Taxonomy Term en 22404 BuildingGreen Hiring an Administrative Assistant to Work on Exciting New Project

The BuildingGreen staff at their best. Photo: Alana FichmanAre you ready to be part of a small team with a big task: proving a green economy grows jobs?

BuildingGreen recently seized the opportunity to make a huge impact locally and we’re looking for an administrative assistant and project coordinator to help implement the master plan.

Our home base of Brattleboro, VT and surrounding region is a unique microcosm where beatniks still endure and back-to-the-landers thrive (BuildingGreen employees included). As a result, the area has accrued an exceptionally high number of experts and companies specializing in sustainability and green building.

A new effort led by Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation seeks to transform this dispersed cluster of expertise into a central magnet that attracts financial capital, manufacturers, consulting firms, and visitors interested in green building and resilient design. In establishing a unified reputation to present nationally, new business opportunities will emerge and existing businesses can expand. It’s an entirely new model where sustainability is the job growth strategy.

What kinds of jobs might come out of this effort? These are some of the ideas we’re currently studying:

  • Creating a “Knowledge Center” where people can come for training and different companies can collaborate to obtain bigger contracts.
  • Attracting a green manufacturer to the region, such as a cross-laminated timber plant.
  • Using local tech talent to develop the next generation of machine learning and artificial intelligence for energy efficiency and resilience.

BuildingGreen is looking for an administrative assistant to help coordinate and manage logistics for this and other exciting projects its consultants are pursuing. You’d start by taking meeting minutes, sending out agendas, and handling daily communications for the above referenced green economy project. However, we need someone super organized who can adapt and learn new skills as different projects arise.

More about our team

We are a mission-driven company fostering more sustainable practices in the design and construction industry through our content and services. Do you have some interest and background in the environment? Great! Are you interested in learning more about it? Although this is an administrative position, a passion for the field and ability to pick up the green building lingo will enable synergy with our consulting staff, and help provide room for advancement.

Our consulting group has a strong team approach, with dedicated staff that is patient, kind, and encouraging with new staff persons. Feel free to do some digging on our humble superstars: Nadav Malin, Peter Yost, Paula Melton, Brent Ehrlich, or Tristan Roberts. Guaranteed a Google search will impress, and they’re fun to work with too!

More about our consulting work

BuildingGreen’s consulting projects are diverse in scope and topic. For background, here is some of our forward-facing work:

  • We developed this report for a tri-national government agency.
  • We sometimes crawl in attics and basements to perform these.
  • We help big agencies like USGBC and AIA work through complicated problems. Just look at this mind map.

For a job description, desired skills, and directions on how to apply, check out our job posting.


2016-01-20 n/a 18102 My Green Policy Wishlist for 2014


Six items on my policy wish-list for 2014 and beyond.

Safe bicycle commuting and walking is high on my wish list for 2014.
Photo Credit: Yuba Cargo Bikes

It's fun for me to dream about stuff—building products and materials—and how we can make that stuff greener. I recently wrote about 7 wish-list items for greener building products and materials. Today I want to talk policy—six changes we need in the public sphere to bring more sustainability to our built environment and beyond.

1) Strengthen building codes by recognizing resilience

I believe that the need for buildings and communities that can withstand heat waves, more intense storms, flooding, drought, and other effects of a changing climate—as well as problems wrought directly by our fellow humans (like terrorism)—point to the need for strengthening building codes and land-use regulations.

Resilience can be the motivation for codes and standards that will ensure more sustainable, energy-efficient, comfortable, and livable buildings and communities. New York City, in implementing 16 of the 33 recommendations coming out of the Building Resiliency Task Force in 2013, has demonstrated the potential for moving forward quickly with change. 2014 can be the year for other municipalities to make similar progress.

2) Account for societal impacts in pricing energy then rely on the free market

When we fuel up our cars, turn up our thermostat at home, or leave our lights on, that energy consumption affects everybody: air pollution that causes health problems, water pollution from fossil fuel extraction, hazardous disposal of byproducts such as coal fly ash and radioactive waste, military costs of protecting our access to that energy, and global warming impacts of carbon dioxide emissions. These societal costs of energy consumption should be quantified and factored into the price we pay for those fuels.  

PV system at Nellis Air Force Base.
Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Whether through carbon taxes, a new cap-and-trade approach with air and water pollution, new waste-disposal fees, or some other mechanism, by making consumers and businesses pay more for the consumption of energy sources that result in significant societal impacts, a huge incentive could be provided for energy conservation and renewable energy production. Such taxes or fees could even be levied in a revenue-neutral way through “tax shifting”—offsetting, for example, payroll taxes.

If we had the wisdom and courage to do this, we could then let market forces do their magic in fueling innovation and product development and energy performance. It’s a long shot, I know (I’m not holding my breath), but I’m wishing for recognition of this market-based approach to energy pricing in 2014.

3) Build political momentum for transportation alternatives

The automobile rules in America—at the expense of investment in public transit and infrastructure enhancements that would benefit walkers and bicyclists. Changing this paradigm would create better places to live—where you could safely walk to a corner café or enjoy a comfortable bus or rail commute to work. Yet, in Washington, these alternatives to the automobile are considered fringe special interests.

My wish for the New Year is a change in attitude about these alternatives to the automobile. Some of our major cities, from Philadelphia to Portland, Oregon, are making tremendous progress along these lines, but change needs to come to the rest of the country, where pedestrian safety is just as important as in Portland. In our small town of Brattleboro, we’ve just experienced the fourth pedestrian fatality in two years!) I believe that once more people see and experience the benefits of non-automobile transportation, momentum will build for even more rapid change—but we have a long way to go.

4) Institute financing mechanisms for energy improvements and renewable energy

Innovative financing mechanisms to make private investments in energy efficiency and renewables more affordable are needed if we are to achieve rapid progress in improving the energy performance of existing homes and businesses. PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing is an option that is being tried in some places, but there has been significant pushback, due to concerns about who’s first in line for recovery of debt in the event of a default. I think PACE can work effectively (Vermont, in fact, has instituted regulations that address most of the concerns of mortgage lenders), but we shouldn’t stop there.

In 2014 I’d like to see the creative minds of the banking industry, investment community, electric and gas utilities, and even the insurance industry come up with new financing mechanisms for energy improvements. Government probably has a role in this, whether through loan guarantees, accelerated depreciation regulations, or other mechanisms.

PV system going in at Leonard Farm in Dummerston, VT.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

5) Extend producer tax credits and other incentives for renewables

Assuming that we don’t make progress in imposing taxes on the societal impacts of conventional energy consumption so that we can put market forces to work (my first choice—see above), I’d like to see extension of some (but not all) of the subsidies and incentives that support renewables. At the commercial power production level, developers of wind and solar farms benefit from producer tax credits. These are good and should be extended, while most incentives for corn-based ethanol don’t make sense.

Homeowners benefit from tax credits for solar energy systems and a few other energy technologies. Most of these should also be extended, though perhaps at gradually dropping levels as the prices for these systems (and thus the need for subsidy) diminish.

I do think, however, that there should be a cap on the solar tax credits (we don’t need to be subsidizing Aspen billionaires putting in massive solar arrays to melt snow on their driveways). And some of the other tax credits should be reevaluated—such as support for ground-source (geothermal) heat pumps that cost a whole lot more than their air-source heat pump cousins and residential-scale wind turbines that usually aren’t cost-effective.

Most renewable energy credits are due to expire in the next few years. We should take action now to extend these to keep the renewable energy industry strong and maintain the pace of progress. It isn’t fair to the industry to wait until the last minute in passing extensions to such programs, as has been common practice in the past.

6) Make frugal cool

Finally, I’d love to see frugality celebrated in the U.S. instead of only celebrating excess—as seems to be the case in the popular media and advertising world today. When my neighbor insulates her house or buys a plug-in hybrid car I benefit from the reduced energy consumption and pollution. We should build a culture of recognizing and expressing gratitude for conserving energy.

Happy New Year.

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.



2014-01-02 n/a 17827 Insulation Quiz: The No-Foam Challenge

How well do you know your insulation? Photo: BuildingGreen, Inc.A lot of people are questioning the widespread use of foam insulation. Are you familiar with their concerns, and the upsides and downsides of alternatives?

