known for a while now exactly how the Green Building Advisory Committee (which, as its name suggests, advises GSA about green building policy) came down on the issue of LEED vs. other rating systems.

Committee member Greg Kats, president of cleantech investment firm Capital E, told BuildingGreen back in February, “There was a strong recommendation on the part of the congressionally mandated government advisory board that LEED is the most proven, most effective option.”

We didn’t report on his remarks because we were waiting on much bigger and more consequential news—namely, the recommendation of a different GSA committee, the one that does the green building certification system review.

What’s the difference?

Confused yet? You’re not alone. Federal News Radio even seems to conflate the two committees’ processes, and federal bureaucracy is their bread and butter. 

In short, this is the difference between a small, standing committee advising GSA on its own buildings and a larger, ad hoc committee advising GSA on what GSA should recommend to all the other federal agencies.

That might sound like it amounts to the same thing, but it really doesn’t. Especially since, last we heard, GSA was asking for feedback from the public about its latest Solomonic brainwave: letting each agency decide for itself which rating system to use. So even if GSA keeps LEED for its own use, other agencies might just do as they please.

That’s kind of the status quo already—despite lobbyists’ attempts to portray LEED as having a “monopoly” in the federal government. To see which federal agencies are doing what, check out our chart of the Top Ten U.S. Government Building Owners.

This could mean what it looks like … or not

We’re not at all sure why GSA chose this moment to release its news. Maybe the interagency review is almost over, and this is a way of preparing everyone for another solid LEED recommendation.

Or maybe they’re testing the political waters. As Lloyd Alter reported, it didn’t take long for trade groups to lash out about LEED… again. Could they be trying to gauge the industry reaction so they can craft their message for the bigger release?

Maybe?—but trying to decode Beltway dog whistles and shots across the bow is a fool’s game.

Let’s just all calm down and stock up on Bonine. And please remain seated with your seatbelt fastened until this maddening, wild, dizzying political ride comes to a full and complete stop.

2013-05-07 n/a 12672 The Mismeasure of Buildings: Five Reasons Life-Cycle Assessment Will Not Give Us Zero-Impact Design

Whole-building LCA is about to get really big in LEED and elsewhere. It's a great tool, as long as you understand its limitations.

As part of its "Journey to Deep Green," international construction firm Skanska is tracking embodied carbon of the core-and-shell projects it builds for its real estate development arm. Rather than relying only on available LCA data, which are just estimates and averages, the group is tracking actual transportation miles of both materials and workers, measuring the amount of energy used for onsite equipment and lighting, and carefully calculating total waste generation and waste transport. That level of detail is not found in a typical LCA, and gathering the data is a lot of work.
Photo Credit: Skanska Commercial Development

Are you designing the world’s greenest building?

If so, have your model line up here with all the others that have laid claim to the title. That’s right: single-family homes to the left, everyone else to the right. Today we’re finally going to settle this!

As soon as the bell sounds, start entering all your building’s materials into this hand-held life-cycle assessment device. I hope you all remembered to bring your carefully tracked site-visit mileage and the spreadsheets showing carbon released from the soil during construction? Also your energy models and decommissioning plans? GO!

And the winner is…

OK, OK, this would never work: buildings are complex, and there are just too many variables and unknowns. Also, you could never fit all the “world’s greenest” building designs into one room.

Yet to hear some people talk about the hottest new sustainable design trend—life-cycle assessment, or LCA—you would think it was the one and only methodology we need to determine whether a building product or a whole building is sustainable.

That’s ridiculous, and we explore why—along with what LCA does really well—in this month’s EBN feature article, “Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment: Taking the Measure of a Green Building.”

Below are five things to keep in mind when using LCA in your practice.

1. There’s more to life than carbon

Carbon is obviously one of the most pressing concerns of our time, and that’s driving many project teams to think really creatively about how they design. Building with wood radically reduces the initial carbon impact of a building, and we’re seeing a trend toward heavy-timber commercial construction based on results from whole-building LCA.

LCA isn’t so good at telling us, though, about the human-health effects of our materials (along with lots of other important metrics). Most heavy-timber glulams contain phenol-formaldehyde-based binders—which could give some design teams pause, given the amount of timber used and the fact that beams are typically exposed on the interior.

Another problem: although wood has had a long and respectable life as a structural material, we don’t know much yet about the durability of glulam timbers in airtight, high-performance buildings.

None of this is necessarily a deal-breaker, but it’s important to keep in mind that all decisions come with tradeoffs, even if you use LCA.

2. The Rumsfeld uncertainty principle

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld got a lot of ribbing for his statement about known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. But the guy had a point.

The data behind LCAs is full of unknowns. We know exactly what some of those unknowns are: a lot of products and materials are just plain missing from our databases. But there are also holes in the data we have, and it may not be obvious what they are. Don’t lean too hard on those numbers; they might fall apart.

3. An ass of you and me

The foremost software tool in the U.S. for conducting a whole-building life-cycle assessment, or LCA, is called the Athena Impact Estimator. Not the impact X-Acto knife.

LCA isn’t like indoor VOC emissions, says lead LCA expert Wayne Trusty, past president of the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute. “You can’t take it in a lab and test it. It’s always about assumptions, projections, and estimates. That isn’t a reason to abandon it.”

Yes, it has a "nutrition" label. No, I would not like to see it.

Of course not—but it is a reason to define what your own assumptions are from the outset and to understand the assumptions behind any product LCAs you consult.

It’s also a reason not to let your marketing department send out press releases announcing your building is carbon-neutral or zero-impact. LCA simply doesn’t have the precision to determine that.

4. Twinkie earns nutrition label!

Here at BuildingGreen, we’re starting to see a lot more press releases about products “earning” environmental product declarations, or EPDs, the short-form report based on a product LCA. That’s like saying a Twinkie “earned” a nutrition label.

You don’t earn an EPD: you pay for it. (You pay a lot for it.) It doesn’t say a product has low environmental impacts but rather lays out what those impacts are. Don’t take the existence of an EPD to mean that a product is green.

Similarly, don’t take the use of whole-building LCA to mean that a building is green. LCA is a great tool for finding high-impact “hot spots” in the building overall during early design and then exploring systems or assemblies that might reduce the anticipated impacts as details are filled in. It’s not a seal of approval.

5. Blinding us with science

Have you heard about the scientist who used the same dataset to demonstrate opposite conclusions: that walking is better for you than running and that running is better for you than walking?

Advocates of LCA claim it’s more “scientific” than other methods of defining what’s green. For example, recycled content is often a good thing, but recycling is energy- and water-intensive and often involves a lot of trucking. It shouldn’t get a free pass. LCA is supposed to level the playing field so that we can fairly compare different products and materials.

Yes, LCA is science. But science is not the same as certainty: anyone who grew up thinking margarine was health food because it didn't have butter fat in it can attest to that.

As with a medical science, there are a lot of moving parts here: LCA is much more like an energy model than it is like a chemistry experiment. Like energy modeling, LCA is an excellent tool to help you estimate the impacts of your building. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ve built a no-impact building just because your software zeroed out on the bottom line.

There is a danger that the patina of science will allow LCA to be used as a bigger, better style of greenwashing (we may even need to update our popular blog post “Nine Types of Greenwashing” to include “Blinding you with science”).

Use it responsibly

This kind of stuff is par for the course coming from product manufacturers, but we hope design firms won’t fall into the same habit. LCA is a powerful design tool but a terrible marketing device.

Read the article to learn more about how cutting-edge project teams are using LCA—and why even the world's foremost LCA experts advise caution.

2013-04-26 n/a 12614 7 Tips to Get More from Mini-Split Heat Pumps in Colder Climates

Air-to-air heat pumps are getting more popular as a primary heat source in colder climates. Here’s how to get the most from your system.

[Editor's Note: This guest post comes to us courtesy of Peter Talmage, P.E., an energy and design consultant and an instructor in the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency program at Greenfield Community College.]

I have heated my various homes with wood since 1975. It was always a love/hate relationship. The wood fuel was “free” off my land, but burning it was a very dirty business in many ways.

This Fujitsu 3/4-ton model 9RLS is in its third season as the primary heater for our 1,500 ft2 home in Northfield, Massachusetts. The interior unit is 18" off the floor, and certain creatures like that very much.
Photo Credit: Peter Talmage

Mini-splits in cold climates? Yes we can!

Three years ago, I installed a ¾-ton Fujitsu model air-source mini-split heat pump to heat my historic 1790 cape home here in Northfield, Massachusetts. It has been a great success.

During the winter of 2010–2011, the heater for my 1,500 ft2 home consumed 1,757 kWh from October 2010 to June 2011. For the warmer winter of 2011–2012, the usage was only 1,247 kWh from September 2011 to April 2012.

So far this winter, from October 2012, to March 23, 2013, the usage has been 1,501 kWh. I have a 5.4 kW PV array that supplies about 200% of my electrical consumption, including that of the heat pump, so the heating system is very “green.” I have since installed mini-splits in two other houses.

Below are my suggestions for successful house-heating with a mini-split—even in a cold, Northern New England climate like mine.

1. Reduce load first

Improve the thermal envelope of the structure to minimize the size you’ll need and to reduce overall energy use.

2. Size it right for typical low temperatures

Heat-pump output drops as the outdoor temperature drops. I recommend sizing the heat pump to meet heating load at, say, 10°F. During periods of lower temperatures, use simple electric resistance heating or another source to make up the difference.

The compressor in the Massachusetts house is located on the east side of the house and has a shed roof installed over it. The big pile of snow on the left had just slid off the roof cover.
Photo Credit: Peter Talmage

Also, remember that a heat pump doesn’t have the capacity to quickly bring a cold house up to temperature. I set the temperature to 60°F whenever the house is unoccupied temporarily or at night and down to 50°F for extended periods of no occupancy. (At the 50° setting, the interior units typically keep air circulating constantly to prevent overly cold spots from developing.)

3. Prepare for a little noise

The interior unit makes noise—not a lot, but a varying level of whoosh. Make sure you can live with it before you install one. Find an installation and listen. If you like a dead-silent house, a mini-split isn’t for you.

4. Let it snow—but not on your outdoor unit!

The outdoor compressor unit needs to be mounted at least two feet above the ground here in snow country. It also needs to be well protected by a roof or cover that does not restrict airflow but doeskeep snow off and away from the unit.

In normal operation, the evaporator will freeze moisture from the air, which takes some extra energy. This ice is melted off during the defrost cycle. The melt-water drains out under the unit and sometimes forms a small glacier. The energy balance of this evaporator freeze/thaw cycle isn’t all that bad because the ice releases heat as it changes phase.

What can drastically reduce the performance of a heat pump, though, is when the evaporator gets plugged with snow. There is no gain of latent heat here, only energy consumption to melt the snow out. If the evaporator is located so snow can easily be sucked into it, the compressor will spend a great deal of its time melting snow and not heating the house.

The compressor for this Kennebunkport, Maine, home is set up high on a stand on the south side of the house. It draws air from a three-season porch that has glass panels installed in the winter, pulling air up through the gaps in the floorboards. A protective roof will be installed as well. 
Photo Credit: Peter Talmage

My latest mini-split installation has the evaporator drawing air from an enclosed porch space. Air is pulled into the porch at low velocity through the spaces between the floorboards. Snow drops out of the air before it enters the porch, so it can’t plug up the evaporator. A second benefit is that the porch warms up in sunny weather, improving efficiency.

5. Get the low-down on indoor mounting

For heating, the interior unit should be mounted about 18 inches off the floor and should have a good, clear shot into the living space. Mounting the unit low has many benefits for heating:

  •  First, it operates more efficiently because it is pulling in cooler air to warm up.
  • Second, the warmed air is blown out across the floor and mixes with the cold air at floor level.
  • Third, the air isn’t blowing directly on occupants, which can cause discomfort in the winter unless the moving air is very warm.
  • Fourth, it is very easy to access the filters for cleaning.

6. Right-size the pipes too

The interior and exterior units need at least 15 feet of piping to ensure no noise transfer from the compressor to the inside unit. Greater lengths of tubing are allowed, depending on the manufacturer, but will lower efficiency.

7. In warmer climes, get maximum efficiency

In colder climates, heat pumps need to strike a balance between efficiency (measured as heating seasonal performance factor, or HSPF) and lower operating temperatures. The warmer your climate overall, the more weight you should put on the efficiency side of the equation.

In central New England and south, go for units that have higher HSPF rating over lower operating temperatures. Most of the time, the compressor will be seeing temperatures of 20°F or higher. Rarely will it be running at –10°F.  The latest Fujitsu 9RLS2 has an HSPF of 12.5 Btu/Wh.

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2013-04-04 n/a 12548 Sustainable Federal Buildings: What’s the Law?

A definitive guide to how the federal government builds green—and why its leadership matters.

This post is the second in a series on the federal government’s use of green building certifications. Coming soon: The Hidden Beltway Lobbyists Who Shape Green Building Policy.

 The U.S. Treasury Building, completed in 1869, is the oldest building to achieve the Gold level of LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance. Federal green building policies have a strong emphasis on the measured performance of existing buildings.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress,

Anyone who has ever filed an income tax return knows how extravagantly fussy the U.S. federal government can seem. Your yearly struggles over tax deductions pale in comparison, though, with the workaday world of a federal civil servant.

Take green building requirements: there are a lot of them. Even if you’re not a government employee, you need to have a passing understanding of these requirements.

That’s because the future of LEED in the federal government is at a turning point, and forthcoming decisions could affect the future of LEED in the private sector—where many corporations are already trying to find ways to build green without seeking a plaque. Do you know your EISA from a hole in the ground? If not, you’ve come to the right place!

Federal Guiding Principles

In 2006, sixteen federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding known as the Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High-Performance and Sustainable Buildings (PDF). Signatories made a non-binding commitment to the following principles for new buildings and major renovations:

  • Integrated design
  • Optimizing energy performance
  • Protecting and conserving water
  • Enhancing indoor environmental quality
  • Reducing the environmental impact of building materials

That list sounds a lot like some of the main credit categories in LEED—but these principles aren’t identical to LEED requirements for building design and construction. For example, the federal guiding principle regarding energy optimization includes annual performance measurement and benchmarking, which is about operations rather than design and construction.

Keep that distinction in mind as you read on.

GSA has offered guidance for federal projects seeking LEED certification, linking “crosswalk credits” to the guiding principles (DOC), but its recent certification review shows that there is not a one-to-one match.

Bush and Obama executive orders

George W. Bush signed Executive Order (EO) 13423 in 2007, requiring that all agencies’ new construction adhere to the federal guiding principles and that 15% of existing buildings incorporate them by 2015. It also requires each agency to develop and implement a plan for sustainable building, leasing, and operations and maintenance.

The order also requires agencies to share information online—case studies in the High-Performance Buildings database and technical documents on the Whole-Building Design Guide. (Disclosure: The High-Performance Buildings case study database is currently hosted by BuildingGreen on behalf of the Department of Energy.)

Barack Obama signed EO 13514 (PDF) in 2009, adding many sustainability requirements related to all agency business, including building operations and management. The order included new performance targets for:

  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • water conservation
  • stormwater management
  • land use
  • purchasing
  • waste management
  • a lot of other stuff

For new construction, EO 13514 requires that all new buildings, starting in 2020, should be designed to achieve net-zero energy.


The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, or EISA, sets targets for energy and water savings for all federally owned and leased buildings.

This law also sets some design standards for new construction (55% reduction in use of fossil fuels, starting in 2010, and 30% of water-heating demand from solar thermal technology).

Additionally, it requires the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to recommend a third-party building rating system for all federal agencies to use. The agency must renew this recommendation every five years: in 2006, it chose LEED.

We’re close finding out what GSA will choose next.

Existing buildings are where it’s at

Here are some other relevant EISA requirements:

  • Agencies can rent space only in buildings that have achieved an Energy Star rating in the most recent year before the lease is signed.
  • When doing major renovations or new construction, agencies have ever-stricter energy consumption targets, culminating in net-zero energy use by 2030.
  • Agencies have to pay frequent attention to the actual energy and water performance of their existing buildings—evaluating consumption, finding ways to save money, and retrocommissioning every four years.

The emphasis EISA puts on measuring actual building performance, along with the simple fact that almost all federal buildings are existing federal buildings, means that the certification the federal government uses for existing buildings is far more significant than the one it uses for new construction. GSA said as much in its recent review of LEED, Green Globes, and the Living Building Challenge.

That’s the case despite the prevailing emphasis that the green building community—and its detractors—put on rating systems like LEED for New Construction, rather than LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (LEED-EBOM).

That hasn’t stopped certain industry interests from fightinghard—against the government’s use of LEED for New Construction (more on lobbying influences next week!).

Using LEED—and not

GSA’s recommendation about building certification goes to the Department of Energy (DOE), which should work with GSA and the Department of Defense to set an interagency policy.

DOE has not done so previously: that means that GSA’s recommendations about LEED have never been enforced, and agencies can do pretty much what they want in terms of certification. Here’s where things stand with the federal government’s major property owners.

The federal government's largest building owners don't all use LEED, and few have any rating system requirement for existing buildings.

Sources: FY 2010 Federal Real Property Report (PDF), “Public Policies Adopting or Referencing LEED” on, and original federal agency documents.

From this table, you can see why DoD and GSA work together on the recommendation to the Secretary of Energy: DoD departments own more than half of the federal building stock. Even the individual services—Army, Air Force, and Navy—each own more property than GSA does. If you can influence the building design, construction, and operations of these DoD and GSA properties and leave everything else alone, that’s still an impressive 58% of the federal building stock.

The other takeaway from this table is that not everybody is using LEED for new construction (and most agencies don’t have a certification policy for existing buildings at all). That’s because of what we mentioned above: GSA’s recommendation is just that.

DoD has its own stuff going, as we detailed in the first post in this series. Among this stuff is a very big loophole—the two words “or equivalent.” (And Congress has actually mandated that the military can’t achieve LEED Gold or Platinum, pending a cost-benefit report from DoD, although there are loopholes in that policy as well.)

Why GSA’s recommendation matters

In a sense, GSA’s recommendations would appear to be making little difference to how other federal agencies build green.

But we think this decision does matter in the larger scheme of things, and here’s why:

  • DOE should actually use the recommendation to make enforceable rules, and we’ll be watching to see if they do it this time.
  • This year’s emphasis on existing buildings is unprecedented and could cause other agencies and the private sector to take more notice of the importance of greening the building stock we already have.
  • We’ve confirmed with GSA that the agency will follow its own recommendation after the interagency review—though, oddly, it looks like they aren’t planning to specify a rating system at all.
  • Like it or not, LEED has been politicized by industry interests. GSA’s recommendation may be perceived as a message of sorts, and we’ll be watching closely to see how both special-interest groups and environmental advocates spin the news when it’s finally released.
2013-03-11 n/a 12546 4 Reasons the Battles Over LEED in the Military Are a Distraction

As DoD rethinks its green building needs, a recommendation to keep using LEED is just the tip of the iceberg.

This post is the first in a series on the federal government’s use of green building certifications. Part 2: Sustainable Federal Buildings: What's the Law?

This shows the first few megabytes of the Unified Facilities Criteria documents found on the Whole Building Design Guide. The list goes on...but the standard still includes LEED, for now.
Photo Credit: WBDG, screen capture

Special-interest groups have been fighting the LEED rating systems on multiple fronts ever since LEED got a foothold in government policymaking. These groups (primarily chemical manufacturers and timber interests) are making headway.

LEED still matters, for now

Despite these pressures, along with LEED’s weakness as a policymaking tool (like all voluntary rating systems, it really doesn’t work as a mandate unless the government is explicit about credits and energy performance targets that must be achieved), a recent report recommended that the Department of Defense should continue with its current certification policy: LEED Silver or equivalent.

DoD’s updated Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC), hot off the press, has stood by that recommendation for new construction:

In accordance with OUSD AT&L Memorandum, “Department of Defense Sustainable Buildings Policy”, DoD Components will design and build all new construction and major renovations projects: 1) in compliance with the Guiding Principles, 2) third-party certified to the US Green Building Council (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver level (or approved equivalent rating), and 3) achieve no fewer than 40% of the certification points related to energy and water conservation. In addition, all repair and renovations projects must conform to the Guiding Principles where they apply. [emphasis added]

How important is it for the military to keep using LEED? For the sake of public perception, it’s extremely important: if DoD thinks LEED is the best way to ensure green building design and construction quality, then a lot of other people will too.

On the other hand, LEED does not—and was never meant to—meet all of the military’s building needs. They’ve got a lot of other things going on, from carbon requirements to energy performance reporting to enhanced security needs, and their UFC documents are a great demonstration of the difference between building codes or standards (like the IgCC and ASHRAE 189.1—both of which USGBC helped develop) and building rating systems (like LEED).

Inconclusive conclusions

After paging through the National Research Council’s report—whose main conclusion seemed to be that there wasn’t enough data to make a data-based decision—I still had some questions: what’s “equivalent,” for one. So I spoke with Maureen Sullivan, director of environment, safety, and occupational health at DoD, and Lt. Col. Keith Welch, environment, safety, and occupational health officer.

Here are four key points I got from Sullivan and Welch.

1. The services don’t all use LEED

DoD sets policy for all the services and the Department of Veterans Affairs, but it doesn’t micromanage or do much enforcement. When I asked Sullivan what the equivalent of LEED Silver might be, she replied, “We assign that responsibility to the military departments”—and for some departments or individual installations, that may include the Green Globes rating system developed by the Green Building Initiative (GBI).

“We didn’t want to lock ourselves into one particular green rating system,” Welch adds. “We offered the services and installations the opportunity to use other systems if they chose to.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is best known for its use of Green Globes—and even that certification is becoming more rare now that GBI has developed its Federal Guiding Principles Compliance Program, apparently tailored for the VA. (It’s unclear whether DoD will deem this an acceptable third-party rating system, however: “We’re not in the mode of trying to check blocks and chase a metric,” said Welch of the program. “We want to use every construction dollar we have to greatest effect.)

The Army and Air Force both certify with LEED Silver or better, and the Navy’s standard is LEED Gold.

The Portland VA Medical Center earned three globes in the Green Globes rating system for existing buildings.
Photo Credit: Department of Veterans Affairs

2. LEED Gold is still on hold

Congress called a halt to LEED spending on Gold or Platinum certification in late 2011, pending a DoD report about the costs and benefits of various LEED systems and the ASHRAE standards. The National Research Council’s report to DoD should not be confused with DoD’s report to Congress, which is still being written.

In fact, the military just completed a massive revamp of its whole policy anyway (see more on the UFC below)—and that will affect what DoD says to Congress in the next few weeks.

For now, the military still isn’t allowed to pay extra for LEED Gold or Platinum, though we already know the Army is moving forward with its certification plans, saying it doesn’t actually cost more to certify at higher levels.

3. It’s about money, not politics

Congressmen might have called for this cost report because of lobbying, but Sullivan implied that DoD can’t be bothered with the political side of things.

“Our discussions with the Hill are focused on our goal to make the most effective use of every dollar that comes to the Department of Defense,” she said. “At the end of the day, we want the military departments to use the best tools available to reduce their life-cycle energy and water usage and to reduce the cost of maintaining and operating a facility.” LEED is just one of those tools, she said, along with the ASHRAE 189.1 standard.

4. The LEED battles are a sideshow

That might sound like Beltway babble, but DoD’s focus on revising the UFC gives it credence: LEED is fine for what it is, says Sullivan, but DoD’s massive overhaul of its green building policies and practices is where the rubber really meets the road with the military and green building.

“We’ve gone through a pretty elaborate process to take [ASHRAE] 189 and say which parts make the most economic sense for us,” Sullivan said. “This is one document that unifies the facility criteria that will feed into how we design.”

“This raises the floor for all our buildings,” notes Welch. “Instead of relying on a third-party rating system, we’ve given construction agents language to put straight into construction documents to require that certain things be done. We wanted to use the UFC to take out the variability and give us some ability to standardize the outcome.”

The UFC, in other words, will function like a building code for the military. It requires many things that are optional in LEED or aren’t addressed at all.  

What’s next?

My conversation took place before the new UFC was released—and at that point, whether to keep third-party certifications at all hadn’t even been decided. The way Sullivan and Welch talked about it, I actually thought LEED was going to get the boot. So why did they keep it?

“The NRC report that just came out on February 15 validated our current policy as cost-effective,” wrote Welch in an email. “One of their recommendations was to keep it that way.”

Although DoD decided to keep LEED for now, it’s clear the leadership is questioning the importance of certifying. Welch adds, “Now that the NRC study is in and the UFC is published, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate our policy.”

This doesn’t seem to be the case with the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which makes interagency recommendations about green building and will be releasing its review later this year: they’ve been quite clear that third-party certifications are a crucial part of saving money with green building.

What do you think? If the military has its own extensive building standard, does it need LEED, Green Globes, or any other rating system? Share your thoughts in the comments.

2013-03-05 n/a 12468 Is Natural Gas Going to be Our Savior?

A gradual shift in the supply-and-demand balance for natural gas and increasing shipments of LNG will bring the prices back up, while the risks of fracking continue to be debated

Gas well in the shale country of Pennsylvania. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Philly Workers Voice

In many parts of the country and for many applications, natural gas is considered a panacea to our energy challenges.

Comprised mostly of methane, natural gas is clean-burning, with just a tiny fraction of the particulates, nitrous oxides, and other pollutants that are emitted from burning coal or oil. Because the ratio of hydrogen to carbon is higher with natural gas than with longer-carbon-chain fossil fuels like coal and oil, less carbon dioxide is generated when it is burned. At the point of combustion, natural gas releases about 500 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (kWh), compared to about 900 grams for coal. That’s good news in terms of climate change.

And the dramatic upsurge in natural gas production made possible through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has cut prices dramatically over the past five years. These low prices have contributed to utility companies replacing some of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants with advanced, natural gas plants—and this has lead to rather significant reductions in our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past few years.

Natural gas seems like a winner. What’s not to like about it?

The dramatic growth—both today and projected—in shale gas, relative to other natural gas sources. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Natural gas supply and demand

A glut of natural gas floods the domestic market currently, and that’s a boon for consumers and many segments of the U.S. economy. It has led to a fairly rapid shift away from oil and coal toward natural gas. Nearly all of the new power plants built in the last few years have been natural-gas-fueled. With transportation, some large fleets, such as UPS and FedEx, are converting from diesel or gasoline to compressed natural gas. So are some urban bus fleets—at great benefit to urban air quality.

But as these conversions continue, the buyer’s market for natural gas will gradually end as demand inevitably catches up with supply. Natural gas prices will rise.

That shift can’t come soon enough for natural gas producers. In a June 2012 presentation to the Council of Foreign Affairs, Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson noted that the wellhead prices being paid for natural gas—then about $2.50 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf)—were far below the cost of production.

“What I can tell you is the cost to supply is not $2.50,” Tillerson told moderator Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal. “We are all losing our shirts today. You know, we’re making no money. It's all in the red.” (Since then wellhead prices have risen to about $3.30/Mcf in the U.S.—probably high enough for about a third of shale-gas wells to break even.)

The international market will also affect natural gas pricing. In Europe and Asia the wellhead price of natural gas is three to more than five times higher than in the U.S. Natural gas isn’t stored and transported as easily as petroleum, so the pricing tends to be more regional.

As technologies and facilities improve for compressing or liquefying and transporting natural gas, prices internationally are likely to equilibrate to a significant extent—in our increasingly global economy. As many as 15 liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals are in the works. If approved and built, these could export as much as 21 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) per year—80% of the current U.S. domestic consumption (26 Tcf). 

If just a fraction of these LNG terminals are built—as the conversion from coal to gas continues in the utility sector and from diesel to CNG continues in the transportation sector—natural gas prices can be expected to rise significantly. I will be surprised if we don’t see natural gas above our historical highs (over $10/Mcf in mid-2008) well within ten years.

How fracking works. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Al Granberg, Political Climate

Shale gas and fracking

The surge in natural gas production in the U.S. and the low prices over the past six years have been driven by shale gas extracted through fracking. In mid-2007, shale gas production in the U.S. totaled less than 5 billion cubic feet per day; by the end of 2011 that production had risen to nearly 30 billion cubic feet per day.

With fracking, water, sand, and chemicals are injected under very high pressure into wells up to several miles deep and extending horizontally up to several more miles. Controlled explosions fracture the 350-million-year-old shale, followed by the injection of fluid under high pressure that extends fractures into the rock. Next, sand or a like material (“proppant”) is injected to “prop” open those fissures so that natural gas can flow out into the pipe and be extracted.

Along with the water and proppants, various chemicals are injected that serve as lubricants, viscosity agents, and anti-bacterial agents to aid in the process. Much of this frack fluid is pumped to the surface, along with highly saline water and various toxic elements from the rock (including barium and arsenic) and must be disposed of. That which doesn’t get pumped back out remains underground. There is very little transparency by the industry on exactly what chemicals are being used and what quantities.

Dramatic growth in shale gas from different formations. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Along with the considerable environmental concerns about fracking, there is concern among some experts that just as gas extraction rates increase rapidly with fracking, those production rates will also drop off very quickly. A June, 2011 article in the New York Times raised concern that depletion of fracked gas wells occurs more quickly than with conventional gas wells.

According to petroleum geologist Arthur Berman, Associate Editor of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin and director of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, the annual depletion rate in the Eagleford Shale (which he calls “the mother of all shale plays”) is over 42%.

Fugitive methane emissions

Then there’s the issue of fugitive methane emissions from gas drilling—and particularly fracking. Natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and some experts suggest that as a result natural gas’s contributions to climate change are significantly greater than the CO2 releases during combustion would suggest—though the widely publicized claim by a Cornell University scientist that the greenhouse gas impact of natural gas is greater than that of coal has largely been dismissed.

Converting to natural gas

I would like to be 100% behind natural gas as the fuel of the future. Indeed, I am hopeful that the current low price of natural gas will result in the shutdown of more coal-fired power plants.

Drilling in the Marcellus Shale Formation. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Heyl & Patterson

But I can’t help worrying that when we pump undisclosed chemicals into the ground (“trust us, they’re safe”) and break up geologic strata in ways that alter the flow of groundwater and gases, we’re unleashing a Pandora’s box of problems that our children and grandchildren will have to deal with at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars—for an energy return that proves fleetingly brief.

My hope is that the low-cost natural gas we enjoy today will continue to spur the transition away from coal while buying us enough time for the truly clean, nearly greenhouse-gas-free, renewable energy sources like wind and solar to gain the foothold needed to usher in a lasting green and safe energy future.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

2013-02-27 n/a 12461 Military Should Use LEED Despite Political Pressure, Says Report

In a long-awaited cost report, the National Research Council recommends LEED Silver or its equivalent as the preferred green building standard for the military.

This BBL-designed Air Force Reserve center at camp Withycombe was certified LEED Gold in September 2011, just weeks before the congressional ban on LEED spending took effect.
Photo Credit: BBL Architects

In the ongoing battle between industry lobbyists and LEED, chalk one up for LEED.

A long-awaited report from the National Research Council gives the nod to LEED Silver ratings "or equivalent" for military buildings. The report looked at a variety of methods of comparing costs and benefits and ultimately confirmed that LEED Silver certification is the preferred model for limiting costs and maximizing benefits.

Why this is important

The timber and plastics industries have been pressuring legislators and agency policymakers to shun LEED for years. (Lloyd Alter's fabulous ongoing coverage of that over at Treehugger is a must-read.)

What's new is that they've started succeeding at both the state and federal levels—most recently with a renewed congressional moratium on military LEED spending above the Siver level. (See Title XXVIII, Subtitle C—Energy Security.)

Takeaways from today's report

The LEED Gold ban may come to an end now that the Department of Defense (DoD) has provided Congress with the required cost-benefit analysis on green building rating systems and codes. Made public this morning, the report recommends continued certification to the LEED Silver level "or equivalent" as the baseline, according to a National Academy of Sciences press release:

The committee that wrote the report found that DOD's current policy is sound, although not every high-performance or green building will have significant energy and water savings -- even if it is certified at a LEED-Silver or equivalent rating. The research studies did not provide sufficient evidence to draw generalizations as to why, but building type as well as the specific technologies employed to reduce energy or water use were factors.

It is not yet clear, though, whether LEED Gold or LEED Platinum ratings will be encouraged or even allowed. It's also unclear what might constitute an "equivalent" to LEED Silver.

Other highlights:

  • Flexibility to modify building standards should remain in place.
  • There should be DoD policies related to measuring actual building performance.
  • The report methodology should continue to be used by DoD to prioritize green building goals in terms of cost-effectiveness (using a cost-effectiveness analysis supported as needed by cost-benefit analysis).
  • Facility managers need to be trained to ensure effective operation of high-performance buildings.

Initial reactions

"LEED has played a significant role in reducing energy and water bills in public-sector buildings across the country, saving taxpayers money and contributing to the nation's security," said Roger Platt of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), developer of the LEED rating systems, in a press release. "By using LEED, the Department of Defense is able to cut costs responsibly without endangering our nation's military readiness."

We'll update this post with more reactions as the day goes on.

Also read

We're just starting to dig into the report and have reached out to building experts at DoD and each of the armed services for comment. Watch here for more soon!

Meanwhile, get quickly up to speed on all the details in our prior coverage.

Two New Laws Restrict Use of LEED

Army to Congress: LEED Doesn't Cost More

Army: No, We're Not Abandoning LEED

Taxpayers' Group Targets Federal Government's Use of LEED

GSA May Abandon LEED Endorsement

Also stay tuned for our three-part investigative series, starting next week, on what's really up with the federal government and green building.

2013-02-15 n/a 12420 GSA May Abandon LEED Endorsement

Rather than releasing its final report on LEED and other rating systems, the agency posts recommendations and asks for more feedback.

A victory for lobbyists? It should be easier to pitch the industry status quo to individual federal agencies that don't specialize in buildings.

Want to have a say in whether federal agencies keep using LEED? Here’s your chance.

Following up on a 2012 report, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is requesting public comments on its long-awaited recommendations about green building certification systems. Here’s our quick-and-dirty summary of the committee’s findings. You have sixty days to get back to GSA.

Green building ratings systems = good

The first finding is that green building rating systems are a good thing. They “maintain robust, integrated frameworks of performance metrics, standards and conformity assurance.” And using them saves taxpayers money “by eliminating the cost to Government of developing its own standards.”

Agencies should pick what works for them

The GSA isn’t going to tell you whether LEED, Green Globes, or the Living Building Challenge is the best rating system for each agency’s mission. But they want agencies to keep these things in mind:

  • There should be specific guidance about which credits to pursue (we might call this the “bike rack clause”?).
  • For efficiency, agencies should use one rating system across their portfolios.
  • Each agency’s guidance should make it possible for the same rating system to be used for all building types.

Each agency should review its own rating systems

GSA is mandated to do an interagency review of green building rating systems every five years (that’s the process they are finishing up now). With this recommendation, they’re suggesting that all the agencies need to stay current with evolving programs between interagency reviews.

They also recommend that other agencies with big building portfolios set up a similar review process to ensure the chosen system continues to meet its needs.

The federal government should help develop rating systems

Finally, GSA recommends that the federal government should be working with groups who develop the rating systems to ensure that they align better with federal standards as they evolve.


We’ve been expecting GSA to release its final report for several months now, so having the recommendations released in this form, and without recommending a specific system, was something of a surprise.

The political atmosphere around GSA’s previous reliance on LEED has heated up, and it looks like GSA wilted. The new policy (subject to comment) would abandon a single endorsement of a rating system and leave federal agencies with the task of making a choice. If this is how GSA responded to political pressure, we can only imagine how individual agencies will respond.

The deeper reasons for this approach are not yet clear, but watch this space for an analysis as we learn more. Meanwhile, let us know what you think of the recommendations in comments.

2013-02-05 n/a 12400 5 Reasons to Consider Onsite Wastewater Treatment for Your Next Project

Treating wastewater onsite can save owners money, but there are other good reasons too.

The Living Machine at Port of Portland features both indoor and outdoor plant beds for filtration.
Photo Credit: Eckert & Eckert, courtesy ZGF

Living Machines and other types of constructed wetlands are beautiful, but they’re not ideal for every client. Onsite wastewater treatment might make sense for your next project, though, depending on factors like the site, the local infrastructure, and the owner’s mission.

Here’s a quick guide to figuring out when and where onsite wastewater treatment makes sense. For a deeper look at the topic, read this month’s EBN feature article, “Waste Water, Want Water” (BuildingGreen member link).

Lower the flow first

Potable water has a massive energy footprint, even in water-rich areas. We don’t pay anything like the true cost of this nonrenewable resource, so most of us don’t think twice about polluting it just so we can make our own pee and poop go “away.”

Transporting and treating wastewater has energy and other environmental costs as well, but before you start doing the payback analysis on that membrane bioreactor, you first need to look at the water budget for the project holistically. What else can you do to reduce your use of potable water?

Don’t rule out composting toilets

They’re not for every client, but they do warrant consideration for almost every project. Composting toilets use very little or no water, depending on the model: this means that we avoid polluting potable water just so we can move human waste around.

A recent high-profile project questions our assumptions about where composting toilets make sense. The six-story Bullitt Center, under construction in Seattle and pursuing Living Building Challenge certification, is currently in the process of installing composting toilets.

These composters in the basement of the six-story Bullitt Center in Seattle will capture waste from all the building's toilets. After high-heat aerobic processing breaks it down, the compost will be trucked to a nearby forest to amend the soil.
Photo Credit: John Stamets

Now consider onsite treatment

Maybe you’ve gotten all the potable water savings you can by rethinking your mechanical system and harvesting rainwater. Here are five cases in which onsite treatment and reuse should definitely be considered:

  1. Remote sites and new developments—A remote site will have to be hooked into a municipal system, often at great expense. Many such sites simply opt for a septic field, but conventional septic systems are not always well managed, they don’t treat water for reuse, and they don’t do a good job of removing nutrients (typically overloading the groundwater with nitrogen and phosphorous instead). Increasingly, new suburban developments with low-flow fixtures also bump up the concentration of solids in the wastewater, creating conditions that centralized plants are not designed to handle. Decentralized treatment and reuse systems serving these new developments make a lot more sense.
  2. Overtaxed municipal system—Although centralized systems can boast economies of scale, many are aging, leaky, and overtaxed, and older ones combine stormwater and wastewater, which can lead to “combined sewer overflow”—the release of raw sewage into waterways. Treating and reusing onsite makes your waste your own problem instead of everyone else’s.
  3. Nutrient cycling— The aim of wastewater treatment is to protect us from exposure to disease pathogens. In the process, we remove nitrogen—and, more rarely, phosphorus—to reduce biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) before releasing effluent. These nutrients can damage ecosystems and are very much a part of the “problem” that wastewater treatment is “solving.” They are rarely viewed as a valuable resource. Natural onsite treatment systems can change that by returning nutrients slowly and safely to depleted soil, potentially repairing decades of damage.
  4. Expensive sewer fees—Potable water remains remarkably inexpensive even in regions where it’s scarce, but municipal wastewater treatment can represent a major cost for commercial buildings in some places, potentially creating a business case for onsite treatment. Some cities may waive considerable sanitation hookup charges if owners choose to treat their water on the site, and ongoing sewer fees are also avoided. On the other hand, energy use will offset cost savings, as will system maintenance.
  5. Education and research— One of the most compelling reasons to treat wastewater onsite is to educate building occupants, visitors, students, and professionals about freshwater scarcity and wastewater treatment. Natural onsite systems may include beautiful landscaping and water features. They also require frequent testing and provide research opportunities for students and scholars alike, and they can even serve as test beds, helping develop natural treatment methods that may someday work at the district or municipal scale.