What are all the environmental and health challenges presented by foam insulation products? What about the healthier substitutes? Are they ready for prime time?

These are some of the questions tackled by our new report, and accompanying webcast and course, Choosing and Detailing Insulation for High-Performance Assemblies. Even as more designers and builders are thinking twice about using rigid and spray-applied foam insulation, the alternatives to these products are sometimes misunderstood.

Our pop quiz tests your knowledge of the application-specific challenges and opportunities of these materials. Score yourself, and then read our answers and explanations below.

1) Toxic flame retardants, high global warming potential, and high embodied energy are all environmental reasons we are concerned about rigid foam insulation products. But it has a lot going for it in terms of performance: high R-value per inch, high compressive strength, and it’s easy to install. Which of the following is a performance-based reason you might think twice about using rigid foam?

A) It’s susceptible to ant and termite nesting and tunneling, even if completely dry
B) At best, it’s only semi-vapor permeable, and can trap moisture
C) Foam is relatively flammable, even with flame retardants added
D) All of the above

2) Rigid mineral wool has become a top pick for designers and builders looking to avoid foam insulation. They have had to make some changes, though, and overcome obstacles to do that. Which of the following is NOT a downside to using rigid mineral wool?

A) It’s not quite as “rigid” as rigid foam insulation.
B) Particularly in versions with higher compressive strength, its R-value is lower than foam insulation, and boards are heavier.
C) It’s not cost-competitive to purchase
D) It’s harder to cut than foam.

3) Which of the following insulation products are air barrier materials?

A) Extruded polystyrene insulation (XPS)
B) Polyisocyanurate
C) Closed-cell spray-polyurethane foam
D) Cellular glas, i.e. Foamglas
E) Cellulose
F) Cellular foam, i.e. Airkrete
G) Rigid mineral wool
H) Spray-applied fiberglass
I) Expanded polystyrene insulation (EPS)
J) Open-cell spray-polyurethane foam
K) Radiant barrier sheets

4) You want to avoid use of foam insulation in a wall assembly, but a tight air barrier is important to you. Which of the following are valid options?

A) you're stuck with foam—any high-performing building today uses some foam as an air barrier
B) use sheathing that acts as an air barrier and tape the seams
C) use concrete-masonry units (CMUs), or cast-in-place concrete
D) use high-performance caulks or gaskets at key junctions such as at floorplates and penetrations
E) B and/or D
F) B and/or C and/or D

5) Expanded cork insulation is _______, but is _______.

A) made of recycled wine corks; very low in R-value
B) 100% cork including the binder; labor-intensive to install
C) 100% cork except for the binder; high in VOC emissions
D) made in the U.S.; relatively expensive 

6) Cellular glass, i.e. Foamglas, is _______, but is _______.

A) made in the U.S.; relatively expensive
B) completely impervious to moisture and insects; not very high in compressive strength
C) completely inert when cut or scored; extremely heavy
D) usable at very high temperatures; very low in R-value per inch

7) Rigid mineral wool insulation is _______, but is _______.

A) made with recycled content; much more expensive than foam
B) higher in R-value than foam; not always stocked at regional lumber yards
C) low in embodied energy; new to many contracting crews
D) flame-resistant without flame retardants; not as rigid as rigid foam 

8) Spray-polyurethane foam is _______, but is _______.

A) sometimes made of high percentages of soy oil; still partly synthetic
B) an air barrier; laced with chlorinated flame retardants
C) one of the best available choices for insulating uneven surfaces; often applied with high global-warming-potential blowing agents
D) relatively inexpensive; reported to be linked with building fires and unusual odors in faulty installations

9) Avoiding toxic chemicals and allergens is particularly important to you in your choice of insulation. If you’re extremely thorough in avoiding toxic chemicals, which insulation is the best choice?

A) cellulose
B) cellular glass
C) cementitious foam
D) low-density wood-fiber insulation
E) wool
F) spray-in-place fiberglass

10) The ability of a building envelope to dry out in both directions if it gets wet is important to your project. Which insulation material might you take special interest in using?

A) foil-faced polyisocyanurate
B) rigid perlite board
C) low-density wood fiber insulation
D) extruded polystyrene (XPS)
E) high-density spray polyurethane foam

Our answers—and why

Question 1—D, all of the above. Extruded polystyrene in particular is known in the carpenter ant community as a favorable texture to nest in, even in the absence of moisture, and even though they don't technically consume it as food. Most foam insulation products are Class II vapor retarders. And even with the addition of toxic flame retardants, some foam insulation can ignite and contribute to a fire relatively quickly.

Question 2—C) It’s not cost-competitive to purchase. Mineral wool may require a special order through your supplier, but it is often less expensive than XPS— something we were surprised to learn in our research, and that may indicate a trend as mineral wool becomes more popular and domestic production increases.

Question 3—A through D are air barrier barrier materials, E through I are not, and with J and K, it depends. Air barrier performance, R-value, vapor permeability, and other key environmental performance data for these and other insulation materials is in our report. Why do we say "it depends" for open-cell spray foam and radiant barrier sheets? With the latter, the material itself is usually an air barrier, but it's not meant for that purpose. Fastening without penetrations and extensive taping or other seam-sealing would be required. With open-cell foam, it simply varies by the type of product.

Question 4—E) B and/or D. This is a bit of a trick question, because C would qualify on the merit of cast-in-place concrete, but CMUs are porous to air except when accompanied by mastic or sealant.

Question 5—B) 100% cork including the binder; labor-intensive to install. Expanded cork is processed under heat and pressure that activates a natural binder. It is relatively difficult to cut and install, as regular readers of our blogs may recall.

Question 6—A) made in the U.S.; relatively expensive. With some of the more exotic foam alternatives being imported from Europe, it may be surprising to learn that Foamglas has been made in the U.S. (at two different factories) for decades. For the record, its R-value per inch is respectable, it is completely impervious to moisture and insects, but it does emit a touch of hydrogen sulfide gas when scratched.

Question 7—D) flame-resistant without flame retardants; not as rigid as rigid foam. The answer to this question highlights a key benefit of mineral wool insulation, but also a downside, that it is not quite as rigid as foam, which some builders whine about when it comes to installing cladding over it. They should get over it, and just add plenty of continuous exterior insulation, which requires furring no matter whether it's foam or mineral wool.

Question 8—C) one of the best available choices for insulating uneven surfaces; often applied with high-global-warming-potential blowing agents. We have to admit that when it comes to insulating uneven surfaces, such as a retrofit of a masonry wall, spray-polyurethane foam (SPF) is hard to beat. But keep in mind the climate impact. And for the record, soy is typically only a token ingredient, and SPF has been linked—though some would say demonized—in fires and incidents of odors and chemical sensitivity.

Question 9—C) cementitious foam. Better known as Airkrete, the only product we're aware of that is sold under this description, cementitious foam is the most inert, nontoxic insulation product we are aware of. Each of the other products—even cellulose and its borates and wool with its allergenic properties—has a chemical ingredient or process, about which there is some concern.

Question 10—C) low-density wood fiber insulation. Best-known in the U.S. as the imported Agepan, low-density wood fiber insulation is becoming popular in advanced building systems, such as Passive House projects, in part because of its high vapor permeability, which enables good drying potential—especially important for airtight assemblies.

Your answers and comments

Our quiz was meant to be a little "tricky" and it is even rumored that the author had the BuildingGreen special report, Insulation Choices: What You Need to Know About Performance, Cost, Health and Environmental Considerations, in hand and referred to it frequently while writing the questions (he also says it's not only useful but very affordable, especially when coupled with the insulation details and video discussion included in the accompanying four-part course).
How did you do? Comments, questions, quibbles? Post them below.
2013-10-31 n/a 17501 What to Avoid in Interior Paints

Occupant health and performance are the key consideration when choosing an interior paint. Most people have heard of low-VOC paints, but there is a lot more to look for. And it’s easy to miss out on high-performing paints when low- or no-VOC is the main thing you’re looking for.

We have some editor's picks in this area, and we'll be offering more guidance like this in a members-only August 21st webcast.

First, check for emissions

First things first—paints that offgas a lot of VOCs are bad for installers and bad for occupants. Even after the air clears those compounds can adsorb onto fabrics and furniture in the interior and stick around.

There’s no perfect test right now for emissions from wet-applied products, so the best bet is to make sure it has both low VOC content (under 50 g/L), and has met California Section 01350 emissions requirements.

GreenSpec includes primarily paints that have both low VOC content (under 50 g/L or the lowest available in the category) and meet California Section 01350 or other more stringent emission protocols as verified through related certifications like MPI X-Green.

GreenSpec also lists products with a Pharos VOC score of 7 or above—demonstrating zero VOC content in the base paint, including “exempt” compounds. Exempt compounds are those that may be health hazards but aren’t typically counted in VOC content measures because they don’t contribute to smog. We consider it important to avoid these compounds.

Watch for added tints

Added tints, particularly darker colors, can be a major source of VOCs. A base paint that is marketed as low-VOC may not stay that way after being tinted. Keep your eye on this: even if the manufacturer has low-VOC tints in the product line, retailers may not be using them. GreenSpec typically only lists paints where the tints, as well as the base product, have low VOC content, or at the very least VOCs levels in tints are clearly disclosed so consumers can make informed choices.

Performance matters, too

If you have to turn around and redo that low-VOC paint after a couple years, it’s not very environmental, or low-VOC, is it? That’s why we pay a lot of attention to performance ratings. GreenSpec lists many MPI X-Green and Green Seal GS-11 certified paints—both certifications include performance requirements.

Editor's picks: Spec this, not that

So with all these things to look out for, what are our picks? Among some well-known brands, we recommend avoiding:

  • Sherwin-Williams Builders Solution: hasn’t been tested for performance
  • Dutch Boy Refresh: also hasn’t been tested for performance
  • Devoe Paint’s Regency paint and primer combo, which does not meet California Section 01350 criteria

These paints are among the favorite we list in GreenSpec, because they have low VOCs in both base and tints, offer excellent durability, and—in the case of Keim—are naturally resistant to fungi.

More guidance in our webcast

Looking for more of GreenSpec’s editors' picks? We’ll go into more detail with interior paints, as well as 10 other key product categories, in our August 21st webcast. Register now!

2013-08-12 n/a 13019 Why Can’t I Buy a Non-Toxic Sofa?

Photo – Greg Habermann (Remixed under CC BY 2.0)After years of living with a nice-looking but rather uncomfortable daybed in our living room, my family and I went shopping for a new sofa. We explored a range of styles and configurations, trying to find something that looked good, would be cozy, durable, and fit in our rather small space. Oh, and we also wanted to avoid bringing toxic and ineffective flame retardant chemicals into our home.

According to the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and Environmental Building News, the polyurethane foam that makes almost all cushions so comfortable is infused with several pounds of persistent and bioaccumulative toxins that are supposed to help suppress fire. Including those ingredients might be understandable if they actually worked, but there is little evidence that they do. The tests that supposedly show that they work were done on samples that contained huge amount of the chemicals—ten times more than anyone actually uses.

How did they hoodwink us into using these chemicals?

So why do all cushions contain this toxic, ineffective stuff? Because the chemical companies that make it have managed to convince California regulators that it’s needed to reduce death and injury in fires. The tricks that they used to hoodwink the regulators are truly outrageous—check out the Tribune exposé or this summary for details. These chemicals are only required in California, but very few manufacturers want to deal with stocking separate inventory just for California, so they use the treated foam in all their products.

As much as I’m looking forward to relaxing on a more comfortable sofa, I just can’t see exposing my family unnecessarily to these chemicals, which can cause cancer, developmental and neurological problems, and impaired fertility. One particularly noxious chemical, chlorinated tris, is being phased out of use, only to be replaced by others with similar chemistry that have not been adequately tested, according to the Green Science Policy Institute.

Companies unresponsive to pleas for a safer sofa

The Institute does offer a helpful list of manufacturers who either avoid them entirely (by not selling anything in California) or who offer to make an untreated version. But so far we haven’t found the style and configuration we’re looking for on that list.

It would seem that offering untreated foam as an option wouldn’t be so hard, given that manufacturers routinely offer a wide range of fabrics and other options on their products. But most companies whose products we liked (and could afford) were unable or unwilling to fulfill this request. These included big national chains that sell online (Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, West Elm) and companies that sell through local distributors. I was disappointed to discover that even active members of the Sustainable Furniture Council (Rowe Brands, Lee Industries, American Leather), which posted a warning about these chemicals, have not been responsive to my pleas for a safer sofa.

There may be hope coming from Califronia

There is hope. The California regulation governing this activity, Technical Bulletin 117, is in the process of being updated. The proposed TB 117-2013 can be met without the use of flame retardants.. As long as it doesn’t get torpedoed along the way, by the fall of 2013 the dependency on flame retardants should be gone. A year or two from now (depending on how long it takes the manufacturers to work through their existing inventory), I shouldn’t have to worry about the toxic load I’m inadvertently buying when I buy a new sofa.

In the meantime, I’ll keep looking asking those companies that make sofas I like if they can make me one without the toxins. I hope you’ll do the same, so they’ll get the message and make the switch sooner. And, whether or not you live in California, it’s easy to write a letter to help make sure that TB 117-2013 gets adopted on schedule—read about how to do that here.

2013-05-14 n/a 12636 Växjö, Sweden: A Model of Sustainability

Växjö, Sweden embraced the U.N's Agenda 21 and is now a model of sustainability

Växjö Energi AB's wood-chip-fired CHP plant. My host is standing in front of a large steam turbine. Click to enlarge.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

My blog last week about Kansas and efforts to outlaw any mention or promotion of sustainability was so depressing (to write as well read) that I needed to find a more uplifting sequel. I needed to remind myself—and readers—that even if some politicians in Kansas don’t want to make the world a better place for their children and grandchildren, that’s not a universal attitude.

There are lots of towns, cities, and countries around the world where planning for the future is a priority and whose sustainability stories are truly inspirational.

I’ll report here on one of those places: Växjö, Sweden (the approximate pronunciation is “VECK’ shuh”), which is often called Europe’s greenest city. Five years ago I had the good fortune to spend a few days in this municipality of 85,000, with an urban core of 60,000.

VEAB's CHP plant provides 29,000 customers with electricity and over 6,500 with heat.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

I learned when I visited that Växjö’s interest in sustainability dates back to the 1960s. At that time, the lakes surrounding the city were heavily polluted—its fish inedible and the water unsafe for swimming. The city decided to do something about that and launched a broad effort to clean up the lakes. The success of those efforts started Växjö on a path to sustainability.

A number of city leaders attended and were inspired by the Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations meeting that spawned Agenda 21—which is being vilified by Glenn Beck and places like Kansas and Alabama). Building on Agenda 21, the City Council of Växjö, which at the time was comprised largely of conservative councilors, adopted a resolution with a goal of becoming fossil-fuel-free by 2030.

The city is now 17 years along in that process—half-way. Whether Växjö will meet it’s intermediate 2015 target of a 55% reduction in CO2 emissions remains to be seen; the city has so far reduced emissions per resident by 41% (from a 1993 baseline), and the share of renewable energy use is now 60%.

On a per-capita bases, carbon emissions have dropped from about 4,600 kg (10,100 lbs) per year in 1993 to 3,010 kg/yr (6,600 lbs) in 2009. Roughly 68% of current emissions are for transportation.

The control room of the VEAB plant.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

Highlights of Växjö accomplishments: biomass heat and power

A big part of Växjö’s high renewable energy fraction comes from a large wood-chip-fueled combined heat and power (CHP) plant. When I visited in 2007, the Sandvik plant of Växjö Energi AB was serving 29,000 customers with electricity and 6,500 customers with heat, including 5,500 single-family homes. District cooling is also being added to the system.

Sandvik is a “thermal following” plant, meaning that its output is governed by heat demands with electricity output “following” that. Heat from the plant is distributed via a 220-mile (350 km) network of insulated hot water pipes. The main supply and return pipes are 31 inches (80 cm) in diameter, with pipes becoming smaller as they branch off.

There are four boilers in the plant, including smaller back-up boilers that can burn oil, but 95% of the energy output is currently from wood chips that are sourced from a 50-mile (80 km) radius of the plant. The largest boiler can produce 38 MW of electricity and 66 MW of thermal energy. (In Europe both electricity and heat are measured in watts, kilowatts, or megawatts; an output of 66 MW of thermal energy is equivalent to 225 million Btus per hour.)