Think bigger

The more expensive and energy-intensive your system is, the more it may make sense to rely on a centralized system’s economies of scale—particularly if the local infrastructure is reasonably sustainable. Since that’s not often the case in the U.S., though, many wastewater experts are advocating for larger decentralized systems.

Proposed purple-pipe networks in Portland, Oregon, could help solve issues with combined sewer overflow.
Photo Credit: SERA Architects

Clark Brockman, AIA, principal at SERA Architects, has been working with his colleagues to get the City of Portland, Oregon, to rethink its systems and to get developers rethinking their neighborhood infrastructure—possibly even creating micro-utilities for sharing reclaimed water among multiple building owners.

Brockman recognizes that his scheme is “very specific to Portland,” but he encourages all architects to think bigger.

To learn more about Brockman’s ideas, find out about the latest breakthroughs in closed-loop nutrient cycling, and hear from designers of the Sidwell Friends School constructed wetland, the Port of Portland Living Machine, and lots of other projects, check out this month’s EBN feature.

2013-01-31 n/a 12386 BuildingEnergy 2013: We’ll See You in Boston!

With an unusual keynote and tracks on resilience, systemic thinking, and cutting-edge pro tips, you’ll be lucky to catch BE13.

Photo Credit: screen capture

It’s always fun and educational to connect with friends and colleagues from afar at Greenbuild, AIA Convention, and the Living Futures “Unconference,” but the BuildingEnergy conference in Boston, slated for March 5–7 this year, has a special place in our hearts.

Hosted by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), BuildingEnergy is an annual pilgrimage for top designers, builders, and building science geeks from New England, New York, and Ontario—and beyond. The NESEA website says 4,000 people will attend this year, from 31 states and 14 countries.

Keynote speaker: NPR’s Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg, a National Public Radio commentator on Planet Money, will present the keynote talk on economics for environmentalists at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, March 6.

As contractor Paul Eldrenkamp puts it, “Alex presents and explains complex economics ideas with real wit and clarity.” Eldrenkamp also identifies economics as a “weak point” for the typical BE13 audience. (For a taste of how economics and green building intersect, see our primers on Discount Rates and Ecosystem Services.)

Workshops: Skills for Building Resilient Communities

Tuesday will feature full- and half-day workshops on topics ranging from Passive House homes to biomimicry to grid-tied photovoltaic systems.

Our own Alex Wilson will co-present “Skills for Building Resilient Communities” with three other resilient design experts from 9–5 on Tuesday, offering participants “state-of-the-art design and planning strategies that directly link resilience with sustainability.”

Sessions: H2OUSE

Wednesday and Thursday are packed with an amazing variety of educational sessions, covering everything from energy modeling to “generative economy” to building enclosure commissioning.

After years of focusing on energy conservation, are you ready to take on water? Peter Yost, a BuildingGreen principal and residential high-performance building expert, will present “H2OUSE—Everything You Ever Needed to Know about Residential Water Consumption and Conservation.” But don’t leave your concerns about energy efficiency at the door: as the course description says, “Water is energy intensive; energy is water-intensive,” so there are a lot of reasons to focus on “water-smart design,” and this session will show you how. (Read “The Water–Energy Connection” for a quick review of how water and energy are linked.)

Trade show: Come by and visit

In addition to all these remarkable speakers and thinkers, BE13 also features a trade show attended some of the foremost renewable energy contractors and green building product manufacturers and distributors in the world.

We also hope you’ll stop by our booth, #656. We’ve got some surprises in store for you there that we’ll unveil shortly before the show.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t registered for BE13 yet, what are you waiting for? Looking at the offerings this year, I’m thinking 13 may just be NESEA’s lucky number.

2013-01-22 n/a 12384 Call for Entries: The AIA COTE Green Project Awards

Stop procrastinating! Submissions for the 2013 COTE Top Ten Awards close on January 25.

The Woods Hole Research Center and many others have set a high bar for AIA COTE Top Ten awards. Does your project have what it takes?
Photo Credit: McDonough+Partners

Woods Hole Research Center. Sidwell Friends School. Vancouver Convention Center. What do these projects have in common, besides leadership in design and environmental measures?

They are all past winners of the Top Ten Green Project Awards sponsored by the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment, or COTE. (BuildingGreen is also a sponsor, providing technical and editorial support.)

If you want a chance to add your project to that list, you’ve got till 8 p.m. Eastern time on January 25 to submit.

What it takes

From their origins in 2000, the awards have come a long way. “The bar has been raised,” noted members of the jury about the 2011 awards. Having a beautifully designed and energy-efficient building is fantastic, but winning projects in recent years have done even more, like:

  • Repair damaged communities
  • Creatively embody an organization’s mission
  • Focus on materials and whole-building life cycle
  • Repurpose a historic structure
  • Regenerate a site
  • Recycle “waste” as a resource

If you’ve been part of a green project that you think accomplished something special (and was completed between 2003 and September 2012), you should consider submitting.

Top Ten “Plus”

Newly this year, the jury will also choose a Top Ten Plus winner: a project that won an award in the past and can show exemplary performance data for at least one year.

How to submit

Here are all the details you’ll need, straight from COTE’s mouth:

Register and log in here to submit your project data, images, and legal release forms.  You must also register separately to submit your payment to AIA—it's a separate registration system so your user name and password will be different.

Read the Call for Entries document for overall information about this program and additional resources. There is also a downloadable file listing all the input fields for your planning purposes.

Good luck!

2013-01-18 n/a 12336 Making Healthier, Greener Foam Insulation

A proposed change to the residential building code (International Residential Code) would eliminate the need for halogenated flame retardants in many applications

For this Passive House in New York's Hudson River Valley, 12 inches of XPS were installed beneath the concrete slab. With proposed changes to the IRC, subslab insulation wouldn't need to be treated with flame retardants. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Jordan Dentz

As readers of this blog know, I’ve come down fairly hard on certain types of foam insulation over the years. The downsides include the blowing agents used in extruded polystyrene (XPS) and most closed-cell spray polyurethane foam and the flame retardants that are added to all foam-plastic insulation to impart some level of fire resistance.

Now there’s an effort afoot to change building codes in a way that would allow manufacturers to remove the hazardous flame retardants. This is the subject of a just-published feature article in Environmental Building News (log-in required).

This is a significant energy issue, because layers of foam insulation provide the easiest way to achieve the level of energy performance needed to approach net-zero-energy performance. If we’re going to add a lot of foam insulation to our homes, we want that to be safe for the occupants and the environment.

Flame retardants used in foam insulation

We don’t want insulation materials to catch fire, so it is logical to add flame retardant (FR) chemicals to these materials if it will prevent them from catching fire. That’s the reason HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) is added by all polystyrene insulation and TCPP (Tris (1-chloro-2-propyl) phosphate) is added to most polyisocyanurate and spray polyurethane foam  insulation. These are both halogenated flame retardants—the first using bromine, the second chlorine.

The problem with these halogenated FRs is that they have significant health and environmental risks. The HBCD that is used in all polystyrene (both extruded and expanded) is being targeted for international phase-out by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. It is highly persistent in the environment and bioaccumulative in the food chain; it is believed to cause reproductive, developmental, and neurological impacts. Less is known about the TCPP used in spray polyurethane foam and polyisocyanurate, but there is significant concern in the health and environmental community.

Building codes require that foam-plastic insulation meet a very specific flammability standard. But building codes also require—for most applications—that foam insulation has to be separated from living space by thermal barriers, such as gypsum drywall.

The efficacy of flame retardants compared with thermal barriers

Combustion studies that were done in the 1970s showed that if the insulation is not protected with a thermal barrier, there is no correlation between the presence of FR and the extent of the resultant fire. Thus, the inclusion of a FR does not seem to appreciably increase the fire resistance of foam insulation, according to a peer-reviewed technical paper recently published in the journal Building Research and Information.

However, thermal barriers like half-inch drywall work extremely well at containing fires. The 15-minute protection provided by half-inch drywall gives occupants time to escape a fire. In other words, of the two measures used to impart fire safety to a building assembly (FRs in foam insulation and thermal barriers) almost all of the fire safety benefit is provided by the thermal barrier.

A house under construction in Naperville, IL wrapped in XPS that will be thermally separated from the living area. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

Changing building codes to allow elimination of flame retardants

Because the vast majority of the fire safety in a building enclosure is provided by the thermal barrier, a group of environmentally aware architects, chemists, and code experts is seeking to change building codes to allow non-FR foam to be used in applications where adequate protection is provided by a thermal barrier. (Disclosure, I have been involved in this initiative.) The code change would allow the FR-free foam to be used below-grade, where the insulation is sandwiched between concrete and earth (hardly a fire risk), and where the foam is separated from the living space by a 15-minute thermal barrier, such as half-inch drywall.

For the former application (below-grade insulation), I believe it’s a no-brainer. Over half of XPS is installed below-grade, so I think there could be a very viable product free of FRs for this application. The change to building codes wouldn’t mandate the elimination of FRs, but it would give manufacturers the option to do so if they chose to. Eliminating the FR for above-grade applications where there is a 15-minute thermal barrier isn’t a slam-dunk, but I believe the case being made is strong.

Changing building codes, however, is a long, challenging process; I don’t know what chances the initiative has. In my article research, manufacturers expressed reservations that they don’t want to have to produce, distribute, and market two different lines of material, and they point out that they also have to be concerned with fire safety of material being stored and during construction (before drywall is installed).

On the other hand, though, foam insulation manufacturers spend a lot to incorporate FRs into their products. The insulation contains a not-insignificant amount of these chemicals: 12.5% TCPP in open-cell spray polyurethane, 4% TCPP is closed-cell spray polyurethane, and 2.5% HBCD in extruded polystyrene. A lot of the strategies for “greening” building products increase the manufacturing costs, while removing expensive FRs should reduce costs. So there is some interest by the industry in this change.

As described in our Environmental Building News article this month, “Getting Flame Retardants Out of Foam Insulation,” the code-change initiative is being targeted, initially, at the International Residential Code. If successful, an effort to change the International Building Code (for commercial buildings) will follow.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

2013-01-08 n/a 12292 Building Enclosure Commissioning Reduces Operational Costs, Legal Risks
This field test (AAMA 501.2) of a storefront assembly uses pressurized water and a special hose nozzle to detect water leakage in already-installed components. It’s just one of many such tests that may be performed on mockups or installed assemblies as part of building enclosure commissioning.
Photo Credit: Pie Consulting Engineering

When the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) first introduced the idea of building enclosure commissioning (BECx) as a prerequisite in LEED v4, the decision was widely protested—largely because many in the green building community feared clients wouldn’t pursue LEED certification because of increased commissioning costs.

But a new BuildingGreen report, Verifying Performance with Building Enclosure Commissioning, documents increasing adoption of BECx within the wider performance-oriented building community as a clearer picture of costs and benefits emerges.

According to Matthew Heron, P.E., department manager of Pie Consulting & Engineering’s building science group, “The building envelope is a very high-risk piece of construction. Something like two-thirds of litigation has to do with moisture in buildings. Commissioning helps mitigate the risk.”

“A lot of us in the industry say commissioning doesn’t cost—it pays,” says Gerald Kettler, P.E., managing principal at Facility Performance Associates and chair of the project committee for the recently released ASHRAE Standard 202, Commissioning Process for Buildings and Systems.

“It’s going to explode.”

Increasingly, architects, contractors and owners are all finding value in BECx as a check on design and construction processes, as well as for prevention of costly repairs and litigation.

According to a survey of commissioning providers by trade group AABC Commissioning Group, the building enclosure was included in 15% of commissioned projects in 2012, up from 9% in 2011, and these firms expect that number to continue rising.

Project Engineer Nicholas Alexander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) calls BECx “the wave of the future.”

“It’s going to explode,” says Rob Kistler, principal at The Facade Group and vice chair of the Building Enclosure Technology and Environmental Council.  “It’s a mechanism of giving assurance that the system will perform to the level of performance you thought you were going to get when you started the process.”

What to expect for a typical project

Although BECx is already showing up in more federal contracts and being codified in standards, including LEED, many architects and contractors are unfamiliar with it. BuildingGreen’s latest article will walk you through the typical BECx process at each stage of a project.

2012-12-18 n/a 12272 An EBie Awaits You: Submissions Open for 2013 Existing Buildings Award
Urban Green's EBies recognize professionals who work behind the scenes to make existing buildings perform sustainably.
Image: Urban Green

2/19/13 Update: Urban Green has posted a new EBie scorecard demonstrating how entries will be scored—worth checking out, with the submission deadline close on our heels!

The EBie Awards—the "Oscars of sustainable building"—will be announced by Urban Green, a chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, in New York City on June 19, 2013, so now is the time to throw your name in the hat.

In case you didn't tune in for the first EBie Awards, here's a rundown from the EBie website on what it's all about:

The EBie Awards™ are a nationwide juried competition for people working in Existing Buildings who have made great strides in improving environmental performance but whose accomplishments may otherwise go unheralded.

Who are these unsung heroes? The EBies™ recognize significant increased environmental performance in existing buildings among building operators, facilities managers, owners, engineers, retro-commissioning agents and other professionals who conceived and implemented the work. Focus areas include energy, water, operations, materials use, lighting and tenant engagement.

Urban Green hopes you'll take the EBie awards seriously—after all, do the Emmys or the Tonies require data from EPA’s Portfolio Manager to accompany all submissions? But it also is putting on a fun celebration that brings to the forefront the kind of work that has to be done by someone to bring our existing building stock in line with energy and environmental standards like LEED-EBOM—work that is tough, dirty, slogging, slow, and thankless.

The sense of fun that Urban Green brings to it shines through in the categories in which they recognize winners:


If you're wondering if you have what it takes, you can see the submission criteria, and the blessedly concise submission form, on the EBie website. Just remember—get your submission in by February 26th!

For a look at the fun that the 2012 finalists had on the green carpet, check out these photos.

2012-12-03 n/a 12225 Seattle’s Bullitt Center Catches FSC Design & Build Award for 2012

The Forest Stewardship Council honors four stunning projects at Greenbuild for their use of sustainable timber.

This rendering shows the Bullitt Center as envisioned.
Photo Credit: Miller Hull Partnership

We’ve been hearing more and more lately about wood framing for midsize (and even some high-rise) commercial buildings, and this year the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) has given Design & Build awards to two pretty large examples of timber construction.

A vernacular West Indian cottage also took home the residential award, and there was a surprise “Judges’ Choice” award that I’ll explain below. The projects are chosen each year based on use of FSC wood, market impact, broader contributions to sustainability, and aesthetics.

I had the privilege to serve on the jury for these awards, which was a lot of fun—but we also had to make some pretty tough choices. 

Bullitt Center—commercial winner

This six-story commercial building designed by the Miller Hull Partnership has steel framing on the ground floor and heavy timber framing above. Much of the wood serves as both structure and finish, and 100% is FSC-certified.

Bullitt Center under construction
Photo Credit: John Stamets

This is a really special building that set out to define a “Pacific Northwest vernacular” through its unique use of regional wood and is also aiming for Living Building Challenge certification—which not only sets stringent standards in regard to materials and design but also requires net-zero energy and water for at least one year after occupancy.

Big Rock Cottage—residential winner

Big Rock Cottage under construction
Photo Credit: Doug White

This traditional West Indian cottage on the island of St. John revives a vernacular style that has fallen out of favor due to hurricane-related building codes (which builder Seacoast Cottage Company says its home meet). The regional tropical hardwoods used also provide natural termite resistance.

The king post of Big Rock Cottage during construction
Photo Credit: Doug White

Hôtel et Geos Spa Sacacomie—commercial honorable mention

This log structure made from regionally sourced white pine is located in the mountains outside Montreal. It received the first FSC Project Certificate in Canada; this whole-building certification was developed in Europe in 2006 but has not yet caught on in North America, and no projects have yet achieved it in the U.S.

The view from the spa.
Photo Credit: Hôtel Sacamomie

Woodtech—judges’ choice

Woodtech isn’t a building. It’s a table manufacturer that has made 8,000 conference tables for Cisco Systems out of FSC-certified wood products. Cisco has made a commitment to using these tables in all of its facilities worldwide, and Woodtech claims it has purchased $4 million worth of FSC-certified materials in order to make them.

The tables combine high-tech teleconferencing equipment with the warmth and beauty of American hardwood veneers.
Photo Credit: Woodtech
2012-11-29 n/a 12191 What Should Obama Do Next? Top 5 Stories, Election Edition

There’s a lot to talk about after Tuesday’s elections: urban planning, Keystone XL, and whether America is in a death spiral.

German magazine Der Spiegel holds up a mirror to the U.S. as it lies on its purported death bed.
Photo Credit: Der Spiegel

Der Spiegel doesn’t mince any Wörter

In a four-part analysis titled “Divided States of America,” German magazine Der Spiegel takes the U.S. to task for systemic divisions that have led to political gridlock, third-world infrastructure that is a constant disaster waiting to happen, utter inability to act to slow climate change, and a retrograde 20th-century economy.

Even during Superstorm Sandy, the staff writes, “The only effective walls of sandbags that were built in the city on a larger scale did not appear around power plants, hospitals or tunnel entrances, but around the skyscraper of the prescient investment bank Goldman Sachs.”

Be prepared for searingly painful (and occasionally over-the-top) criticism. We’re interested to hear what you make of this view from Europe.

What Obama can do for cities

On a more optimistic note, Emily Badger and Sommer Mathis at The Atlantic Cities lay out “8 Urban Policy Ideas for Obama’s Second Term,” including a national infrastructure bank and reforms to the rail regulations that make our high-speed rail such an embarrassment (incidentally, one of Der Spiegel’s complaints).

Interpreting what the public voted for

Continuing with the cheery outlook, Peter Lehner at the NRDC Switchboard asserts that “voters chose the clean energy future over the dirty past” on Tuesday. He sees a clear mandate from voters in swing states who decisively voted for Obama’s second term. “The broad backing of clean energy…gives our elected officials the freedom to lead on climate change,” he writes.

Downticket transit wins

In what probably represents a clearer mandate, voters in local races also said yes to 70% of pro-transit ballot initiatives, reports Joshua S. Hill at Clean Technica. This is despite strained budgets and a still pretty flat economy, but Hill includes a really cool infographic showing how effective public transit is at creating jobs.

Second in line? Building retrofits!

What activists are doing to stop the Keystone pipeline

Not everyone stateside is feeling the hope. Mat McDermott at Treehugger reports that anti-Keystone activists “are wasting no time in pressing Obama” to put a stop the tar sands oil pipeline, which calls “a crazy idea, a giant straw into the second biggest pool of carbon.” The group is promoting a rally aimed at reminding the President of his promises to fight climate change.

Also Read:

Failing Water Infrastructure Drains Economy, Report Warns

Location Efficiency: The Energy Impact of Where We Build

Obama Introduces "Better Building" Plan

2012-11-09 n/a 12184 Resilient Design Can’t Wait: Top 5 Stories, Hurricane Sandy Edition

From the most shocking photos to the most piercing analysis, we look at some of the best Sandy coverage this week.

The Washington Post shows us before-and-after shots that somehow make the damage seem even worse.
Photo Credit: Richard Drew/AP

Before and after pix

Fahima Haque at the Washington Post brings us eleven stomach-twisting sets of Hurricane Sandy images, from New York City to Chincoteague. I’ll let the 22,000-word equivalent speak for itself.

Future pix?

Now imagine that flood would never recede—that the seawater infiltration is the new normal. That’s the kind of thing 3D maps from the Architecture 2030 report “Nation Under Siege” show us.

Jason Plautz at InsideClimate News talks about the striking similarity between images of post-Sandy NYC and the future reality of the city due to permanent sea-level rise. A long article but worth every minute. And check out 3D images of more cities on the Architecture 2030 website.

Making the case for resilience in coastal cities

Worldwide, we can’t afford to lose our coastal metropolises, many of which are not only population centers but also global financial powerhouses. Richard Florida and Sara Johnson look at what it’s going to take to mitigate risk to some of our most precious assets over at The Atlantic Cities.

“Are we putting the global economy's trillions of eggs in the largest electronic basket ever constructed?” asks one of the climate scientists quoted in the piece. The authors propose that Sandy represents an “opportunity to rethink infrastructure in terms of resilience, and not just rebuild it as it was.”

Our own Alex Wilson makes much the same argument at his new Resilient Design Institute blog. “For the sake of those who may be affected by the next Sandy or Irene or Katrina, let’s hope that this can be a wake-up call for us all!” he writes.

And for a more resilient power grid everywhere

Sandy is also a wakeup call that we need to improve our electrical distribution infrastructure nationwide, argues Katie Fehrenbacher at GigaOM.

“The stark contrasts between the resiliency of our data communication networks and our power grid in these situations is unnerving,” she says.

Also Read

Resilient Design: Smarter Building for a Turbulent Future

Designing Homes for More Intense Storms

Warm Globally, Flood Locally: Water Crises Loom for U.S. Cities

“The power grid is highly vulnerable — it’s still largely a centralized system, with little energy storage capacity at the edges of the network, and it still lacks a lot of the intelligence that Internet architecture has that can deliver self-healing and re-route around damaged systems.”

The smart grid, she says, will be not only cleaner and more efficient but also more resilient during disasters and other disruptive events.

But you can’t attribute weather to climate change!

By now, maybe you’re thinking that any given weather event can’t be chalked up to climate change. And while that’s still strictly true, there is no doubt that climate change is influencing our weather routinely.

Stephen Lacey and Joe Romm at Climate Progress say that “Did climate change cause Sandy?” is the wrong question. “Like [with] a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is ‘caused’ by steroids,” they contend. Warmer oceans, melting arctic ice, moister air, and other factors will continue to contribute to stronger, bigger storms that will continue to come farther north more often than they used to.

2012-11-01 n/a 12176 How to Prevent Your Worst Building Assembly Fears from Coming True

Expensive callbacks and lawsuits can result when you don’t attend to the assembly details.

Directional drying is designed into high-performance buildings, and all three control layers must continuously manage water, air, and heat. Note how the air barrier is primarily accomplished at the interior and how difficult it is to prevent thermal bridging at structural framing if exterior rigid insulation is not used.
Photo Credit: Steve Baczek Architect

We’ve all heard the nightmare scenarios: water leaks that mar the finest architectural features of a new building; air leaks that cause hidden mold or rot inside the walls; thermal bridges that compromise occupant comfort and energy performance.

Money on the line

These scenarios have two things in common: first, they could all land you in court. Second, they are all preventable if you’re giving each building assembly detail the time and attention it deserves.

During a recession, most firms are already working with knifeblade-thin margins, so it can be tempting to cut corners. While the “extra” work required to get the details right might seem expensive in the short term, it’s a good long-term investment.

In this month’s EBN feature article, Peter Yost and I take a look at how industry leaders are changing the way they practice architecture in response to the increasing complexity of—and increasing demands on—our buildings and building assemblies.

Energy demands put the pressure on

We all want energy-efficient buildings, but there are tradeoffs: when you decrease the energy flow through a building assembly, you have to be a lot more careful about every little air leak and thermal bridge; otherwise you risk moisture problems.

This challenge is even greater because more sophisticated, multilayered building systems may have properties we don’t know about or forget to check. For example, all building materials—not just the ones we call retarders or barriers—affect vapor movement to some degree; serious moisture problems can occur if the permeability of each assembly component is not accounted for in assembly design.

Tricks of the trade

In our article, we go through the four essential features needed to ensure good hygrothermal performance, and we’ve included lots of beautiful, detailed cross-sections from leading residential and commercial building science experts to give you ideas for solving common problems, such as:

Also Read

How "Smart" Vapor Retarders Work

Hidden Seam Failures? We Put Flashing Tapes to the Test

Sustainable Sealants: The Problem of Predicting Service Life

  • Continuing thermal, air, and bulk water barriers at the parapet of a low-slope commercial roof
  • Achieving thermal barrier continuity where a residential wall meets the slab
  • Allowing water drainage at a commercial foundation without compromising the thermal barrier
  • Continuing the air barrier at window heads and sills in a deep residential exterior wall
  • Creating a continuous air barrier at a residential eave
  • Minimizing thermal bridging through a commercial balcony assembly

Special building science issue

As a matter of fact, this whole issue of EBN is chock full of building science know-how and includes:

Upcoming report

I’ll just leave you with a little teaser: our whole editorial team is currently expanding on all this work in a new report on high-performance building assemblies. It’s due out just before the holidays—so put it on your wish list, and watch this space for more details soon!

2012-10-29 n/a 12147 Getting a Stone from Blood: Top 5 Stories, Halloween Edition

A flying saucer lands on Grand Central Station, buildings are reclaimed after heinous murders, and we gape in horror at global warming skepticism.

Close encounters of the baffling kind.
Photo Credit: SOM

Historic preservation abducted by aliens

We love to talk about retrofits and building reuse around here, but the flying saucer of extravagance hovering over NYC's Grand Central Terminal has left me speechless. Just go look at Lloyd Alter’s slideshow of the SOM proposal and tell us what you think. (Use a synthesizer to express your opinions if necessary.)

How best to honor the dead through architecture?

It’s not always extraordinary buildings like Grand Central Station that have historic significance: the sites of mass murders end up going through various transformations after the headlines fade. David Hill has a thoughtful piece at Architectural Record about how architecture can help the healing process for survivors of events like the Columbine High School killings and the more recent Century 16 movie theater shooting.

A chilling tale of putting politics before science

I haven’t dared to watch the Frontline exposé on how climate skeptics have sown the seeds of mass doubt in the U.S., but somehow I couldn’t look away from Felicity Barringer’s review in the New York Times. “Very little of the production is about the science of climate change,” she writes. “The focus is rather on the ideology and political heft of the skeptics’ movement, and the way it found new life as the economy fell to pieces and the Tea Party arose from the wreckage.”

Building in cold blood (mixed with sand)

A British architecture school graduate has invented a brick that is based on blood instead of mud, reports Darren Quick at Gizmag. Intriguingly, it is “waterproof,” according to Quick, which makes me wonder if it’s a good idea from a hygrothermal perspective. (That’s after putting aside the more immediate heebie-jeebie factor, which I have trouble doing even though the blood is agricultural waste.) But apparently the inventor is proposing it for arid regions and is trying to raise money to build a whole house with them in Egypt.

A Hitchcock film for birds: The Skyline

Think all those crazed gulls, sparrows, and crows in The Birds were creepy? Check out Emily Badger’s piece at The Atlantic Cities about volunteers who roam Chicago’s sidewalks before dawn to pick up hundreds of stunned birds. The photos there illustrating why our buildings are constantly killing birds are almost as distressing as some of Hitchcock’s warped scenes. It makes you wonder why those cute little kinglets don’t attack us while we cower in phone booths, doesn’t it? To avoid that fate, check out our primer on bird-safe design strategies.

Also read

Mixed News for Birds, Wind Farms, and Buildings

Does Saving Historic Buildings Really Save Energy?

2030 Carbon Targets May Be Within Reach

2012-10-25 n/a 12103 Why Fresh Air Helps You Think: Top 5 Stories This Week

Squeezing big box stores (and more people) into cities, living in a CO2 fog, and tallying up the value of green homes.

The "Värm" home from Bensonwood's Unity Homes offshoot is inspired by Swedish design.
Photo Credit: Unity Homes

How much more dense can you get?

It turns out you can get pretty darn dense even without building mile-high skyscrapers, according to Lloyd Alter at Treehugger. He points out that Montreal has areas packed with three-story walkups and 11,000 people per square kilometer—and argues that the density-by-skyscraper philosophy just doesn’t work in most places, in part due to “losses for circulation, fire stairs, elevators and separating distances between buildings.”

But does the way we measure urban density even make sense? Richard Florida at The Atlantic Cities shares a new U.S. Census Bureau report that employs a newer metric called “population-weighted density” and includes 2000 and 2010 datasets for all U.S. Metro areas. “These new data on various types of density from the Census will enable us to take a deeper look at the role of different types of density on the innovativeness, productivity and economic growth of cities,” he writes.

Mr. Big Box goes to town

Target’s urban “concept stores” are opening in more metros, and Lamar Anderson at The Atlantic Cities takes a witty look at the positives (smaller footprint and integration with existing architecture) and the negatives (“So far, the CityTarget concept is more Target Lite than a truly fresh direction for the brand”).

Clear the air, clear your mind

Perhaps we finally understand why people do dumb things at office parties and make poor decisions on their SATs: blame the carbon dioxide!

New research summed up in ScienceDaily suggests that high CO2 levels are more than an indicator of poor ventilation: CO2 actually seems to make it harder for us to make decisions.

Also Read

Valuing Green: Appraisals to Include Environmental Features

Net-Zero Mart? Big Box Design Guide Offers 50% Energy Savings

Bensonwood Reinventing the House

So next time it’s stuffy and you have a sudden urge to photocopy your nether regions…you might consider getting some fresh air instead.

In seriousness, the researchers are worried about classrooms because they suspect poor ventilation may have implications for learning, and classrooms often have high occupant density and CO2 concentrations. They are planning to do more testing.

Baby steps for green home appraisals

The demand for green homes is growing, and the need to properly appraise those homes is growing too. But there are a lot of obstacles. Some of these the Appraisal Institute has started to address, but there’s only so much you can do about it when not enough comparable homes are being sold and when lenders refuse to recognize the green features as valuable, points out Mary Ellen Podmolik in the Chicago Tribune.

She takes a look at how far the Appraisal Institute’s efforts have come since 2008, and the report is pretty disappointing. A couple things that do seem to help: documentation of green features and third-party certification of energy efficiency.

New green prefabs from Bensonwood

Whatever the appraisers and banks think, clearly many people are willing to pay good money for green homes, for a lot of reasons. The new line of prefabs from Bensonwood is a good example.

Matt Hickman reviews Unity Homes over at Mother Nature Network and finds a lot to like, from the size, style, and price tag to the low-VOC finishes (pretty much everything except the “esoteric” names, like Xyla and Zūm). Watch this space for our take on this new line in the near future!

2012-10-18 n/a 12095 The Green Building Community Has Lost One of Its Pillars

Our friend and mentor, Malcolm Lewis, has passed away

Malcolm Lewis will be sorely missed.
Photo Credit: Harvey Mudd College

Malcolm Lewis, Ph.D., the founder of Constructive Technologies Group, a member of the EBN Advisory Board, and long a quiet leader in the green building movement, died on October 13th of bladder cancer.

I first got to know Malcolm when I served on the U.S. Green Building Council board of directors and observed his ability to craft consensus and find agreement on often-heated issues. He was the soft-spoken trouble-shooter on whom the board came to rely to get us out of trouble.

Along with serving on the USGBC’s board, Malcolm chaired the Council’s Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee (TSAC), which was charged with defusing tense issues, such as whether LEED should include a credit for avoiding PVC and how to factor in both ozone-depletion potential and global warming potential of refrigerants.

He took on these tasks with a skill and sensitivity that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. And I saw that work up close, since he tapped my colleague Nadav Malin for the PVC Task Force. Malcolm shepherded that process through contentious meetings—always with tact and respect for the views of others. (How much our politicians would have been able to learn from him!)

Malcolm grew Constructive Technologies Group into a firm of 30 engineers and other technical staff in two divisions, CTG Energetics and CTG Forensics. CTG Energetics handled LEED certifications for over 150 buildings—including many of the earliest. Under his leadership, CTG Energetics helped USGBC develop a scientific framework for distributing points among credits in LEED, created a LEED Volume certification program for the U.S. General Services Administration, developed a carbon accounting tool for California communities, and wrote the Reference Guide for ASHRAE Standard 189.1, among many other accomplishments. In December, 2011 he sold the company to The Cadmus Group, not long before being diagnosed with cancer.

My one chance to work directly with Malcolm on a project was in 2002 when we were part of a team that helped Stonyfield Yogurt come up with a strategy to reduce its carbon emissions. A handful of us spent an engaging two days crawling through the Stonyfield plant in New Hampshire identifying opportunities for savings—and there were many. It was a privilege to see Malcolm’s brilliant engineering skills tackle this challenge after seeing him in action on the more abstract issues of toxicity, ozone depletion, and group dynamics.

Malcolm will be sorely missed by all who knew and worked with him, and also by those who didn’t know him but nonetheless benefited from his often-anonymous efforts. Fortunately, we still have the fruits of his labors as the foundation on which we can continue to build a greener world.

Please share any thoughts you have on Malcolm and our loss.

2012-10-16 n/a 12091 The Most Moving Tree Story Ever Told: Top 5 Stories This Week

The Third World in U.S. cities, the greenest mile ever built in Chicago, and transplanting a really big tree in Texas.

This historic oak tree is thriving in its new location after a Texas city moved it four months ago.
Photo Credit: City of League City, Texas

More imagery from the war on waste

Lloyd Alter returns this week with more WWII posters, these ones admonishing us to turn down our thermostats and wear long johns. Lamenting that the values expressed in these posters are now considered “un-American,” Alter adds, “Now we fight our wars on credit and nobody has to go without anything. But in difficult times, doing with less makes sense, saves money and reduces our carbon footprints. Still good advice.”

Get with the program, people, and put on a sweater!

Greener industries are growing faster

Despite a lackluster economy and few strong policies to support them, industries with a higher percentage of green workers have grown at a faster rate than others over the last decade, says a new Economic Policy Institute study. According to Stephen Lacey at Think Progress, there is an ongoing push to broaden the definition of green jobs beyond just those in the renewable energy sector; at the same time, he says, “the deeper the ‘greening’ goes in industries, the more jobs are created.”

This may be why a single offshore wind project could create 70,000 jobs, according to an industry group study.

A road will run through it

A massive 100+-year-old tree in League City, Texas, was in the way of a new road. Instead of chopping down the 56-foot giant, residents actually moved it, reports Stephen Messenger at TreeHugger, who adds that it weighed more than 518,000 pounds. The move is “a testament to the power of human ingenuity to conserve, and not merely overrun, the bit of nature we have come to love in our zones of urban expansion,” Messenger writes.

The rust belt looks better in green

A stretch of road on Chicago’s West Side may be the greenest mile in the world, reports Lori Rotenberk at Grist.

Also Read

Green Job Training “Skyrocketing” in Higher Ed

The Folly of Building-Integrated Wind

Walkable Neighborhoods Replace Suburbs As Preferred Real Estate

“Improvements range from solar-paneled bus stops to native plants and pavement that sucks up rainwater,” she writes. “Other cities are studying the project as a blueprint for change.”

There are apparently even wind-powered educational kiosks, although we hope visitors will keep them in perspective: building-integrated wind is not usually a good idea.

America’s Third World nations

New York City might as well be Swaziland, and Los Angeles is like the Dominican Republic—at least in terms of income inequality, which “has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age,” writes Richard Florida at The Atlantic Cities.

We like to think of our cities as more sustainable because of walkability, subway systems, and other features. But this is an important reminder that many of these features are not accessible to everyone. And the downsides of living in a city, like air and water pollution, fall disproportionately on the poorest of the poor.  


2012-10-11 n/a 12076 Jailbreak Your Windows Instead of Buying Replacements: Top 5 Stories This Week

Healthy purchasing in Oregon, why unfixable windows are a waste of money, when driving was a war crime, and more.

Can we bring back the days when car pooling was patriotic?
Photo Credit: American Legion

Does your state make the energy-efficiency grade?

Some people look forward to the Oscars, but for us it’s green building awards season! The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) just released its annual state-by-state scorecard of energy efficiency, with Massachusetts keeping the top spot this year and Oklahoma surging up the list as the “most improved.” How did your state do? (Mine, Vermont, is #5.)

Tell us what’s in there or we’re not buying

When I was a kid, there was a really annoying series of Prego spaghetti sauce commercials where everyone kept demanding to know if their favorite ingredients were in this new-fangled “jar sauce”; the parents just kept repeating, “It’s in there!”

Getting chemical information from product manufacturers can be annoying in exactly the same way, and Portland, Oregon, is calling a halt with a new Healthy Purchasing Initiative. Just tell them what’s in there already, or there’s no sale—period.

“Transparency is one of the big meta-trends of our time,” says Clark Brockman, AIA, quoted in a Sustainable Business Oregon article by Christina Williams. We couldn’t agree more. The new Health Product Declaration framework, Declare label, and overall product transparency movement, including its inclusion in LEED v4, are a really big deal.

The air is instantly cleaner when we stop driving

Wow, this is amazingly good news—and it will be even more amazing if it’s news we actually use. When Los Angeles shut down one of its busiest highways last year (a move called “Carmageddon” in the local news because people thought it would be like the end of the world), the air was immediately much, much cleaner, reports Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities.

“Nature doesn’t normally present … an opportunity to catch a glimpse of atmosphere that’s typically saturated with pollutants on a suddenly pristine day,” Badger writes. “Air quality near the normally busy highway improved by 83 percent that day last July, relative to comparable weekends.”

A different kind of carmageddon: the war on driving

Lloyd Alter offers a great slideshow of vintage World War II posters (and a few modern remixes), complete with colorful commentary about when “driving was almost a war crime.”

Also Read

Getting the Most from Old Windows: A Tale of Attachments

Video: Why We Need "Nutrition Labels" for Building Products

Study Shows Homes Save More Energy from Location Than from Efficiency

My favorite: “When you drive alone, you drive with Hitler!” What’s yours?

Don’t replace windows: jailbreak the old ones!

OK, the National Trust for Historic Preservation does not actually suggest that you “jailbreak” historic windows. I only chose the wording to evoke the iPhone phenomenon that comes with newer window choices: almost all are unfixable.

Older windows are fixable, though, and a new study from the Trust shows that repairing and retrofitting the older ones provides almost the same performance at a lower price. They’ve condensed some of the study’s findings into a great slideshow.

Retrofits can be pretty extensive, but they don’t have to be. Check out (a website we worked on in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) for practical advice about some of the easier do-it-yourself window retrofits.

2012-10-04 n/a 12001 Is the NYT Data Center Story in a Time Warp? Top 5 Stories This Week

Watch the plants! There are limits to their growth, and ours. Also: data center showdown, cargo bikes, and satellite photos of economic injustice.

A coal industry "documentary" from the early '90s painted a lush picture of plant life in a carbon-rich atmosphere. Empirical evidence of stunted growth is showing us just how wrong their science was.
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Stop taking plants for granted

If plants love carbon dioxide, then it stands to reason that more CO2 should turn into more happy, healthy plants, right? Well, apparently not. Botanists are compiling increasing evidence that elevated CO2 can actually stunt plant growth, as reported by John Collins Rudolf in the New York Times.

And it’s not just CO2. The planet can only support so much plant life (and thus human life) before it hits a “planetary boundary”—and some scientists point out that this boundary is fuzzier than we might expect. “It’s not as if we can keep doing business as usual until we hit a planetary boundary, and all hell will break loose,” says ecologist Start Pimm, quoted in the New York Times. “It’s already breaking loose now.”

Let them eat leaves

We’ve seen a lot of reports lately about the role of trees in urban health and safety, like the strong correlation between trees and lower crime rates. Here’s another interesting look at tree cover and neighborhoods—from space. Writer Tim De Chant at Per Square Mile shows some satellite photos documenting the relationship between tree cover and income inequality. “The study’s authors say the demand curve they see for tree cover is more typical of demand for luxury goods than necessities,” De Chant writes. “That’s too bad.”

Stop the press! Data centers aren’t that bad

Another New York Times article on the power-hungry Internet made a big splash this week, but people who’ve been writing about this issue for a while were pretty disappointed. Tech researcher Diego Doval was downright enraged, writing a point-by-point takedown of the article, followed by information on why data centers are such power hogs and what the industry is doing about it.

Over at GigaOm, Katie Fehrenbacher is more temperate: although she complains that it “sound[s] like the author…jumped into a time machine and did his reporting a couple years ago” and is “lumping together” small-scale IT outfits with the “webscale cloud giants,” she still sees “a lot more work to be done when it comes to the Internet and its massive power consumption.”

Cargo bikes could replace delivery trucks

All this talk about data centers makes it easy to forget a lot of old and unsolved problems, like the pollution and traffic problems caused by delivery of goods and services.

Also Read

Resilient Communities

Beat the Bulb "Ban": LED Replacement Lamps in a New Light

A Surge of Popularity for Efficient DC Power

Kris De Decker at Low Tech Magazine looks at the amazing possibilities for doing many of these deliveries by bicycle.

This reminded me of the Pedal People in Northampton, Massachusetts; they pick up trash and compost, deliver your farm share, and many other services—all by bike. If people can do it in New England winters, they can do it anywhere!

Rent-to-own LED lighting?

Even though we all know LEDs will save us money, you need lots of upfront capital to upgrade. A company called Digital Lumens is trying to change that, according to Ucilia Wang at GigaOM. It’s not really “rent-to-own,” more analogous to a power purchase agreement, Wang explains: Digital Lumens will install the lighting—along with its lighting management software, which it claims makes all the difference to the savings—and then charge fees for software services over a 15- to 20-year period.

Right now they’re working mainly in manufacturing facilities, but the company is hoping to expand to commercial buildings as well. All very intriguing, and we’ll be watching for more details.

2012-09-28 n/a 11995 Our Forebears Were Jerks, but Minecraft Will Save Us: Top 5 Stories This Week

Sustainability might not come naturally to us, but maybe we’ll get past that if we can teach our children well.

Minecraft helps kids in Kenya show how real places could be transformed.
Photo Credit: FyreUK

Sustainable design: the next generation

Apparently my kids are not the only kids on earth obsessed with Minecraft. And unlike my children, some are actually putting it to good, practical use in Kenya. For more, read this awesome story about the power of play for solving serious problems, from Sarah Goodyear at The Atlantic Cities.

Or, sustainable design: a sinister plot?

“Do trash receptacles and sidewalks have an ideology?” asks Renee Loth in a column over at the Boston Globe. Apparently, some people think so. Sentiments against the UN’s “Agenda 21”—and by extension anything to do with sustainable neighborhood development—are growing in some circles. The U.S. Republican Party has even adopted an anti-Agenda 21 plank in its 2012 platform, Loth reports. Read more commentary on this at Treehugger, where Lloyd Alter has been following this story for months.

Or, sustainable design: just not in our genes

Maybe evolution is to blame. Apparently we’ve been slashing and burning the planet since the Bronze Age, says Christine Lepisto at Treehugger.

A SEED sprouts in Washington

New York City has released gobs of energy data from its buildings, as Nadav Malin reported recently in EBN. But there’s a downside, says David Leipziger at the Institute for Market Transformation: he calls the data “a maze of mind-numbing Excel tables” and says help is on the way from the U.S. Department of Energy. DOE is almost done developing SEED, a platform that helps governments sort through all that data and make better use of it. Cool!

Meanwhile, Honest Buildings has teamed up with Lucid Designs to improve its data and how that data is presented. Also cool!

Wind could power the whole East Coast

Researchers from Stanford have concluded that off-shore wind could provide a third of our electricity—the entire East Coast of the U.S., in fact, reports Jake Richardson at CleanTechnica.  “It will be fascinating to see if one region could become energy independent, and if that real-world example would cut through the resistance and red tape,” Richardson writes.

Also read:

Energy Reporting: It’s the Law

Occupant Engagement: Where Design Meets Performance

Are Wind Protestors Full of Hot Air?


2012-09-21 n/a 11985 Have You Hugged a House Today? Top 5 Stories This Week

Public facilities don’t have to be ugly, we can now hear air pollution, and the sports industry is going for the gold with green initiatives.

What made the Katrina Cottages so popular? It's the Teddy Bear Principle, says Steve Mouzon, and it's useless to resist it.
Photo Credit: Kent Griswold

Want greener homes? Embrace the cute

Wake up, architects! It’s time to give up on sleek and chic and get big-eyed and fuzzy. Like it or not, people like precious, adorable little cottages, and Steve Mouzon at Original Green has a theory about why: he calls it the Teddy Bear Principle.

It’s all about proportion, he says, and he suggests that we stop fighting it—because it can help us design greener houses. “The great thing about the Teddy Bear Principle is that if you know about it, you don't have to sell the idea of building smaller and smarter on cost savings alone,” Mouzon writes.

Power plants can look nice too

Your local water treatment plant is probably the last thing you want to hug, but Lloyd Alter at Treehugger thinks that’s a shame.

Europeans have “a willingness to do what it takes to put the most banal functions into beautiful buildings,” says Alter, contrasting a “stunning” power plant in Italy with a “horrible barn with a mansard roof” near his summer digs in Ontario. Alter shares some great examples of public projects in North America that are also stunning—but are, sadly, historic.

Show me what pollution sounds like!

What if air pollution were audible? From what I can tell, it would be a bit like Close Encounters of the Carcinogenic Kind. Gabriel Isaacman and fellow grad students in the UC–Berkeley department of environmental science mapped pollutants to different tones and produced soundtracks based on air samples from different areas in California.

I can’t decide if it’s pretty or creepy, but it’s definitely a cool way to see how air quality differs between the city and the natural world. Break out your ear buds and give them a listen over at The Atlantic Cities.

Bringing down the hammer on thorium

We all know the problems with nuclear reactors: the fuel is extremely rare and dangerous; it can be stolen by ne’er-do-wells who want to turn it into nuclear bombs; and, once it’s used up, it remains dangerous virtually forever.

Also Read

Meltdown in Japan and Our Energy Future

Light Pollution May Worsen Air Pollution

The Greening of Meetings: Event Venues Get Sustainable

For a while now, I’ve been hearing people say that if we could just replace uranium with thorium (another radioactive chemical, named for the Norse god Thor) in our nuclear reactors, all these problems would magically disappear.

Sadly, two scientists have brought down a massive Mjölnir of reality on the myth of thorium, as detailed by Zachary Shahan at CleanTechnica. Get a grip, says Shahan. “There’s a good reason…why wind turbines and solar panels are in place all over the world, but there isn’t a single commercial thorium reactor in operation.”

Bummer. If you have thorium stars in your eyes, the whole thing is worth a read.

Buy me some peanuts and compost bins

Does your favorite sports team wear green jerseys? Chances are your neighborhood stadium is green, even if your team colors aren’t. Kaid Benfield looks at this trend, starting with a new NRDC report on how the professional sports industry is finally changing its ways on energy, water, and waste issues at stadiums and ball parks around the country.

Regarding a somewhat more leading-edge sports trend, Benfield goes beyond the scope of the report to talk about how some sports facilities are also creating more sustainable neighborhoods.

2012-09-14 n/a 11399 City Apples, Bike Highways, Greenest Homes: Top 5 Stories This Week

Droughts are cracking foundations and cars are blocking crosswalks. Meanwhile, Martin Holladay debunks “greenest home on earth” claims.

Sam Martin's "SkyCycle" concept would elevate bike lanes to new heights in London.
Photo Credit: SkyCycle screen capture

Here it comes…the greenest home in America

We all see “greenest building on earth!” headlines on a regular basis, but saying it doesn’t make it so.

Martin Holladay does a righteous takedown of such ridiculous claims over at Green Building Advisor, pointing out that nine recent “greenest home in the world!” houses average 4,168 square feet and have amenities like heated electric toilets. Give the claims a rest, pleads Holladay: “The contest was won long ago by a poor family in Brazil, Tanzania, or Laos.”

The drought next time

Feeling lucky because your house wasn’t burned in a wildfire or flooded this year? Not so fast: the drought could destroy it too. Very dry soil—clay soil in particular—can cause huge cracks in foundations that may eventually damage the rest of the house, reports Jim Salter for the Associated Press.

“Drought-related home damage is reported in 40 of the 48 contiguous states,” Salter writes, and “experts say it could exceed $1 billion.” So go ahead and add underground piers that protect homes against parched soil to your list of resilient design strategies.

Taking bike-lane solutions to the top

A landscape architect who stopped cycling London’s streets for safety reasons is proposing elevated bike lanes—and his idea has caught the mayor’s attention, according to Lloyd Alter at Treehugger.

Alter points out that the sky tunnels would increase cycling efficiency, making the lanes the equivalent of an interstate highway system for bikes.

Also Read

Build Bike Lanes and They Will Ride

Could Resilience Become the New Green?

Urban Trees Curb Shady Behavior

“Like any highway system eventually does, it would increase the number of bikes on the local roads, not decrease them,” he writes.

One-car pickup

Wow, car-jacking isn’t what it used to be.

John Metcalfe at The Atlantic Cities shares a video of the Gracie Floripa Jiu Jitsu team hoisting a car out of the crosswalk. A funny stunt, but it’s really no laughing matter: “Brazil has entered the dangerous territory of nearly 20 [traffic] fatalities per 100,000 people, with motorcycle riders and pedestrians being especially at risk,” Metcalfe says.

Bored at the crosswalk because you left your team of martial artists on the kitchen counter? Play Pong!

An orchard grows in Chicago

Thanks to the efforts of urban farmer Dave Snyder, Chicago is about to start planting its first apple orchard, with a focus on heirloom apples, peaches, cherries, berries, and, of course, paw paws, reports Lori Rotenberk at Grist.

“Urban orchards,” Rotenberk writes, “are becoming a metropolitan staple,” with specimens cropping up in Boston, San Francisco, London, and many other cities. In addition to preserving heritage fruit varieties and producing food, the orchard will provide public green space to the surrounding neighborhood.



2012-09-07 n/a 11396 Energy Data for NYC Buildings Released

NYC made history this week by releasing a huge dataset of actual building performance—including some blank spots for buildings that didn't comply with the law.

NYC is making history, but other cities are soon to follow.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

This week New York City posted 2011 energy use data (PDF) for more than 2,000 large, privately owned buildings, making it the first major city in the world to release this kind of information. As described in our in-depth article “Energy Reporting: It’s the Law,” several major cities in the U.S. now mandate energy reporting and benchmarking.

The energy use is posted in a sortable and searchable Excel spreadsheet, so anyone can download the file and look up the energy use data for a building of interest. The files list 3,600 properties—all those that were subject to the mandate—including some that failed to provide the required data. Those are now subject to fines by the city, charged quarterly until they comply.

Making sense of the spreadsheets

Of the 2,065 that did comply, not all provided numbers that make sense. Buildings with data centers and high-intensity energy uses do not show an Energy Star score, but they do list both site and source energy use intensity (EUI) in thousand Btus per square foot per year.

Also Read

No More Secrets: "Facebook" for Buildings Tells All

D.C. Energy Performance Ratings Set National Precedent

Energy Reporting: It's the Law

For reasons described in the article, not all the data is reliable. A handful of those numbers appear to be off by a factor of 1,000, for example.

Outlying data points like those were omitted from the analysis that was done for the “New York City Local Law 84 Benchmarking Report” (PDF) released last month. That analysis did include information on nearly 8,000 residential buildings, which are not included in listings of individual building energy use that was just released. In the fall of 2013, the City intends to include residential buildings in the public dataset. It will also include annual water use for all projects (280 properties volunteered that information this time).

Room for improvement

The City's study makes the case that, while New York City buildings are more energy-efficient than the national average, there is a huge opportunity for cost-effective energy savings available by simply bringing the low-performing buildings into line with the city’s current average performance.

The 2,065 large commercial buildings included in the newly released dataset come from all five New York boroughs.
Source: City of New York

The City has also released energy use data on 2,657 municipal buildings for the second year in a row, but not in a searchable format.

There is nothing in the data that indicates how densely the properties were occupied—a factor that makes new, high-profile office buildings look bad compared with some older buildings that show low EUI numbers but don’t have nearly as many occupants.

More data coming soon

Similar public releases of data on private sector buildings are expected soon from San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston. These unprecedented public releases of information will shine light into an aspect of building performance that has until now been well hidden and create a strong incentive for owners and tenants to improve their energy efficiency.

This chart shows weather-normalized energy use intensity for large non-residential buildings in NYC. About 100 data points were omitted as likely anomalies (those under 20 or over 1,000).
Source: City of New York

2012-09-06 n/a 11370 Fighting Smart Meters, Urbanism, Styrofoam: Top 5 Stories This Week

While India stands on the brink of modernizing its grid, angry Texans take up the charge against smart meters, citing privacy concerns.

Some residents have taken to locking up their analog meters in cages, but anti-smart meter groups warn, "some installers have no scruples about cutting locks."
Photo Credit:

Holding up smart meters, Texas style

Opposition to smart meters is heating up in Texas, where residents object to perceived infringements of their sovereignty, the Associated Press reports. “This is Texas. We have rights to choose what appliances we want in our home,” said one interviewee, who recently pulled a gun on a utility worker who tried to install a smart meter at her home.

Health and safety concerns have led to protests in other states, even though research shows that electrical emissions from the meters are very low, but Texas groups are mostly voicing concerns about data privacy. Elsewhere, newly installed smart meters have been implicated in a few household fires, says Environmental Leader, but the root cause of the fires is still unclear.

Schooled in new urbanism and loving it

Some architects in El Paso, Texas, grumbled about “communism” when new rules forced them to get accredited in new urbanism if they wanted to work on municipal building projects, according to business journal El Paso Inc. But architect Carl Daniels had a complete turnaround after taking the courses, reports Robert Gray. “It is one of the best courses I have ever taken. It’s all the things you keep in the back of your head about what is wrong with our cities but never had anyone tell you,” Daniels told Gray.

Will India learn from blackouts?

India has pretty aggressive plans for renewable energy, but with population growth and economic growth both skyrocketing, demand for coal has not slowed down. Suzanne York at Triple Pundit analyzes the situation and asks whether India will be able to stop mining and burning coal anytime soon.

Green is beautiful

Beauty plays a major role in our well-being, according to new research from the PatternMapping Institute. Researchers claim to have developed a way to measure beauty, a method study authors call the Beauty in Building (BiB) Matrix. “Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said that hard core pornography was hard to define, but ‘I'll know it when I see it,’” writes Lloyd Alter. “Beauty was much the same thing, until The Pattern Mapping Institute figured out a way to put a number on it; perhaps now architects can be sued for ugly.”

She fought the foam—and she won

Ten-year-old Mia Hansen was outraged when she ordered a “healthy” smoothie at Jamba Juice and received it in a Styrofoam cup. Three weeks after starting a petition at with her mom’s help, Mia declared victory, having “secured a public commitment from Jamba Juice to completely stop using Styrofoam cups and switch to an environmental alternative by the end of 2013,” according to her petition site.

Polystyrene is nasty enough as a building material that improves efficiency and stays in our walls for a decade or more, but eating and drinking from an oil-based product full of styrene and benzene can’t be good for you, and using this nonrenewable material for disposable containers in this day and age is just plain irresponsible. Way to go, Mia!

Also read:

Class Action Suit Seeks to Limit Smart Meter Use

Green Design Strategies Help Survivors of Domestic Violence

“Unreasonable” Green Goals in Reach for India’s Infosys

2012-08-31 n/a 11316 Feast Your Eyes on Iceland, Save Wind Power Jobs & More: Top 5 Stories This Week

Big wind is getting bigger, but can we save the tax credits that help it grow? Also, how to read palms skylines, and new Passive House partnerships.

Remind yourself why you want to save the planet by looking at Lloyd Alter's vacation pictures.
Photo Credit: Lloyd Alter

By Paula Melton

This is what a treehugger looks like

Ever forget why you’re working so hard to save the planet? DO NOT MISS Lloyd Alter’s slideshow of his backpacking trip in Iceland. Then immediately schedule your next nature immersion, whatever form that takes for you.

Killing wind power subsidies will kill jobs

91,000 U.S. wind-power jobs are “blowin’ in the wind” because crucial tax credits are in jeopardy, writes RP Siegel over at TriplePundit. A few stats before you click:

  • 32% of added generation capacity in 2011 came from wind
  • Current wind-power capacity equals that of 44 coal plants
  • 70% of wind-power equipment in 2011 was manufactured in the U.S.

What your skyline says about you

Thomas Sigler at The Atlantic Cities practices some postmodern urbanist phrenology on city skylines, from Paris to Vancouver to Hong Kong to Taipei. Great pictures of the different types, like the “Shock City,” the “Oligopolis,” and “Surf Cities” and a fun discussion of what shapes them. In a similar vein, Steve Mouzon asks whether “fried egg” cities are really urban.

Were you going to eat that?

There’s been a lot of focus in the last few years on repairing our broken food system, but we’re never going to get a handle on that if we keep throwing away shocking amounts of food. NRDC has released a report on the truly disgusting amount of food waste we’re responsible for in the U.S.—and I don’t mean because there’s mold growing on it.

We took a look at this issue last year in the context of a report about food disposal systems that showed municipal compost is the best option for dealing with food waste. So yes, put your scraps in the compost—but as with all sustainability efforts, from recycling to saving energy, the first thing you do is reduce.

Passive House + DOE = zero energy homes

Last week at Green Building Advisor, Allison Bailles asked whether Passive House could go mainstream here in the U.S.

It will if Katrin Klingenberg, executive director at Passive House Institute U.S. (PHIUS), has anything to say about it. Going against the international grain, she has pushed the development of the group’s PHIUS+ rating system, proposed relaxing the standard, and banned certain spray foam materials, and the U.S. Department of Energy has now partnered with the group to push zero-energy homes. Whether or not Passive House ever becomes mainstream—or will even be recognizable as Passive House if it does—it’s certainly a fascinating story to watch. We’ll keep our finger on the pulse!

2012-08-24 n/a 11307 Water=Power, Why BPA is B-A-D, and More: Top 5 Stories This Week

Will we wake up about climate change when the blackouts begin? Also, what does historic preservation mean in a city without any history?

Hot, dry summers are a recipe for (power) failure.
Photo Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Power, power everywhere (but then what will we drink?)

Our power grid is a voracious water hog, as detailed recently in a River Network report called “Burning Our Rivers.” The Union of Concerned Scientists offers a great infographic series on how continuing droughts and heat waves threaten our power supply.

Nuclear plants in hot water

It’s not just lack of water that can take power plants offline. The New York Times reports on the latest nuclear reactor to be shut down due to water that’s too warm—this time, on the coast.

Another reason to avoid BPA

Bisphenol-A is ubiquitous in food, building materials, and consumer products—and it may be making us fat and increasing diabetes risk. New research also links it to narrowing of the arteries (coronary artery stenosis), a known risk factor for heart disease, the Huffington Post reports.

Save the bus stations!

Preservation battles are heating up in Abu Dhabi over relatively mundane pre-oil-boom structures like shopping malls, writes Nate Berg at Atlantic Cities, riffing on a longer thought-provoking piece by John Henzell in The National. “When old isn’t that old and new is everything, should the past be preserved?” Berg asks. The question goes to the heart of what historic preservation is all about in the first place. Great food for thought.

Cutting the Cost of LEED: Software Tips

Especially for larger projects, good software can cut down on LEED credit tracking in a big way, saving lots of time and money. Derek Singleton, an analyst at Software Advice, walks us through a variety of options and how each one helps cut costs, including BIM applications, Greengrade, and LoraxPro.

Also Read

Retrofits (Usually) Greener Than New Construction

The Water–Energy Connection

The Cost of LEED Certification

2012-08-17 n/a 11296 Top 5 Stories We Read This Week: Hacking the Cloud, FSC+, and More

A beautiful map of amazing places, why FSC is still best wood certification, and the scary story of why you should still make your own file backups.

My kids scrambled up the granite hill known as the South Bubble for the fourth or fifth time last week in Acadia National Park. Acadia is the only National Park we've been to, but after seeing the Sierra Club's "subway" map, we intend to change that ASAP.
Photo Credit: Paula Melton

Next stop, Yosemite

The Sierra Club has released an elegantly simple “subway map” of U.S. National Parks. How many stops have you made? See the map over at Treehugger and start your checklist.

FSC: Still the best

A great read on why FSC is still the best rating system for forestry products, although the others have improved. Perkins+Will recently reviewed its “FSC + Better” policy and decided to stick with it because “as a rule, FSC emphasizes real performance in the forest, whereas the other systems are more focused on intended outcomes,” writes P+W’s Doug Pierce. (For more context, see our series examining the “wood wars” in terms of economics, LEED credits, and global warming.)

Back up! And get your head out of the clouds!

Environmentalists have rushed to embrace cloud-based storage and computing practices, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves; aside from the serious energy issues to think through, we also need to back up our data in multiple places and think more carefully about security. This piece by Mat Honan at Wired reads like a thriller about the dangers of a purely digital life—but it’s frighteningly real. If you’re living in the cloud, be careful up there.

When carbon credits go terribly wrong

The New York Times reported on a carbon credit program that has led to feverish production of super-high-GWP refrigerants—specifically so the companies producing them can be paid to destroy them.

Also Read

Army to Congress: LEED Doesn't Cost More

Sunny Skies, Net-Zero Cloud

Occupant Engagement: Where Design Meets Performance

The companies are threatening to release the refrigerants into the atmosphere if the UN tries to change the program.


Learn how to design zero-energy homes

This self-paced online course offered through the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association covers everything from solar orientation and energy modeling to meticulous design details for controlling vapor, air, and heat flow in a zero-energy house. Taught by Marc Rosenbaum, designer of these eight super-homes on Martha’s Vineyard.

2012-08-10 n/a 11048 GSA Hears Overwhelming Support for LEED

Green Globes may have come out slightly ahead in a recent “alignment” report, but support for LEED is strong in the building industry.

Atlantic Wharf, a huge mixed-use building on Boston's waterfront, is pre-certified LEED Gold and features a rain harvesting system to re-use rainwater in building systems and a green roof on the Waterfront Building.
Photo Credit: JC Cannistraro

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), along with the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, today hosted a second “listening session” on which green building rating system it should recommend for federal government use. Public comments almost universally favored a GSA determination to continue with LEED as the government’s rating system of choice.

This rating system review is stipulated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and supported by a report from Pacific Northwest National Labs that compared LEED, Green Globes, and the Living Building Challenge. As reported in EBN, that report found that Green Globes aligned with federal guidelines slightly better than LEED for New Construction, while LEED bested Green Globes in that tally for existing buildings.

The first listening session took place in Washington, D.C., in late June; today’s happened online, where 25 speakers each got three minutes to speak. What they said was almost universally in support of LEED.

The Tally:

Pro LEED: 19

Pro Green Globes: 1

Pro Living Building Challenge: 1 (but many expressed support for it as stretch goal)

Pro random other things: 4

Do we need a green building “moon shot”?

Also Read

GSA Pledges to Pursue Zero Environmental Footprint

Green Globes Tops LEED in Federal Review, But Barely

Chemical Industry Attacks LEED; BuildingGreen Checks the Facts

Are FSC and LEED Killing American Jobs? A Look at the Facts

Richard Graves, until recently senior vice president at USGBC and now executive director of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), kicked off the conversation with a call for a more visionary, “moon landing” approach to the choice of rating system. Several speakers who followed expressed strong support for ILFI’s Living Building Challenge, but suggested that it wasn’t appropriate as standard for all government projects.

Raving about LEED

By the end, the session felt like a LEED pep rally. Speakers from industrial giants UT Carrier and GAF endorsed LEED, as did two people from the real estate investment trust Boston Properties, Inc., who called LEED an “incredibly effective vehicle for training people.” On their recently completed LEED Gold Atlantic Wharf tower, they bragged: “Our innovations were off the charts because of our LEED certification.”

Vivian Loftness, Ph.D., of Carnegie Mellon University stood out for the way she added breadth and depth to the discussion. She and several others noted that the report comparing rating system “alignment” with federal goals lacked any metrics for the depth of infrastructure and community behind each system, a measure in which LEED is orders of magnitude above the others.

She also pointed out how effective LEED has been at promulgating government projects and standards into the private sector and at establishing the U.S. as a leader in green building standards internationally.

Stuart Kaplow, an attorney with experience in green building law and former chair of the Maryland USGBC chapter pointed out “the federal government is more than just a portfolio holder; it’s driving a larger marketplace.”

And Lois Vitt Sale of Wight & Company said: “LEED is more than just a plaque at the end of the road. We consider it a quality assurance process and use it even when the project is not pursuing LEED.”

Paula Vaughan of Perkins+Will and Jim Newman of Linnean Solutions, among others, made the case that LEED is the better choice because it will drive innovation. Vaughan cited the recent Chicago Tribune series on toxic flame retardants as evidence of the need for more progressive rating systems, while Newman called innovation “The essence of American industrial strength.”

And railing about other things

Of the few comments that were not glowing endorsements of LEED, Michael O’Brien, a mechanical engineer with Heery International expressed a preference for Green Globes for its “lower cost, speed of certification, and lack of prerequisites.”

And the random other votes? One argued that ground-source heat pumps should be considered renewable energy sources, and two—a lawn care labor association and power equipment trade association—complained about the 40% limit on lawn area in ASHRAE Standard 189.1. There are a few in every crowd…

2012-07-10 n/a 10881 Better Window Decisions: A Webcast with Alex Wilson and Nadav Malin

How often have you heard that a client can't afford better windows? Our free webcast will look at the best windows for any budget.

Click to sign up for the free webcast.
Photo Credit: BuildingGreen, Inc.

When you choose windows for a project, you need to find the right balance among multiple decision drivers, including cost, durability, energy and comfort performance, aesthetics, and more. This webcast on Tuesday, June 19—featuring BuildingGreen's founder, Alex Wilson, and president, Nadav Malin—dives deep into these topics, giving you the framework you need to make an informed decision.

Addressing windows for both residential and commercial applications, Alex and Nadav discuss strategies that save money, like right-sizing the glazing (you probably don’t need as many windows as you think, and should avoid fully glazed facades).

The webcast also provides detail on the anatomy of a high-performance window: the ins and outs of low-e coatings, warm-edge spacers, and gas fills as well as the price, performance, and sustainability of different window frame materials.

Special features:

  • how to use NFRC ratings—including U-value, VT, and SHGC—to specify windows that make sense for each climate and orientation.
  • ultra-efficient windows, including the difference between European and North American window specs (hint: it’s not just the metric system).
  • Links to GreenSpec's customer ratings of window manufacturers, and other window selection resources

Sign up at WebEx.

About the Presenters

Alex Wilson
Founder of BuildingGreen, Inc.
Executive Editor of Environmental Building News (EBN) and the GreenSpec Directory of green building products.

Prior to launching his own company, now BuildingGreen, in 1985, Alex served for five years as executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.

Alex is the author or coauthor of Your Green Home (New Society, 2006) the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings (ACEEE, first edition, 1990, 9th edition 2007) and Green Development: Integrating Ecology and Real Estate (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). Alex served on the national board of the U.S. Green Building Council from 2000 through 2005 and received the organization's 2008 Leadership Award for Education. In 2010, he received the second annual Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Housing.

Nadav Malin
BuildingGreen, Inc.

As president of BuildingGreen, Nadav oversees the company’s industry-leading information and community-building resources, including Environmental Building News, its sister publication GreenSpec, and the project certification help tool LEEDuser. A long-serving member of the national LEED Faculty, he serves as a consultant to architecture firms and government agencies alike. Nadav also led the team that created the U.S. Department of Energy’s High Performance Buildings Database.


2012-06-11 n/a 10862 Chemical Industry Attacks LEED: BuildingGreen Checks the Facts

Chemical and plastics trade groups claim the federal government should stop using LEED. BuildingGreen separates the facts from the fabrications.

The FOX Architects-designed American Chemistry Council headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit:

A developing focus on chemicals of concern in the LEED rating systems could make federal buildings less energy-efficient, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

In recent letters to the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and to a number of representatives in the U.S. Congress (PDF), ACC and others also claim that LEED v4 (formerly known as LEED 2012) is not “science-based” and does not use a “true consensus approach” to development.

LEED: “a tool to punish chemical companies”?

The latter document went to a group of legislators who have echoed ACC’s position in their own letter (PDF) to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) pointing to “arbitrary chemical restrictions” and claiming LEED is “becoming a tool to punish chemical companies.” See Lloyd Alter’s incisive coverage at Treehugger for more background on the congressional letter to GSA.

Below, we look at each of AAC’s claims and separate the truth from the lies. But first…

Why this attack matters

The federal government, including the military, is the single largest user of the LEED rating systems. According to data provided by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), 7% of LEED-certified projects and 11.5% of those pending certification are federal government buildings. The public sector as a whole (federal, state, and local governments combined) makes up a whopping 27% of LEED-certified projects, and smaller governments could follow the federal lead on LEED. Use of LEED by these entities has, over the last 12 years, helped develop green practices and products across the industry.

Related Links

Green Globes Tops LEED in Federal Review, But Barely

LEED 2012 Postponed to 2013, Renamed LEED v4

Video: The Nine Types of Greenwashing

A Peek Inside Google's Healthy Materials Program

Both GSA and the Department of Defense are currently reviewing a number of green building rating systems and codes, taking a hard look at their alignment with federal government goals, including energy and cost savings as well as toxic chemical avoidance.

As that continues, we can probably expect more intense lobbying by more and more industries along similar lines. How much traction they get remains to be seen, and fact-checking makes a difference.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will eliminate certain materials from LEED buildings

ACC argues that a new focus on chemicals of concern will mean that project teams will not be able to choose certain materials. “Energy-efficient materials such as insulation, reflective roofing, piping, and wiring could be targeted for ‘avoidance’ by LEED [v4],” said Cal Dooley, CEO at ACC.

USGBC response: According to Brendan Owens, vice president for LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), “There is no ‘red list’ of banned chemicals or products” in LEED v4. Rather, the proposed credits “are focused on encouraging the use of materials known to have desirable characteristics from a human health perspective,” and “the responsible use of any particular product will not disqualify project teams from achieving certification.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: LEED does not ban any materials except ozone-depleting refrigerants that are targeted for phase-out by international treaty.

The third Public Comment draft of LEED v4 did include a list of chemicals that could be avoided to earn one or two points; this list was removed from the fourth Public Comment draft in response to public comments and was replaced with a reference to the European Union’s REACH protocol.

LEED project teams who choose to pursue the material avoidance credits only need to address a small percentage of products to earn the one or two points. They may choose alternative materials or design options to meet energy-efficiency needs in insulation, roofing, and other areas—and there are plenty of environmentally preferable options that don’t sacrifice performance. The point structure of LEED heavily emphasizes energy efficiency, and there is no incentive to sacrifice that for chemical avoidance.

When I suggested to Dooley that people could simply choose alternatives, he replied, “It does not appear that USGBC has conducted any analysis of the alternatives to these products or demonstrated that there are equally performing alternatives available to builders.”

Dooley does have a valid point—that the LEED requirements would push some projects into areas where development of market options is needed. But that’s part of the “market transformation” that USGBC is working to do with LEED: to push buildings in a greener, healthier direction and assume that the money spent by those projects will stimulate the market to follow. The analysis that Dooley suggests should have been done would make more sense for a mandatory code requirement than for an optional credit.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will reduce energy efficiency

ACC contends that credits for chemical avoidance detract from LEED’s energy goals. Its recent letter to legislators praised the lawmakers for their claim that “the proposed LEED 2012 criteria will make federal buildings less energy efficient[,] resulting in increased costs to taxpayers.” That group of lawmakers in their own letter to GSA stated that LEED v4 would be “counterproductive in the mission to develop more sustainable and energy efficient building codes.”

USGBC response: This characterization is “a false dichotomy,” said Owens. “Sustainability requires a holistic approach to balance multiple fundamental priorities.” That said, Owens told BuildingGreen, “LEED’s commitment to energy efficiency and climate change mitigation and adaptation has never been stronger, and nothing proposed in LEED v4 changes this significant focus.” Owens pointed to the “seven overarching system goals” that drive LEED, which address not only energy and water conservation but also human health, biodiversity, and sustainable material resource cycles.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It is false to suggest that chemical avoidance will come at the expense of energy efficiency.

Proposed chemical credits are a miniscule percentage of the whole of LEED, and there is no requirement to achieve them, while tough energy prerequisites remain.

But it’s not just USGBC that views sustainable building holistically. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) is about more than energy conservation. Green building rating systems are to be evaluated according to a number of criteria:

  • “Efficient and sustainable use” of energy, water, and natural resources
  • Use of renewable energy sources
  • Improved indoor environmental quality
  • Reduced impacts from transportation
  • “Such other criteria as the Federal Director determines to be appropriate”

These other criteria currently include “system maturity” and “usability.” The federal government also compares rating systems against its Guiding Principles, which include the sustainability of materials and resources.

Not only will avoidance of certain chemicals and materials not reduce energy efficiency, but energy efficiency—by a long shot—is not the only criterion the federal government itself uses to evaluate green building rating systems.

CLAIM: Chemical credits will kill jobs

ACC is also claiming that the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern Credit will hurt the economy and cost jobs. As the forestry industry has proven, playing the “jobs card” is a guaranteed way to get attention—but the card is not always backed up by data.

BuildingGreen Fact Check: ACC has no data to back its claim.

Dooley did not have specific numbers on the potential economic impact of the new Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern credit, saying only, “Forcing the avoidance of popular and proven building materials would undoubtedly hurt the producers of these products” and citing data about how many jobs the chemical industry supports in Michigan and Ohio. Past evidence, however, suggests that innovation encourages market growth and helps create jobs.

The language of “forcing avoidance” gets to the crux of the issue and reinforces a common misunderstanding about LEED: that credits are the same as requirements. They’re not. Only the prerequisites are required; credits are a menu to choose from. You can completely skip chemical avoidance and still achieve LEED certification.

A precautionary approach favors chemicals that are proven to be less hazardous.
Photo Credit: BuildingGreen, Inc.

CLAIM: Chemical credits are not science-based

ACC told BuildingGreen, “A truly science-based approach would consider all facts, not selectively chosen attributes of ingredients in products. The avoidance and listings credits take a hazard-only approach, excluding the questions of exposure or actual risk.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that the chemical credits emphasize a hazard-avoidance approach. It’s false to claim that this approach is not science-based.

Both a hazard-avoidance approach and a risk-assessment approach to toxic chemicals are science-based. The proposed chemical credits in LEED (which are still evolving) currently reference European REACH legislation and the Green Screen for Safer Chemicals. Both of these have a precautionary orientation—meaning they favor chemicals scientifically proven to be safer. (Regulations in the U.S. tend to require that chemicals be proven unsafe before their use can be restricted.) Both REACH and Green Screen are backed by rigorous scientific research and review.

The associated lists target major hazards for which an avoidance strategy makes sense—particularly in the absence of sufficiently rigorous studies and data on exposure, since neither the chemical industry nor the government has chosen to invest in the research needed to provide that data. These substances include persistent, bioaccumulative toxic chemicals, to which eventual exposure is almost assured.

CLAIM: USGBC does not use a consensus approach

ACC has also accused USGBC of not using a “true” consensus-based approach. “USGBC is an ANSI-accredited organization but has not taken the next steps and completed the requirements of an ANSI standard,” Dooley said. “The internal committees…appear to lack participation of appropriately qualified experts.”

Dooley added that “in a true consensus process, USGBC would have to provide technical support for the material avoidance or material ingredient listing credits.” When I asked Dooley whether ACC had participated in the process, he responded that the group had submitted public comments “that were ignored.”

USGBC response: Owens called this line of attack “a distraction from the substantive issues,” adding, “LEED is developed in accordance with a rigorously inclusive process.  We have received more than 22,000 public comments and have responded to each individually. We work cooperatively with industries, and LEED standards are set in a consensus-driven, transparent manner led by technical experts in their fields.”

BuildingGreen Fact Check: It’s true that LEED is not an ANSI standard. It’s false to say that it is not a consensus-based standard.

The federal government defers to consensus standards but does not require the rating systems it uses to be ANSI standards. ANSI defines specific requirements for stakeholder balance and consensus, but this is not the only structure accepted by ISO or the federal government.

In its recent review of rating systems, GSA noted that LEED was not an ANSI standard but concluded that LEED was developed according to a rigorously transparent consensus process according to on its own definition:

The certification system contains the attributes of a voluntary consensus standards body defined in OMB Circular A-119: openness, balance of interest, due process, an appeal process, and consensus.