A biodigester at Växjö's sewage treatment plant.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

Solar and wind power

While Sweden is not known for its sunshine, new solar-electric systems are going in along with commercial-scale wind turbines. While I didn’t see any of these in Växjö, I did bike beneath some huge wind turbines near Lund, Sweden and was struck by how quiet they were—just a gentle whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the slowly rotating blades.

Sewage treatment plant producing biogas

The sewage treatment plant in Växjö that I visited was unlike any other I have seen. A big part of the plant was the large biogas digesters. Organic waste is collected from throughout the municipality and anaerobically decomposed in large reactor vessels to produce a methane-rich biogas. This biogas is used to fuel city buses and other municipal vehicles, including the Volvo my host used to drive me around.

With expansions of the biogas facility expected to be completed this year, Växjö should be able to power the city buses plus 500-1,000 cars with biogas. Like the CHP plants I visited in Sweden, Växjö’s sewage treatment plant was immaculate. One could have eaten off the floor.

Energy-efficient buildings

I visited a number of building projects in Sweden, including a single-family detached home and a multi-family apartment complexes being built to Passive House standards—a German rating system with extremely stringent energy conservation requirements.

Biogas fueling station at the Växjö sewage treatment plant.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

A large, eight-story, multifamily building that I toured in Växjö was being built almost entirely of wood. Sweden, like the U.S., is rich in forest resources, and Linnaeus University has a research program focusing on timber construction practices. This focus is motivated in part by the goal of reducing the embodied energy of building materials—part of the goal of becoming fossil-fuel-free.

The transportation challenge

As Växjö works toward its goal of becoming fossil-fuel-free by 2030, the challenge of transportation is becoming more and more significant. The city has done a good job at promoting public transit and bicycle paths, but recognizes that transportation will be the biggest hurdle in meeting it’s 2030 goal.

Ethanol-powered vehicles and a growing focus on electric vehicles will help in achieving those goals.

Local food

Växjö has a goal of increasing local food production from 13% in 2009 to 20% in 2015, with ecological (organic) agriculture growing from 13% to 30% during that same time period.

My host's biogas-fueled Volvo at the Växjö sewage treatment plant.
Photo Credit: Alex Wilson

As we read about places like Kansas and Alabama where sustainability planning is seen as some sort of foreign attack on U.S. sovereignty, it is great to follow the progress in places like Växjö, where sustainability has been taken to heart and is being acted on.

It’s worth noting that the emphasis on energy reductions and sustainability doesn’t seem to be hurting Sweden’s standard of living. By most metrics (life expectancy, infant mortality, physical fitness, leisure time, education, ownership of second homes), Sweden is well ahead of the U.S.

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.

2013-04-10 n/a 12608 No April Fool’s Joke: Kansas Threatens to Outlaw Sustainability

Fear of Agenda 21 fuels a bill to ban sustainability planning in the state of Kansas

The Konza Prairie in northeastern Kansas.
Photo Credit: Bill Johnson

I love many things about Kansas—from the tall-grass prairies in the Flint Hills where I’ve hiked through rolling hills overlooking grazing bison to the dramatic waterfowl migrations in the Cheyenne Bottoms region in the western part of the state. But a bill currently in committee in the Kansas Legislature makes me wonder whether these natural treasures will be around for future generations to enjoy. Reading about this legislation simply left my jaw agape. At issue is whether the Kansas legislature should outlaw anything that even remotely encourages sustainability planning.

Kansas House Bill Number 2366, “An Act concerning the use of funds to promote or implement sustainable development,” begins as follows:

“Be it enacted by the Legislature of the State of Kansas:

Section 1. (a) No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development. This prohibition on the use of public funds shall apply to:

(1) Any activity by any state governmental entity or municipality;

(2) the payment of membership dues to any association;

(3) employing or contracting for the service of any person or entity;

(4) the preparation, distribution or use of any kit, pamphlet, booklet, publication, electronic communication, radio, television or video presentation;

(5) any materials prepared or presented as part of a class, course, curriculum or instructional material;

(6) any current, proposed or pending law, rule, regulation, code, administrative action or order issued by any federal or international agency; and

(7) any federal or private grant, program or initiative…”

You can’t make this stuff up!

Defining sustainable development

The sponsors of this legislation aren’t beating around the bush; they are explicit about what they oppose. The bill defines sustainable development as “a mode of human development in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come…”

That sounds pretty good to me. I can’t understand what one would find to oppose in that definition of sustainability. That sustainable development can be seen as so evil that it needs legislating against simply boggles my mind. What’s wrong with providing for the needs of future generations?

Agenda 21

The radical right in this country has been gaining tremendous traction in vilifying Agenda 21, a nonbinding plan adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June, 1992.

Glenn Beck and various Tea Party commentators (wrongly labeled as “conservatives”) have fanned the flames of opposition to Agenda 21, painting it as an evil international conspiracy to deny Americans their property rights. The message seems to be taking hold. In 2012, for example, the Republican Party Platform included the statement, “We strongly reject the U.N. Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.”

Kansas isn’t alone among states in seeking legislation opposing this supposed threat to our sovereignty. In June 2012, Alabama became the first state to pass legislation related to Agenda 21 when both chambers of the state legislature unanimously passed Senate Bill 477, referred to as the “Due Process for Property Rights” act.

Signed by Governor Robert Bentley, the law “specifically prevents all state agencies and local governments in Alabama from participating in the global scheme in any way,” according to, a website owned by the John Birch Society.

A similar measure sailed through the Arizona Senate, but died in the Arizona House after that body failed to take final action on it before adjourning last year.

Is it evil to plan ahead?

To me, the irony of the Glenn Beck/Tea Party opposition to planning for the future is that such planning should be at the heart of a truly conservative agenda. Conservative Americans should want to conserve resources so that their children and grandchildren will be able to benefit from those resources and enjoy the same comforts and wellbeing that they enjoy today.

Agenda 21 is a voluntary, non-binding action plan for addressing sustainable development. ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, an organization that’s being vilified almost as much as Agenda 21 by Beck and the Tea Party, provides invaluable resources to cities and towns that are seeking to become more sustainable. What could be wrong with that?

The fate of that Kansas legislation

I don’t expect that House Bill 2366 in Kansas will make it into law. The bill was dealt somewhat of a setback when it came out in the national media that the chairman of the committee that drafted the bill, Dennis Hedke, is a consultant to the oil and gas industry. But even if this bill fails, the strong backlash against sustainability is clearly a cause for concern.

If such an extreme act is passed and signed into law, Kansas risks not only estranging itself from what should be the strongly conservative principle of sustainability, but it risks becoming a laughing stock of the nation. 

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.

2013-04-01 n/a 12566 Anthropologist on the Design Team: The Making of An Unangan Home
Orca house was a top finisher in a design compeition for Aleutian natives, thanks in part to cultural research.
Rendering: David Munford

This is the story of a design competition, the goal of which was to design an affordable, replicable, sustainable and inspiring home for a family in Atka, an island in the Aleutian Islands chain in Alaska. Competitor teams were to make the house compliant with the Living Building Challenge.

The information we were given about Atka in the competition brief described the climate (wind, rain, and fog), the cost burdens of freight and fuel, and provided a brief description of the inhabitants, the majority of whom are Unangan native people who have inhabited the islands for at least 9,000 years as hunters and fishermen. The competition was open to design teams internationally and was adjudicated a year ago.

Freight costs? How about cultural freight?

Our team’s initial reaction to the challenge centered on worry about how freight costs to the island would impact affordability and what opportunities and constraints the weather posed to energy generation and water harvesting. The LBC requires that a building be 100% self-sufficient in both energy and water; both must be “net-zero” or better.

We went around the group introducing ourselves and explaining what drew us to this competition. There was the lead architect, a landscape architect, a draftsman/artist, a biomimicry specialist, a structural engineer, a lighting consultant, a purchasing expert, a project manager, a web graphics techie, an energy consultant/passive house expert, and a sustainable building consultant—your typical sustainable design team.

Our landscape architect had also brought along a friend who she thought might be helpful to the effort, a Ph.D. linguist who has also worked as an anthropologist and had lived and worked  in Alaska for many years before returning to New York. “Dr. Mary” offered to be the liaison to the Atka community and to get the team’s questions answered about conditions on the ground. [Editor's note: The anthropologist chose not to be named in this account.]

A fortuitous decision

This fortuitous decision by our RLA to bring her friend to the project proved invaluable to our work and caused us not only to develop a much superior design but to fundamentally change the approach to the design process. It also upended the questions that our sustainable design team would ask ourselves as we proceeded through the conceptual and schematic design phases. Perhaps most importantly, it caused us to realize that, even though the judge and audience for our design was to be a group of architects and sustainability professionals, if we wanted to truly serve the population of the Islands who might have to live in the “replicable” home we were to design, we would have to take on an additional challenge on top of the already exacting parameters of the competition. We would have to strive to honor the Unangan people’s lifestyle and fully understand their concept of what a good shelter means, integrating that knowledge into the design. What we didn’t first understand was how radically this would alter our approach to the project. This is the story of the unexpected facets of that journey.

Dr. Mary eagerly offered to make a call to the Atka Village Council in order to establish a contact with the community and provided us with a description of the characteristics that an Aleut would want in a home. She simultaneously began to demolish the assumptions that our team of Lower 48ers had been holding based on our experience of living in a home in the Northeast.

The Atka community
Photo: Deborah Mercy, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, UAF

Rustic interiors? No.

“So, these are subsistence hunters and fishermen. The interiors will be very rustic then?”

“No, actually. They all have the Internet and see what houses are like in the rest of the States. They’ll want a modern house with very modern appliances, like out of Shelter magazine.”

“Oh, hmmm, that’s different than the impression we got from the competition materials….’”

A large cistern? Not going to happen

“We’ll need to collect rainwater to conform to the LBC standard. So, we’ll need a sizeable cistern to hold enough water to get through the drier months.”

“You might not be able to get it onto the island. The only way materials get to Atka is by plane and by barge. If your cistern is larger than a pallet or flat pack, it’s not at all certain that they have the equipment at the port to get it off the boat or to transport it to the site.”

“Oh my. I was counting on that cistern….we’ll have to rethink this then…..

Anyone got a drilling rig?

“We need a water source besides rain. Can’t we just dig a well?”

“No. They don’t have wells on the Islands. They store water in rain barrels. And there’s no drilling rig on the islands to dig a well. You’d have to get a rig to the island.”

“Ooops. OK, that’s not going to work….”

Accommodating visitors

“Well, about the bathroom?   It needs to be ADA compliant to meet the competition requirements. Wouldn’t it be nice to have two sinks – his and hers?”

“Actually, what you want is a separated half-bath and a shower/bath/sink area. When families visit, because the only way home is by boat and that may only run every week, they stay for extended periods. They’ll sleep on the living room floor, but you want visitors to be able to wash their hands, use the toilet and take a shower without intruding on each other. Separate facilities will be really appreciated.”

“OK, then – one more thing to rethink. Back to the drawing board….”

Sustainable agriculture, meet rats

Dr. Mary took a list of questions from our team and wrote up the several interviews she conducted with the contact she made in Atka, the Village Council President. Some of the other significant changes to our design due to this trove of cultural and community fact-finding are listed next.

We were supposed to dedicate a good portion (35%) of the project area to urban agriculture. Not only is this an Living Building Challenge imperative but, theoretically, it would help the Aleuts (Unangan people) to augment their fish/game based diet and counter some of the illnesses which are exacerbated by vitamin deficiencies and unhealthy imported modern eating habits.

What we learned, however, was that the island is overrun by rats. Rats! The Russian fur traders had introduced this invasive species in the early 1800s and the U.S. military had exacerbated the invasion during World War II. The rodents now are decimating the local native seabird population which relies on the local grasslands for nesting habitat. They also make outside agriculture into a fool’s undertaking because they will destroy any crops left in the open.

If we wanted to include an agricultural station, it would have to be inside in a rat-proof location.

Atka from afar
Photo: Steve Ebbert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Aleutian porch

The Aleuts like to have a “porch”, but not the porch our team thinks of where we sit on a hot New York summer’s day, our barbeques smoking away. The Aleut house “porch” is an unconditioned, sheltered entryway, out of the brutal and constant winds, where you throw off your hunting or fishing equipment, store your gear and clean your catch before you store it in the chest freezer. It is a bridge between the outside environment and the inside living space. You want to have storage, a chest freezer, a work area with a hose bib and drain, and very good boot mats throughout. There’s no fire pit or sitting around on this porch.

We wanted to use local gravel (since it’s an island, after all) for our bioswale, blackwater filtration system and for pathways. Bu it turns out there is no gravel on the island. There is a lot of sand. You want gravel? Pay the freight costs to get it there.

We were going to create a sheltered area for ATV parking and cleaning. There were two problems here. First, we couldn’t call it a porch because that might cause confusion with the other “porch”. We called it a “deckway.”

Secondly, Dr. Mary said not to bother. Everyone parks outside and no one washes their ATVs in this climate. Nature takes care of it.

We kept the deckway but only for its function as a covered entry location for people.

It would have been easy to miss the mark

And so it went at every project meeting. There was not a single meeting where some assumption about the amenities one should offer or how we could get things done did not have to be put aside. The final house design, after all the “ah hah” moments and redirection, is one that we are all extremely proud of. Not only does it meet and exceed all the competition requirements and is truly sustainable, but we know that it is a design that fits the place it is meant to inhabit. On the final review with our Atka contact, we were told that the residents would be “delighted” by the package we were developing.

What so impressed me about this experience, as a sustainable building advisor and project manager, is how easily we might have missed the mark had we not so fortuitously added a culture expert to our team. It would have been so understandable to forge ahead with a deep-green design that did not have separated bathroom facilities, modern-enough appliances and finishes, the porch, or the open connection between the kitchen and the living space. Yet these are all requisite in a good, functional, well-suited house in the Aleutian fishing communities.

It would have been completely reasonable to have missed the rat invasion problem or to have added a lovely outdoor deck for sitting and cooking that would never be used in this locale. All we would have had to do was concentrate only on the competition boundaries—strict Living Building Challenge compliance, budget, replicability, energy efficiency and an attractive design. Habitability and health would have been addressed but true functional fit as determined by local mores and needs would have been extremely easy to neglect.

The other critical conclusion or, more accurately, reminder, that I drew from this experience is that, even when you are following a wonderfully thoughtful, progressive and rigorous standard like the Living Building Challenge, you must still:

  • question assumptions—yours and those in the standard,
  • always think independently;
  • and you must connect with realities—the realities of the site, of the intended inhabitants and of the culture in which they live.

Perhaps there is a whole new field, call it “anthrotecture” or “culture-fit-design,” that includes an anthropologist, ethnographer or sociologist in the early design phases to ensure that, however clever and sustainable the design might be, it also ensures a building that is a good fit for the intended inhabitants. This may be especially valuable when the design team is not of the same cultural background as the end-client and when designing for indigenous peoples.

Editor's note: Led by Janus Welton, AIA, of EcoArchitecture DesignWorks, the team's  “Orca House” was one of the top finishers in the design competition. Guest author Gail Beverly, LEED Green Associate, CSBA, GRP was project manager. Welton is now developing these insights into what she describes as a "prefab net zero energy + water home for the Northeast 'native.'"

2013-03-25 n/a 12556 Transparency in Building Products, and HPD, Gain Momentum

With the HPD now available as a recognized format, design professionals have started to request its use by manufacturers.

[Editor's Note: This guest post comes to us courtesy of Russell Perry, FAIA, managing director of SmithGroupJJR's Washington, D.C., office.]

The global movement towards transparency gains steady momentum. In the design and construction world, the 2012 Greenbuild conference saw the launch of the Health Product Declaration (HPD) format, the launch of the eagerly awaited Declare format, and USGBC CEO Rick Fedrizzi’s spirited defense of practitioners’ need to know what chemical exposure comes with material choices.

The HPD format dates from a meeting called by the Healthy Building Network and BuildingGreen in July 2011. This ad hoc group, representing all aspects of the building industry, sought a means for members of the design and construction industry to make more informed choices about materials. It conceived of a standard format for reporting product content and associated health information of building products.  A working group was formed that issued a draft and ran a year-long pilot program with thirty manufacturers, leading to a launch of the HPD late last year.