ACC may be pushing this message because its own preferred rating system—Green Globes, which has stronger ties to mainstream industries and lobbyists—is an ANSI standard.

Postponing LEED v4

You may be wondering if this attack is related to the postponement of the erstwhile LEED 2012, which is now called LEED v4 because it won’t be available until 2013.

Yes and no. While the chemical industry attacks have no direct relationship to the decision to delay rollout, as Nadav Malin reported in EBN earlier this week, there was a more widespread sense—particularly among “core supporters” of LEED—that “the proposed changes in the rating system were too much, too fast, especially in a weak real estate market.”

Avoidance of Chemicals of Concern was among the credits making these groups worry, and a series of gut renovations with each public comment draft may have made the process more vulnerable to industry attacks as the rating system failed to stabilize around a specific, robust approach.

Disclosure: BuildingGreen has collaborated with USGBC on several projects over the last two decades, and several of our staff have participated in USGBC committees and the board of directors.

2012-06-07 n/a 10717 UL and Perkins+Will Launch “Transparency Briefs”

New EPD summaries give a snapshot view of LCA data, but are limited by their document-centric paradigm.

This two-page summary of an EPD is a new format that seeks to make life-cycle assessment-based information easier to use.
Image Credit: UL Environment

Environmental product declarations (EPDs) are, in theory, the answer to our product information prayers. To the extent enabled by the appropriate Product Category Rule (PCR), a product’s EPD discloses environmental life-cycle assessment results including its ingredients and environmental impacts. If that information is validated and certified by a credible third party, so much the better. To better understand how all that works, check out BuildingGreen’s graphical EPD primer (PDF) and our feature article on product transparency (member link).

Current LCA methods are not very helpful for some key issues, such as human health, ecological toxicity, and habitat disruption, so most EPDs wisely omit those categories. Even the information that remains, however—a 20-30 page structured summary of an LCA study that might run 100 pages or more—can easily overwhelm designers and other potential users of all this information.

Brevity to the rescue

In an effort to make the key parts of this information more accessible, UL Environment (ULe) has now unveiled a new two-page “Transparency Brief” that summarizes the LCA results even further. ULe collaborated with Perkins+Will on this new format, building on that firm’s work in 2011 creating product transparency label for Construction Specialties, and with Interface, which had produced its own summary view of its EPDs when they first came out in 2011.

A single EPD often covers multiple configurations of a product, but to keep the Transparency Brief simple it is limited to just one configuration, so each EPD can spawn multiple briefs. You can see the new Tranparency Briefs, along with their associated EPDs, by searching UL’s so-called “Sustainable Products Database” for certification type: “Environmental Product Declarations.”

A good teaching tool

The Transparency Brief does a nice job highlighting the key EPD information, and serves as a useful teaching tool about LCA and EPDs, with explanations of the impact categories and tables listing ingredients, recycled content, and other data. This teaching function is enhanced by keeping placeholder cells even for non-existent information—though they could have gone even further to make it clear where current LCA’s don’t tell the entire story.

UL intends to make the format available to any EPD producer, according to Heather Gadonniex, Lead, Strategic Development and Innovation at ULe, and is differentiating its own EPDs with a new “badge” declaring that the Transparency Brief is based on a UL certified EPD.

Where's the app?

When it comes to the fundamental problem of making this information accessible and usable to designers and other decision makers, however, it’s not clear how much the Transparency Brief really helps. Its paper or PDF structure is stuck in the 20th-century document paradigm, which is not a great model for helping users sift through huge amounts of data and make comparative decisions. For reviewing data on individual products, a smartphone app model might be more helpful, with summary views of the data linking to additional details from the EPD and the underlying LCA as needed.

Why manage documents when we just need data?

Ultimately, however, users need access to this data in a way that they can easily compare and manipulate, ideally within the context of a data-rich design tool. I hope that the folks at ecoScorecard and Autodesk are burning the midnight oil (ok, so that’s a 19th-century metaphor) to bring us that functionality so we can stop managing documents to manage data.

More context always helps

New formats alone won’t solve this problem—we also need comparable data for many more products to put each product’s information in context. ULe hopes to be the provider—or at least the certifier—of most of those EPDs. It will be an interesting year or two as all this gets sorted out, along with the question of how the new Health Product Declarations (HPDs) factor into the mix. While it doesn’t solve many of the problems, the new Transparency Brief is a step in that direction.

2012-05-19 n/a 10683 Living Future 2012 Was a Riot

Now in its seventh year, the annual gathering of Living Building Challenge project teams and their kin—known as Living Future—has really hit its stride.

Reinventing the materials supply chain is not for the faint-of-heart!
Photo Credit: Eden Brukman, ILFI

The annual Living Future event rotates between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, the three hubs of Cascadia Green Building Council, which is a chapter of both the U.S. and Canada Green Building Councils and a program within the relatively new International Living Future Institute (ILFI). (Jason McLennan, CEO of the Cascadia GBC and ILFI, is not one to follow the rules, and his organizations routinely flout the policies of their parent organizations.)

The “un-conference”

In line with that anarchistic theme, Living Future is not a “conference,”—it’s an “un-conference,” which is both a narcissistic gesture (we’re too cool to like conferences) and a welcome invitation to explore alternative formats for sessions, meals, and parties. In food-truck-happy Portland, for example, instead of serving us lunch in the hotel, Living Future gave everyone coupons for lunch at one of the dozens of nearby food carts.

They even took advantage of Portland’s innovative GoBox service to eliminate disposable containers. The inconvenience of having to go out and get lunch was offset by the treat of getting outside and engaging with the local (off-beat) culture.

The theme this year was “Women Changing the World,” and the conference did a nice job of exploring feminist perspectives without making (most of) the men feel threatened. Opening Keynote speaker Dr. Vandana Shiva set the stage well, challenging the global institutional view that subsistence agriculture doesn’t count as productive economic activity. Kira Gould posted a great summary of her talk.

The year’s main event for some firms

The sell-out crowd of 1,000 “delegates” (I find that label unfortunately political) included many green building luminaries and entire contingents from several firms that are engaged with Living Building Challenge projects and have chosen to convene their sustainable design teams during this event. Perkins + Will, for example, brought 40 people, and Turner Construction brought 20.

SmithGroupJJR is now designing a Living Building for Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a dozen years after the firm created a pioneering LEED building for that organization. In support of that project, SmithGroupJJR showed up with their client and ten staff members. An enthusiastic architect from another large firm, attending Living Future for the first time, said that she planned on telling her colleagues that this should be their go-to event as well.

Reinventing the materials supply chain

Following up on a session we did last year on toxicity in building materials, I participated with many of the same people this year to convene a conversation about how to reinvent the materials supply chain. We didn’t entirely solve that design problem, but some great insights emerged; stay tuned for a follow-up post after the intrepid ILFI VP Eden Brukman gets a break from her travels and shares the notes she collected.

Talkin’ ‘bout regeneration

Regenerative design in its various guises was featured as well. At last year’s Living Future, that topic seemed at times to be competing with the Living Building framework championed by ILFI. The organizers addressed that tension this year by expanding the tent and inviting consultant and author Carol Sanford as a keynote speaker. Sanford is a mentor, through the Regenesis Group, to consultant Bill Reed and has informed his “starting from the whole” approach to regenerative design.

Noting that ILFI is launching a Living Future Accreditation program for professionals, she issued a strong challenge to ILFI and, in fact, to the entire green building community about the damage caused by structured frameworks and external reward systems. You’d have to read her latest book to get the full picture, but the main point seems to be that holistic solutions can only come from striving to help a person or organization achieve its highest potential, a pursuit that requires radical openness, not simple-minded pursuit of preset goals.

This challenge notwithstanding, Jason McLennan announced the theme of Resilience and Regeneration for next year’s Living Future in Seattle. The conference will be strictly limited to 1,000, he says, so register soon or risk being left out!

2012-05-10 n/a 10621 Biobased PVC? Take Vinyl Industry Claims with a Grain of Salt

Making plastic from corn, soy, or sugarcane has some advantages--but fixing the petroleum problem barely touches what's wrong with PVC.

By the way, the "plant bottle" is not biodegradable, but it does recycle just like any other PET or HDPE bottle. After all, that's what it is. Just because a polymer's feedstocks come from a renewable source doesn't mean it is any more biodegradable, compostable, or even more environmentally friendly than any other plastic.

What if all of the common plastics in use today were made from renewable materials rather than from fossil fuels? Would they start looking better in the eyes of environmentalists?

This is no idle question. The plastics industry is exploring a wide range of approaches to sourcing today's typical plastics from biobased feedstocks, and their use in common products isn't too far off on the horizon. We're already seeing these entering the market. An early example is Coca Cola's "plant bottle," which uses PET or HDPE made from ethylene derived from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels.

Biobased PVC on its way

Some of these "drop-in" biobased options are already available, such as the HDPE produced by Braksem from Brazilian sugarcane. Others, like Solvay Indupa's plans to use sugarcane ethanol to manufacture PVC, are still in the planning stage--but more changes are on the way.

Are biopolymers green?

Finding alternatives to nonrenewable fossil fuels is certainly worth applauding; we can't get to a truly sustainable society without that. But that one accomplishment, if achieved, is still far from the whole story. In an earlier blog post and in this May's feature article, "Biobased Materials: Not Always Greener," (login required) EBN lays out an array of concerns.

Biobased materials, while sometimes better, have unique environmental and social impacts--some related directly to biobased sourcing and others related to impacts during manufacturing and use and after its useful life is over. Like any product, one using biobased materials would ideally have data to show that the overall impact is reduced relative to alternatives, and for some products the sourcing is the least of our concerns. Take biobased PVC, for example.

Petroleum is the least of our problems with PVC

Like most polymers today, PVC is derived largely from fossil fuels. PVC uses fossil-fuel-derived ethylene to produce naphtha, which is one component of PVC. PVC also uses industrial-grade salt to produce the vinyl chloride monomer that is the other main component. In addition to these basic building blocks, a variety of additives, including plasticizers, are added for specific performance properties.

But lets talk about the base polymer first. Solvay's use of sugarcane-derived ethylene in PVC would, according to Doug Smock at Plastics Today, "make PVC a 100% natural material from a polymer point of view." One could go so far as to argue that this "all natural" PVC is made of salt and sugar, which makes it sounds like something you'd find in your kitchen--rather than a substance of concern on a wide range of red lists. The vinyl industry has long used the words "table salt" to explain why no one should be concerned with PVC, so this is an easy next step in public relations.

The problem is that material sourcing isn't the issue with PVC--and the biggest concerns that have made PVC the subject of more debate than other polymers have come from problems on the "salt" side of the manufacturing process.

Dioxins--the most potent cancer-causing chemicals known to science--are produced in large quantity in the manufacture of the vinyl chloride monomer and then again when this chlorinated plastic is burned in incinerators and uncontrolled landfill fires. Getting the polymer from a biobased source merely sugarcoats PVC without addressing the fundamental problem.

Healthier Plasticizers?

Regarding the health of consumers and building occupants, the immediate indoor environmental concern with PVC is also not the base polymer. It's the additives, particularly phthalate plasticizers.

According to the Pharos Project listing for phthalates (login required), they have been identified as reproductive toxicants by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and are included in the Living Building Challenge Red List, LEED Pilot credits and the Perkins+Will Precautionary list.

Here again, there are an increasing range of biobased materials entering the plasticizer market, including Dow's Ecolibrium and a host of others. The jury is still out on these, but this is an encouraging trend. While being biobased doesn't necessarily guarantee that they're better, the new additives are a clear indication that polymer manufacturers and their supply chain are getting the message loud and clear: there is a market for safer and more environmentally friendly alternatives to phthalates and other additives.

Many of these biobased additives make claims about superior health and safety characteristics. If those claims pan out, it'll make a big difference for applications where phthalate-loaded PVC is currently the only option.

PVC needs to be cleaner--not just biobased

The move toward biobased polymers has a lot of potential--for both environmental improvement and for greenwash. But let's not forget in our necessary move away from fossil fuels that the polymers themselves are not the only problem. A truly revolutionary PVC alternative would contain no dioxin-producing compounds, and research on how to replace those is still in the early stages.

Editor's note: The research behind the EBN feature article is a joint effort by BuildingGreen and Healthy Building Network.

2012-05-02 n/a 10465 Minimizing Exposure to Chemicals in Clear Wood Finishes

High-VOC content is still the norm in clear wood finishes, but depending on the application you can minimize exposure and maximize durability.

Clear finishes help bring out the natural beauty of the wood, while protecting it from aging and the elements. Photo: Vermont Natural Coatings

Clear finishes can help protect woodwork against aging, scratches, moisture, and the chemicals found in common cleaners. There are natural, low-toxicity options for residential furniture, and factory-applied chemical finishes for commercial architectural woodwork, but there is no environmentally perfect finish.
Here at GreenSpec, when considering which coatings to list, we look for finishes that are low-VOC; contain no heavy metals, phthalates, or aromatic solvents; and/or are natural products with less environmental burden. Durability and ease of maintenance are important, too, so select the least toxic alternative with the greatest durability for the end use.

High VOCs are more the norm than exception

Clear finishes contain more solvent and fewer solids than paints, making high VOC content the norm. The current South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) limit for VOC emissions from clear finishes is 275 grams per liter (g/l), 250 g/l for stains, and 730 g/l for shellac--all relatively high levels when you consider that zero-VOC paints are now common.
Not all VOCs are equal, however. Emissions from shellac, for instance, come from relatively benign ethanol (alcohol), whereas some lacquers emit toxic toluene and xylene. Waterborne polyurethanes use glycol ethers that are reproductive toxins. There are also exempt solvents--chemicals that scientifically are VOCs but are not regulated as much--such as acetone being used in place of more toxic alternatives.
Where a finish is applied is also relevant. Factory-applied finishes often have higher initial VOC levels but are allowed to fully cure before installation and so may pose less of an indoor air quality concern.

Natural oils sometimes aren't so natural

 Natural oils, such as linseed and tung, have been used as wood finishes for centuries. Sometimes called drying oils, they are applied as a liquid and penetrate wood pores. When exposed to air, they oxidize to form a protective finish. These oils bring out the wood grain, but because they scratch easily they are not ideal for heavy use areas.
Linseed oil, pressed from flax seed, is easy to apply. You simply rub it on and wipe it off after it soaks in--but it takes weeks to "cure," looks perpetually wet, and can support mildew growth, so it is impractical for most woodworking outside of some residential or specialty applications. Polymerized linseed oil is heated during production and dries faster, but this should not be confused with "boiled" linseed oil (BLO), which can contain heavy metal drying agents. Many companies have moved away from cadmium and lead agents and are using less-toxic cobalt, but that is still an aquatic toxin and not recommended.
Tung oil, from the seeds of the tung tree, forms a much harder (though still relatively soft) surface than linseed oil, resisting water and even some solvents. It also dries much faster and doesn't need drying agents, but it doesn't cure overnight, and you need to use many coats. It takes time, skill, and patience to apply a tung oil finish, making it impractical for large surface areas or most commercial applications. Tung oil also has an odor some people find unpleasant and can even trigger nut allergies in some people.
If you are looking to use natural oils, especially on a food-contact surface, check the ingredients on the label or MSDS;. Many products advertised as tung or linseed oil can contain petroleum-based, high-VOC thinners, oil substitutes, or heavy-metal drying agents, and they might not contain any tung or linseed oil at all.

Wood finishes from beetle secretions

Shellac also traces its roots back to antiquity. Made from resins secreted by the lac beetle of Thailand and India, shellac is sold in flake form and/or dissolved in alcohol.
Shellac finishes do not penetrate the wood and are easily scratched or damaged by water and alcohol, so they are not used in most commercial applications, but the damage is also relatively easy to repair, so it can be a good choice in lower-traffic areas. Shellac is used primarily as a wood sealant under more durable finishes, though the wax in shellac makes it incompatible with some polyurethane products.

Target Coatings' EM2000 is a commercial-grade waterborne alkyd clear finish with no HAPs and a VOC content of 23 g/l VOC.

"Varnishes" and other coatings

Once you move past these natural products, you trade in lower toxicity, gaining better durability and application speed.
"Varnish" is a catchall term for drying oils combined with acrylic and or polyurethane resins. The acrylics and polyurethanes are used for strength, and the oils aid in curing. These products form durable coatings but usually contain flammable, toxic solvents and are slowly being replaced by waterborne formulations.
Waterborne polyurethanes and acrylics can provide a similar durable, low-VOC finish. Not as safe as natural oils but far less toxic than those that contain aromatic solvents, waterborne acrylics and polyurethanes (they are often blended) contain glycol ethers as solvents, which are reproductive toxicants. If not properly applied, waterborne products can raise the wood grain and makes the wood look like it's coated in plastic. Repairing a damaged varnish finish (waterborne or solvent) is difficult.

Professional finishes

For commercial and residential architectural millwork, nitrocellulose lacquers that contain solvents are still common because they spray on and dry quickly so they can be sanded between coats. Less durable than varnish and waterborne polyurethanes/acrylics, these lacquers have very high VOC levels and use some of the most toxic solvents out there. Concerned about worker and occupant health, and motivated by customer requests, companies have now formulated waterborne "lacquers" that can be sprayed like lacquer but don't contain nitrocellulose.
All of these site-applied products have their positive performance attributes, but some pose significant health and environmental risks.

If possible, spray it at the factory

When possible, have woodwork sprayed at a factory and allow products to cure fully there. This also allows the emissions to be captured before entering the environment--or your building. There are quite a few Greenguard-certified products available that are factory-applied, but they are largely production-line products and require specific cure times (usually between 3 and 14 days) before the woodwork can be installed.
People with chemical sensitivities may find some wood finishes problematic, but allowing these finishes to fully cure should minimize indoor air quality concerns. GreenSpec lists a variety of wood finishes , and have added some new commercial finishes, so there are products to meet most any application.

2012-04-18 n/a 10450 BuildingGreen Haiku Contest Winners Announced

National Architecture Week is gone but not forgotten. Our readers have immortalized the occasion in green building poetry.

I wonder if all that detail work has paid for itself yet.... Photo from Friar's Balsam on Flickr.

Last week we collected poetic responses to the convergence of National Poetry Month and National Architecture Week, asking our readers to write haiku about sustainable design. What a great response we had!

There were a lot of funny and touching submissions, some of which you can read on Twitter at #GreenBuildingHaiku and others of which you can see in the comments section on the original blog post announcing the contest. Here are our top three picks, in no particular order, with several Honorable Mentions to follow.

Top Three Haiku

From Andrea Lemon, who blogs about the Passive House she and her husband, Ted, are building, we saw a number of poems scrolling by on Twitter. Here was our favorite:

No one ever asked
When they built the Taj Mahal
"What about payback?"

Here's another one on the sardonic side from Craig Bloomfield, vice president for public relations at Jones Lang LaSalle:

Green workplace? Big whoop.
Wait--productivity's up?
Suddenly I care.

Finally, we like the way this one from Tom Butler, residential green building service project manager at Southface Eco, sets its roots firmly in the haiku tradition, starting out with placid natural imagery and then surprising you with the last line:

basking in the sun
quietly, calmly spinning
the meter backwards

Honorable Mentions

There were too many good ones to just show off the top three. Our other favorites range from the "brutally" honest...

Poor, dead Paul Rudolph
His buildings ground to dust, and
No one seems to care
--Lloyd Alter the practical...

librarians in
sun hats
. daylight wisely! don't
fry your occupants.
--Melissa Haertsch the Whitmanian...

Up from the black fields
Green buildings growing tall,
Life sustainable!
--Daniel Garcia

...the paradoxical...

Early green builders
Soon joined by large numbers
Head up to zero
--Boone Guyton

...and, finally, the cosmic.

Stormwater splashes roof --
Managing runoff credits
Scorecard and God-card
--Steve Knight

Keep them coming

We don't know yet whether we'll repeat this contest next year, but it's too much fun to stop anyway! If you feel inspired, please add more in the comments below and keep using #GreenBuildingHaiku on Twitter to share your poems.

2012-04-16 n/a 10399 Poetry Month, Meet Architecture Week: The BuildingGreen Haiku Contest

What do you get when you cross National Poetry Month with National Architecture Week? We'll find out when you enter the first-ever BuildingGreen Haiku Contest!

Submit by Tuesday, April 10. You don't have to make one of these cute "haiku huts" to enter, but if you want to build one, click the photo to find the instructions on the Storyboard Toys website.

UPDATE: You can also enter the contest via Twitter! Just use hashtag #GreenBuildingHaiku.

As you may know, April is National Poetry Month. As a BuildingGreen reader, you may also be aware that next week (April 8–14) is National Architecture Week.

What we don't know is what kind of explosive creative energy might result if we were to celebrate both at the same time. In the spirit of both science and fun, we're planning to find out--but we need your help.

The BuildingGreen Haiku Contest

We're asking readers to submit sustainable architecture-themed haiku. Here are the rules:

  1. Write an original poem, using the 5–7–5 form that's typical in the Americanized version of haiku (five syllables for the first line, seven for the second line, five for the third line).
  2. Write about some aspect of sustainable design, architecture, construction, green rating systems, or building operations & maintenance. Humor is encouraged but not required.
  3. Send via email to by 5 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, April 10--or simply post in the comments section below.
  4. Send only one entry per person.

We'll publish our favorites by Friday, April 13.

Good luck!

2012-04-05 n/a 10326 More Heat Than Light: Six Wrong Ways to Daylight a Building

Thanks to LEED and other standards, everyone's doing daylighting now--but not everyone is getting it right. Here's how it goes wrong--and how to do it right.

The Seattle Central Library has been lauded for its daylighting features, but many library patrons and staff have trouble with overheating and glare at workstations like these. Photo: Nadav Malin

You can't turn around these days without seeing a case study that mentions the use of natural daylight to help save energy and enhance the well-being and productivity of occupants--especially students and employees.

Unfortunately, almost as common are horror stories of fabulous green buildings that make their occupants miserable. Here at BuildingGreen, we've heard a tale or three about librarians wearing sun visors on the job, office workers using open umbrellas as parasols in their cubicles, and schoolteachers in award-winning buildings who keep the blinds closed constantly.

For our recent EBN feature article, "Doing Daylighting Right," we collected some of these stories, along with some really great tips from leading daylighting experts who have accomplished successful daylighting designs resulting in happy, productive building occupants and lower energy bills. But in case you're interested in how to get your daylighting design just wrong, we've put together six key tips for you below.

Overglaze it

If a little daylight is a good thing, then an all-glass building must be the ultimate, right?

Well, not so much. True design for daylighting involves intentional use of carefully chosen glazing. "There's been lots of work done by lots of people that shows that the more glass you have, the more energy you use," says Fiona Cousins, P.E., principal at Arup in New York. A 30%–40% window-to-wall ratio should provide plenty of daylight if the glass is located in the right place--high up to optimize penetration deeper into the space--Cousins adds. But if you want to forego the potential energy savings and make occupants as uncomfortable as possible, 100% curtainwall is definitely the way to go.

In seriousness, judicious use of high-performance curtainwall can be part of an energy-efficient building that still has the dazzle many designers and building owners prefer. Our research director Jennifer Atlee just put together some great guidance on standout curtainwall systems from GreenSpec and how to use curtainwalls with care.

Ignore orientation

Don't let little details like where the sun rises and sets get in the way! Looking for "connection with nature"? How about full-in-the-face glare that really gets our building occupants noticing the awesome power and life-giving force of the sun? Seeing their computer screens would only detract from this goal.

On the other hand, if you wanted to make it possible for people to work and study comfortably in their buildings, you'd end up with a lot of untidy asymmetry: shading systems that are different on the south than they are on the east or west; glazing that's "tuned" based on orientation; and clerestories or roof monitors that face north and south, never east and west.

Emphasize views and call it daylighting anyway

One of the most aesthetically pleasing ways to get daylighting wrong is to emphasize expansive views and then assume that any window area brings in useful daylight, even if the window extends all the way to the floor or is on the west orientation of the building.

A more thoughtful, occupant-focused daylighting design would separate the view windows from the daylighting windows and ensure that separate shading can be used for each. It would also provide solar shades for view windows to preserve the views while minimizing glare, relying on sophisticated modeling software to help determine the correct openness factor for such devices.

Skip the automated controls (or skimp on commissioning)

Studies have shown time and time again that you're more likely to realize energy savings from daylighting if an automatic daylight dimming system is installed in the building. One of the easiest ways to get daylighting wrong is to skip this system altogether in order to help your clients save money--or, failing that, to value-engineer commissioning of the daylight dimming system out of the budget.

If you would instead prefer to provide a workable daylighting system that will eventually pay for itself, experts agree that you'll fight tooth and nail to keep the automated controls in, and you'll work closely with the control system manufacturer, the commissioning agent, and the building owner to ensure that the system works exactly the way it should. This goes for automated shading as well.

Bump up the contrast

One of the lesser-known ways to spoil a well-designed daylighting system is through interior design. Because daylight modeling depends heavily on surface reflectance, a bold color palette can be a key part of darkening rooms, ensuring people turn on the lights more often and waste as much energy on electric lighting during daylight hours as possible. High contrast can also cause eyestrain--an emerging strategy for maximizing occupant discomfort, particularly in schools.

The lower panels in this office at the Yale Sculpture Building are filled with light-diffusing silica aerogel to provide insulation while bringing in daylight. Despite their translucence, the panels had to be covered with fiberboard in some rooms to control daylight entry. Photo: Alex Wilson

Keep occupants out of the loop

Unlike most other aspects of design, the success of daylighting depends heavily on occupant behavior, and occupant satisfaction is a key measure of success. There's nothing like a failure to communicate to really put the icing on the cake of poor daylighting performance. Occupants who don't know what interior lightshelves are for might stack books on them; occupants who don't understand how the lighting controls work might tape over the sensors; and occupants who aren't aware of the benefits of daylighting might just keep the blinds closed all the time.

In contrast, a project team trying to do good daylighting design will anticipate and design for occupant needs and habits--and will engage directly with building owners, managers, and occupants about how the lighting system works--in order to realize performance benefits from daylighting.

Doing daylighting right

If for some reason you're not satisfied with our six tips on how to do daylighting wrong and you're interested in more information on how to do it successfully, this month's EBN feature article takes a deeper look at the following issues and strategies:

  • The importance of integrated design
  • Preventing glare and excessive heat gain
  • Balancing electric lighting with daylight
  • Addressing cultural issues that make people turn on lights
  • Starting space planning earlier than you might be used to
  • Metrics and standards for daylighting
  • Exciting innovations in wireless lighting control systems
  • Guidance on daylighting products, such as lightshelves
  • Integrating daylight simulations with energy models
  • The importance of daylighting in everyday buildings
2012-04-02 n/a 10268 The International Green Construction Code Is Live—But What Does it Mean?

After a long and arduous democratic process, the 2012 version of the IgCC is finished. Learn what it's all about and what it means for LEED and other voluntary rating systems.

How do you build a green building? Let me count the ways.

We've got ASHRAE 189.1, a large and growing handful of LEED rating systems, the Living Building Challenge, Passive House, and many others...and now there's also the International Green Construction Code (IgCC) just published by the International Code Council.

Why so many? And how does IgCC fit in?

IgCC and ASHRAE 189.1

For some background about how IgCC meshes with its main code competitor, ASHRAE 189.1, see Nadav Malin's coverage right after it was announced that 189.1 would be an alternate compliance path. The code creators worked really hard to ensure that the IgCC harmonizes with LEED, ASHRAE, and the International Energy Code, among other systems:

"For architects, this is good news, because we had concerns all along about what competing codes mean from a regulatory perspective," noted Paul Mendelsohn, vice president of government and community relations at AIA. Inconsistency in codes from one community to another complicates the work of designers and contractors, and competing options might have bogged down the entire code adoption process. "We saved ourselves maybe five years of fighting about it," agrees Brendan Owens, vice president for LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), one of the sponsors of Standard 189. "Now we can be collaborative and go forward together much faster."


You may be wondering why we need green building codes at all when we have LEED--or whether we'll still need a voluntary system if codes are going to be as rigorous as the Certified or Silver level of LEED. If so, you might want to read our earlier coverage of clashes between LEED and the law as well as USGBC's take on the code (PDF), which explains why raising the bar in the code means that LEED can raise its own bar even higher:

"As the IgCC begins to inform building codes and building practice across the country, LEED is evolving to reward greater thresholds of green building leadership," said Roger Platt, senior vice president of Global Policy & Law, USGBC. "We need public policy that rewards this beyond-code leadership alongside codes that redefine what we should expect of our buildings. The IgCC and Standard 189.1 are an important and intentional complement to LEED."

So what's actually in this code?

If you are familiar with LEED, you should feel very at home with the green code. It covers many of the same bases. Remember to keep in mind that, once adopted by a jurisdiction, this code will apply to just about every building--new and substantially renovated--and a green building code is never going to have as high a bar as a voluntary rating system.

We haven't had a chance to review the full document yet, but you can check out our rundown of what was in the most recent draft of the code, including energy, site, IAQ, and other provisions.

How to learn more

I've yet to see a comprehensive treatment of the code aside from our rundown, but we'll pore through the whole document so you don't have to! Watch for more coverage here soon.

AIA has announced that it will also be putting out a guide to IgCC on May 15 (PDF), so we'll keep you apprised of those developments too. You can also order a guide put out by ICC here.

2012-03-30 n/a 10254 Urbanist Manifesto: Grab Your Spray Paint, 'Cause City Planning's Going DIY

From guerilla gardening to commando crosswalk painting, a new breed of urbanists is using illicit means to create livable communities.

Tactical urbanism in action: guerrilla crosswalk painting. Photo: credit Street Plans

It's 3 a.m., and the city street is finally quiet. In the shadows under a defunct streetlight, three twenty-somethings in black hoodies pull cans of paint from a backpack and set furtively to work. When distant headlights sweep into view, they grab their gear with whispered profanities and duck into a nearby alley, returning when the sound of tires fades. Finishing shortly after, they pack up their gear and hurry off, triumphant at not getting caught. Soon the morning light reveals their illicit work: a bright new crosswalk.

When petitions don't work

This is the sort of guerrilla approach to urban repair discussed in the second volume of "Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action, Long-Term Change," just released by the Street Plans Collaborative and NextGen (The Next Generation of New Urbanists). Two dozen case studies from across North America illustrate the "growing number of short-term, often self-funded efforts" to improve streets and public areas, and ways in which they lead to permanent change.

These projects take the indignation and adrenaline rush of adbusting and billboard liberation and apply them to every corner of urban life where infrastructure needs improvement. Tired of petitioning the city for a community garden? Grab a few friends, picks, and shovels, and rip up the pavement in that abandoned lot yourself.

Grassroots feasibility testing

Mike Lydon, the author of "Tactical Urbanism," attributes the rise of these initiatives to three trends: the Great Recession's effects on city budgets; shifting demographics as young people move into "once forlorn walkable neighborhoods;" and access to the Internet as a means of sharing successful tactics and how-to manuals.

While the projects are usually unsanctioned at first, they demonstrate a community's desire for a given improvement (such as crosswalks or bike lanes) and provide an affordable means of proving its viability to city planners. When planners pay attention to these grassroots efforts rather than treating them as vandalism, they gain insight as to what changes to the built environment are necessary to improve residents' everyday lives and make a neighborhood more resilient.

From parking to parks

Many tactics involve combating the bias for vehicles built in to city infrastructure.

During the annual Park(ing) Day, individuals or groups adopt on-street parking spots to create public recreational spaces, often bringing plants to create temporary green spaces for people to refresh themselves and take a breather from the purely built environment. A New York City group called DoTank (as opposed to "think tank," highlighting the tactical urbanists' preference for immediate action over endless planning) improves the lot of urban pedestrians by chair bombing--building chairs from waste wood and distributing them in public places.

Do you or your friends routinely find yourselves complaining of a lack of bicycle parking in a given area? Handy activists can take it upon themselves to install bike racks where needed. Tactical urbanism can also be a cheap means of testing traffic-calming measures. Usually tested by transportation departments using traffic cones, this can be done by stealthy activists with sawhorses and orange spray-paint.

Pre-vitalization before revitalization

Another tactic highlighted is "site pre-vitalization," the temporary use of an inactive plot to generate revenue for the owner until more permanent development is possible. While ultimately controlled by the landowner, the details of pre-vitalization can be steered by the community and might include art exhibits, food markets, and festivals. Compare this approach to the ugly, faceless blight architects call "groundcover," according to Dolores Hayden in A Field Guide to Sprawl: "Inexpensive, easily bulldozed buildings such as self-storage units, constructed to generate income while a developer holds land."

This conventional approach capitalizes only on individual consumers' desire to protect their possessions and does nothing to create a sense of community.

Try a front-yard barbecue

To activate underused land at the scale of the individual, the tactic of "setback reclamation" tackles the awkward distance mandated between homes and sidewalks, which for so long has shifted social activity to the back yard and out of public view.

Reclamations highlighted in "Tactical Urbanism" include a community vegetable garden and the installation of a box of free poetry for passers-by.

The comedy of the commons?

Increasingly, says Lydon, municipalities are "permanently implementing the short-term, low-budget livability improvements initiated by citizen-activists." Activists should take heart at the historical example of the Parisian bouquinistes who set up informal bookshops along the Seine in the 1500s: first banned by the city, then grudgingly allowed, today the area in which the bouquinistes operate is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More recently, the Depave program in Portland, Oregon, began as an unsanctioned movement for "the removal of unnecessary pavement from urban areas" and is now funded by the City of Portland and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Often the need for a given improvement seems small in the perspective of city planners, who have too much on their plates to concentrate on one neighborhood or block, but is significant for people living in the affected area. "Tactical Urbanism" provides inspiration for us to take matters into our own hands.

Read the whole report at

2012-03-28 n/a 10205 Three Things You Need to Know About Forests and Climate Change

If we want to slow global warming, we need to stop being such tree-huggers and start embracing the world's forests. And yes, there's a difference.

This is part three in our "Wood Wars" series.

Part 1: Are FSC and LEED Killing American Jobs? A Look at the Evidence

Part 2: FSC and Beyond: LEED 2012 Buries the "Wood Wars" Hatchet

Next: forests and global warming

From earliest childhood, most people naturally want to be in or near trees--the seed of environmentalist leanings for many of us. Solving problems like global warming will take a more nuanced and rational approach that balances our love of nature with the economic and environmental realities of forest systems.

Some children have pets. I had trees. I played in and under them, talked to them, and believed that they understood me and communicated back. I spent two whole summers barely touching the ground at all because I was up in my favorite tree, reading or thinking.

For people like me, it can be difficult to take a cold, hard look at the environmental impact of forestry practices. The only equation that matters in our hearts is "Tree=Good."

But we need to use our heads here: deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for about a quarter of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And, like it or not, one of the most promising ways to ensure that the world's forests thrive and sequester as much carbon as possible is to manage forests responsibly--where "manage forests" often means "cut down trees to make money."

While trees and forests have much to offer--from recreation to endangered species habitat to job creation--their central role in carbon sequestration and storage cannot be ignored. The science of carbon flows in forests is quite complex and not always well understood, and getting emissions goals to align with "co-benefits" for ecosystems and economies is even more complicated.

With that in mind, here are three big things you should understand about forests and carbon before choosing wood and other forestry products.

1) Valuable forests are more likely to be protected

"There's a tremendous amount of tropical and subtropical forest that's going to be cut down if there aren't additional incentives to preserve them as forests," says Mark Moroge, coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance Climate Program. A forest that has a "tangible impact on local people, indigenous groups, and their lives and livelihoods" is more likely to remain a forest.

In other words, in many parts of the world, a forest is unlikely to survive if it's not a significant part of the economy. One of the major forces threatening forests today, Moroge said, is agriculture. The United Nations REDD+ Program (REDD is for "reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation") aims to add extra incentives by providing "carbon payments" for sustainable forest management.

While REDD+ has been controversial in its past forms (many environmentalists have viewed it as opening the door to logging in virgin forests), the program has evolved to include more protections for both habitat and indigenous peoples as well as more transparency. In many regions, the choice may be between a managed forest and no forest at all--and that's a no-brainer. "REDD could be done in a right way and a wrong way," Moroge argued. "We're trending toward the right way."

2) Forest management matters. A lot.

In order to maximize carbon storage, getting economic value from forests has to be balanced with allowing the forest to thrive. A tree plantation is not the same thing as a forest.

Whether you're in a Brazilian rainforest or a Maine wood lot, land management has a huge impact on how much carbon is stored there. Less intensive harvesting generally results in greater carbon storage. This isn't only because of the trees themselves but also because of the carbon stored in the soil.

"We know a lot more about the above-ground side because it basically comes down to measuring the biomass," says John Gunn, senior program leader at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. "Below ground is a little more uncertain, mostly because it's expensive and complicated to measure below-ground carbon. But basically if there's disturbance to the soil, there's carbon loss to the atmosphere."

I asked Gunn if you could rely on product certifications like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) to guide choices based solely on carbon considerations. Not really, he said.

"The challenge is that there would be big landowners that meet both standards," he explained, and there is also "a range of management within both those systems in terms of how individual landowners meet those standards." However, he added, "The bar for FSC favors lower-intensity management--either less frequent returns to an individual stand of trees or a lot more retention when those stands are harvested."

In other words, there is a spectrum of management practices within certification systems, but FSC-certified wood is more likely to come from a less-intensively harvested forest that stores more carbon. Keep in mind that many local, family-owned wood producers can't afford any type of certification; fortunately, you can talk to them directly about their management practices.

3) Paper or lumber? Service life makes a big difference

Another consideration is where timber goes after it's harvested. Even though new forest growth tends to sequester carbon very rapidly, a forest where trees are allowed to get older before harvesting will ultimately store more carbon--because larger trees get made into lumber instead of just chips or pulp.

"Paper is a very energy-intensive activity," says Gunn. "You end up with a product that doesn't stay around very long and may end up in a landfill, where it's emitting methane instead of carbon dioxide. Harvesting bigger trees for longer-lived products looks better over time."

Again, Gunn emphasizes, you can't break it down cleanly between FSC and SFI, but the less intensive the harvesting, "the better it's going to look from the atmospheric perspective."

From trees to forests

It's easy to fall into the trap of sounding like a "tree-hugger" (especially if you literally are one), but we need to move forward with a mature and nuanced perspective that truly balances economic considerations with ecological ones. Whatever our feelings, whether we're talking about jobs or habitats, it's not really about trees at all: it's about forests, which are complex systems that are crucial to human livelihood and well-being. Judicious clear-cutting can sometimes be part of sustainable forestry. Preventing boreal forests from overtaking the arctic tundra may ultimately be crucial to human survival.

The issue of forestry practices and what constitutes "sustainable" harvesting is an emotional and complicated one with a long and divisive history. Trying to take global warming into account on top of everything else isn't going to be easy--but it's one of the most important priorities we have, and our choices make a difference.

2012-03-22 n/a 10006 Crucial Energy Survey, CBECS, Is Back in Business

CBECS (the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey) was suspended last May due to federal budget cuts, but now it seems the survey will go on.

Many tools--most notably the popular Energy Star Portfolio Manager--use CBECS data. The benchmarking is only as good as the data backing it, so it comes as a relief to many that CBECS will resume.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has announced that the Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) will continue, thanks to renewed federal funding.

As we reported when funding issues first came to light in May 2011, CBECS, which is like a U.S. Census for building performance, provides a vital dataset that powers Energy Star Portfolio Manager and is used to support benchmarking in the LEED rating systems, the 2030 Challenge, and energy modeling tools. The most recently available data at this time is from 2003.

Now, according to EIA, the next survey will begin in April 2013 using 2012 as its reference year, and results will be available in the first half of 2014.

While large datasets of building performance are becoming more common, the massive size and scope of CBECS is unlikely to be replicated by the private sector. For a great introduction to varieties of energy measurement in buildings--and how well they really work--check out our feature article (accessible to BuildingGreen members), "Measuring Energy Use in Buildings: Do Our Metrics Really Add Up?"

2012-02-27 n/a 9963 Cost-Effective Window Attachments: A Practical Guide

With so many types of window treatments available, including awnings, shades, storms, and shutters, it's hard to know which one is right. GreenSpec can help.

Awnings are a traditional way to control solar heat gain in the American South. Blocking gain is more effective than dealing with the heat after it comes into the building. However, awnings aren't the best product for every window in every climate.

Most window attachments are chosen with aesthetics in mind--probably in part because picking the right awnings, shades, shutters and other attachments for their performance characteristics hasn't been simple in the past.

In collaboration with BuildingGreen, publishers of GreenSpec, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) has been doing modeling, field-testing, and lab testing to develop standards for window treatment performance. Different types have different strengths, including glare control, thermal performance, and even security, so choosing a particular window attachment depends on your priorities. While performance is likely to be the foremost concern for most people, some products use materials with environmental health and safety concerns.

With the exception of window film, there is no performance standard to measure window attachments, so we eagerly await the results of LBNL's work. In the meantime, we've handpicked a number of manufacturers and products to list in GreenSpec that we consider best-in-class. In selecting these listings we looked for companies emphasizing strong performance and offering solid performance information (including some companies collaborating with LBNL), and companies with well-thought-out, innovative, and well-detailed products.

Read on to learn more about how to choose products that won't harm you or the environment.


The main advantage of awnings is that they block the light before it comes through the window, preventing glare, heat gain, and damage from UV-rays, while fully maintaining the view to the exterior. Keeping direct sunlight off your windows keeps solar heat gain out--which is a more effective strategy than trying to keep the solar heat after it has hit or entered the window. For times when you want the sun's heat, retractable awnings are available.

GreenSpec lists four awnings product lines. Awnings can cost several times as much as other window treatment options, so keep that in mind when shopping around.

It is common practice to treat exterior fabrics with fluorocarbon-based coatings for durability. Fluorocarbons are considered potentially hazardous to the environment and human health, so GreenSpec encourages both consumers and manufacturers to look for alternatives.

Exterior Sun Control Devices

Exterior roller shades, roller shutters, and solar screens are other options that block direct sunlight before it enters your home.

Roller shades are opaque or translucent, and when rolled down do not afford a direct view of the exterior. They are also commonly treated with PVC coatings, and GreenSpec encourages the market to find alternatives. Roller shutters provide lighting conditions closer to blackout and can also provide security and hurricane-resistance.

Solar screens are panels or roller shades and are designed with openness factors to allow direct views, even while covering the window. As with awnings, thermal performance primarily comes from preventing direct sunlight from entering through the window. Based on strong performance, innovation, and other factors, GreenSpec chose 23 products to list here.

Exterior Storms

Low-e, airtight storm windows provide a significant layer of thermal performance on the exterior of the window. They also afford direct views to the outside. Most exterior storm manufacturers use metal frames, although PVC frames with superior thermal performance are available.

In both cases, GreenSpec has concerns about the product composition--aluminum because of energy intensity, PVC because of life-cycle health and environmental concerns--but reducing energy use and good performance is the trump card. With that in mind we list six exterior storm products with good detailing and low-e coatings that can help bring an entire window up to near-high-performance levels.

Interior Window Panels

Interior window panels, like exterior storm windows, contribute to thermal performance and air tightness. Sometimes called "interior storm windows," these usually have frames made of aluminum, although magnetic strips and PVC frames are available. While some options can be moved up and down, many are fixed in place and limit window egress. Do not use these options in fire escape locations.

GreenSpec lists eight companies here, all of which pay attention to airtightness and usability.

Window Film

Surface-applied films and seasonal flexible film kits provide reduced solar heat gain and increase the thermal performance of windows. Seasonal flexible film kits are primarily used to reduce convective and conductive heat loss through windows. For seasonal kits, aesthetics and short service life are downsides, though ease of installation and relatively low cost are upsides.

Surface-applied films, primarily used to reduce solar heat gain, can be compared using NFRC ratings, and from among these GreenSpec chose seven to list.

Interior Window Treatments

Blinds, curtains, drapes, shades, and quilts offer some thermal insulation, glare control, and solar heat gain control, although direct sunlight comes through the window before hitting the shade. Cellular shades, offering superior thermal performance, and interior solar screens, featuring PVC-free fabric since durability is less of a concern on the interior of the window, are both attractive options.

With an emphasis on strong thermal performance data--when we could find it--GreenSpec lists 20 products in this area, including products such as light shelves that extend the reach of daylight to the interior.

Window Restoration

Our approach in creating this guidance has been to try to answer the question, "How can we make our windows work better?" In many cases, window restoration should be among your first choices. Proper truing and gasketing can drastically improve airtightness and make windows easier to open. Lead paint management is important to consider in the case of older windows. GreenSpec chose five reputable window restoration firms to list.

So...What's Your Answer?

The proper choice for window attachments varies from case to case--there is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Depending on the problems you face, your financial constraints (keep in mind that springing for a pricier window attachment may come with a quicker return on investment), and your design preferences, each option has its own benefits and drawbacks. For a more detailed exploration into each of these areas, as well as some representative listings, please see the appropriate GreenSpec section.

Comprehensive guidance is also available in our EBN feature article, "Making Windows Work Better." (As with most of our feature articles, BuildingGreen members can get continuing education credits for reading it and taking a short quiz.)

2012-02-22 n/a 9875 Energy Modeling, Building Size, and BIM—What's Cost-Effective?

Energy modeling Q&A: first some answers on cost, and then it's your turn to ask (or answer) some questions.

Chris Schaffner

There is so much confusion about energy modeling--what it should cost, what benefits it offers, how to approach it--that clear statements addressing these questions are like a breath of fresh air.

When I was privy to a private email exchange that included a short treatise on this topic from Chris Schaffner, principal of The Green Engineer in Concord, Massachusetts, I got his permission to share it.

First, the question:

I've often heard that energy modeling generally becomes cost-effective on projects that exceed 50,000 square feet. Do you agree, or is there a better threshold?

And Chris's reply:


  1. There are two kinds of models--documentation models, performed after the design decisions have been made, and design-phase models, used to make decisions. Documentation models are never cost-effective. (This is why the current LEED 2012 draft has requirements for early design models.)
  2. It can be cost-effective on any size project depending on the questions you need answers to.
  3. It gets less expensive as the building gets bigger--all other things being equal.
  4. Systems complexity has more of an impact on modeling costs than size.
  5. In Massachusetts, we have something called the "Stretch Energy Code," which can be adopted by cities and towns as an optional, more stringent code. The Stretch Code requires energy models for projects 100,000 ft2 or greater, except that labs and healthcare must model at 40,000 ft2 or greater. So that is one potential idea of when it becomes cost-effective.
  6. Looking at how much I might charge for generic office buildings, assuming modeling results in a modest 10% energy cost savings:
    • At 20,000 ft2, my modeling costs are recovered in savings in 4.2 years
    • 50,000 ft2 – 1.9 years
    • 100,000 ft2 – 1.1 years
    • 200,000 ft2 – 0.6 years

(All those look pretty good to me – I should raise my prices!)

A screen capture from Hevacomp energy modeling software

There was also a corollary question: Do you see this number decreasing as BIM usage increases?

Here's what Chris had to say about that:

Currently, at least in my practice, BIM is not having an impact on modeling costs. Whatever theoretical savings are there are usually overwhelmed by all the deficiencies in the BIM model. Most of our energy models are still done in eQuest, which doesn't play well with BIM.

What will bring down modeling costs will be COMNET-compliant software that can self-generate robust baseline case models.

For a much more detailed discussion of design-phase energy modeling, and what non-engineers should know, see Marc Rosenbaum's paper from Greenbuild 2003 in Pittsburgh.

For background on how Building Information Modeling (BIM) and works with energy and other sustainability analysis tools, see the EBN feature "Building Information Modeling and Green Design."

What's your experience with the costs and benefits of energy models? Do you agree that documentation models are never cost-effective? Have you figured out how to make BIM support energy modeling? Let us know!

2012-02-09 n/a 9844 Resilience and Window Attachments at BuildingEnergy 2012

Going to BuildingEnergy this year? There are a lot of exciting sessions to choose from.

Alex Wilson, a naturalist as well as a green building expert, knows a thing or two about being prepared.

Interdisciplinary, cutting-edge, and combining high-flown philosophical ideas with practical nuts-and-bolts advice, the BuildingEnergy Conference in Boston is not only close to home but also close to our hearts. Every year, we look forward to meeting with old friends and hearing a lot of new ideas. This year, the conference is slated for March 6 & 7, and we'll be presenting some new ideas of our own.

If you're going, don't forget to stop by our booth--#656--and say hi!

Building Resilience for Climate Risks

BuildingGreen founder and executive editor Alex Wilson will be giving a talk on resilience at 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 7. As in his blog series on the topic and in an upcoming feature article, Alex will address a lot of interrelated issues in this session, including synergies between sustainable design and resilient design as well as the urgency of changing the way we build now. The session also looks beyond buildings to discuss land-use planning and local food systems. It's a hot, emerging topic, and we hope you'll be able to attend to hear the latest on this important issue.

Making Existing Windows Work Better

At 4 p.m. that same day, Peter Yost, our director of residential programs, will be sharing the latest results from research BuildingGreen is participating in with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Peter will take an objective, evidence-based look at which window attachments (a.k.a. window treatments) are proven to offer the highest energy performance in the lab and in the field. This research can help you help clients make informed decisions about existing windows. Making windows work better doesn't have to be expensive and doesn't have to mean replacement.

What's new at BE12

A lot is new at BuildingEnergy this year. The always-exciting keynote address will feature a new TED-talk format, with three speakers sharing their "breakthrough thinking and practice," according to the conference organizers. The new campus sustainability and healthcare tracks also caught our eye.

No armchair green building advice here! Peter Yost has more than 25 years of hands-on construction and building science experience under his coveralls.

Personally, I'm hoping to catch Mark Price and John Straube's building science session on water management for walls as well as the smart grid update with Joel Gordes and Roddy Diotalevi.

Free bus plus early bird registration

Even the transportation options are getting more sustainable, with free charter buses offered from Western Massachusetts both days. You have to be registered to sign up, and seats are going to be limited, so we'd recommend early registration.

Speaking of which, early registration rates end this Friday, February 10.

2012-02-08 n/a 9768 Army to Congress: LEED Doesn't Cost More

The Army is still going for Gold and Platinum despite recent legislation calling a halt to LEED spending.

Fort Carson is piloting net-zero energy, water, and waste--and expects to meet that target by 2020.

The federal government has been one of the biggest supporters of LEED certification in the last few years, with the General Services Administration (GSA) requiring basic LEED certification for all federal buildings starting in 2003 and then upping that requirement to LEED Gold in 2010.

The military has been on the cutting edge of green building from the beginning. The Navy adopted sustainable design principles before LEED even existed, as we reported way back in 1998. The Army embraced LEED in 2006 and recently began the much more radical work of moving all its installations to net-zero energy, water, and waste. As Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy, and the environment, put it to EBN earlier this year, "Energy security is mission critical."

It doesn't cost more

We feared that might all change when we saw that the most recent military appropriations legislation requires explicit justification for any spending on LEED above the Silver level. What's worse, this decision pretends to be about money but appears to have been made over certified wood credits. (Watch this space for in-depth coverage of the "wood wars" in coming weeks.)

Hammack is having none of it. In a call with reporters yesterday, she reiterated the Army's commitment to net-zero and LEED and gave an update about some of the progress that's already been made. "We're finding it does not cost more to design and construct to LEED" standards, Hammack said.

On the warpath for LEED

Will the Army then be submitting cost-benefit analyses for each project, as the legislation seems to require? Hammack said no.

"The challenge right now is one of education," she explained. "If a building got a Gold-level certification and we were striving for Silver, that does not mean there was an incremental cost. We're working to help prepare a report for Congress so they understand the benefit of high-performance buildings."

Hammack clearly views these benefits as, at least in part, financial.

Can they do this?

The legislation in question does have a loophole for LEED Gold and Platinum projects as long as they don't cost more. As we reported at the time, "Exceptions may also be made without a special waiver if achieving Gold or Platinum 'imposes no additional cost'."

That loophole is big enough to blithely drive a tank through without bothering to show ID at the checkpoint. You apparently don't have to prove that it didn't cost more--or the Army is interpreting it that way, at any rate, while working closely with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on "educating" Congress.

Build to the standard but don't certify?

Another reporter asked if you could bypass the requirements by building to LEED standards but not bothering with certification. Hammack wasn't warm to that idea.

"We like the LEED program because it gives another set of eyes on the construction details and helps guide the direction of architects and engineers," Hammack replied. "The cost of LEED certification is very minimal in comparison to the benefits of LEED certification and the recognition that the building has achieved certain goals."

Zero energy wasted on dithering

"With a limited amount of water, a limited amount of resources, and an increasing world population," Hammack said, "we need to improve our stewardship over the resources we have."

Most of the call with Hammack was devoted to the progress on net-zero pilot projects. She and the rest of the Army clearly are not wasting time on questions of whether to LEED or not to LEED.


2012-02-02 n/a 9436 USGBC Recognizes Ten Leaders in Green Education

USGBC's Center for Green Schools lauds ten groups for taking the lead on green building education.

This student services center, designed by Hill & Wilkinson for the University of Texas–Dallas, is the first building in the UT system to achieve LEED Platinum. Automated terra cotta louvers, seen on the right, help keep the building cool in the extreme Texas heat. UT–Dallas was recently named Best Higher-Ed Innovator by the Center for Green Schools.

My first lesson in how insulation works came during high school physics class--but not as part of an experiment.

Our physics lab was in the chilly basement, and the "lesson" consisted of Sister Bernie explaining to a shivering classmate that we should all come to physics class with extra layers because "dead air is the best insulator."

It was the old admonition to put on a sweater packaged as an explanation of why putting on a sweater actually works: the air trapped between two layers of clothing is what really keeps you warm--not so much the cloth itself.

Green building across the curriculum

For so many reasons, school is a great place to learn about green building. This is true even if you go to school in a rather dark 1930s-era masonry building, but more and more school districts are renovating and building for high performance, increasing opportunities for great conversations on the topic.

For a really cool example of integrating green building and education for even the youngest tykes, check out this kindergarten building, where five- and six-year-old kids learn about fluid dynamics by pedaling a tricycle.

Center for Green Schools awards

The Center for Green Schools, a project of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), has started giving out awards for this kind of creativity, and the recipient list contains a few surprises.

Who knew that my home state (Ohio) was at the forefront of building high-performance schools? Did you know that Philadelphia is planning to make every one of its 291 schools green? And have you seen the really cool design of the student center at UT–Dallas?

Who's who in green schools

Read on for the complete list of awards--and check out full stories about each winner on the Center for Green Schools website. Congratulations to all!

  • Best Moment for the Movement--U.S. Department of Education, for its Green Ribbon Schools Program
  • Best Region--Sacramento area, for an innovative loan program for green school retrofits
  • Best State--Ohio (Go Bucks!), for the largest number of green school projects under way
  • Best City--Philadelphia, for making major strides toward an ambitious green school goal
  • Best School--Lake Mills Middle School, the first public school in the nation to achieve LEED Platinum
  • Best Higher Ed Innovator--University of Texas at Dallas, for its LEED Platinum student services building
  • Best Collaborator--Kentucky General Assembly, for crossing party lines to adopt green school resolutions
  • Best Convenor--Boston, for bringing together interdisciplinary researchers to study the connection between schools and student health
  • Best Policy Maker--District of Columbia, for passing the legislation requiring healthy school buildings
  • Best K–12 Innovator--Illinois General Assembly, for a private/public partnership to renovate three existing school buildings

2011-12-30 n/a 9435 The 10 Biggest Green Building Stories of 2011

Windows, carpet chemicals, spray-foam, and LEED lawsuits: these are a few of your favorite things.

It's been a big year for green building. People are tightening up their buildings even as they tighten their belts. The retrofit market and multifamily housing have taken off in a big way in this new financial landscape.

The most-read Environmental Building News articles of 2011 reflect these new realities. Please check them out below and tell us in comments what you'd like us to cover in 2012! Don't forget that you can also get continuing education credits for reading many of these articles.

(NB: many of our most popular articles are available for BuildingGreen members only. You can check out affordable membership options here.)

Are our readership stats a window into your souls? Be sure to tell us in comments what you most want to read about in 2012.
  1. Better Choices in Low-Slope Roofing.There are big differences in environmental impacts of commercial roofing materials, but the biggest variable may be service life.


  2. Energy-Efficient Multifamily Housing. Now you can get LEED, Energy Star, and other labels for designing or retrofitting high-performance multifamily buildings.
  3. The Chemicals in Our Carpets and Textiles. The array of water-, dirt-, and mold-repellent chemicals added to carpeting and fabrics is dizzying. Which are causes for concern, and how can we minimize exposure?
  4. Measuring Energy Use in Buildings: Do Our Metrics Really Add Up? How much energy our buildings use matters a great deal, but figuring out how to measure that use and compare it from building to building is tricky. Here's a guide to key metrics and how to use them.
  5. EPA Takes Action on Spray-Foam Health Risks. EPA takes another look at spray foam after increasing consumer health complaints. The action plan leaves open questions about how far EPA will go to clamp down on these products, but it's safe to think of this as a shot across the bow from EPA for the SPF industry.
  6. New Plaintiffs Join Amended LEED Lawsuit. Instead of seeking to establish a broad class-action lawsuit representing building owners, taxpayers, and professionals harmed by LEED, the amended lawsuit focuses on the latter. The lawsuit was dismissed later in the year.
  7. Re-Framing Sustainability: Green Structural Engineering. Want to design the greenest building possible? Get a handle on the best structural options available to you, and invite a creative structural engineer to join your team.
  8. Solar Thermal Hot Water, Heating, and Cooling. By creating heat instead of electricity, solar thermal achieves three times the efficiency of photovoltaics at a lower price.
  9. Making Windows Work Better. How to choose curtains, solar screens, awnings, and storm windows? The options are dizzying, but the right choice can cut energy bills.
  10. Choosing Windows: Looking Through the Options. We ask a lot from windows: energy efficiency, aesthetics, durability, affordability, and more. Which window frame materials and low-e glazing options balance these choices best? This article explores all the options and decodes the performance labels we see when buying windows.

2011-12-29 n/a 9414 Best Wishes for 2012 from BuildingGreen

Dear friends,

We know that the economic climate in 2011 has continued to be challenging, so we're all the more grateful and flattered that so many of you continue to rely on our tools and resources for insight, guidance, and community.

We're especially honored by the growth we've seen in enterprise licenses to firms and universities, illustrating the value of BuildingGreen Suite for bringing designers and students up to speed on core green building knowledge.

This past year was both challenging and exciting. Our efforts to serve you are continuing on many fronts, including our newly redesigned GreenSpec website, ongoing exploration of the latest topics in Environmental Building News, and steady growth of the amazing LEEDuser community (check out how much help people are getting and giving each other on the forums--it's free!).

With Alex Wilson on sabbatical for eight months, we proved that our team is robust enough to continue producing great resources through his absence. And we're excited to have him back, energized by the break from daily deadlines and motivated to reengage with our various initiatives, including an exploration of resilient design. Our collaboration with the Healthy Building Network extended beyond Pharos; we also joined them in launching the new Health Product Declaration--an open standard for reporting on product ingredients and health hazards.

We also continued working on research with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab on the energy and comfort benefits of various window attachments, created more case studies for ReGreen (the residential remodeling program), and provided technical guidance and content to GreenBuildingAdvisor and GreenSource magazine.

In our latest customer surveys we learned that you are looking for the latest on new developments in building science, materials research, energy modeling, BIM, and post-occupancy performance. Among larger firms integrative design is a particularly hot topic. We'll have these priorities in mind as we plan our upcoming articles and special reports.

As we dive into 2012 and beyond, we're more committed than ever to working with you to create the resources you need to keep transforming the building industry into a force for positive change. We've been true to that mission since we launched Environmental Building News 20 years ago, as the first dedicated green building publication. Please share your thoughts on how we can best support you and pursue that mission over the next 20 years!

Happy Holidays, and may your deepest wishes be fulfilled.

Nadav Malin
BuildingGreen, Inc.

2011-12-22 n/a 9343 Light Bulb Finder App Wins EPA Competition

Choosing light bulbs can be a baffling ordeal. An award-winning app uses EPA data to make it simple again.

How many apps does it take to change a light bulb?

Apps can't actually do that yet: you still have to climb on a chair and balance precariously while holding a handful of glass. However, the winner of best overall app in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Apps for the Environment Challenge can help you choose the best and most efficient replacement option for incandescent bulbs.

In addition to selecting the bulb, Eco-Hatchery's app, called Light Bulb Finder, calculates projected energy savings and carbon dioxide emission reductions as well as cost savings and payback time based on local electrical rates. It also allows users to buy the bulbs online or email a shopping list--and it even includes discounts from local utility and government programs.

Using the app is easy. Thanks to a borrowed iPhone, I was able to select a replacement bulb for my living room in less than two minutes. This is definitely less time than I would have spent staring blankly at the light bulb aisle at Home Depot. Had I gone through with the transaction, UPS would have delivered the bulb to my doorstep in 10–14 days.

The app makes its judgment based on inputs from the user about the light bulb being replaced. These inputs include type of light fixture, style and diameter of the base of the current bulb, whether or not a dimmer will be used, current bulb wattage, number of hours the light is used per day, and the location of the light (e.g., kitchen, bedroom, bathroom).

Carbon footprint of travel options, at your fingertips

The app challenge is geared toward putting the reams of environmental data collected by EPA to good use. EPA makes the data and other resources available for free to app developers for this purpose. Thirty-eight apps competed in the challenge, and the makers of the winning apps were invited to Washington to present their creations to EPA experts and managers.

The runner-up for best overall app was Hootroot, a Web-based app that allows users to enter an itinerary and compare the carbon footprint and travel time of different forms of transportation. For instance, a trip from Boston to Washington, D.C., by car will release 478 lbs of CO2 and take about 8 hours and 11 minutes. A similar trip via public transit--the train in this case--takes 25 minutes less and results in only 32.12 pounds of CO2 emissions.

An app for environmental justice

The competition also featured apps developed by students. EarthFriend, the best overall student app, uses EPA's databases to create a series of games and fun facts around five categories: Climate, Water Pollution, Air Pollution, Land Pollution, and What Can You Do?

The runner-up for best student app uses EPA data to promote environmental justice. This Web-based participatory mapping tool allows users to locate active and abandoned uranium mines on or near the Navajo and Hopi reservations in northeastern Arizona. Other layers include water sources and coal-fired power plants. Users with GPS devices can record the locations of unlisted sites and add them to the map. There are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines in the region.

Peoples' Choice: compare quality of life from city to city

The Peoples' Choice award went to an app for mobile devices called CG Search, which provides users with graphs and city-to-city comparisons of air quality index scores, air pollutant levels, and energy consumption for various cities in the U.S.

2011-12-05 n/a 9276 Capture Green Value Over Time, Not with Short-Term Payback Analysis

Letting short-term payback analyses drive economic decisions about high-performance buildings is crazy.

If we let simple or even net-value payback analysis alone drive the economics of high-performance buildings, we might as well throw in the towel. It is truly crazy to apply just this approach to long-lived durable goods, such as homes. Yes, it is critical that the lower operational costs are factored into a home's value. But homes deliver their value over time to a series of owners. The initial owner or renovator needs to know that all those involved in the financial process will recognize their investment in high performance. And they need to be certain it will fully transfer when they eventually sell their green home.

There are three key housing industry sectors that need to step up to the plate to support our green building industry: realtors, appraisers, and lenders.

Green realtors

Realtors have more contact time with homebuyers than any of us. They build a relationship with their clients, and while they do not have to be knowledgeable about green or high-performance attributes of homes, it's a huge leg up if they are.

The National Association of Realtors has recently developed the Green MLS Toolkit, and it works! And the new white paper available from Ecobroker, "Unlocking the Full Value of Green Homes," (PDF) also provides excellent guidance.

"Educating lenders and appraisers, along with Realtors, is the single most important factor for recognizing the value of green building," says Dakota Gale, owner of mortgage company Green Mortgage Northwest in Portland, Oregon. "Disclosure of energy performance with a miles-per-gallon measure such as HERS is a close second," he says.

Dakota, a LEED Accredited Professional, has a background in green building design as a green building engineer along with work as the Sustainable Finance Director for Earth Advantage Institute, a green-building non-profit. I met Dakota at the EEBA conference this year, where he gave the best presentation on green finance I have ever seen.

As realtors learn the way to present the increased value of high performance homes, it leads to higher sale prices, building the database that green appraisers need for their work.

Green appraisers

The appraisal industry is by its very nature a steady and conservative lot; appraisers need plenty of hard data and "comps" (homes that have the same features to establish comparable value) to justify any "new" increased value associated with home performance. They, too, now have the tools they need for this. The Appraisal Institute (AI) has a series of green appraisal education tools, including detailed case studies.

And just recently, AI has developed a new appraisal form, "Residential Green and Energy Efficient Addendum" (PDF). According to Jason LaFleur of the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability, "the new form is intended to be used as an optional addendum to Fannie Mae Form 1004, the appraisal industry's most widely used form for mortgage lending purposes."

Green lenders

The work of realtors and appraisers all comes together when a buyer goes to borrow for a higher-value, higher-performance, home. Even in the current very conservative and risk-averse lending environment, there are banks, particularly local and regional ones, who get the green angle on homes and see them as high-quality and sound investments.

Dakota Gale again: "By creating a financial ecosystem surrounding the purchase or refinance of a green home, the value of the energy efficient features can be translated into language a bank underwriter will understand." Dakota's new green mortgage company offers a variety of benefits including discounted closing costs, preferential insurance rates, a roster of green-educated appraisers, a local version of a high performance home appraisal addendum and paperless transactions. He is working to develop a carbon-free closing for his clients as well as discounted private mortgage insurance for green-certified homes.

Peter Thompson of Laconia Savings in New Hampshire has been a construction loan specialist for 26-plus years. I met him when he came to a two-day NAHB training titled Advanced Green Building: Building Science. He is the first professional from the financial sector to attend any of the trainings I do on high-performance homes--what a treat! "I successfully created a green mortgage program and built a network of appraisers who know how to bring added value based on understanding the HERS reports and convince my underwriters to accept," says Peter. "I am proud to say that I am the first and only lender in all of New England that holds the NAHB Certified Green Professional designation, but at the same time I am ashamed that I am the only one from the banking community."

Peter feels strongly about the local nature of his work: "Do not look to the large banks for guidance or acceptance of high performance energy-efficient homes. They have their hands full with toxic mortgages. The secondary markets (i.e. Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac) have their own issues. The key to financing lies with the local community banks and credit unions that are primarily portfolio lenders that make their own decisions and do not answer to shareholders."

Thompson closes by saying: "The demand for high-performance homes is increasing. We have a great opportunity to distinguish ourselves as premiere builders and lenders. The train is leaving the station. Don't be left in the dust!"

Value transfer, not payback analysis, can build the market

Long-term investments in greener, higher-performance homes are valuable--the homes are less expensive to operate and more comfortable to live in. But any time the value of an investment extends well beyond the current holder's time frame, the increased value has to be easily transferred to the next investor.

While important, payback analysis alone can never build the market. Value transfer accomplished by green realtors, appraisers, and lenders is the key to that process.

2011-11-28 n/a 9216 "Green" Bamboo Flooring: What Matters Most?

Eco-friendly bamboo options have gotten better, but the choice is still not simple.

If you want the "greenest" bamboo flooring out there what do you look for? We have talked a lot about bamboo over the years, starting in 1997. The options have gotten better, but the choice is still not simple. GreenSpec lists what we think is the best bamboo flooring available today, and our section description explains our criteria, but lets break it down a bit.

Looking beyond "Rapidly Renewable" to FSC

Bamboo was originally championed as an inherently green material because it is rapidly renewable, but EBN's feature article, Bamboo in Construction: Is the Grass Always Greener? made it clear that sustainability isn't just about how fast it grows.

EBN dispelled the myth that bamboo flooring is taking food away from endangered Giant Pandas--pandas no longer live in the lowlands where bamboo is harvested for industrial use; but there are still a lot of variables to consider. Nearly all of the bamboo used in North America is grown in China, and there is great variability in bamboo growing and harvesting practices. BuildingGreen announced the first FSC certified bamboo in 2008, as a way to verify growing and harvest practices and GreenSpec now lists four companies with FSC certified bamboo. (FSC certified bamboo can contribute to the Certified Wood credit in LEED. We'll see what happens in LEED 2012).

Low-emitting--by what definition?

Bamboo has very little naturally occurring formaldehyde, but the many strips of bamboo that make up most bamboo products are usually glued together with a urea formaldehyde binder. That emits a lot of formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen.

There are plenty of low-emitting alternatives today, but also many different ways of showing it, making things complicated. GreenSpec accepts a broad range of measures: products may be certified to meet Floorscore or Greenguard Children & Schools, demonstrate that they meet Carb Phase II emissions requirements for formaldehyde, or have formaldehyde emissions of 0.05 ppm or lower using the ASTM E-1333 test for Europe's E1 standard (you can also find products certified to the more stringent E0 standard). Because the binders are the potential source of emissions concerns, GreenSpec also includes some products that don't have emissions testing but use binders and adhesives that have ultra-low formaldehyde concentrations (less than or equal to 0.02 ppm) or no added formaldehyde.

Our articles go into more detail on other issues, such as variable hardness of bamboo, and variability in manufacturing performance (unfortunately ISO 9001 and 14001 registration may not have the same level of verification in China).

Looking beyond current bamboo products

We'd love to see an FSC and Greenguard Children & Schools certified hard, durable, and gorgeous product from a reputable manufacturer that uses an internationally rigorous ISO-accredited auditor... but it's not out there, so we list the best available and we'd be interested in hearing how you make the final cut.

Lastly, it's always worth asking if there's an alternative material available for your particular situation that's a better fit for the environment and the project. I enjoyed a "Bamboo Schmamboo" comment we got from a reader, Clarke Snell, because it further challenges the broad-brush application of a rule-of-thumb like "bamboo is green." He makes some good points, and if you happen to know a forester local to a North American project who is clearly harvesting hardwoods sustainably, that may be your greenest choice (even recognizing that due to the efficiency of ocean freighters, the transportation energy of a Chinese bamboo flooring product may be comparable to a domestic hardwood flooring product.), so understand your actual alternatives.

Along those lines, I'll quote Snell for today's closing comments: "I continue to maintain that the first prerequisite for moving toward a sustainable society is a critical mind."

2011-11-09 n/a 9198 What Do Top Architecture Schools Have in Common? BuildingGreen Resources

DesignIntelligence has released its annual report on the top architecture schools, and 80% are campus-wide BuildingGreen subscribers.

The top architecture schools for 2012, according to DesignIntelligence. Hey, don't we know you?

We're always curious to see the DesignIntelligence lists of top architecture and design programs in the U.S. While the methodology is imperfect--pretty much ignoring all the amazing smaller architecture programs out there--these lists do give us a snapshot of which big-name programs are doing a good job of preparing their architecture and design students for the "real world."

Architecture and design are practical professions, so being prepared for professional life has always been essential. In the depths of a grueling recession, though, these rankings have even more weight: for a recent graduate, being ready to design real buildings on day one could easily make the difference between employment and unemployment.

How students become professionals

We've said it before: green building is just about the only kind of building happening right now. In an abysmal job market, design program grads ought to be able to say they are up to date on holistic sustainable design principles and best practices.

So we were proud to see that 80% of the programs listed by DesignIntelligence are campus-wide subscribers to BuildingGreen. Five of the six programs listed as strongest in sustainable design practices are also campus-wide subscribers (the sixth, Auburn University, subscribes to the print version of EBN).

We first started offering campus-wide subscriptions because professionals who also taught wanted to share BuildingGreen with students and the wider campus community. This subscription gives everyone on campus--from design students to sustainability directors to facility managers--unlimited access to Environmental Building News, GreenSpec, and the high-performance buildings database.

Keeping it real

"While many practitioners admire theory courses, they feel students need heavier doses of reality," writes James P. Cramer in his Architectural Record article about the DesignIntelligence lists. So we have some questions for you.

If you teach sustainable design, how do you "keep it real" for your students so they will be prepared for the jobs that (hopefully) await them after they finish their degrees?

If you are a sustainable design or building professional, what gaps would you like to see filled in the education or experience of interns fresh out of design school?

And finally, what can BuildingGreen do to help close the gaps between design school and professional life? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


2011-11-08 n/a 8988 DIY Passive House? Nothing "Passive" about That

Building to the Passive House standard is hard enough for the pros. We get a peek into what happens when you try to go it alone.

Zip-taped and on piers. We were lucky enough to visit while seams and interior I beams were still visible.

The last BuildingGreen field trip we wrote about was at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. This week, we stayed a bit closer to home by heading to a Passive House that's currently under construction in our own backyard.

We've written often on Passive House (subscriber link), and it was great to see the zip-taped skin and 24-inch I-beam bones of one this week. Andrea and Ted call their new Brattleboro home an "Almost Passive House" since they're utilizing Passivhaus design ideas but are not yet sure whether it will meet the standard or if they're going to try for certification.

Windows require tradeoffs

Eli Gould, of Ironwood Brand, whom Andrea and Ted brought on board to help with the design and framing, showed us around and had some great insights into their particular design process adding to the success of the project. One of the things he highlighted was the use of a window "budget" that was focused not on money but on heat loads.

The team has been analyzing the building from the start and tweaking the window-to-wall ratio along the way. Designing to an energy budget as opposed to a financial one is helping them meet their stringent goals--although Andrea readily admits that finances too play a role.

For instance, they chose a uPVC window sash, which doesn't contain plasticizers or phthalates, despite their reservations about PVC because it was half the price of those made of wood or aluminum.

Process makes (almost) perfect

Ironwood's own design/build process is a large part of this project. Eli points out that while the company is a high-end residential design/build company, at the shop they're also computer-assisted manufacturers. This has been quite a wet year (it's raining as I write this, actually) in Southern Vermont, but that hasn't stopped Ironwood from moving steadily forward with this project. By utilizing CAD/CAM processes in a year with 50+ inches of rain, they were able to wait out storms with pre-cutting, pre-painting, and pre-construction. Ultimately, this allowed the house to be dried-in in just three onsite days--two of crane work and one day sheathing the roof.

Back on their own blog, Andrea and Ted tell tales of having to adjust their expectations and let go of some things they once held dear like a 30,000 Btu wok ring. Since the house is sealed so tightly, there are many challenges around combustion and air-exchange for appliances like gas ranges and dryers. But finding alternate creative solutions is part of the fun on a project like this!

Working with what's available

An example we witnessed on our trip involved availability of materials. Some that they wanted to use weren't available in New England or were only sold by the pallet, as was the case with the 24-inch I-beams for the roof joists.

To avoid excess materials and spending, Eli redesigned the roof, which spans 26+ feet, to use exactly one pallet of beams. The solution? The West wall goes all the way up past the joists to eliminate a need for that pallet-busting 24th beam.

For more in-depth insight into the products used on this project, look for an upcoming blog post from Jennifer Atlee.

Passive House: an active collaboration

Ted and Andrea originally set out to build this project on their own. They soon realized that it was going to be quite complicated and called in some great collaborators. Eli says of this relationship that:

[w]e can connect dots, but there's no one of us that can really know what we need to know to pull off a building like this. I know [Ted and Andrea] spent a lot of money at the start in those soft costs. And I'd like to think that someday, that through either [BuildingGreen's] work or larger communities of people--it doesn't have to be just one person taking that on. But I feel really glad that these guys took it on.

If you'd like to come along for the ride, listen to an audio recording of our tour.

Continue following the progress of 'The Almost Passive House' at

2011-11-01 n/a 8990 Saving Energy and Water: Now, a College Sport

By leveraging social media, a national campus competition helps students turn small commitments into large-scale change.

Combining social media with intercollegiate competition provides two forms of motivation: it shows participants that even small individual commitments can be part of a larger whole and also gives them the extra incentive of trying to do well in a contest with peers.

Back when I was in college, I learned lots of fascinating but impractical things. The difference between phrenology and phenomenology. The anatomy of a flatworm. Three compelling examples of why Victor Frankenstein was the true monster in the novel named after him.

I couldn't have told you what a plug load was, though, let alone why it was important.

Campus Conservation Nationals

I probably wasn't alone in that. But thanks to the Campus Conservation Nationals, many more of today's college students will know a lot about plug loads and why they are important. This large-scale national contest attempts to motivate students to save energy and water by making it into an intercollegiate sporting event, with Facebook as the playing field.

As Pat Lane, USGBC Students lead at the Center for Green Schools, puts it in a recent blog post:

Dorms will be pitted against dorms, schools against schools and conferences against conferences in a combined effort to reduce energy consumption amongst college residential buildings across the country. Students will mobilize door-to-door and through social media, encouraging peers to make commitments for three weeks that will put their school at the forefront of the sustainability conversation.