Use at design firms

With the HPD now available as a recognized format, design professionals have started to request its use by the manufacturers who wish to have their products considered for specification and use.  In the past few months, HKS, SmithGroupJJR and Cannon have all issued letters to the manufacturers in their databases with versions of this same request.  Other firms are on the verge of making their own requests. Some of them are like to follow Cannon’s lead with a provision that, over time, only materials that are fully disclosed will be welcome at “lunch-and-learn” educational sessions and allowed in the office library.

Here at SmithGroupJJR, the request for disclosure and transparency has led to a series of contacts from manufacturers who are seeking more information about this position and are looking for guidance in how to comply.  Without question, we are very happy to see this reaction to our firm’s position.

Leadership search

As with any standard or format, the initial usage is exposing opportunities for greater clarity and ease of use.  These improvements can only help accelerate adoption.  To facilitate the speedy development of the program and to expand its use, the HPD Collaborative, the group administering the format, is now seeking its first permanent Executive Director. The job description as posted at, calls for an exemplary green building professional with working knowledge of building materials and the associated health concerns, deep knowledge of green building rating systems, practical experience in the industry and a record of working with various constituents to achieve goals.  The position can be filled anywhere in the country and can be part-time or full-time.  Interested applicants should submit resume or CV, and letter of interest to by Wednesday, March 20.

The HPD Collaborative imagines that by this summer, within two short years, it will have travelled the full path from an idea to a robust standard format backed by a functioning organization and led by respected practitioners from the industry.

Russell Perry, FAIA, is the managing director of SmithGroupJJR's Washington, D.C., office and its Corporate Sustainability Initiative. He is a board member for the HPD Collaborative and a member of the EBN Advisory Board.

2013-03-14 n/a 12549 Automated Reporting of LEED, AIA Continuing Education Hours

Read the article, take the quiz, and sit back while your CEUs get automatically reported to AIA, GBCI, BPI, and NARI.

BuildingGreen is now directly reporting continuing education (CE) hours completed through our website to the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) for LEED Accredited Professionals and LEED Green Associates who use our course catalog to maintain their credentials.

When completing CE hours on, you can rest assured that your hours will be automatically reported with no further action on your part. BuildingGreen has long offered this convenience for AIA members and continues to do so. Reporting to GBCI took effect January 1, 2013.

To take advantage of this, you should double-check your account profile, however.

Check that your BuildingGreen account information enables automated reporting to AIA, GBCI, and more.
Once you are logged in, click “My Account” in the upper right of any page on our website, then follow the links to “Edit” your personal information.

Click to edit your account.

Click on "Personal Information."


  • Check that you have member numbers entered for reporting: GBCI and AIA numbers are the most common.
  • Double-check that the email address associated with your BuildingGreen account matches the email address you have associated with your GBCI account. If your GBCI email address is different, enter it in the designated field. (If it is the same, you don’t need to take any further action.)
Be sure that your AIA, GBCI numbers and other information is up to date.

Once this is all set, browse our catalog of 50-plus sustainability-related continuing education courses. Simply read the article or take the course, take the quiz, and you’re done! You will always see a note on the course indicating whether it is approved for a given organization, but almost all of our courses are approved for both AIA and GBCI.

CEUs will not instantly show up on your GBCI or AIA member profiles—our system is good, but not that good. These organizations request reports from us on a biweekly basis, and then there is some processing time on their end. When those courses do show up on your profile, however, you will get credit for completing the course on your course completion date, not the date that it is recorded in your profile.

Members of the Building Performance Institute (BPI), and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) can enjoy the same benefit with our High-Performance Building Assemblies course. As with the other credentials, check your profile and enter the relevant BPI and NARI member information.

Questions? Concerns? Want us to add more credentials or courses? We love to hear from you—contact us, or comment below.

Wondering where to start earning your hours? Here are some popular courses.

2013-03-11 n/a 12014 A New Venture

Introducing the Resilient Design Institute: a new nonprofit organization that has been created in Brattleboro.

A massive ice storm, in which up to four inches of ice were deposited in early January, 1998, destroyed over 100 power distribution towers and tens of thousands of wooden utility poles, leaving millions without power for up to three weeks in Eastern Canada.
Photo Credit: Hydro Quebec

Some 27 years ago, following a five-year stint as director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (which was then based in Brattleboro), I launched my own company focusing on information about environmentally responsible design and construction. That company, now called BuildingGreen and with a staff of 18, remains a leading player in the green building world—a trusted source of information on green building products, the place to find objective news on happenings in the green building world, an independent voice on the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System.

It’s a great place to work and I’m thrilled to serve as executive editor at BuildingGreen and be able to research and write about all the cool stuff that our subscribers need to know. Nadav Malin has been doing a superb job at running the company since I handed the reins to him several years ago.

My shift away from company management at BuildingGreen has given me the space to focus on where we’re heading in the building industry and what sort of changes will be needed to solve the many challenges we face, led by climate change. My sabbatical last year, which I began with a contemplative 1,900-mile bicycle trip through the Southwest, provided an opportunity to delve deeply into this thinking.

What emerged was the need to find a new motivation for creating more sustainable, lower-impact buildings and communities. From what the climate scientists tell us, we’re simply not making rapid enough progress in slowing our consumption of carbon-dioxide-spewing fossil fuels, which are warming the planet. The motivation of “doing the right thing” isn’t driving change at a rapid enough pace.

Introducing the Resilient Design Institute

In light of this, BuildingGreen and I have launched the Resilient Design Institute (RDI). Resilience is the ability to bounce back from a disturbance or interruption, whether from an intense storm, flood, drought, wildfire, extended power outage, or shortage of heating or transportation fuel. Some of these interruptions have their origins in nature (“acts of God”), while others could be caused by human actions, such as terrorism.

Resilient design addresses the collection of strategies and practices that can help keep us safe and secure in our homes and communities during and following such events.

While sustainability and green building are motivated by altruism or “doing the right thing,” resilient design is a life-safety issue. Many of the end-points are the same, but the motivation is a little different.

I believe that resilience can ultimately be a stronger motivation for building highly insulated buildings, creating walkable communities, and carrying out other actions that will help us maintain safe, livable conditions should we find ourselves without power for three weeks or if political strife in the Middle East results in shortages of gasoline or heating oil. We get the comfort and security, and in so doing, we get a cleaner environment and help to mitigate climate change.

Achieving resilience

Resilience has a lot of components, including:

·      Superinsulated, passive solar houses that will never drop below 45–50°F even after weeks of power outage or loss of heating fuel;

·      Pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly towns and cities that allow us to get around without cars;

·      Access to fresh water, and an ability to use it frugally, should drought cause shortages or power outages prevent us from pumping it;

·      Local food production that can help keep us fed should drought in the West cause crop failures or should diesel shortages limit trucking;

·      Strong communities in which neighbors get to know each other and are able to rely on one another during times of emergency; and

·      Healthy local economies that can weather recessions, perturbations in markets, and, ultimately, the inevitable transition from a growth economy to a steady-state economy.

Plans for the Resilient Design Institute

Our intent with RDI is to provide a go-to repository for information on all aspects of resilience, with a focus on practical solutions for achieving resilience in these various areas. Along with developing a comprehensive website with such information (, we will produce fact sheets, handbooks, white papers, course curricula, and other resources.

We will hold symposia and retreats to delve into various aspects of resilience. Topics of such meetings could include metrics for measuring vulnerability and resilience, incorporating resilience into building codes, resilient agriculture practices, and strategies for boosting the biodiversity and resilience of ecosystems. Foundation support will be sought for such gatherings.

We also hope to obtain foundation support for developing methodologies for assessing vulnerabilities and resilience of municipalities and institutions.

Visit us online

I encourage you to visit our website and give us some feedback. The website is new, but will expand over time. I’d love to hear your comments and recommendations. Send them to


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


2012-10-02 n/a 9037 LEED Pilot Credit 43 and Product Disclosure: Right Direction, Wrong Weighting

There's already been a lot of excellent debate around the new LEED Pilot Credit 43. I find myself agreeing with both sides! Here's where I stand in what may be the eye of the storm.