There's also an ambitious overall energy goal to save a full gigawatt-hour during the eleven-week contest period.

From individual to collective action

The thing that's really cool about this competition is that it focuses on small individual commitments--simple things like taking five-minute showers--and yet finds a way to represent these tiny individual actions as a massive collective action.

By combining a sophisticated energy dashboard with social media, the competition aims to both challenge and inspire students to make a difference in their own dorms and classrooms.

Colleges and universities need to sign up by November 1, and the actual competition will take place from February 6 through April 23, 2012.

Why focus on individuals?

BuildingGreen has been around for 20 years now, and for most of that time, the focus of the green building community has been primarily on design and construction: how can we design, build, and retrofit our buildings and communities so they perform better?

The humans who live and work in our buildings have been a lesser--some might say nonexistent--focus. But in the past five years or so, the green building community has started to wake up to a very important fact: no matter how well we design a building or plan a retrofit, the occupants hold the keys to environmental performance.

"Occupant engagement"

As the buildings themselves have become more efficient, the building occupants' role in achieving sustainability goals has increased. Occupant engagement--the art of combining social science and building science to motivate individuals to save energy and water, reduce waste, and contribute to indoor environmental quality--has started to emerge as an ever-more-important field of research and action.

This is such an important emerging topic that our November Environmental Building News feature article on occupant engagement will be free to everyone, whether you're a BuildingGreen member or not.

Occupying our buildings more mindfully

While I, like many people, often despair at the vast discrepancy between my small individual actions and the need for mass collective action, projects like the Campus Conservation Nationals not only inspire me but also show me the immense power of individual action--once I can visualize it as part of a larger effort.

Not all of us can leave our jobs, classrooms, or homes to occupy Wall Street full time, but we can all do a better job of occupying our built environment. Whether you're a college student or not, what commitments--small or large--make you feel like you're doing your part? How do you visualize and evaluate your success, and what motivates you to do more?

2011-10-25 n/a 8994 Occupy Green Building: The Economy As a Design Problem

What do over a thousand protests around the world last weekend in support of Occupy Wall Street have to do with Green Building?

When NYC Mayor Bloomberg was speaking via video-link at Greenbuild, and while the Toronto Airport security strike delayed green building practitioners from returning home, a growing group of "occupiers" continued a now one month old occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City. There are many attempts to explain what's going on there, but the best I've seen comes in the words of those on the ground–-this is no simple single-issue movement to be cordoned off as a faction. Nor is it a "left" or "right" movement; the call has appeal to original tea party members, greens, labor, and so many others who count themselves among "the 99%."

I won't attempt to create my own container to box-in what's happening there. I was there Sunday, and it's very clear to me that attempting to do so would do a disservice to the passion, creativity, community, diversity, and collective seeking found in Zuccotti Park. But I came away mulling over the links to what the green building community is trying to accomplish.

At Greenbuild I thoroughly enjoyed a session called Beyond LEED, which had Jason Mclennon from ILBI and Brendan Owens from USGBC exploring the interconnection of LEED and Living Building Challenge, and others also tackling the broader question with gusto. Where I go beyond LEED is beyond buildings, even living buildings, to resilient and generative communities and economies in a rapidly changing world. I also go to the question of what would material management look like in a sustainable society?

So what's the connection here?

Ultimately a smattering of living buildings in a dying economy won't take us much further than a smattering of "green" products in an economy where it's still cheaper to ignore ecological and social consequences of manufacturing and its supply chain. A smattering of companies taking "triple bottom line" and "corporate social responsibility" to heart is equally limited when publicly traded companies can get sued if they let anything get in the way of maximizing financial shareholder value, and where discounting the future is basic unquestioned business practice.

What I get out of this upswelling of activism is that many in this country and the world are ready for a new economic story. It's not just about jobs, although that's a big part of it. People are connecting the dots between things that don't work in our food system, our education system, our building industry, our government, and so much more–-and why the fixes we attempt seem to get stymied by the incentives and assumptions embedded in our current economic system. More and more people are actively looking for alternatives.

What's fantastic is just how many creative alternatives are out there–-just like the green building movement, there's a whole world of people and organizations testing new ideas and designing a new economy. There are new corporate structures that let publicly traded companies concern themselves with more than profits; proposals for a financial transactions tax and to replace labor taxes with resource taxes; new ways to get dollars circulating in local communities; even alternate frameworks and entirely new models for the economic system as a whole.

I'd like to see the building design and construction community approach the economic system as a design problem to be solved rather than a design constraint to operate within.

Don't get me wrong; I'm astounded by all the creativity and progress that's been made in "tunneling through the cost barrier", showing how green design is cost effective today–-but imagine if building green products, buildings, and communities was the no-brainer default option because the economy gave us the right signals. Just think what would be possible!

2011-10-17 n/a 9009 Water and Global Warming: Is It Too Wet to Fix It?

Watching our sweet little brook turn into a raging river during Hurricane Irene was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. An NRDC report tries to re-create this experience for others--before it's too late.

Not in your back yard? With global warming, you don't have a choice in the matter. There's nothing like seeing your kids' tire swing bouncing around in your sweet little burbling brook to convince you of that.

In the process of buying our house in 2006, we learned that it had been built on a FEMA-designated 100-year floodplain; the bank refused to give us a loan unless we purchased flood insurance. Grumble, grumble: another expensive mortgage hoop to jump through. We of course signed up for the insurance but talked about asking FEMA to reconsider our designation.

We never did that, and now we never will.

Face-to-face with flash flooding

Like much of Southern Vermont, our property is an odd mix of wilderness and traffic: on a major highway in the village of West Brattleboro, it also fronts the Ames Hill Brook, one tiny part of a vast network of relatively untouched waterways that make Vermont the lush state so many people love to visit for hiking, boating, and "leaf-peeping." The water is very cold, and we call it our air conditioner; if you're hot, you walk down to the brook and sit right down in the water. Aaaaah. The black locusts and sugar maples on the banks keep the south side of the house cool in summer too, and help prevent erosion.

While we have always enjoyed watching the water rise and fall with the weather--it gets pretty crazy after thunderstorms and resembles what my daughter once shriekingly dubbed "raging coffee!"--it never occurred to us that it could get anywhere near our house, which is about 25 feet from the bank at the nearest point.

How wrong we were. During Hurricane Irene, the water was within a foot of our basement door, and I was packing the toothbrushes in anticipation of being evacuated. "Did you think it would be this high?" I shakily asked my husband. "Yes, but I didn't think it would be this scary," he replied.

That's when the rain slowed and the water level started to go down, but the adrenaline is taking a lot longer to recede. We've had lots of sunny days since the storm, and I feel better. But rain, which I have always found soothing, now makes me anxious.

'No one is immune to climate change'

I'm not the only one who's been watching the weather with slowly creeping panic. From blizzards to tropical storms to the wildfires in Texas, this has been one of the craziest and most expensive years our country has ever seen, weather-wise. This is exactly the kind of extreme weather climate scientists have been warning us about for twenty years or more. Maybe we knew it would be this bad, but we probably didn't expect it to be this scary. Not in our own back yards, anyway.

A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) attempts to show people just how close to their homes catastrophic climate change is likely to get. "What we found was that there was really no area or region that was immune to effects from climate change," said Michelle Mehta, a lead author of the report, which is called "Thirsty for Answers: Preparing for the Water-Related Impacts of Climate Change in American Cities." Her hope is that the study, which includes maps showing huge new swaths of flood-prone areas in city streets and other compelling imagery, will "crystallize" the information for the general public. If people look and say, "I know these streets, I know that beach," she said, "it makes the issue real."

I wrote about the report well before Hurricane Irene started creeping up the East Coast, and it was already giving me nightmares. Then the nightmares started coming true.

On the brighter side, though, places like New York City are already on the job. Although Irene missed them this time, the next hurricane could easily make landfall there. The dense, aging infrastructure of everything from roads and subways to sewer and water treatment systems--much of it far below sea level--makes the city incredibly prone to water-related disasters. And the densely packed population there would be like the proverbial fish in a barrel.

Is it wrong to prepare for the worst?

Anyone who felt like criticizing Mayor Bloomberg for (unnecessarily, as it turned out) evacuating the most vulnerable people before Irene arrived would likely have felt differently if they'd read this NRDC report. I don't know for sure, but I suspect these evacuations must have stemmed at least in part from the city's relatively higher awareness of its increasing vulnerability to floods and rising sea levels.

Other cities are not so aware, and that's one of the things NRDC wanted to highlight too. Many, like St. Louis, haven't even started looking into the problem--let alone changed development plans or made infrastructure changes. Yet that city, like many others, will likely face increased precipitation, worse storms, and increased flooding.

Others, including Miami and Los Angeles, will likely have less precipitation but will need to simultaneously address rising sea levels--a combination that could severely compromise their drinking water supplies, as less rain falls and more salt water creeps into water treatment infrastructure. "Local planning is key," says the report.

As good as any man's house

How can cities afford to put resources into studies, planning, and infrastructure upgrades when they're already having trouble paying for basic services? On the other hand, how can they afford not to?

One of my favorite songs is an old Appalachian folk ditty called "Arkansas Traveler." It encapsulates some of the deepest wisdom about human nature I've heard. My favorite incarnation of the song is a straight man/funny man routine performed by Michelle Shocked. After some banter about whether the supposedly ignorant old farmer has lived there all his life ("Not yet!") and how deep the mud hole is ("Only comes up to here on my ducks..."), the traveler asks, "Hey, farmer. When you gonna fix that leakin' roof?" The farmer answers, "When it's rainin' it's too wet to fix it, and when it's dry it's just as good as any man's house."

We all fall into this trap. While a crisis is happening, all our energy and money go into just getting by: bailing the basement, fighting the next fire, rebuilding bridges and roads. After we're done with that, well, it's as good as any man's house again!

But this planet is our only house. NRDC's report has a very clear message: it's time all of us, in every city of the U.S., got around to fixing our roofs.

2011-09-23 n/a 9010 Greenbuild Toronto: A Preview

I've got my passport, my schedule, and a map of the expo floor. Just need to grab my coffee mug and my running shoes.

Peter Yost, residential program manager (read: building science genius) at BuildingGreen, will be moderating the Affordable Housing Summit at Greenbuild. If you're not going to that, you might just catch a rare sighting in our booth!

It's hard to believe, but less than two weeks from now, I'll be picking up my badge at Greenbuild Toronto and heading off to cram as much green building information into my head as I possibly can in 50 hours. It almost feels like I've signed up for a reality TV show. This will be my first Greenbuild, and even from this distance I'm very excited--and a little intimidated--by its massive size and scope.

I'll be showing up eager to learn, but most people on the BuildingGreen staff will be attending Greenbuild in more of a teaching role.

Top-10 Products and Top LEEDuser Tips

There will be eleven of us altogether: even our fearless leader, Alex Wilson, will be taking a recess from his sabbatical for the occasion. He'll be at our booth (#434 North--make a note of that!) fielding questions about the latest trends and topics in the green building community and helping users try out GreenSpec and LEEDuser so they can get hands-on experience with these incredible resources.

You'll also find Alex unveiling the much-anticipated BuildingGreen Top-10 Products on Thursday at 2:30 (session SU04)--but only if you've already signed up! (When I checked on that session to give you the link, it was already full.)

If you can't make it to Alex's talk, you might want to see our other fearless leader, Nadav Malin, in the same time slot (session #SU05) giving a presentation on Top LEED Tips from LEEDuser Experts and Forums--alongside some of those very experts: Mara Baum from HOK, Jenny Carney from YRG, and Marcus Sheffer from 7group. They'll be highlighting some of the hottest topics and helping members of the audience with whatever LEED questions are on their minds that day. Hey, maybe this would make a good reality TV show....

At the booth

If you're LEEDuser-curious but haven't tried it yet, I encourage you to head over to our booth (#434N) and get some hands-on experience with this amazing tool, a project certification roadmap that offers not only expert guidance (see above) but also checklists, documentation toolkits, and those amazing forums where you get real-time answers to questions from peers who've struggled with some of the same sticky problems. Several BuildingGreen staff members who work with LEEDuser every day will be on hand to answer questions too--whether you're just starting your first LEED project or you're in the thick of your tenth one and want to ask about a specific credit.

Whether you already use GreenSpec or not, you'll definitely want to stop by and check out the exciting changes the GreenSpec team has been rolling out over the past few months--including a brand new look and enhanced search, forum, and portfolio features that make it that much easier to find the top green products for any project you might be working on right now. Product experts will be on hand from our own staff as well as from Healthy Building Network, creator of Pharos, which shows you what's really in building products and which alternatives are healthiest. Watch this space--and our Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter feeds--for more on exciting upgrades to both GreenSpec and Pharos soon.

Are there any sustainable materials?

Speaking of product experts, our research director Jennifer Atlee (also my wonderful office mate, which for some reason doesn't show up on her resumé) will be co-presenting on Thursday at 4:00 on the topic "Are There Any Sustainable Materials?" (session #PL01). Jennifer has been tight-lipped on the answer to that question, but I have overheard a few conversations with her co-presenters, and they seem to be having way too much fun for the answer to be "no." I wish I could go!

There are a lot of other sessions I'm looking forward to. I'm attending at least two about LEED 2012 and another I'm really excited about on active design guidelines. A couple others focus on one of my pet topics: how to ensure energy goals are met after we mere mortals actually start using a building.

I'm also really excited to learn more about USGBC's Project Haiti, which will apparently be a big focus this year. I just spoke to Roger Limoges at USGBC, and he said HOK would be unveiling the plans for the new orphange, and would have a whole booth dedicated to it. This is a really moving project that we'll be following closely over the next two years.

Lifelong learning

Meanwhile, we'll be filling out the details of our Greenbuild preview in the next few days and also keeping you up to the minute with blog posts, tweets, and Facebook updates while we're there.

I hope you'll be able to stop by our booth and visit in person, though. Our folks really know their stuff, and are so warm and welcoming too. While we will be sharing our resources with you, it's very low-key and--perhaps more importantly--it's all about you and your needs. It can provide a very nice respite from the rest of the expo floor.

We'll be answering lots of questions and being as helpful as we can, but we'll also be listening carefully when you come by, trying to make sure we know what your needs and struggles are, what topics interest you most right now, and how we can provide you the resources you need to continue doing all your good work after Greenbuild is all over.

Until then, watch here for more updates. You might also want to keep tabs on the official Countdown to Greenbuild blog. And don't forget to check out Lloyd Alter's Picks for Greenbuild in handy map form! Also check out his helpful, poignant, and just plain fun Buildup to Greenbuild series over on Treehugger.

See you in Toronto!

2011-09-22 n/a 9014 Is Your Lunch Trashing the Planet? Top Three Ways to Deal with Food Waste

We waste almost as much food in the U.S. every day as we should be eating--about 1,400 calories per person. Wasting less is best, but if we really can't eat it, where should we put it?

Lunches like these are typical in American schools. Nothing good is likely come of the disposable tray, but large amounts of food waste from cafeterias, restaurants, and homes can be put to good use through municipal-scale composting.

I will never forget the day my sixth-grade teacher started crying in front of the whole class. The tears capped off a long, loud, after-lunch rant about wasted food and the starving children in Ethiopia who would have been happy to eat it.

Like most of my peers, I responded with both shame and defiance. Who wants to make her teacher cry, let alone singlehandedly starve a bunch of little kids? On the other hand, people threw out that food for a reason: it was only nominally edible. On the rare occasions when I bought school lunch, I privately believed that even a starving child wouldn't choke down more than a few bites before dumping the rest in the garbage.

That said, I have always been horrified by the very thought of throwing food away. I was raised to clean my plate regardless of whether I liked what was on it or not. Why? This was the era of super-cheap generic canned goods with white labels and bold black lettering, so we didn't lack adequate calories. And you couldn't really send your leftovers to Ethiopia. Wasting food was just categorically, viscerally wrong; you didn't need a why.

Food waste and global warming

It still is wrong, but we have ever more urgent and tangible reasons for paying attention.

First are the immense resources that go into producing our food--most notably, petroleum and water. While you might be able to justify gaining sustenance from the most resource-intensive foods (beef, for example, is notorious), you are needlessly throwing out oil and clean water with every unwanted morsel.

Also, most wasted food goes to landfills, where it contributes to global warming by producing tons and tons of methane. Even if people wasted less--something we should obviously try to do in our own kitchens by buying less food and perhaps owning smaller refrigerators--there would still be apple cores, potato peelings, chicken skins, coffee grounds, and many other unwanted parts thrown in the trash from millions of homes every day.

Food waste isn't going away. What, then, should we do with it?

Food down the drain?

A new study finds several environmentally preferable alternatives to sending our food to landfills. The best ones involve treating our wasted food as an asset rather than a liability. Luckily, this is an attitude shift that people can make fairly readily--at least when compared with the idea of reusing human waste, a possibility people find much harder to face. The trick is to implement this attitude shift at the municipal level.

The life-cycle analysis was commissioned by InSinkErator and conducted by independent research group PE International. While the manufacturer has touted the analysis as proof that processing food waste in a kitchen garbage disposal system is environmentally preferable, the results were actually much more complicated: if you don't know the gruesome details of how your municipality deals with your wastewater sludge and its biogases, you can't truly assess how green your garbage disposal is.

In my back yard, please!

In fact, while the scenarios studied covered a wide spectrum of environmental impacts, only one wastewater treatment scenario stands out as a truly sustainable option. Here's a rundown of the top three ways of dealing with food waste, according to the life-cycle analysis:

  • Municipal compost--Composting is the real winner in this life-cycle analysis. Industrial "advanced" composting is becoming more popular in municipalities around the U.S. and Canada, and this study's results suggest they need to become more common. In most such systems, the pile is covered and aerated to create high-heat aerobic digestion, and emissions are captured. The resulting compost is used as fertilizer and releases a small amount of CO2, giving this method the second-smallest global warming potential of all methods studied, (2.1 kg of CO2 equivalent per household per year).
  • Waste-to-energy--In this scenario, solid waste is separated into landfill trash and food waste. The food waste is burned to run steam generators to make electricity, giving this method a comparably small carbon footprint (3.6 kg of CO2 equivalent per household per year).
  • Wastewater treatment--Most wastewater treatment methods use a lot of energy, and only a few do anything to offset the global warming potential of this energy. The method with the most promise uses anaerobic digestion, capturing the methane for heat-and-power cogeneration and using the spent biosolids as fertilizer. This method has negative global warming potential. Other wastewater treatment methods had much higher carbon footprints than composting and waste-to-energy.

Sink over garbage can

All that said, if your only two options are washing the food down the drain or filling the landfill with it, your choice is fairly clear, according to this study: go with the garbage disposal. Even though processing all that wastewater takes way more energy than just trucking and dumping your food scraps, the global warming potential (GWP) of any method of wastewater treatment is dramatically lower than that of the landfill.

What about the water?

You might wonder, as I did, about the constant running of water while the food is getting ground up in the drain. Oddly, the study only gives cursory treatment to water use, estimating a slight increase in usage per household but not considering that as an environmental impact. When I asked an InSinkErator spokeswoman why that was, she replied that the water use was negligible and pointed me to a couple of studies on the topic. Another industry expert told me that it's very difficult to find controls for such studies because "almost everyone" has a garbage disposal, but apparently some have shown that net water use is actually less. A study done by New York City showed a negligibly slight increase in water use.

My visceral reaction to wasted water is similar to my visceral reaction to wasted food, so I wish this study done more to study the impact of water use in its otherwise pretty comprehensive life-cycle analysis. I can't stand watching clean water run down the drain, so I won't be installing a food disposal system anytime soon. Luckily, we have both a backyard compost pile and the option of municipal composting.

Your next move

In my Vermont county, our composting program started with restaurants and other businesses, and it is slowly being extended to households. Soon there will even be curbside pickup in Brattleboro.

The program accepts a lot of trash that you can't normally put down the drain, recycle, or compost in your back yard--making it even more awesome. Everything from pizza boxes and waxed paper to dog poop and chicken bones can go to the compost facility. Every week here at BuildingGreen, we divert a large number of used paper towels from the landfill by composting them; between the compost and the recycling, we are getting very close to being a zero-waste-to-landfill business.

While waste-to-energy and wastewater treatment with cogeneration both look like low-impact ways to deal with food waste, a composting program should be much easier for a community to put together. It also diverts a lot of heavy trash that many municipalities would otherwise have to pay tipping fees to get rid of, making it a very good investment. If you want to move your community toward a cheaper and more environmentally sustainable way of dealing with solid waste, pushing for a municipal composting program would be a very good idea.

2011-09-12 n/a 9021 BuildingGreen Goes Back to School with New Classroom Tools

Many professors use EBN feature articles as course material. We're always looking for ways to make their lives easier.

We are already adding blankets to our beds here in Vermont, and it's still dark when my husband and I get up for our early-morning run. Looks like time to wean the kids off their late-to-bed/late-to-rise schedule and remember the meaning of the phrase "school night."

Jim Wasley, AIA, has subscribed to EBN since 1992--our very first issue! He shares it with students as the primary textbook for his graduate seminars.

More than a hundred colleges and universities across the U.S. are campus-wide subscribers, so here at BuildingGreen we've been busy getting ready for the back-to-school season too--writing new discussion questions to go with feature stories (just scroll down to the bottom of any feature from 2011), creating and posting a sample syllabus for a sustainable design course, and talking with professors and sustainability directors about how they use BuildingGreen and what would make it even more useful.

Digging deep

I reached Jim Wasley, AIA, who chairs the department of architecture at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, just after he had cleaned his office in preparation for the fall semester. When I asked him how long he'd been reading EBN, he confessed that he had just recycled all twenty years' worth, including Volume 1, Issue 1 (fortunately, he can still find our very first feature story, "Rigid Foam Insulation and the Environment," online).

Wasley has been using EBN in his classroom since 1996--initially as photocopies, but now he just sends his students to instead. He assigns EBN feature articles as the primary text for his graduate Green Building and Professional Practice seminar. It's a good fit, he said, because for the seminar "you can take almost any topic and dig deeply instead of skating on the surface"--and "you can do all that within EBN."

"No contamination"

It's not just architecture programs that use EBN as a textbook. Charles Kibert, Ph.D., P.E., professor and center director at the Powell Center for Construction & Environment at the University of Florida–Gainesville, uses it as the primary text in all three of his master's courses in sustainable construction. "I try to bring them up to the most current information immediately," said Kibert. His students read each issue as it comes out and use EBN as a source for research papers.

Charles Kibert, Ph.D., P.E., has been using BuildingGreen content as course material for years in his sustainable construction courses at the University of Florida–Gainesville

"Historically it's always been fair and dispassionate and objective," Kibert said. "I don't always agree," he added--"but it's objective." The lack of manufacturer sponsorship is a major selling point for Kibert, as it is for many professors. "There are a lot of publications out there now, but they are taking advertising," Kibert told me. With BuildingGreen, as he put it, "there's no contamination."

Getting support

Our outreach director, Jerelyn Wilson, has been on the phone a lot lately (I know this because I sit right across the hall from her). Not only is it back-to-school time, but in the bigger picture, more and more schools are adding sustainability programs and hiring sustainability directors, and they are all looking for independent, up-to-date green building resources that don't rely on commercial interests for financial support.

If you're interested in bringing BuildingGreen's content into the classroom--whether you already have a campus-wide subscription or not--I encourage you to check out the new syllabus or email Jerelyn directly. From what other academics tell us, there's nothing else like it, and we want to make sure everyone who wants it is able to use it.

Giving feedback

We'd love to hear more about how you use or would like to use BuildingGreen content in your classroom--including what we can do to make it easier. Feel free to send your feedback to us by email or just discuss your needs in the comments.

2011-08-25 n/a 9030 Getting the Most from Old Windows: A Tale of Attachments

Should you replace your old windows? Using attachments can get more life out of them, and improve performance.

Most of us approach poorly performing old windows with a step-by-step exploration from one less-than-optimal fix to the next. Improving existing window performance shouldn't be that way, and it doesn't have to with new online resources.

Home Sweet Home

In 2000, my wife and I moved into a nearly 100-year old home in New England, equipped with the original wood single- paned double-hung windows. These windows were supported by some pretty typical window attachments: triple-track exterior aluminum storm windows and opaque vinyl interior roller shades.

By and large, the windows themselves operated pretty well. All the sashes raised, lowered, and locked (more than you can say for a lot of 100-year-old windows). But the storm windows and roller shades were another story.

Conventional aluminum storm windows

You know these storms--the terrifically annoying, anodized aluminum, triple-track ones. Ours were rickety, with white dust (oxidation) all over the tracks, and most of them were barely operational. You typically risked damaging the storm panels or yourself when trying to raise or lower them. While these storms had apparently done a good job of sheltering the original wood sashes, they were frankly quite ugly and worked poorly. They definitely were headed to our local building salvage operation or metal recycling. 

Dime-a-dozen roller shades

Our roller shades were essentially privacy shades. They were unattractive and brittle and made rooms horribly dark when deployed during the day. The roller shades were definitely coming out, in part because they were at the end of their service life but also because they were just not versatile enough.

So if we were eliminating the existing exterior storms and interior roller shades, what did we do to improve our windows?

Decision #1--Keep existing windows, for now...

This first decision was actually dependent on our 2nd decision (see #2 below - high performance low-e exterior storm windows); the 100-year-old window sashes worked and looked just fine. Their problem was mostly thermal performance, something addressed by the storms.

And we did have both a shorter- and a longer-term plan: we would eventually do double-paned wood sash replacement kits for even better thermal performance. But more on this decision later; it turned out to be a bit more complicated than we thought.

Decision #2--Replace existing storms with low-e storms

Although this was our 2nd decision, it was our first purchase. The low-e, baked enamel, aluminum frame, triple-track Harvey storms were sturdy, smooth-operating, relatively air tight, and reasonable at about $100 - $120 per window (there are just two sizes of windows in our house--both 5 feet tall with one just over 2 feet wide and the other just under 3 feet wide). And perhaps most importantly, they continued the history of protecting the wood window sashes while bringing the overall thermal performance pretty close to that of an average new double-paned window.

Decision #3--Install "room-appropriate" interior window treatments

We thought we wanted our interior window attachments to do just three simple things: provide privacy, adjust for varying amounts of daylighting, and add some style and color to our windows. And the importance of each of these varied some from room to room.

So we purchased utilitarian white metal venetian blinds for the home office, where daylighting and adjustability for glare control were the most important. And then for the kitchen and various bedrooms, we purchased quality, heavy-cloth opaque roller shades with matching valances. We even bought bedspreads that matched the pattern of the window treatments for two rooms. The custom-fit venetian blinds were about $80 per window, and the fancy roller shades were about the same (both DIY installations).

Decision #4--Gradually replace sashes

The plan all along was to further improve the thermal performance of our windows by replacing the single- paned wood sashes with Brosco wood sash replacements. We could stain them to look almost identical to the original sashes and get them with low-e glass. While the white vinyl jambliners were a bit jarring, they were not all that visible and the closed-cell foam backing seemed like a thermal improvement over the cord-and-pulley system of the original windows. The sash replacement kits were about $200 apiece (DIY install--pretty simple except for removing the pulleys) so we did them as finances allowed over a 10-year stretch. (For more on understanding different window options and making choices, see Choosing Windows: Looking Through the Options.)

We paused in our purchasing and thought: that ought to do it...

Adding priorities and new options

We did not pause for very long. Window treatment selections turn out to be a lot like hangnails; you just can't leave them alone.

The home office is seriously overglazed, and we really needed better thermal performance from our interior window treatments.

In the kitchen and bedrooms, the lack of view or privacy, depending on how the roller shades were positioned, was frustrating, given how much we had paid for them. And those valances covering up nearly a quarter of the glass area, collecting dust, and covering up the beautiful wood window trim--what were we thinking?

And then we learned about insulated cellular shades with sidetracks that adjust top-down and bottom-up. They come in all kinds of patterns and light-filtering levels.

Changing to insulated cellular shades in the office worked well because the thermal performance of the insulated shades compared to the metal venetian blinds was amazing, and the top-down/bottom-up function gave us lots of combinations of daylighting, glare control, privacy, and view.

Insulated cellular shades (top-down/bottom-up) in the kitchen and bedrooms also gave us the right combinations of view, privacy, and daylighting. And they looked good; while venetian blinds are probably the best at combined view, privacy, and daylighting, they can't hold a candle to the look and feel of the insulated cellular shades, in our family's opinion.

But a closing note on insulated cellular shades--they are not cheap, particularly the top-down/bottom-up with sidetracks. We got ours at an uncommonly good price, about $250 per window.

An unintended consequence

After nearly 11 years of window attachment dithering, you would hope that we ended up exactly where we wanted to be, with the best performing windows possible. Almost.

It turns out that combining high performance window treatments with high performance glazing may create some problems. Both our low-e storm windows and our side-tracked insulated cellular shades, when combined with low-e double-paned windows and intense summer sun, may have resulted in some damage to the seals in the insulated glazing units (IGUs--these are the sealed, double-paned glass). The high-performance attachments combine with high-performance windows to trap quite a bit of heat inside the double-pane windows, enough to degrade the seals. At least that is what appears to have happened with the west-facing windows in our home; research into this issue is under way. (For some background on that and other research with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, subscribers can read our feature story on window attachments: Making Windows Work Better.)

Lessons learned from living with these selections

We have spent quite a bit of money and learned an awful lot about how windows work, and how they don't.

Specific recommendations:

  • High quality, baked enamel, tracked, low-e storms work great; 11 years later, our storm windows look and operate as if they were brand new.
  • Insulated cellular shades are just about as multi-functional as venetian blinds and look a hell of a lot better.
  • Sash replacements need big, beefy seals to accommodate out-of-square old window frames.

General observations

  • You pretty much get what you pay for; the best-performing, highest-utility window attachments are more expensive.
  • Window attachments are like shoes--it's not really possible for one selection to do the trick for all occasions and conditions. You probably need multiple window attachments, just like you need multiple pairs of shoes.
  • In terms of thermal performance, exterior attachments are the best at keeping heat out and interior the best at keeping heat in.
  • Operable window attachments not only allow adjustment, they require it for optimal performance; this is particularly true for thermal performance.
  • If you have high-performance windows and attachments, you may need to shade south and west windows to keep the sun out before it gets in.

By my calculations, there are around 17 types of window attachments and 24 attributes to consider in making your windows work better. You can meander about as we did, or, use the new resources at, a website created and maintained by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, BuildingGreen, and the U.S. Department of Energy. I guarantee that the Overview Summary Table alone will save you both time and money in your deliberations. And the monitored forums on the site will yield lots of experience and insight from the field.

2011-07-21 n/a 9051 Net-Zero Does Not Live by Design Alone: The Human Factor

As more federal buildings target zero energy, leading designers tell us that day-to-day choices make all the difference

Automatically operated shades and a passive transpired solar collector could help bring the NREL research support facility to net-zero energy use--but it takes intentional conservation too. (Photo: Frank Ooms)

If you build it, they will plug. They will plug in drip coffee makers, halogen lamps, personal DVD players, aquariums, space heaters, and maybe even hair dryers. They will leave computers, lights, and printers on all night. How many of them will it take to screw in incandescent light bulbs before we realize that net-zero is not just about design?

That was the big takeaway from a net-zero press conference I attended during the AIA Convention. The conference, sponsored by Building Design+Construction to promote its new white paper on net-zero buildings, focused on an AIA/COTE Top Ten winner, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) research support facility in Golden, Colorado. Completed in June 2010, the NREL facility could become the largest net-zero building in the country.

Unlike with Energy Star, LEED, or even Passivhaus certifications, a zero-energy building (ZEB) doesn't get to call itself that until it has shown for a whole year that it produces at least as much energy as it consumes (subscribers can read Tristan Roberts' feature on energy metrics for an in-depth comparison of various systems). This is where some designs targeting net-zero have run into trouble: buildings don't use energy. People use energy.

Zero-people buildings?

The obvious way to get to zero energy, then, is to have zero occupants. Problem solved!

Unfortunately, the purpose of 99.9% of buildings is to have occupants living or working in them. So ZEB designers are feeling their way toward three main strategies for balancing the net-zero equation to account for us humans and our crazy need for "comfort":

  • Engineer for maximum efficiency. According to David Eijadi, FAIA, who worked on the net-zero Science House, targeting net-zero needs to begin with efficiency--a minimum of 50%–70% above ASHRAE 90.1. This involves right-sized mechanical systems, tight envelopes, daylighting, and other features that are fundamental to good, energy-efficient design and construction. Tom Hootman, AIA, added that it was key to "start with passive strategies" for heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting.
  • Automate. Tagging along right behind passive strategies are automated systems that turn lights on and off using motion sensors, close and open louvered shades based on sunlight conditions, or even sense indoor and outdoor temperatures and automatically open windows. For safety or comfort reasons, most of these automated systems will need the flexibility of human override, which is why you need to...
  • Talk to owners and occupants. A lot. Because they need to understand that achieving net-zero requires constant, intentional conservation. In the case of the NREL building, the client was 100% on board with this. "Set aggressive goals," emphasized NREL's Paul Torcellini, P.E., Ph.D. "Get behind it, set the budget, and unleash the creativity" of the design team. Still, there are a lot of people using this building every day, and each one has to take some responsibility as well. They are alerted at their work stations when a central computer thinks it's a good time to close a shade or open a window--but that doesn't mean they'll do it. You may be going for zero, but buy-in has to be one hundred.

'Embrace your limits'

The panel was made up of industry leaders who have helped design multiple net-zero buildings. From left to right: Tom Hootman, AIA, of RNL Design; Paul Torcellini, P.E., Ph.D., of NREL; David Eijadi, FAIA, of the Weidt Group; Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA, of HOK; Mark L'Italian, FAIA, of EHDD Architecture; Philip Macey, AIA, of Haselden Construction.

The stringency of achieving net-zero might seem daunting, but the whole panel here seemed really excited about the possibilities. "Embrace your limits," emphasized Mary Ann Lazarus, FAIA. Lazarus, one of the designers of Net Zero Co2urt, also served as a judge for this year's AIA/COTE Top Ten awards. "Rethink your process," she said, "and be pushed to a new set of processes."

Other panel members concurred, and added that if you try really hard to get to net-zero and you don't make it, you've still made a much more efficient building than you would have if you hadn't had this goal in mind.

What about the renewables?

Distinctly missing from this conversation was the thing that puts the Z in ZEB: energy produced on the site. Aside from photovoltaics (PV) on the roof and on an adjacent parking structure, the NREL building also uses some interesting strategies like a transpired solar collector and a thermal labyrinth to make use of solar energy for heating. While very creative, the design intentionally employs established technologies and off-the-shelf products and does not incorporate any funky, cutting-edge renewables. This is partly for budgetary reasons and partly as an object lesson: if the nation's largest net-zero-to-be can get there on a low budget, so can you!

What do you think? Would you have gotten to zero a different way? Or is getting to zero even important, considering that old-fashioned (and some new-fashioned) conservation is doing so much of the work?

2011-05-27 n/a 9055 Making it Right in New Orleans

A tour of rebuilding in the Ninth Ward of NOLA, with green homes designed by some of the world's leading architects

KieranTimberlake's Special House #9 was one of the first Make It Right homes built. From KT's website: "The basic structure and organization of the house is comparable to the chassis of an automobile fitted with optional components and assemblies that vary the specifics of its function and its appearance."

A highlight of my time in New Orleans for AIA Convention last week was a tour of rebuilding efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward with the staff of BNIM Architects and a few invited guests. BNIM had a large contingent in town to receive their AIA Firm of the Year award, and took the opportunity to show this project to the rest of their team. Bob Berkebile (the “B” in BNIM and an Environmental Building News advisory board member) has been instrumental in these rebuilding efforts since just days after Katrina hit in August 2005.

Numerous organizations have been involved in different aspects of the rebuilding, and their work has intersected in many ways. Leading our tour, along with Bob Berkebile, were representatives of several of those organizations and John Williams, a New Orleans architect whose firm was wiped out in the chaos that followed the storm. Williams has since rebuilt his practice around the rebuilding efforts, including an (unfortunately necessary) specialty in navigating the bureaucratic maze of government processes for claiming meager rebuilding funds.

Beth Galante was a lawyer in New Orleans before Katrina disrupted her life. She's now director of Global Green USA's New Orleans office.

A human-made disaster

Among the many important facts I learned is that the Lower Ninth Ward is actually on relatively high ground for New Orleans, slightly above sea level. It’s called “lower” only because it’s south of adjacent areas. This area was NOT inundated by floodwaters from the river or ocean—it was flooded only by the storm surge that broke through the Industrial Canal levee thanks to the ill-conceived Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) built in the 1960s to streamline freight traffic through New Orleans, bypassing bends in the river. There is a lawsuit pending against the Army Corps of Engineers for this flooding—legal action made possible only because MRGO was built not to protect life but to promote commerce.

It’s poignant that as we visited New Orleans the city was seeing its highest river level in 75 years, and the Army Corps opened the Morganza Spillway for the first time in 40 years, flooding thousands of acres of farms, marshes, and villages, to relieve pressure on the levees. The trigger for opening the spillway? A river flow of 1.5 million cubic feet per second. Hard to comprehend that amount of water, just as it was truly awesome to stand on the levees and watch it go by. But I digress…

The green house in the center is the showcase that Global Green will keep as an educational resource. Others are being sold to residents. (The pink house in the foreground is already sold.)

Global Green in Holy Cross

On the tour Beth Galante, director of Global Green USA’s New Orleans office, walked us through their Holy Cross Project showcase house, the first of five homes now standing on the site where Global Green is rebuilding. Holy Cross is a neighborhood adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward that sits on even higher ground. The other four homes are being sold, but this one will remain an educational resource for the community. Global Green is also creating a showcase rainwater infiltration garden, a community center, and, hopefully, a multifamily building that can ease people’s fears about increasing the density in this notoriously spread out city.

Global Green’s houses—all LEED platinum certified—were designed through a competition organized immediately after Katrina. Brad Pitt’s influential involvement in the Lower Ninth began with his participation as a juror in that competition. Unfortunately for Global Green, rather than bringing his fundraising power to the Holy Cross Project, Pitt was inspired to start a parallel program, which became the Make It Right Foundation. That slowed the progress at Global Green, but not its resolve. “Among many other things, we’ve learned patience,” said Galante, who was a lawyer in New Orleans before Katrina.

Making it affordable

Make It Right is now a much larger organization in the Lower Ninth than Global Green, and has constructed 72 homes based on designs from architect all over the world (as well as some local talent). Among them are BNIM, KieranTimberlake, Suguru Ban, Morphosis, … Perhaps more generous than the gift of the designs themselves was the willingness of these architects to cede control to the Foundation as it works to make the houses affordable to build and adaptable to the occupants needs.

The question of cost came up frequently on the tour, and the answer was consistent—it cost a lot to build the first prototype of each design, after which the subsequent iterations got better and cheaper. In the case of Make It Right that means $250 – $300 thousand for the initial houses, down to around $130,000, or about $100 per square foot, after the 2nd or 3rd one.

At Global Green that curve is even steeper. The first unit was built to test various technologies and include many options, and it was done at a time when there was almost no local green building expertise or products available. Global Green also engaged several contractors, not just one, in order to spread the learning around. As a result, the total price tag for that first house was even higher than those initial Make It Right prototypes, but later versions are being built very cost-effectively, and the technology transfer that happened on that first project has benefitted Make It Right and many other projects in the area.

Why not in the local vernacular?

Throughout the tour, architect John Williams was eloquent about the passion residents have for this community, and how difficult it is for many of them to return, for many reasons.  We also heard from Tim Duggan , landscape architect with Make It Right. There is a interview with Duggan on the ASLA website that goes into many of the details he shared with us during the tour. In that interview and in this video clip from my tour, Duggan does a nice job justifying the innovative home designs, as an alternative to the “imitation crab meat” you get if you try to mimic New Orleans’ historical styles. To Duggan's right is New Orleans architect John Williams.

Inspiring design

Unlike Global Green, Make It Right doesn’t own the land on which it builds—it builds on behalf of the owners. Acting as developer on land owned by others complicates the process significantly, according to Williams. In many cases these are the original residents of homes that were destroyed in the flood; in all cases they are former residents of the neighborhood.

This house was completed in 2008. Anyone know who designed it?

The tour left me in awe—of the cool designs, the passion of residents and many others to rebuild, and the sophisticated design solutions and technologies that they are developing in the process, and spreading throughout the region. What an inspiration!

2011-05-20 n/a 9060 Materials Rules for Going Beyond the Red List

Crowd-sourced commentary enriches proposed rules for eating building well.

I'm not sure if it was the topic or the all-star panel that drew a crowd to a session entitled "Beyond the Red List" at the recent Living Future conference in Vancouver. Along with other great panelists, Tom Lent of the Healthy Building Network teamed up with Robin Guenther from Perkins+Will to share a strong call to action on toxicity in building materials.

Tom and Robin had brainstormed a list of "Materials Rules" in the manner of Michael Pollan's Food Rules. The rules were posted on the wall, where they enriched the conversation that I facilitated after the presentations (with help from design consultant Mary Davidge and International Living Future Institute VP Eden Brukman). With about 130 people in the room, it was helpful that people could contribute to the conversation in multiple ways. In one mode, people speaking got into an animated debate about whether transparency and better information will be enough to bring about a sea-change in the toxicity of our building materials.

While that conversation was unfolding, people were writing on note cards and passing them forward, where we posted them on the "Rule" that they relate to. That second mode created a way for lots of people to sound off simultaneously, and have their thoughts captured. This multilayered conversation generated great annotations on the Materials Rules from people in the room. You can see what they looked like on the wall. Here are the Rules, with a few of my favorite annotations:

If they won't tell you what's in it, you probably don't want what's in it.

  • Use both carrots (rewards, incentives, trip to Vegas?) and sticks (LBC red list) to get exposure.
  • Managing data is difficult and we're not doing a good job.
  • The default is never the greenest, safest option.
  • Consult your nose--if it stinks, don't use it.
  • Start with people and all else follows.
  • These pens stink (oops)!

Just because almost anything can kill you doesn't mean building products should.

  • What are unintended consequences of red lists?
  • Why not the "heal us" list?
  • There is a product we are all using today that we don't yet know is making us sick.
  • Innovation is the opportunity for manufacturers to take more market share.

Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.

  • Include manufacturers in design & integrated team partnership, us + us.
  • How to compare material Values (e.g. toxicity vs. habitat)?
  • Environmental product declarations with toxicity included in LEED and Living Building Challenge.

Use carbohydrate-based materials when you can.

  • Embrace decay and transformation.
  • We should be able to eat buildings.
  • Can you grow glass?

Question materials that make health claims.

  • Can we make materials biologically active?

Pay more, use less.

  • Closed-loop economy.
  • Take only what you need.
  • Can your company switch to product as service?

If it is cheap, it probably has hidden (externalized) costs.

  • What you buy gets produced.
  • Tax pollutants not profits.
  • Economics puts profits over value to the world.

Regard "space-age" materials with skepticism.

  • How can we avoid the toxicity of technology?
  • What will we wear in the future?

Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.

  • Less processed better than more processed.
  • Can we really do better than nature?
  • Use things that can be repaired, not just replaced (don't support forced obsolescence).

Question the generation of hazardous waste instead of where to use it in your building.

  • Recycled content is not always better.
  • Educate your family first...then clients.
  • The power of "NO."
2011-05-14 n/a 9061 Thomas Friedman, the Accidental Environmentalist

Thomas Friedman argues that sustainable design is patriotic. Will non-choir members be convinced?

Posted the next day.

As Bourbon Street throbs beneath my hotel room window, it is a little hard to focus on anything else--and in my exhausted state it's all starting to get mixed up with Thomas Friedman's talk this morning.

Tropical, sultry, struggling New Orleans at first feels so different from most of the U.S. This is definitely not Norman Rockwell's America. But Rockwell's America was a myth even as he painted it, and right now I can't think of a better metaphor for the unsustainable American lifestyle than Bourbon Street. All these tourists, senses numbed by the cocktails and clamor (or in my case by squeezing in way too many AIA sessions in a row), wander around obliviously while the Mississippi River swells to a 75-year high not half a mile away.

I am assured the floodgates will not open--but the effects of preventing floods here could be devastating in rural areas. If there were flooding here, though, the drinkers below and the convention attendees above would be free to go home, leaving the bouncers, the taxi drivers, the hotel housekeepers, the bartenders, and the amazing musicians here to deal with the consequences.

My problems are yours; your problems are yours

This is a phenomenon Friedman refers to as IBG or YBG: we can do whatever we please, we think, because in the end either I'll Be Gone or You'll Be Gone. "Our parents built us a world of incredible freedom," he said. By "our parents," he actually means his parents--the steady, duty-driven WWII generation that gave birth to the profligate Baby Boomers.

They created this freedom, Friedman says, with sustainable values, but the Baby Boomers somehow ended up practicing situational values: "If the situation allows it, you just do it." Slashing the rainforests for hamburgers, giving mortgages to people who can't afford them, drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico? None of it matters to people with this mindset, because in the end, IBG or YBG. In our current economy, we:

  1. Massively underprice risk (e.g., coal power generation is dirt cheap)
  2. Privatize the gains (e.g., coal company executives get rich)
  3. Socialize the losses (e.g., West Virginia communities pay the price with Black Lung, runoff from mountaintop removal, etc.)

OK, I've been reading that list on liberal blogs for at least a decade. What's new here?

Wanting justice is immoral?

The thing that intrigues me about this way of framing things is that Friedman is using a values-based argument (a position that has been very successfully claimed by the political right) to promote environmentalism (a position that has been very successfully framed by the political right as a leftist issue). I don't really understand how we've gotten to a place where people who speak out for social and environmental justice are considered, by some, immoral, but I'm glad that at least one person who gets respect from both liberals and conservatives is working pretty hard to turn that idea on its head.

Friedman can do this more successfully than liberal bloggers because he is a political centrist, and the environment is not his first priority (at least according to his own characterization). His fundamental question is a patriotic and economic one: "How do we get our groove back as a country?" Friedman laid out the five biggest problems in the world right now, and said the U.S. was "abdicating leadership."

  • Energy and natural resource supply and demand
  • Petrodictatorship
  • Global climate change
  • Energy poverty
  • Biodiversity loss

One response to this list of problems is what you might call the Bourbon Street approach: "We're cooked! Let's party!" The other is to get to work.

The world's five biggest problems have one solution

There is something really great about the Big Five, Friedman pointed out. There is a single solution to all of these problems: "Abundant, cheap, clean, reliable electrons. How cool is that?" (He obviously set up his five problems so that they had renewable energy as a solution, but I think it is more complicated than he made out. You could make a pretty good argument that getting the oil issue out of the Middle East, say, would be a huge step forward but would not solve problems that plagued the region long before anyone cared about petroleum.)

What is the response of the U.S. when confronted with this list? I think it's safe to say most of us--including a large subset of political leaders--have taken the Bourbon Street approach. In Washington, D.C. today, Friedman said, they are "taunting the two largest forces on the planet"--the Market and Mother Nature--shouting, "Show me what you got!" Well, says Friedman, "One of these days they will really show us what they've got." With the Great Recession, these two forces got together to send us a message: "This is your warning heart attack."

For a lot of people, though, that quadruple bypass apparently wasn't a life changer--probably because they are not the ones suffering. But if they don't start paying attention soon, even they will feel consequences. The country that leads the green revolution "has to be the United States of America," Friedman says. Well, maybe, although if you don't have the initiative to do that, perhaps you don't deserve to be a global leader anymore.

Party like it's 1999

My mind goes to the expo floor as Friedman makes fun of the "green revolution" that many industries are pretending to have right now. "BP is beyond petroleum!" he jokes. "Have you ever been to a revolution where nobody got hurt? This is not a revolution: this is a party."

How will we be able to tell when the revolution actually hits? First, industry will have to either change or die. Period. Second, the word "green" will disappear. You won't have green buildings: you'll just have buildings, and they will be what we call green today.

OK, I'm totally with him up to this point. But what am I supposed to do about it?

Friedman intrigues me on this point, because on the one hand he says we can't regulate our way out of this, but on the other hand he quips that we should "Change our leaders--not our light bulbs." (Note: Changing your light bulbs is a good idea too.)

If our leaders blow out but can't be removed, what next?

He argues that political leaders can't solve these problems, but they do have a crucial role to play: they create the regulatory environment in which innovation can happen. Their job is to require us all to pay the true cost of unsustainable technologies. Then, a miracle happens: solar, wind, and other forms of renewable power will start to look cheap.

The best thing of all, he says, is that renewable energies "are not commodities" like oil and coal, whose prices rise with demand. They are "technologies" like cell phones and laptops, whose prices go down with demand. (Time will tell how that plays out. Cars are "technologies" too; I have complete faith that humans will find related commodities to trade once renewable energy is more standard.)

"Green is the new red, white, and blue. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise," Friedman says, to great applause. I guess we'll see about that in the next couple of years.

Hope from local governance?

He concludes by quoting the late Dana Meadows: "We have exactly enough time, starting now."

This is more of a tear-jerker for me, but after the tears dry, I wonder if he's really right. He has already told us that Congress failed to take leadership on the true cost of carbon, and that changing our light bulbs doesn't do that much good. So...what's left? What is it we have time for here? To stew in our own juices at the greenwash revolution?

Actually, the afternoon session I went to gave me a bit of hope. A lot of local governments are eagerly adopting the as-yet-unfinished International Green Construction Code (IGCC). This is a pretty exciting development, and I'll share more about the IGCC soon. Meanwhile, what do you think of Friedman's take on the "green revolution"? What are your sources of hope? Or are you taking the Bourbon Street approach?

2011-05-13 n/a 9062 Greetings from AIA 2011: Ecology Matters!

With an intense focus on regional design and other green building issues, AIA 2011 looks to the future.

I've just arrived in the press room at the AIA National Convention in New Orleans, and am really looking forward to learning a lot, finding some exciting new products to share with you, and perhaps even meeting some of you in person. If you couldn't make it this year--or if you're here and we're at different sessions-- watch this space for updates for the next few days.

Thomas Friedman keynote

I'm really excited about Thomas Friedman's talk, "Mega-regions: The World of the Future," which starts in about half an hour. I have not always agreed with this New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, but he is a really smart and engaging writer even when I disagree with him--and I certainly can't argue with this:

If we have one obligation, it is to pass on this country, with its institutions and opportunities, to the next generation so that they have a chance to achieve the American dream and live better lives than we do. The consequences of globalization and a lack of seriousness when it comes to protecting the environment are making this an increasingly complicated task. ... To remain competitive, Americans must be willing to invest in things like infrastructure, education, immigration, and the environment.

I am really looking forward to hearing his ideas about how this relates to our built environment--and sharing them with you.

IGCC, SITES, and daylighting

This afternoon I hope to catch sessions on the International Green Construction Code, the SITES sustainable landscaping rating, and design for daylighting. Stay tuned!

UPDATE: Just a quick note to offer this nugget Thomas Friedman delivered (to loud applause): "Green is the new red, white, and blue." I'll be writing a longer post on his talk this evening.

2011-05-12 n/a 9063 Ideas Worth Spreading: TEDx Comes to Brattleboro

By HB Lozito

Ideas worth spreading have a way of crossing disciplines. At a recent TED event, HB Lozito found links to green building that may surprise you.

Like many other people, I have been lusting after attending a TED talk for the last several years. I tend to eat them up while on my lunch break. Or better still, if I can relate them directly to my work (which I often can) I even occasionally watch while actually at my desk. I am a person obsessed.

Originally posited as a conference on Technology Entertainment and Design, TED and independently produced TEDx events, have vastly expanded in scope and style. Popular talks include one by Eythor Bender where he demos human exoskeletons and another titled "Are Mushrooms the New Plastic?" by Eben Bayer.

First up at Brattleboro's own TEDx event, TEDxSIT, was Tom Grasso, Senior Advisor with the Environmental Defense Fund. Clad in his "power corduroy jacket," Grasso discussed a more holistic sustainability-focused MBA program where students would farm and take music lessons in addition to classes in behavioral finance. He pulled words from the Aldo Leopold canon for his new school motto, "Think Like a Mountain," which requires us all to broaden our temporal perspectives. Using one of the most quoted phrases in undergraduate environmental studies courses of late, Leopold is suggesting that we recalibrate our interactions with the world to the lifetime of a mountain, not of a governmental bureau.

An analogous idea in green building would be designing for future uses. I was reminded of Paula Melton and Nadav Malin's recent Environmental Building News article, "Re-Framing Sustainability: Green Structural Engineering," where the ideas of designing for future uses, adaptability, and optimization are discussed at length. They cite the example of the Ames Building in Boston, which, because of a concealed frame and other challenges was a more expensive and resource-intensive remodel than if the original designers had considered future use--or, in Leopold's terms, thought 'like a mountain.'

Later in the day, composer and recording artist Derrick Jordan with Maestro Hugh Keelan invited attendees to reimagine an orchestra through Jordan's new piece, Windham Loops. Looping is a technique to create music through repeating audio samples. Keelan points out that Beethoven did this in many of his 19th Century symphonies, and many artists are doing this today. Kanye West's 2005 song "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" loops a sample from Shirley Bassey's familiar 1971 song "Diamonds are Forever." He has taken a familiar piece of music and repositioned the phrases into something new.

In Windham Loops, Jordan has written an orchestral piece using the musicians themselves as human loopers. The Windham Orchestra musicians are doing the work of Kanye's producers. In this live performance the Orchestra is repeating musical phrases to create a looped background over which Jordan plays a melody. By meshing centuries-old instruments and musical ideas with the hip-hop/electronica influences of looping, he is experimenting with and reinventing parts of what it is to play with an orchestra.

The same thing is happening today in the world of green architecture and design. By sampling familiar aspects of buildings and reimagining their impacts, green architects, designers and engineers are composing entirely new ways to construct. Take the example of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living. Its elements are easily recognizable--walls, a roof, a wastewater treatment system. But here, in this new style of building, each functions within the whole in a new way. The folks at BNIM sampled these familiar architectural elements and looped them together into the first building in the world to achieve both Living status and LEED Platinum.

I love TED talks because they help me think about the world in new ways. What's your "idea worth spreading"?

2011-05-11 n/a 9064 Decon '11: Recycling and Reuse

Attending Decon '11

Reusing building materials is an increasingly pressing topic as the global recession continues and people begin to notice greenhouse gas emissions caused by the production of new building materials (see “A 2030 Challenge for Building Product Manufacturers,” EBN March 2011). Next week, I will attend the Building Materials Reuse Association’s annual DECON Conference—a national conference on deconstruction, reuse, and recycling. The 2011 conference will kick off in New Haven, Connecticut on Monday May 16th. (For more details you can view the event on the BuildingGreen calendar here and also check out the event website: Deliberate deconstruction can ultimately reduce or eliminate our need for virgin materials (see “Deconstruction: Back to the Future for Buildings?,” EBN May 2000), and DECON ’11 promises to enhance our understanding of the deconstruction process and reuse applications—including salvaging building materials after a natural disaster, one of the areas I’m hoping to learn more about.

Educational Sessions

This year, four educational session tracks are offered: sustainable communities, deconstruction, materials reuse, and construction and demolition (C&D) recycling. I will attend a session on measuring the impact of reused building materials, which will assess the life-cycle impacts of deconstructable building products—an issue raised in the recent EBN feature “Re-Framing Sustainability: Green Structural Engineering,” April 2011—and reclaimed lumber use. There is also a panel discussion—Designing with Reused Materials I—which I will attend to better understand building material reuse and its challenges and opportunities.

New Orleans—A Case Study

The Deconstruction Case Studies I session highlights the Rebuilding Together New Orleans’ (RTNO) Deconstruction & Salvage Program initiated after Hurricane Katrina. The program’s mission is to “reduce construction and demolition waste from entering landfills, provide affordable salvaged building materials to the public through commerce, and advocate for a sustainable alternative to conventional demolition.” I hope to learn how this program can be replicated in other disaster areas and beyond. The second half of this session is focused on non-profit deconstruction, specifically how Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, North Carolina has utilized deconstruction in its work. I have not previously heard of Habitat homes being built with reclaimed materials, and am excited to hear of any obstacles and successes.

Check Back Soon

Stay tuned next week for more blog posts about the sessions, speakers, and any interesting tidbits I come across!

2011-05-10 n/a 9069 Postcards from the 'Unconference'

Lots of big news from the 2011 Living Future event in Vancouver, including the winners of the Living City competition.

The 2011 Living Future "unconference" in Vancouver is a hopping, high-energy event. As usual, CEO, host, and MC Jason McLennan has set a high bar with his passion and willingness to push boundaries. Except Jason, all the keynote speakers this year are women, making it a little anticlimactic that the theme of next year's conference is the role of women in green building.

Here's some of the exciting news coming out of the Living Future conference.

Daniel and Maximillian Zelinski's re-visioning of Paris.

Living City contest winners

First, the winners of the Living City design competitionhave been announced, with Daniel Zelinski and Maximillian Zelinski's reinvention of Paris taking the top prize and $75,000 in prize money (see the photo for some of their concepts). This U.K. firm wowed the judges with their concepts and their graphic presentation, making them a clear choice, according to juror Bill Reed.

This competition, jointly sponsored by the International Living Building Institute and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, challenged designers to

create a new global vision: a breathtaking, compelling model for the future of civilization. Unleash the power of your imagination to envision a city capable of thriving through the centuries.

The designs had to apply Living Building Challenge criteria to an entire city, and demonstrate pedestrian street life, new infrastructure for water and waste, net-zero energy and water, and agriculture integrated into the community.

Look for more coverage on this early next week, though, and a full spread on the winners in an upcoming issue of Metropolis (editor Susan Szenasy was also a juror). In addition to first and second prize winners, there were five special recognitions, two people's choice awards, and three recognized in a living communities category.

Living buildings or a living future?

In line with the goals of the Living Cities awards, the International Living Buildings Institute (ILBI) is evolving to take on more of the activities previously managed by Cascadia Green Building Council (which is a chapter of both USGBC and Canada GBC), changing its name to International Living Future Institute (ILFI). "As our pioneering project teams have discovered, 'green buildings' don't exist in a vacuum," said CEO Jason McLennan in a press release. "They are part of a web of influences moving from the materials we build with, to the structures we create and maintain, and on to the communities we inhabit."

The new name formalizes the Institute's evolution from focusing on single buildings, and rationalizes its international scope. Although McLennan has come out recently as a strong defender of LEED (in Cascadia's publication Trim Tab, and at the conference, among other places), the new ILFI could present competition for LEED at the deep green end of the spectrum. That will be interesting to watch over time.

Incentives for revealing ingredients

IFLI is also launching its "Declare" program, which aims to give manufacturers incentive to reveal ingredients, even if they are not red-list clean. This will involve a branded label and master database that Living Building Challenge participants can use for research as well as forums. Looks like BuildingGreen and the Healthy Building Network may be able to help out with this effort, although at this point it's still pretty conceptual--stay tuned for details.

Renovating vs. building new

All the sessions I've been in (as an attendee in two and facilitator in one) have been high energy and engaging. At one, Ralph DiNola and others shared initial results from a life-cycle study on renovating existing buildings versus building new (this study was mentioned in Tristan's recent blog post, "Does Saving Historic Buildings Really Save Energy?"). The preliminary results are showing pretty long carbon payback times for choosing to build new rather than renovate the old.

While these results probably don't surprise anyone, it's essential to get the quantitative side of the picture. Good data helps us make smarter decisions about when a retrofit makes sense and when tearing a building down might be the best idea. The researchers are committed to transparency, and will share all their assumptions and data in a final report in a couple of months.

We'll likely be covering most of this news in more depth in Environmental Building News soon. In the meantime, you can follow my tweets from the unconference at @nadavbg.

2011-04-29 n/a 9075 Mixed Use: Too Many Eggs in One Basket?

Fire guts half a block of a small New England town, revealing the built-in vulnerabilities of dense development.

Then: This historic print shows Brattleboro's Brooks House in all its glory. The building was originally an upscale hotel serving tourists who came from Boston and New York for the fresh air.

Brattleboro, Vermont is still in shock over the sudden and complete loss of one of its Main Street buildings early yesterday morning, apparently because of an electrical fire. Brooks House, a former hotel with a distinctive mansard roof, was built in 1871 on the ashes of an even older building also destroyed by fire. It was listed on the National Historic Register, but its historic status means nothing compared with its significance to our town. This is like a cigarette burn on the bodice of a silk gown.

The aesthetics are shocking, but the economics are a profound jolt. This was the pinnacle of sustainable building--mixed-use urban real estate and an adaptive reuse project housing a number of thriving retail establishments and 50 families. These business owners and residents have a long row to hoe.

The whole town has a long row to hoe. Main Street is literally shut down while structural damage to the building is assessed. The fire has completely disrupted the lives of hundreds of people who have lost their homes and jobs. If you are an advocate of multi-family housing, mixed use, and smart growth, this level of utter devastation gives you pause. Denser development means more concentrated damage. One bad wire, and poof.

When I learned that the newest Main Street business--the socially responsible bagel place--was closed, I groaned. When you walked in, you could read a long list of sustainable building strategies (including low-VOC products, FSC-certified wood, and many items crafted by local artists and artisans) the company used when renovating the interior. I don't know how damaged that particular business is (I haven't had the courage to go gawk yet), but I wonder whether all the owner's long-term thinking has gone to waste in the blink of an eye.

In our April feature on green structural engineering, we addressed the issue of building longevity and disaster resilience, and discussed whether increased durability is inherently sustainable. The up-front investment (and the higher embodied carbon sometimes associated with more durable buildings) only pays returns if these strategies actually have time to work. A fire or another disaster can take it all away like that.

What's more, that story did not address something that we leave out of pretty much every article here at BuildingGreen. Hopefully it is understood, but it doesn't hurt to say it out loud every once in a while. Great buildings are more to people than four walls and a roof. They are greater than the sum of their LEED credits and go deeper than their fly ash concrete foundations. Great buildings are the fabric of our communities and our economy. We also keep them in our hearts.

Making the right choices about where and how to build is a big responsibility, and every choice, it seems, involves tradeoffs. Sustainable design, by definition, plans for the long term. Most of the time, it works great--but some outcomes are out of our hands.

Now: Firefighters from seven towns fought the blaze in this historic building for more than nine hours. No one was injured, but the building probably can't be saved. Photo: Jeff Potter
2011-04-19 n/a 9079 Tried-and-True Strategies for Making Buildings Green to the Bone

In April's EBN, we take a look at green structural engineering, insulation in-fighting, and a revolutionary anticorrosion coating. Plus: embodied carbon in 500 words or less!

The roof of the Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington is an undulating gridshell of steel, aluminum, and glass. For the April 2011 feature, we spoke with Craig Schwitter, P.E., who helped design this roof, about how structural choices can decrease operational energy, integrate multiple building systems, and increase the chance of a long service life--but can also involve environmental tradeoffs. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Want to design buildings that are green to the bone? Sustainability-focused designers have gotten used to teaming up with mechanical engineers early in the design process to ensure that the building form integrates with energy goals. But too often the structural engineer is still left on the sidelines until later in the process.

In the new issue of Environmental Building News, Nadav Malin and I take a long, deep look at a variety of tried-and-true structural strategies to reduce the life-cycle impact of a project--along with some exciting cutting-edge technologies still under development. This was a really fun article to research and write, and it features interviews with some of the leading structural engineers working in sustainable design today. (Unlike most of our other content, features are generally only available to EBN subscribers. If you have a friend who subscribes, ask him or her to send you a link using the "Email" button on the top right of the article; the URL will stay live for you to view for seven days.)

Also in this month's issue, Tristan Roberts explores an insurance breakthrough for integrated project delivery that should simplify collaboration. In other news, we look at the safety of smart meters, a cross-platform version of BEES software, revelations from major manufacturers about cleaning products, and composting toilets at the World Trade Center construction site. Product reviews include the revolutionary EonCoat anticorrosion coating, and new carpets from Interface and its sister company Bentley Prince Street that don't require PFC treatments.

Check out the issue online or look for it in your mailbox soon.

2011-04-04 n/a 9081 Are Wind Protestors Full of Hot Air?

Power corrupts, and wind power corrupts pristine ridgelines. Maybe it doesn't have to.

Wind faces fierce opposition in Vermont; this Searsburg operation is the only existing project.

I've always assumed that opponents of wind power were just displaying a faux-green kind of NIMBYism. If these protestors really cared about the environment, they would be in favor of wind power, right?

A recent encounter forced me to educate myself a bit better about the problems wind power can cause on pristine ridgelines if it's done carelessly. Like all other forms of power generation, wind power comes with an environmental price tag that can sometimes be quite high.

Running against the wind

I felt some anxiety when the subject came up at my very first Green Mountain Club (GMC) meeting the other night. My husband and I asked for the GMC membership for Christmas (thanks, Dad!) so we could have family time in the woods while also performing a public service--helping with Long Trail maintenance alongside other members of the club's Brattleboro Section. Not so we could get involved in the second most volatile energy issue in Vermont. (The most volatile is the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant I mentioned in my last blog post.) But here we were, between the potluck and the election of officers, listening to recent statewide GMC board president Rich Windish talk about a proposed 21-turbine project in Vermont's remote Northeast Kingdom.

While Rich clarified that the GMC does not have an official position on wind, he also explained that the infrastructure needs of wind turbines are pretty extensive, including access roads that break up wildlife corridors. Stunningly, he compared the way towers are sometimes built on ridgelines to mountaintop removal.

Leave no trace, except 21 factories

Because this project is being built very close to the Long Trail (Vermont's precursor to the Appalachian Trail), the GMC got legally involved as an intervener in the permitting process to help ensure that the mountaintop-removal type of development did not happen in the Northeast Kingdom.

The view from Stratton Mountain inspired the creation of both the Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail in the early 20th century. Whether wind towers mar or enhance such views is a subjective matter. (Some of us find the cell tower at the adjacent ski area much uglier.) Photo: Matt Larson for The Boston Globe

The club's involvement has apparently resulted in several environmental safeguards, including mitigation after development as well as decommissioning. Obviously a project of this magnitude will not be able to follow the hikers' "leave no trace" guidelines, but hopefully the GMC's involvement will help them get as close as possible. Even the required lights, which alert pilots to the turbines, will employ a new technology that means they only come on when they are needed. While I'd be pretty excited to ogle turbines from a remote backwoods trail, seeing the lights while I'm trying to enjoy my campfire would not excite me quite so much.

Pretty is as pretty does

While people do talk mostly about habitat damage and noise (the latter seems not to be an issue once they're built in these very remote locations), it surprises me how much of the opposition to wind in Vermont appears to be about aesthetics. Although I don't hike up mountains just for the views, I do enjoy the vistas quite a lot: they are the payoff for a tough climb, and there is no sensation that compares with enjoying a view you can only see by wearing yourself out. Some people seem to find wind towers ugly; they compare their opposition to wind on ridgelines to their opposition to billboards (which are illegal in Vermont, an extremely effective way of preserving the "visual resource" that helps keep the tourist money flowing).

To my way of thinking, though, you can't compare outdoor ads for fireworks and 99-cent fast food with renewable power generation. The costs and benefits don't balance out--and besides, surely I'm not the only person who thinks wind towers add to the landscape rather than detracting from it. It's easy to wrinkle your nose at a huge ridgetop development project when it's not your own state's economy and ecosystems that are being strangled out of existence by global climate change.

Of bats and polar bears

Rare species like this lady's slipper flourish along the mostly untouched Long Trail. Trucks and roads damage such habitat, no doubt about it. How do we weigh such damage against devastation we can't see in other parts of the world?

I would love to link to some charts showing the relative effects of bat deaths on Vermont mountaintops and polar bear deaths in the Artic, but I don't think it's possible to run numbers on such things. However, I think it's safe to say that bats are unlikely to become extinct because of a few wind turbines, but polar bears (and thousands of other species around the world) already face extinction, for lack of them. We're attached, though, to the species that populate our everyday world, and we rightly make it our job to protect them. The trouble is that our power consumption habits are killing a lot of species we seem to think are under other people's care. We need to take ownership of the fact that our way of life is endangering other people's.

These turbines are projected to meet the power demands of 20,000 households while displacing more than 75,000 tons of CO2 per year, according to the developer. While I think it's important to understand the costs as well as the benefits, just saying no is too easy. Maybe it's time to take a hike, look beyond our own ridgelines, and think a little harder about what we're willing to sacrifice to make up for the way we choose to live.

Taking a stand against black-and-white thinking

I am very impressed that GMC has accepted the reality that wind is coming to more ridgelines and has gotten deeply involved--without taking a position. This is a hot-button political issue, and I can't think of a group that is less political than the GMC. Members span the political spectrum, and I'm sure they didn't want to wade into the muck, but the other option would have been to allow an inevitable wind project to be built without having a say in how it's done. Instead of looking at the problems wind can cause and standing in opposition, they used the legal tools at hand and got to work to ensure that commonly held resources would be protected. I guess that makes sense, since one of their main activities is using tools (normally saws rather than legal arguments) to keep common resources open to everyone--which in our section usually involves wading in muck.

I can't help but feel deep trepidation about the far-reaching effects of the American lifestyle on the natural world. No way of feeding our apparently bottomless hunger for electricity is perfect, it seems. But I'm awfully glad that at least one group has decided to take a stand--not for or against wind power, but against making the perfect the enemy of the good.

2011-03-30 n/a 9083 Fear and Clothing: How Our Sense of Risk Endangers Us

Risk perception is irrational and does not respond well to data. Can we make the leap from science to persuasion without leaving the facts behind?

Is our fear of nuclear power misplaced? Maybe polka-dotted pj's are a more realistic threat.

As news began to trickle out of Japan about the impending meltdown at a nuclear plant, I knew what was coming. Any second now, the local anti-nuclear folks would be protesting Vermont Yankee, an aging nuclear plant in Vernon, Vermont that is developing a pretty serious incontinence problem.

While my sympathies lie almost entirely with the protestors--I don't like the plant and don't trust its owners--I don't participate in these events. Though many of the protestors are educated about all the problems associated with nuclear power generation, the rhetoric seems to focus on fear of meltdown rather than more pressing issues.

You can see why, though: it gets people's attention. Despite the fact that meltdown is a vanishingly remote possibility (assuming we are vigilant, the worst-case scenario is apparently preventable even if you have a major earthquake and a tsunami), it is the thing many people fear most about nuclear power. We seem to ignore real and present dangers while distracted by our phobias of horrifying but highly improbable events.

What are you wearing?

As an example, what is that you're wearing?

What evil lurks in the fibers of flame-retardant pajamas? And what counts as a realistic sense of risk in our daily lives?

A coworker casually mentioned the other day that we may unwittingly be buying clothing treated with the same chemicals the green building community has been trying to get out of carpets and upholstery for years--flame retardants, stain repellents, and antimicrobials. I could not confirm the details, but clothing manufacturers are not required to supply an ingredient list--and I have noticed that some clothing labels actually market these chemicals as though they were a good thing.

I'm not sure why anyone would want pesticides in their pants, but I shudder to think what happens to these chemicals after they come out in the wash. And while I try not to think too much about everything that is slowly killing my family, I'm much more concerned that my child's insides will be bathed in toxic substances than I am that she will spontaneously combust and take her jammies with her.

But that's just me, apparently. A lot of people seem willing to accept the ignorable, long-term risks caused by constant chemical immersion in order to feel safe from an easily imaginable but highly improbable horror like burning to death. I can't blame them for that (although manufacturers who trade on people's phobias don't get a free pass). Like everyone else, I have my own quirky sense of danger that probably makes no sense to anyone else. If spring ever comes to Vermont, I'll be blithely risking my life twice a day by riding my bike to and from work--but don't get me started on my terror that I will get into a minor fender-bender someday and have my neck broken by my own air bag.

The bizarre psychology of risk

Apparently, the bizarre psychology of risk is a well known phenomenon; our perception of risk is visceral and is affected intensely by minute-to-minute conditions (which is probably why people in hot rooms are more likely to express concern about global warming than people in cold rooms). This is problematic, to say the least, when it comes to long-term planning on a large scale, in part because it has a huge effect on our political discourse. People's irrational, erratic perception of risk makes it very difficult for us to process data about "inconvenient truths" like climate change. I don't think anyone has figured out quite what to do about it.

It's something we really need to face, though, especially given our reluctance to address remote and long-term risks. One thing that bothers a lot of us who loooove charts is that statistics don't tend to persuade people who don't already agree with us. You can fill the ear of a global warming denier with data for hours, and in most cases your numbers will come out the other ear unprocessed, because of optimism bias--our tendency to believe that things will come right in the end. This does not happen because the person is stupid; it happens because the person is human. The same phenomenon keeps me happy-go-lucky on my bike despite the dangers (and has also kept me, so far, from having my car's air bags disabled). In a very real way, we believe exactly what we want to believe, regardless of what the charts say.

As we look to our energy future in the wake of a nuclear crisis in Japan, two major oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, water pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing methods used to extract natural gas, and many other energy-related travesties, we need to find responsible but rhetorically compelling ways to help people get a more immediate sense of the risks involved.

Numbers don't lie, but they also don't usually convince. How might we appeal to people's visceral understanding of danger while ensuring we remain true to the facts? Preferably before the next disaster happens?


In the comments, Eric links to a brilliant chart by XKCD that puts radiation exposure in perspective. Humans seem to be particularly bad at understanding orders of magnitude, and this demonstrates it pretty well. However, I'm posting it not only because I like it but also because my liking it does absolutely nothing to convince anyone of anything. I suspect a lot of people who do not love charts would look at this image and feel their eyes glazing over pretty quickly. It is enlightening, but aside from the banana joke is not rhetorically compelling. This is not a criticism; the chart is not meant to do that job. But it is something for people who care about sustainability to think about: you can't change the world with charts alone.

2011-03-24 n/a 9087 Beauty in Buildings: What's the Use?

When the Modernists declared that form follows function, did they really intend for the built environment to look so ... dreary? Maybe beauty is an essential building function--not just something for the interior designer to work out at the end.

The entryway to the St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo features concrete, glass, and steel, and gives a wooden nod to traditional church doors. Is it beautiful? Does it look alive? Click photo to enlarge.

As Amelia Amon of Alt.Technica begins her presentation on "beautility" at BuildingEnergy, I become uncomfortably aware of her outfit. She looks like a fresh spring flower. I look like a person who chose a barely passable skirt and did a bad job of ironing it.

I soon forgot my fashion failings as the talk began. After a long day of having ROI graphs and wind speed/altitude charts flashed in front of me without quite enough time to process each one, immersing myself in a bit of philosophy felt like lying back in a warm bubble bath. Aaaaah. Was this really work?

The Work of Beauty

Well, that's just it. We tend to think of aesthetics as the "play" part of the building: an afterthought, like the extra ring I'd put on my finger to spruce myself up a bit that morning. A matter of personal taste. A chance to go on a fun shopping trip after all the real work is done.

But can beauty do work too?

Amon defines beauty as a natural organizing principle, and believes that "beauty is a function in itself" and "a sign of connectedness" to the natural world. Her fellow presenter, Justin Good (a lecturer and the executive director of The Sanctuary at Shepardfields), defines beauty as "the perception of wholeness." It's not really in the eye of the beholder or just a matter of taste, he maintains: the vast majority of people agree on which things are beautiful and which are not.

The entryway to the cathedral at Chartres, a "boring" building, according to Peter Eisenman. This doorway is certainly busy. Is it doing any work? Click photo to enlarge.

Beauty and Biophilia

He explained some of the work of Christopher Alexander, including the idea that a truly sustainable building system not only has internal coherence but also harmonizes with the systems around it and all the systems within it. According to Good, when we talk about the life of a building or the life of a neighborhood, that is "not a metaphor." A building really can be alive. As defined by the two presenters, beauty is closely related to biophilia.

Alexander's is a theory of aesthetics, metaphysics, and ethics, all rolled into a rather eccentric philosophy of architecture. His theories have been applied liberally by computer programmers--and hardly at all by architects. "This is off the conceptual chart in Modernism," said Good. That was the understatement of the day.

Common Sense for Everyday Architecture?

And yet, it all makes so much sense. Good showed us many photos juxtaposing contemporary buildings with more antiquated ones. The entryway of a cathedral compared with the entryway of a 1950s post office, for example. Every last one of us knew instantly which door we preferred if we wanted to get out of a thunderstorm. How have these apparently universal emotional responses been stripped out of everyday architecture? After all, don't most people become architects because they are good at both math and art? What happens to the art bit after you graduate?

Aside from unwittingly helping bring object-oriented computer programming into being, Alexander is also known for a 1982 debate he had with postmodernist Peter Eisenman. People seem to remember this debate mainly because Alexander dropped the f-bomb. Twice. My curiosity piqued by Good's talk, I read a transcript of the debate and discovered that Eisenman thinks the cathedral at Chartres is "boring." Huh.