LEED is supposed to be about buildings--and market transformation

On the one hand, LEED is fundamentally supposed to be about designing high-performing green buildings, and product and material selection is one integrated component. It's not supposed to be about cobbling together a building out of greener products and materials. If the core purpose gets lost amidst the debate surrounding one material (yes, I'm talking FSC/SFI), we all lose.

On the other hand, LEED is at this point a major market driver for green building products. We need to use all the levers we can find to create truly sustainable manufacturing and sourcing if we're ever going to make it through these pivotal times into a vibrant, thriving, truly sustainable world. So we ought to use LEED for all it's worth in pushing real substantive improvements down through the supply chain.

We really need better disclosure around products--and better products

We have neither the certifications nor the information on which to base truly robust comparisons between material alternatives. We're desperately in need of better disclosure on the environmental characteristics of products--and so far it's been like pulling teeth to get it. Given this state of affairs, we need every effort to encourage more comprehensive, comparable disclosure, like what EPDs have the potential to provide--so if LEED (along with UL and others) can really help with that, I'm all for it!

Once there is robust disclosure, there are numerous alternative ways for preferred purchasing to drive improvement; we've barely scratched the surface of what could be possible (imagine being able to select the lower-impact assembly based on the data aggregated up through your BIM tool).

On the other hand, we're desperately in need of dramatic leaps forward in terms of the life-cycle environmental performance of products. We're not going to get a sustainable world out of championing baby-steps forward, or any steps back to status quo. We need to be really clear that disclosure does not equal performance. Just because it has a nutrition label doesn't make it good for you. We need standards and certifications that push the industry toward continually higher performance--and we need all the market pull we can get (from LEED and elsewhere) to encourage their creation.

It's also a lot simpler to specify, and rally behind, BIFMA level 3 certified furniture or FSC wood, than read and understand the fine print for every product choice--and these standards and certifications can cover things that aren't so easily quantified in an EPD. Back to FSC/SFI-- think of all that goes into a forestry certification, and the finer points that differentiate them. Now imagine, as a designer, trying to read comprehensive disclosure on forestry practices for every batch of wood sourced. It's either incomprehensible and takes too much time or doesn't cover all the areas of concern. There's something to be said for choosing a certification you trust as the starting point.

End unequal scrutiny of product categories--by looking more closely

By the way, we also need to end the highly unequal scrutiny on the environmental impact of different building product categories. There are far too many product categories for which the scrutiny is very mild or woefully incomplete (don't get me started on the list of concerns that go unaddressed for other "biobased" materials--and that's just one category).

Right direction, wrong weighting

I think LEED is going in the right direction with the overall thrust of this credit, but USGBC needs to be really careful with the weighting, and I'm not convinced they've got the balance right. We need to increase scrutiny on every product and material type, not just focus on wood, but we also need to be very clear that along with greater disclosure, the performance bar will be raised. Just having a nutrition label doesn't help if there are no healthy options.

I wonder how much this whole debate is overblown by interests on both sides. I gave a webinar on green building product certifications to specifiers associated with CSI and raised the question of whether designers ever switched away from wood to another material when they couldn't find FSC. I was told no, they look for FSC--and if it's not available they go with SFI or one of the others.

I didn't get the indication that designers were choosing between, say, steel and wood, merely based on ability to get a point for FSC or recycled content. I'd be interested to hear of specific examples to the contrary, but to me that's good news, because what's missing in the FSC/SFI debate is a similarly in-depth, chain-of-custody view of the environmental and social impacts associated with sourcing of wood alternatives. So this takes me back to the pilot credit.

Refocus the energy of the wood debate

If USGBC can find its way out of having to expend so many resources on the FSC/SFI debate, refocus most of that energy on driving creation of high-performance green buildings, while at the same time leading all industries to provide comprehensive disclosure and truly sustainable products, we all win. I'm not sure Pilot Credit 43 gets us there now (although I think it could develop in that direction), and I'm not sure folks on either side of the FSC/SFI debate will ever let up, but I do hope that somehow USGBC can use this pilot to navigate treacherous waters into a solution that does work. To my mind it'd be a shame if the positive direction implied by this pilot credit got trumped by its current weaknesses.

Disclosure: I'm research director at BuildingGreen and on the Technical Committee at USGBC, but this post is purely my own current viewpoint. The complexity is far too great, with far too many perspectives, to speak as representative of anyone else!

2011-07-06 n/a 9112 EPA offers guidelines for broken CFLs, but will we follow them?

New, improved guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about how to deal with a broken compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) are intended to take some of the mystery out of the purchase and use of CFLs. But by suggesting a response that borders on Hazmat lockdown, the guidelines may potentially add to consumers' uncertainties.

While CFLs have become more popular and less expensive in recent years, they still enjoy only around a quarter of the total market share for residential light bulbs--perhaps in part because of exaggerated reports about mercury toxicity and the difficulty of cleanup and disposal, some of which have prompted debunking sites like to clear the air. The average bulb contains around 5 mg of mercury, about 100 times less than an old-fashioned oral thermometer.

Still, mercury in any quantity should not be taken lightly, particularly in a home where children or pets live. Mercury in fish and other foods is a serious issue, but mercury vapor is even more toxic. Ingested mercury is not well absorbed by the body, while in contrast, inhaled mercury enters the bloodstream readily.

The new guidelines

The new EPA guidelines focus on preventing mercury inhalation. The key steps to safely cleaning up a CFL include the following.


  • Remove all people and pets from the room where the bulb broke
  • Ventilate the room by opening a window for a few minutes
  • Shut off central air conditioning or heating, for several hours if possible
  • Avoid vacuuming in a mercury-contaminated area
  • Pick up fragments with cardboard rather than a vacuum cleaner
  • Pick up remnants with tape
  • Seal all debris inside a glass jar (since plastic bags will not prevent mercury vapor from escaping)
  • Store sealed glass jar outside the home
  • Open windows and turn off central climate control the next few times you vacuum the room
  • Check with local waste disposal authorities about how to dispose of all CFLs, whether broken or not

What are the risks?

The guidelines are intended to inform consumers of how to safely respond to a broken CFL. How much of a risk is really involved?

A working group opinion (PDF) accompanying the new release on the EPA website suggests that the miniscule amount of vaporized mercury from a single broken bulb is within the safe range for adults. Studies have measured the level of vapor shortly after a CFL breakage to be between 8 and 20 micrograms per cubic meter, and levels decline rapidly within a few minutes. To give some context, 100 micrograms per cubic meter is considered a safe level for long-term occupational exposure.

However, the scientists conclude that there is not enough data to make a similar evaluation regarding children--especially since children's behaviors are different from adults'--and a reliable risk assessment regarding children and broken CFLs is not currently available.

In the absence of evidence that short-term, low-level exposure is safe for all households, the EPA has provided guidelines that help consumers minimize that exposure until more is known.

Are guidelines like these helpful, or do they scare people so much they may not buy the bulbs? Alternately, are the guidelines so impractical that consumers may ignore them altogether?

I'm likely to send my kids out of the room in response to any broken glass, and I certainly won't invite them to play with quicksilver, the way I did in high school chemistry class. But it's January in Vermont, so opening a window and turning off the heat for several hours sounds extreme. Good thing we almost never need to replace our CFLs, so the likelihood of breakage is low.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

2011-01-03 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 11943 Passive House in North America

Our April EBN feature article--"Passive House Arrives in North America: Could it Revolutionize the Way We Build?"--went online today. This was a fun article to research and write, because it put me in touch with my low-energy building roots. Until digging into the history of Wolfgang Feist's German Passivhaus standard, I hadn't realized that this building system really had its origins in North America--with the passive solar energy and superinsulation movements of the late 1970s (back when I got involved in this field while working in New Mexico).

Feist combined passive solar and extraordinarily well-insulated building envelopes to create buildings (both residential and commercial) so energy efficient that they can be heated using ventilation systems with small, 1,000-watt, in-duct electric heaters. Feist credits Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute with this idea--that by investing in the building envelope, heating and cooling systems can be downsized dramatically. Energy loads are so small that buildings can be made net-zero-energy by installing rooftop PV.