The Cutting Edge Isn't a Nice Place to Sit

More intriguingly, Eisenman expresses the belief (he pretends his belief is just his own personal taste, but no one is fooled) that architecture should make people uncomfortable. That it should reflect our alienation from the natural world rather than providing a respite from alienation. (So much for my warm bubble bath, or at least its architectural equivalent.) Alexander believes the opposite, and does not try to pass it off as a groundless personal opinion. He is unabashedly prescriptive. Interesting, since in the end I think Alexander's system of thought is much more open-minded than Eisenman's.

But I am a writer, not an architect. I am new to BuildingGreen, and my study of postmodernism in school was all about deconstruction--the kind you do to literary texts, not buildings. So I'm curious how architects react to the idea that beauty is an essential building function--and also to the idea that beauty as a primary function of architecture has been mostly stripped out of contemporary design. Is that an overstatement?

Maybe Beauty Isn't Natural

Perhaps it is really just a matter of taste. Do beauty and biophilia really have to map so closely? Maybe the 1950s post office--or, to be more fair, the St. Mary's Cathedral pictured above--is just as attractive as Chartres, and we're only clinging to some outdated Romantic concept of beauty. On the other hand, there is a lot of research showing the tangible, measurable advantages of biophilic buildings, including a recent study about improved health outcomes in hospitals that allow better access to sunlight and the outdoors.

How does beauty come into your everyday work? Do you think the built environment should foster a connection to nature? Or should it reflect our alienation from nature, as a reminder that all is not well with the world? Or perhaps you think beauty and nature are not inherently connected. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

2011-03-15 n/a 9089 Wake Up, Green Building, And Smell the Politics

Market-based solutions only get us so far: we need policies, too, and fast. David Orr stares political reality right in the eye, and refuses to back down.

David Orr

When David Orr began his keynote speech on full-spectrum sustainability at the Building Energy conference yesterday, I was sitting in my car at a dead stop near the Harvard campus, furious with myself (and everyone else) for not taking public transit.

The irony was not lost on me. I tried to turn my audible growling into laughter by recalling that classic Onion headline, "Report: 98 Percent of Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others." But I'd been up since 4 and had pulled out of my driveway in Vermont at 6, so it was hard to find anything funny.

Luckily, people like David Orr aren't waiting for "others" to do the work of sustainability for them. And luckily for me, his speech was long and substantive enough that I got a lot out of it even though I arrived half an hour late. Here at BuildingGreen, we pride ourselves on doing a lot of technical legwork for our readers, and sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the FSC-certified lumber with no added urea-formaldehyde. Orr's speech helped many of us pull back and look at the big picture.

Frankly, that picture isn't very pretty right now. "We need to equip young people for a world the likes of which we as homo sapiens have never seen before," he said.

The proposed "green arts block" in Oberlin, Ohio, shown in this conceptual drawing apparently caught the Pentagon's attention as a potential boon to national security. Click on the drawing to enlarge.

We the People: Green Design and the Founding Fathers

That's exactly what he does at Oberlin College, where he not only teaches environmental studies but pushes--hard--to make his campus and his town as green as possible. Orr showed some photos of his grandchildren at the end of his speech to remind us how high the stakes are. And when was the last time you heard someone at an energy conference quote the Constitution? We have to "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity," Orr argued. It was a real tearjerker, and Orr got a standing ovation.

One thing that intrigued me about his presentation was that it directly addressed the elephant in the room (the same elephant was politely ignored at all the other sessions I went to): politics. Perhaps because he lives in Ohio rather than New England, Orr is acutely aware that no matter how much we'd like to think otherwise, advocating recycling or renewable energy or smart growth is a political act in this country. Sustainability simply will not happen at the federal policy level until we find a way to depoliticize it--or at least find ways to use politics in the favor of science.

For example, I went to a session about green climate change policies in Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont. How soon do you think policies requiring 80% cuts in CO2 emissions are going to be implemented in the job-starved rust belt? Coal country? The Deep South?

A Green Tea Party Movement?

Maybe sooner than you think, if Orr gets his way. Apparently he's part of a group that has been talking to the Pentagon about the national security implications of climate change, and the overlap between sustainability and passive survivability. He showed them his plan for the Oberlin College campus, and the off-campus "green arts block" that integrates the school with the "typical rustbelt downtown" (a description this Ohio native finds rather amusing for what we considered a hippie stronghold) that is Oberlin proper.

You'll never guess what the Pentagon said: that they hoped to see one of these "national security network" sites in every congressional district in the country. Orr seemed to relish the idea of planning the next national security network site in John Boehner's district. He roused the crowd with a call for "our own version of the Tea Party movement--one powered not by bullsh*t but by sunlight."

The Building Energy conference is always a good show! The historic Apollo Theater in Oberlin's "typical rustbelt downtown" will become part of the proposed arts block/national security site. Click on the photo to enlarge.

Everyone seemed so relieved--almost giddy--to be talking about politics directly for once. We don't like to, because the science behind our work is not political. But pretending it's not politicized is simply insane.

No Policies without Addressing Politics


We've worked so hard in the last couple of decades to put the market to work for green initiatives. We've found ingenious ways to prioritize, monetize, and incentivize sustainability. But we've also found that market-based solutions only go so far. At some point, policies--radical, sweeping, federal policies--will have to take over where the market leaves off. I'm awfully glad people like David Orr aren't waiting for "others" to get to work on that.

Orr brought up these national security sites. What other ideas do people have for addressing political reality in ways that further sustainability? Feel free to discuss--politely--in the comments.

2011-03-10 n/a 9090 Look Before You LEED! Online Tool Offers Preliminary LEED for Homes Scores

A new LEED for Homes tool can help designers get the jump on certification--and is great for homeowners too.

A new online scoring tool should make the complex LEED for Homes rating system more accessible for both builders and homeowners. The Web-based application allows users to explore and compare a variety of green building options starting very early in the design process. Designed by BuildingGreen (publisher of for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the tool is intended to make the certification process easier for all team members regardless of their prior experience with LEED for Homes or other LEED rating systems.

"Quick" scores for the new tool break results down by categories and allow the user to view a list of required actions to meet the predicted certification level. Click on the screen shot to enlarge.

After signing up and starting a project, users can choose one of two options: a "quick score" or a credit-by-credit analysis. The quick-score tool asks approximately 20 non-technical questions, alerting the user along the way if a design choice might disqualify a project from LEED for Homes certification, and produces a rough estimate of the project's likely certification level along with a jargon-free list of actions the user would have to take to earn the predicted LEED certification. The quick score might give less experienced users a sense of green design options, and could also help a design team decide on a realistic certification target very early in the process. The more concrete credit-by-credit score allows users to choose which credits they expect to receive for the project, resulting in a more detailed prediction of certification level. This feature, according to USGBC, can help designers manage multiple projects or try out different scenarios regarding the same project. "The credit-by-credit path encompasses the entire LEED for Homes program, showing you that you may be closer to achieving LEED certification than you think," said Nate Kredich, USGBC's vice president of market development. The tool is available at The tool does not accept LEED documentation or provide a final score for certification. While LEED Online fills those functions for nonresidential LEED rating systems, LEED for Homes is documented through a provider network that includes field inspections.

2011-03-08 n/a 9095 Flame Retardant Used in Polystyrene to be Banned by EU
Extruded polystyrene, such as this Owens Corning Foamular, is widely used as foundation insulation. The flame retardant used in all polystyrene building insulation is being banned by the European Union. Photo: Bensonwood. Click on image to enlarge.

The European Union announced last week that it is banning HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane), the brominated flame retardant used in polystyrene building insulation. The ban will take effect by mid-2015 and be implemented through the European Union's REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals).

HBCD is used in all polystyrene building insulation--both extruded polystyrene (XPS) and expanded polystyrene (EPS). Our newsletter, Environmental Building News, addressed this issue in detail in the August 2009 feature article "Polystyrene Insulation: Does it Belong in a Green Building?" arguing that the health and environmental hazards associated with HBCD are significant enough that we should reevaluate the use of polystyrene until a less hazardous flame retardant is substituted for the HBCD. (There's a summary on the issue that you can access without being a subscriber.) (A later article, "Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation," in the June 2010 issue of EBN (summary blog here), examined another concern with XPS: that of the high global warming potential of the blowing agent used in this material--but that's another issue.)

The REACH announcement yesterday identifies HBCD as being persistent in the environment, bioaccumulative in biological systems, and toxic (in acronym-speak, it's a PBT). HBCD has been moved from the "candidate list" of chemicals under review to Annex XIV in REACH. Review of the chemical was carried out by the European Chemicals Agency over the past several years. Substances in Annex XIV "cannot be placed on the market or used unless authorization has been granted for specific use." The ban of HBCD will be fully instituted by July 21, 2015--the "sunset date" for the chemical--according to the regulations published in the Official Journal of the European Union on February 17, 2011.

Chemist and EBN Advisory Board member Arlene Blum, Ph.D., a leading expert on health and environmental hazards of halogenated flame retardants, is pleased with the ruling. "HBCD is clearly a bad actor chemical and the EU ban should contribute to its being phased out in the U.S.," she told me.

While REACH regulations include an option for gaining an exemption for particular uses, it doesn't appear that this will happen. According to a statement provided to me by Dow Chemical, "Dow and the industry have been aware of this possibility for many years--well before HBCD was put on the priority list." Considerable investment has been invested in development a next-generation flame retardant for polystyrene insulation. While there is no ready-to-use substitute today, it is very likely that such a replacement will be available by 2015.

Lots of XPS was used in the Hudson Passive House in New York State: 12 inches under the slab! Photo: Jordan Dentz, The Levy Partnership. Click on image to enlarge.

The big question for many is whether the replacement flame retardants being considered by the polystyrene industry are halogenated compounds (containing bromine or chlorine). Sticking with a halogenated compound "could mean we're moving from one toxic to another," says Blum. She suggests that we should look at the bigger questions about flame retardants and safety. "It's time to ask what the fire safety benefits of these flame retardants are. In some cases, there is no fire safety benefit." Blum notes that in home furnishings, for example, flame retardants may only delay ignition by a few seconds.

Historically, halogenated compounds have been popular, because they are both efficient at quenching flame spread in burning plastics and relatively affordable, according to an industry expert I spoke with. There are other strategies for controlling the flame spread, however, including intumescent or char-forming agents, which cut the flow of oxygen to the flame, and hydrates that release water vapor to reduce the heat.

While last week's REACH announcement will have significant impact on polystyrene insulation, HBCD isn't the only chemical to be banned. Also included were three phthalate plasticizers that have been widely used in PVC (polyvinyl chloride) products:

  • DEHP (Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate) has in the past been widely used in vinyl flooring, though it has largely been removed today.
  • BBP (butyl benzyl phthalate), is used as a PVC plasticizer not only in vinyl tile, food conveyor belts, artificial leather, and other products.
  • DBP (dibutyl phthalate) is used not only with PVC, but also in alkyd resins, nitrocellulose, ethyl cellulose, cellulose plastics, latex adhesives, dyes and chlorobutadiene rubber.

In an increasingly global manufacturing industry, chemical bans through REACH will cascade throughout not only Europe, but also North America. Let's hope that this leads, not just to the swapping of one hazardous chemical for another, but to some fundamentally new chemical engineering.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. He also writes the weekly Energy Solutions blog and contributes to the weekly blog BuildingGreen's Product of the Week, which profiles interesting new green building products. You can sign up to receive notices of these blogs by e-mail--enter your e-mail address in the upper right corner of this blog page. To keep up with Alex's latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

2011-02-22 n/a 9101 Martha Stewart GreenHouse: Trendsetter or Outlier?

Each year, Builder Magazine teams up with a homebuilder to roll out a cutting-edge "concept home" at the International Builders' Show. While last year's strictly virtual concept home was advertised as "the most innovative home never built," some critics think the 2011 "GreenHouse" might as well not have been built either.

The GreenHouse, developed by KB Home in collaboration with media icon Martha Stewart, showcases numerous design features and products meant to spark the public's interest in green building. But the wide gap between the energy efficiency of this house and the everyday environmental standards of the homebuilding industry has gotten a lot of attention--as has the home's complete lack of consciousness of land use and sustainable design.

This year's Builder concept home features PV, solar thermal, rainwater catchment, super-efficient appliances, and many other green amenities. So what are critics complaining about?

Lloyd Alter took a look at the materials and layout and called the marketing for this house "perhaps the worst bit of greenwashing of a product that I have seen this year," coming to the conclusion that KB was just "polishing a turd."

Is it really that bad?

Reality check

Well, it depends on how you look at it, and how realistic your expectations are about the pace of innovation in the national building industry. While the home appears to be deeply flawed, I think KB deserves points for effort, especially given the industry standards they're trying to push forward--quite on their own.

The GreenHouse is apparently set to achieve a LEED for Homes Platinum rating, and is the only net-zero home ever designed by KB. According to KB spokesman Jeffrey Mezger, the GreenHouse "incorporates new ideas and technologies, including a real-time energy monitoring system and a solar thermal water heater, that we believe will one day be standard in all new homes."

But how soon "one day" will come has been a matter of debate since the GreenHouse was unveiled. In a Wall Street Journal article about the concept home, Dawn Wotapka maintains that "buyers haven't shown great interest" in environmental features, being "more concerned about location and price" and "unwilling to pay extra for features that may be hard to understand."

Hard to understand? Or just hard to pay for?

I don't know how hard it is to "understand" the ability to produce more electricity than you use, but Cara Kane of KB Home actually agrees with Wotapka, emphasizing that this is a concept home showcasing the ultimate in green technology--not a model home that anyone will be able to buy. Rather, she says, KB typically aims to introduce green features that do not come with a cost premium--something the manufacturer can accomplish through economies of scale.

Right now, she said, a standard KB home provides Energy Star-rated efficiencies at no extra cost compared with competitors' homes of a comparable size and location. But the GreenHouse is decked out with $70,000 worth of green extras, including photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal panels and a sophisticated rainwater catchment system.

Oh, and KB has no intention of putting anything like it into production right now.

"Overall, the important thing for homebuyers is saving money on energy or long-term maintenance," said Kane. "Homebuyers want to see a cost savings in three to five years" after moving in, and features like PV don't pay for themselves that quickly.

Kane is not discouraged, though. "It will be a while before we see net-zero as a standard feature," she said. "But we are always looking for new products and opportunities to increase the efficiency of homes"--as long as those features don't raise the price.

What KB is up against

Even without a current focus on net-zero building, KB's commitment to energy efficiency sets the company apart from other national homebuilders, according to a report by Calvert Investments. Calvert ranked sustainability practices of the top ten publicly traded U.S. homebuilders in the categories of land use, building materials, energy, water, and climate change. KB came out on top in every single category.

But compared to what? The report also points out that the homebuilding industry overall has virtually no commitment to sustainability. Including the top two builders, KB and Pulte, the average sustainability score for the homebuilding industry is 15%. Without those two, the average score is 6%. What would my parents have done to me if I'd brought home grades like that? I'd really rather not think about it.

"Given the environmental impact that homebuilding has, the industry has significantly more progress to make," the report (grossly under)states. KB itself, by far the frontrunner, received a score of 68%--and where I come from, that's barely a D–.

But maybe that's not quite fair, since KB achieved all A's and B's for its attention to energy, materials, water, and climate change. It was land use that significantly dragged down the builder's overall score. And addressing land use practices will not be easy for an industry focused almost exclusively on building large suburban communities on previously undeveloped land. (There are exceptions here and there, and KB has a commitment to urban infill where possible, but land use is clearly still an afterthought.)

Time to stop blaming consumers?

Calvert also addressed the contention that homebuilders do not offer efficiency measures because consumers do not demand them. Perhaps there's a place for homebuilders to take the lead here and educate homebuyers? "In order to sell environmentally sustainable homes," it says, "companies need to market their advantages more explicitly."

On this point, at least, Kane could not agree more. "The industry as a whole has a long way to come," she said. But with a conceptual project like the GreenHouse, KB hopes to at least help homebuilders and homebuyers alike see the direction they ought to be headed.

And also, it should be said, to get the jump on the competition by defining itself as "the green homebuilder." After all, the folks at KB read that Calvert report too, and have been talking about the results at every opportunity. In its overview, Calvert points out that "there is likely a first-mover advantage" and that companies that take the first steps "will be able to build a brand image as the environmental choice for home construction."

Maybe any direction is better than a standstill

I think the GreenHouse rollout is part of a concerted attempt to be the "first mover" in this area. There are clearly problems with this home, no doubt about it. Would it have been better in an urban setting with a smaller footprint, natural ventilation, and attention to the traditional local vernacular? Yes. But would it be better if it hadn't been built at all?

I think that's still debatable. But in an industry that is performing so abysmally overall, I find it hard to argue with a company that is actually trying to do the right thing.

2011-02-03 n/a 9105 Green Building Product Certifications Report Errata and Update

Our new report, Green Building Product Certifications: Getting What You Need, covers every relevant certification in the field. But of course, as we all know, things keep changing. To ensure you have correct and current information, this errata covers all updates, corrections, and clarifications that we know of to date. If report readers learn of other updates in this constantly evolving area, please let us and fellow readers know by commenting on this blog or emailing Correction: MTS is an ANSI Accredited Standards Developer and the MTS SMART Sustainable Building Product Standard is available for purchase on the ANSI standards webstore but it is not currently an ANSI-approved standard. Any formally ANSI-Approved standard will be designated ANSI/xxx in its title. Correction: Greenguard Environmental Institute was founded in 2001, not 2000, and Greenguard's pilot certification is known as Greenguard Premier not Premium. Greenguard states that the partnership with NSF to develop an ANSI standard is a separate effort from the Premier program. Update: The standard on which the BIFMA level certification is based is now ANSI-Approved. On Nov. 11, 2010, ANSI/BIFMA e3-2010 was officially approved as an American National Standard by ANSI. Update: The USDA BioPreferred program launched its voluntary Biobased product certification and labeling program on January 20, 2011, when the final ruling on the program appeared in the Federal Register. The program as launched is largely similar to the planned program described in the report (See this EBN articlefor more details). Highlights to remember:

  • The Biopreferred program now has two distinct components (1) a procurement preference program for federal agencies, and (2) a voluntary labeling initiative. for commercial and consumer markets
  • Products from "mature" markets, established before 1972, cannot use the label.
  • Products in categories designated for Federal preferred procurement must meet the minimum biobased content specified for the category. For other categories, the product must be a minimum of 25% biobased material.
  • The label includes the percent biobased content (specifying whether the percentage is of the product or package). If the product is eligible for Federal preferred procurement, "FP" is added discretely to the logo.
  • There is no requirement for--or screening based on--life cycle analysis. As described in the Federal Register, "The only requirement is that claims made by manufacturers regarding the environmental or life cycle benefits of their labeled products must be supported by appropriate documentation."

Update: The Greener Product online directory has launched a new "Greener Product Certified" label. This label appears to be paperwork verification of 3rd party certifications and manufacturer supplied data against the requirements of LEED and NAHB, with an on site audit scheduled on occasion to confirm the regional resource provision. Clarification:California's use of NSF 140 Gold and NSF 140 Platinum is as follows:

  • Carpet purchased by California state agencies shall meet as a minimum NSF 140-2007e Platinum certification.
  • CALGreen, the new green building code, offers NSF 140 Gold as one path of complying with credit 5.504.4.4 Carpet systems, in Section 5.504 Pollutant Control, for non-residential buildings. The other pathways are Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Plus Program, California Department of Public Health Standard Practice for the testing of VOCs (Specification 01350), Scientific Certifications Systems Sustainable Choice.

Clarification: California Section 01350 v1.1 was published as an "informative appendix and not part of the required portion of this Standard Method." In the preamble to Appendix B, it is stated that "It is the intent of the CDPH-IAQ to further review and develop the Single Family Residence Scenario for inclusion in final form in Version 2.0 of the Standard Method."

2011-01-25 n/a 9106 Solar Decathlon to Relocate: Will the 'Solar Village' Move to the 'Burbs?

When my husband and I attended the first Solar Decathlon in 2002 with our one-year-old and his newborn brother, we (and our massive double stroller) traveled downtown on the subway.

Past Solar Decathlons, held on the National Mall, have featured lots of cute little solar cars (and, in 2002, my cute little son as well). Will this year's feature hundreds of thousands of gas-guzzlers?

I'm guessing most of the other 100,000 attendees did likewise. Driving and parking in D.C. are no fun, and Septembers there are darned hot. The Metro is extremely cheap, relatively stress-free, and nicely air-conditioned.

But now that the Solar Decathlon is getting kicked off the National Mall, I wonder what will happen to the event's environmental footprint. Unless it relocates to a community with public transit as popular and user-friendly as Washington's, I'm guessing the event's footprint will be a whole lot deeper and wider than before.

Can Houses Car Pool?

Not that the Solar Decathlon's transportation energy intensity--the amount of energy it takes to get people to and from a building or, in this case, an event--was negligible to begin with.

In order to build that "solar village," the teams haul in houses on trucks and boats from all over the world. New Zealand, China, and Belgium are all sending teams this year, and I don't think they plan to car pool.

While the Solar Decathlon only takes place every two years and is arguably advancing everyday home design toward a net-zero future--not only by creating a fun and high-profile incentive for innovation, but also by inspiring students who will be designing real homes in the near future--its total carbon footprint must be impressively large.

Still, at least the hundreds of thousands of people who wanted to ogle and tour the beautifully designed solar homes over the years didn't have to fire up their cars and SUVs in order to do so. In all likelihood, that is about to change with the change of venue. Because sadly, it is the solar village's quite literal impact on the National Mall that has forced this unwelcome relocation.

A National Treasure Trampled

"Right now I'm looking out my window at the National Mall, which is fenced off so no one can walk on the grass," said Tom Welch of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in a phone interview.

The National Park Service just came out with a huge report on its plan to revitalize the desertified Mall. While it looks like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is still on for late June and early July, the Solar Decathlon didn't make the cut.

Welch has not been privy to all the negotiations over relocation, but he said the primary considerations will be "space, access, and the logistical requirements of the event." Twenty homes on display for hundreds of thousands of visitors? Sounds like the suburbs to me.

Driving (to) the Net-Zero Future

According to the NYT story on the relocation, there are several suburban sites in the D.C. metro area under consideration for this year's Solar Decathlon, but DOE is also considering a number of other cities, including New York and Chicago. Trouble is, the teams have already engineered their homes to collect sunlight on that hot, dusty National Mall, and a major venue change could have major repercussions for those designs.

That's one of the reasons DOE is reportedly hoping to keep the exhibition in the D.C. metro area. Perhaps the least disruptive venue mentioned would be RFK Stadium. Although not in the thick of downtown shops, restaurants, hotels, and museums, the stadium is at least somewhat close to the Stadium-Armory Metro stop.

It is still half a mile away, though--which, sadly enough, means most people will probably drive unless there is a cleverly marketed incentive to take public transit.

Hmm, solar shuttle buses, anyone?

2011-01-24 n/a 9127 A Lesson

Throughout all of the educational sessions I have attended so far—all on different topics—there has been one overarching theme: community; building communities that really work is the way of the future. One large tie to this is connectivity, pun intended. I have heard many case studies from airports to infill developments about connecting neighborhoods to create communities. A major hurdle in sustainable community development is reducing the turnover rate—by creating spaces where people feel connected they more likely to remain, permanently. The more connected people feel to a place the more they value it, protect it, and care for it and the planning, architecture, and interior design can discourage or encourage this behavior. Sustainable means long lasting, just as much as it means “green” and communities can be the deciding factor, determining the longevity of built environments.

2010-11-19 n/a 9129 10 Questions with 2010 Hanley Award winner Alex Wilson

Alex Wilson, the founder of our company and our current executive editor (i.e., my boss), is being named the 2010 Hanley Award winner in a special event here at Greenbuild 2010 tomorrow. In recognition of this achievement, and to better understand how this innovative, always-curious visionary looks at the world, I recently asked him 10 questions. Here's the conversation.

Congratulations on being the 2010 winner of the Hanley Award. How would you sum up your feelings on this honor?

Thanks Tristan. It's a tremendous honor--and an honor for all of us at BuildingGreen. EBN, GreenSpec, LEEDuser and our other products are all group efforts from the whole company. I'm truly humbled to receive this award.

What are your thoughts on following Ed Mazria, FAIA in winning the Hanley Award?

That makes it even better. I have tremendous respect for Ed and what he's done to engage the design community as well as governments in the goal of reducing our carbon footprint. I knew Ed, though not well, when I lived in Santa Fe in the late '70s, and I have a well-worn copy of his Passive Solar Energy Book in my home library. He is a pioneer in the true sense of the word, and I'm deeply honored to be following Ed in receiving the Hanley Award.

You've built your reputation in part on taking stands on issues like dangers of treated wood, brominated flame retardants, and the global warming impact of some insulation products, while drawing attention to cool new ideas like passive survivability. What's a stand that you've taken that you wish had caught on more?
A couple come to mind. I was really hoping that the concept of "transportation energy intensity" would catch on as a metric of building performance. My analysis, which we published in EBN in 2007, showed that, on average, in an office building in this country we expend 30% more energy getting people to and from the building than the building itself uses--assuming national-average commuting distances, mode of transportation for commuting, square footage per person, etc. For an office building built to the ASHRAE 90.1-2004 energy code, transportation energy use is 2.3 times greater than the building energy use! Yet, we rarely think about this in the green building movement. For me that article was a real wake-up call; I think it was the most important article we've ever run in EBN... so far!

I 'm also disappointed that "passive survivability" hasn't caught on more. In retrospect, it may have been a mistake to chose such a negative term. "Resilient design" might be better from the standpoint of a term that would gain traction. The issue, no matter what the term, is really important, and I think it will eventually come back into the conversation much more actively. For that to happen, though, I'm afraid, that it will take a tragedy of some sort (such as a major heat wave coinciding with a prolonged drought that causes widespread, extended power outages in southern cities during the summer). I'm sure I'll be returning to this topic in the future. The design criterion of passive survivability makes a lot of sense.

EBN is well-known for not running advertising on its pages. What was the moment when you made that decision?

Nadav [Nadav Malin, current president of BuildingGreen] and I decided not to carry advertising before we launched EBN. For me there were two reasons: first, we wanted to be free to say what we wanted to say about products and emerging technologies without having to worry about push-back from advertisers; and second, I knew that I didn't want to spend my time selling ads. I had seen other people start publications and end up not being able to spend time on the content. I didn't want to go that route.

This is such a hackneyed question, but, what the heck: If you could have a conversation with anyone, alive or dead, that you're not currently in touch with, who would it be?

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) would be right near the top of the list; I'd like to sit on a porch with him and listen to his satire in person. It would be great to go for a long hike with John Muir and learn about his motivations in launching the environmental movement. And I'd like to stand in the corner of a dimly lit pub in 1775 and listen to Thomas Jefferson debate with his cohorts how to create a nation from scratch.

What are you reading right now?

I'm reading Ecotopia, a classic novel from 1975 that describes a utopian nation created when Washington, Oregon, and Northern California split off from the U.S. I'm reading it because I'm thinking a lot about how you can inspire change in a society. In the same vein, I just finished reading a new novel, Solar, by Ian McEwan (Doubleday, 2010). A copy was sent to me by the publisher (perhaps because one of the subplots is about how dumb building-integrated wind energy is?). It's mostly about this has-been, womanizing scientist who is still coasting from a long-ago Nobel prize in physics, but he happens into a synthetic photosynthesis technology that may be the holy grail that everyone has been looking for to save the world. I should note that it's rare for me to read novels in such a short timespan; I'm usually reading a few nonfiction books about water resources, climate change, and the like--you know, the doom-and-gloom stuff.

You often say that green products don't make a green building, but you also have an incredible curiosity and excitement about about cool green products. Why?

It's really fun to see what new products are coming along--and figure out how they can be part of the solution in creating a low-energy, low-carbon future that shifts us towards sustainability. I've had a lot of fun this year writing the "cool product of the week" blog. I wish I could spend even more time researching new products. I've also enjoyed helping choose and then presenting BuildingGreen's "Top-10 Green Products" each year--this will be our ninth year; I'll be announcing this year's picks at the Greenbuild conference.

With Katrina, with the BP oil spill, I've heard lots of prognosticators say, "Maybe this is the disaster that will really wake us up to our environmental problems," but so far none of them seem to be right. Do you think we'll ever turn things around? What will it take?

For 40 years I've been called an alarmist or Chicken Little, warning that the sky is falling. I keep thinking that new evidence will wake up the general public to the problems we're facing, but I keep being proven wrong. This is frustrating.

Even the BP oil spill, which galvanized interest in environmental protection for a while, will likely be quickly forgotten or--even worse--be presented as evidence of how quickly nature can rebound, with the conclusion that we don't need to worry so much about safeguards. I'm afraid that the only things that will really galvanize attention on what we need to do are things that affect the general public directly: dramatically higher energy prices, actual shortages of fuel or prolonged power outages, or dramatic heat waves and changing weather patterns. I read in The New York Times that with the heat waves and fires in Russia this summer, everybody is talking about global warming. To date, Russia hasn't engaged much in the discussions about reducing greenhouse gas emissions; perhaps now they will. If Washington, D.C. bakes at 110°F for a few weeks perhaps our politicians will take notice.

The Hanley Award recognizes a long and distinguished career--with a lot yet to come, we hope. What's your advice to students or those earlier in their careers in design and construction on how to help meet our environmental challenges?

What I almost always recommend to students--in any field--is to include in your studies some science. (I've been only marginally successful in this with my own two daughters!) Whether going into architecture, construction management, journalism, or foreign policy, learning how to investigate a problem scientifically and objectively evaluate courses of action will usually result in better solutions. I believe that if more politicians had a background in science they would be creating better legislation and policies. Relative to building design, some training in science will come in handy in understanding everything from the offgassing of VOCs in adhesives to the moisture dynamics in walls--and help you design better, healthier, more durable buildings.

You've been with the green building movement since the 1970s. Today we have global warming deniers, "green fatigue," and a green movement that's big enough to have factions divided over issues from nuclear power to the LEED rating system. What do you see as the green movement's biggest challenge (and hopefully, opportunity) in the twenty-teens?

I wish I had a good answer to this question. It's key to our future. Last night I watched a screening of the film "Carbon Nation." It's a great documentary and speaks very effectively to those who already get it--but it needs to be repackaged to reach the audiences that it really needs to reach. It turns out that I know the producer, and I plan to contact him and discuss some ideas for doing that. For Fox News fans and the Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh crowd, I think it's going to be pretty hard to change minds without something dramatic happening. But if we go through a year in the United States like Russia is going through this year (where temperatures are as much as 20°F higher than normal), perhaps that would begin to convince even them.

And if that crowd comes around to the reality of climate change and the importance of doing something about it, can you imagine the influence they would have? If Beck and Limbaugh were to issue a joint statement urging action on greenhouse gas emissions, I think even the dozen or so newly elected global-warming-deniers in the Senate would have to pay attention. Unlikely, yes, but stranger things have happened.

Illustration by Stacey Curtis, BuildingGreen (Awesome)

2010-11-16 n/a 9138 Do adobe homes really work in all climates? – Book review

The weather is turning cold here in southern Vermont. A friend just got chased off the Long Trail (which she was hiking from the Massachusetts to the Canadian borders) by 18 inches of snow on Killington. While the leaves are still turning here in the Connecticut River valley, it's time to start huddling up by the fire and thinking cozy thoughts.

It was with this frame of mind that I excitedly cracked open Adobe Homes for All Climates Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques by Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree. It's another well-produced addition to the library of natural building tomes offered by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Adobe Homes is filled with practical tips, gorgeous pictures, useful construction drawings, and step-by-step help for anyone looking to build adobe, whether a professional or a homeowner. There are tips on earthquake resistance for locations with seismic concerns. There is extensive guidance on the often-overlooked issue of setting up your site to mix, mold, dry, store, and build with adobe bricks. The book gets into finishes, integrating windows and doors, and a lot more.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn't looking at the book with this lens. Before I could really contemplate setting up a site for adobe production, I had to be sold on adobe for this climate. I was looking for ideas on cozy earth building in a climate with 7,500 heating degree days (many of them cloudy, for days at a time), 500 cooling degree days, and a distribution of those heating degree days throughout 12 months. And an adobe structure in this climate will be an energy hog, because, as the authors note, adobe has a very low R-value.

In short, the "for all climates" tagline, which drew me in, is a stretch. Yes, there is a suggestion to add a layer of insulation in colder climates (mentioned in the inspiring foreword by Bruce King, and in a subsequent paragraph in the book). Yes, there are nice pictures of snow-covered Rocky Mountain adobe (which may be cold--at times--but gets a lot more sun, making adobe a better choice). But building an adobe wall and adding insulation to it for this climate requires at least a whole chapter (more than the paragraph currently devoted to it), and perhaps a whole book. Here are some questions that this "missing" chapter might help answer:

  • What kind of insulation works well with an adobe structure?
  • How much is needed?  
  • Should the insulation be interior of the adobe, exterior of it, or both?
  • What are the benefits of building adobe and also a secondary insulation system? Why is it worth doing versus just using another construction system?
  • What construction and moisture details are necessary for adobe to be durable through a cold, wet, winter?
  • How does the addition of insulation affect the vapor profile of the adobe wall? Any issues to watch out for

I hope these will be considered in future editions or articles by the author. In the meantime, this looks like a great resource for natural builders in climates where adobe makes more sense--most classically, the Southwest U.S.

Correction: I realized after posting this article that Vince Ogletree passed away in 2005, well before this book was published. From the bio in the book, it sounds like he was a dedicated and generous natural builder. I had called for the "authors" to return to the points I outlined, but I feel that was insensitive to Vince's memory; I have changed this to the "author."

2010-10-26 n/a 11972 What's Another Name for Geoengineering? Geoengineering. That's what they're calling some of the more high-tech proposals for solving the climate crisis. Geoengineering strategies all involve intentional manipulation of the earth's climate in order to offset the effects of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions--for example, installing orbital mirrors in space, artificially "enhancing" clouds with reflective particulates, and spreading light-colored and reflective materials across vast swaths of unpopulated land, all to prevent the sun's rays from being absorbed into the atmosphere.

It's a controversial topic, at least among those of us familiar with the concept (which is only about three percent of us, according to Jeff Goodell, who wrote this account of a recent conference on geoengineering at Asilomar, published yesterday on Yale's environment360). There are unanswered questions about who would finance these measures (read: rich countries), who might feel negative impacts like crop disruption (read: poor countries) even if the net effects were positive, what the unknown risks might be, and whether the massive investment that would be necessary to pull off some of these high-tech strategies on a large scale might be better spent on, say, greenhouse gas mitigation or climate adaptation. (See our September 2009 EBN feature on designing for climate adaptation or this sidebar for BuildingGreen's take on geoengineering.)

With tongue only partially in cheek, Wired last week published a handy list (along with some great images) of "Six Ways We're Already Geoengineering the Planet." No, it isn't a list of hush-hush experiments or field tests of any of the aforementioned strategies. Nor is it an argument that we should give geoengineering a free pass. It was just a clever way of reminding us, lest we should get caught up in the futuristic excitement of some of these ideas, that we've been tinkering with the climate for nearly 200 years--we've just been doing it in the wrong direction.

2010-04-02 n/a 11973 A Skyscraper Based on a Plant An article in the UK version of Wired talks about a design for a skyscraper that would collect water in much the way plants do. The skin of the building collects rainwater, guiding it to storage cisterns below ground. It could then be used for toilets, irrigation, clothes washing, and other uses for which potable water is not required. Unfortunately, the design is just that--a model created for a competition. It's not likely to be built any time soon. And it would be even cooler if the building used only the water that fell on the site for everything, including potable water needs. Then it would really and truly mimic a plant. 2010-04-01 n/a 11949 Greening Sin City? Years ago a friend and I borrowed my mother's minivan, left our small college, and drove west in search of the Great American Wilderness. For months we steered clear of cities in favor of National Parks and Forests, but as we passed through the Sierras we couldn't help but notice how close Death Valley is to that other American extreme: Las Vegas. We drove out of Death Valley around midnight, and soon the artificial sun of Sin City was glowing on the eastern horizon. Stepping out onto the Strip, all I could see was the waste: the blazing lights, the miles upon miles of climate-controlled real estate, the networks of fountains spewing billions of gallons of water into the dry desert air. With all the maturity and nuanced perspective of my 20 years, I thought: We're all going to die, and this is what will kill us. I left Vegas less than 12 hours later and I've never been back, but I think of it often, especially when I'm feeling less hopeful that we will ever un-supersize the American lifestyle, because it's so clear from examples like Las Vegas that excess—waste—still sells. But something I saw this week might have me looking for a new scapegoat: the Las Vegas Sands Corp. (of the Venetian, Palazzo, and Sands Expo complex) has a plan to turn the three-casino complex into the "world's greenest building"—all 17.9 million square feet of it. When I saw the headline I had to laugh, remembering my apocalyptic Vegas moment and wondering what superficial half-measures and meaningless "green bling" I could expect to read about in the article. On the other hand, I had to admit: the potential for energy and water savings might be greater in Las Vegas than it is anywhere else in the world. If this was a legitimate effort, the results—and the ripple effect—could be incredibly positive. According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal report, the Sands casinos are already collecting 75% of food waste to be composted, have a full-time staff of 14 dedicated to sorting solid waste for recycling, and are at work implementing a $25 million building management system—no small chunk of change, even in Vegas. Well, maybe in Vegas it is. But it's certainly far more meaningful than slapping down some bamboo on the gaming floor and calling it "green." The kicker for me was this figure: the Sands—one casino complex—is saving enough energy annually to power 6,500 homes. That's more homes than you'll find in all but a handful of cities in Vermont, where I live. You probably won't catch me using the "g" word to describe Vegas anytime soon—not until I hear some serious discussion of smarter net growth in a part of the world that's ill equipped to support the life it's already carrying. But if the Sands program catches on at other venues, I might get curious enough to go back and check it out. Read the full article here. 2010-03-19 n/a 11951 People Like Urine-Separating Toilets If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that I wrote about urine-separating toilets last year. You'll also know that I'm rather enamored of the image at right. So you can imagine how gleeful I was when I discovered I had another reason to use it! It turns out researchers in Europe have found that people are not at all grossed out by the concept of urine-separating toilets. In fact, they like them! 75%-85% of people surveyed found the toilets as easy to use and as clean and hygienic as conventional toilets. And 80% of those surveyed supported the idea of using urine as fertilizer. 2010-03-17 n/a