Germans are known to value precision, so it is little surprise that the Passivhaus standard is highly quantitative, rigid, and performance-based. In bringing Passivhaus across the Atlantic and creating the Passive House Institute – U.S. (PHIUS), German-trained architect Katrin Klingenberg adopted the German standard exactly, retaining the 15 kWh/m2/year (4,755 Btu/ft2/yr) standard for heating, the same standard for cooling, a total primary energy consumption (including lighting, appliances, and plug loads) of 120 kWh/m2/yr (38,000 Btu/ft2/yr), and an airtightness standard of 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 pascals of pressure difference across the envelope (0.6 ACH50).

What I like about Passive House is how clear it is. The energy consumption and airtightness targets are spelled out precisely, leaving very little room for ambiguity. And those standards are really rigorous. If a house meets the Passive House standard it will be one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the country--period. As noted above, taking such buildings to the next step--making them net-zero-energy--is relatively easy.

The problem with Passive House is that same rigidity. The Passive House requirements could be tweaked, I believe, to make it work better in North America and for existing buildings. Background on these ideas is covered in the EBN article, but let me get right to a handful of specific recommendations. I'll look forward to comments about why these suggestions do (or don't) make sense, what I'm missing, what else could improve Passive House, and any other comments you might have.

  • In very cold or very hot climates, relax the heating and cooling requirements while maintaining the total primary energy consumption limit. In climates with very high heating or cooling loads, the Passive House standard right now may be too difficult to achieve. As long as the total primary energy use standard (120 kWh/m2/yr) is met, why not let more energy be used for either heating or cooling? In very cold climates, when little or none of the 15 kWh/m2/yr for cooling will be needed, why not allow some of that energy to be used for heating? And vice-versa for hot climates where little or no space heating is needed, but more energy may be needed for cooling.
  • Eliminate or minimize the bias against small houses. Because Passive House standards are based on floor area, larger houses can use more energy and meet the standard, and it's harder to certify small houses. The same holds true with the airtightness requirement, which is based on air changes per hour instead of cfm of air leakage per unit area of envelope. There is a bias in favor of large houses, even though a large house meeting the Passive House standard may use significantly more energy than a really compact house that doesn't achieve the Passive House standards. So why not tweak the standard to give a break to small houses--for example, allowing an additional 2 kWh/m2/yr for heating or cooling if the house is under a certain size, say 100 m2 (1,076 ft2)? Alternately, the standard could be pegged to the number of bedrooms rather than floor area (but that would be a more fundamental--and difficult--change).
  • Relax the Passive House standard for existing buildings. Solving our climate crisis will require a huge focus on existing buildings, and a strong standard like Passive House could be a tremendously important tool in getting there. But it's just too hard to achieve right now. I'd like to see a panel of leading energy experts who are familiar with the North American housing stock--but also committed to dramatic reductions in building energy use--put their heads together and come up with a more reasonable Passive House Retrofit Standard for North America. I'm guessing that such a group would come up with something like doubling the energy consumption limits (to 30 kWh/m2/yr for heating and the same for cooling) and raising the airtightness standard from 0.6 to to 1.5 ACH50.

What do you think? Are these three recommendations reasonable? If not, what would you suggest? Post comments below.

Alex Wilson is the founder and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can follow him on Twitter.

Photo: Dan Whitmore of Blackbird Builders used a "Larsen truss" detail in this Passive House he is building in Seattle for his family. The 14" wall cavity will be insulated with dense-pack fiberglass to achieve approximately R-55. Photo: Dan Whitmore.

2010-03-31 n/a 11887 Is LEED on Track to Save the World? Rob Watson recently published "Green Building Market & Impact Report," his second annual report on the impact LEED is having in addressing environmental problems. The report highlights the continuing remarkable expansion of LEED: 2009 registrations for new design and construction projects in the U.S. may actually exceed total new construction starts! (This is possible because projects don't typically register when they start construction, and a flurry of projects were registered just before the requirement to use LEED 2009 kicked in, to keep their options open.) Watson takes note of the shift from whole building construction to Commercial Interior tenant fit-outs (CI) and Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance (EBOM) registration and certification. And he compares 2009 certifications to registration numbers from 2006 and 2007 to see what fraction of projects are making it through the system. (In this analysis he assumes a three-year registration-to-certification timeframe for all except LEED-CI projects, for which he assumes two years. I would have given EBOM projects a shorter turn-around as well — in our market analysis for LEEDuser we assumed 18 months.) Analyzing certification and registration trends is not Watson's main point, however. His focus is on the environmental benefits that follow. And that focus is what really caught my attention. I'm thankful he's taken that on, because it's so easy to forget what LEED was created for in the first place. So, how is LEED doing at achieving its original goal? Watson explores this question category by category, looking at numbers of projects in each of the various rating systems that have achieved certain credits. Through 2009, for example, he credits LEED projects with 780 million avoided vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and 15 billion gallons of water saved. He finds that operating energy use in 2009 led to CO2 emissions reductions of 2.9 million tons. He then extends these estimates to 2020 and 2030, with magnified results. Watson's overall conclusion — at least in terms of carbon emission reductions — is that LEED is effective but is not going far enough to help head off a climate crisis. In reaching this assessment Watson does take time to address accusations that LEED buildings may not be saving any energy at all — that debate was covered in detail in a previous post. His arguments are unlikely to win over the skeptics — but that's a tough thing to do. In producing this report he has had to radically oversimplify the analyses, any one of which could easily become fodder for more than one doctoral thesis. And it's worth noting that, as the "father of LEED," he's hardly the most unbiased of analysts one could pick to take this on. But he cares enough to do it and is willing to put out numbers for others to react to, both of which are worth a lot. Looking at the specific analyses, I think he has managed to radically overstate the impact of LEED and radically understate it. Yes, both. At the same time. Whether or not the two cancel each other out to make his estimates valid — well, we'll have to wait for those doctoral candidates to sort that out. The Overstatement The report overstates the impact of LEED because it attributes to LEED the environmental benefit of a project having achieved a certain point, without exploring the question of whether or not LEED actually contributed to that decision, choice, or action. For example, lots of LEED buildings are in urban centers, where they get points for being located near public transit and basic services. Watson associates those points with reduced vehicle miles traveled, which is the intent of those credits. But wouldn't most of those projects have been in those locations regardless of whether or not they pursued LEED? The only way I can think of to correct for this assumption would be to interview a representative sampling of LEED project teams about their decision-making process for each credit, and find out which points were actually affected by their decision to go for LEED certification. To some extent this is a matter of semantics. In talking about reduced VMT and water use, Watson refers to the "savings from LEED," but in discussing operation energy savings he refers to the benefits "from LEED buildings." The latter is less presumptive, because it doesn't imply that LEED itself is responsible for all those benefits. The Understatement Watson describes a few assumptions he's made to keep his projections on the conservative side. But there are some others that he doesn't mention, such as the number of buildings that are built to LEED standards that never sign up with GBCI. The report does include a factor for "built-to-LEED" projects, but Watson only includes in this category buildings that are registered but don't reach certification — about 30% of the total. (My guess is that many of those registered-but-not-certified projects never get built at all.) There is a much larger group of projects that use LEED as a design and construction guide, either at the request of the owner or to meet government regulations. How well these projects actually follow LEED and ultimately perform is anyone's guess, but there are a lot of them and they must have some benefits. Even more significant, but harder to quantify, is LEED's market transformation impact. LEED is not affecting just individual buildings. It is educating and inspiring project teams, leading to more aggressive energy and environmental codes, and generally having an impact on the way all buildings are built (at least in some locales). Watson's report doesn't try to factor in these secondary benefits of LEED. I don't know how one might do that, but I suspect that they're huge. In Conclusion There are many places where a more nuanced analysis would be helpful. For example, Watson describes the growing evidence that workers in green buildings are more comfortable, and conservatively assumes a 1%–2% productivity gain. But other studies have indicated that these benefits are most strongly correlated with daylighting and increased ventilation, which are not achieved as often in EBOM projects as in the others — so assuming those benefits in the rapidly increasing EBOM-certified space is something that needs a closer look. Ultimately, even though the report quantifies a range of benefits, I don't think it intends for those numbers to be taken too literally. The report represents the results of a thought exercise about how LEED is doing at accomplishing what it set out to do. And that's a great thing, because it gets us all thinking about the things that LEED was created to address in the first place. 2009-11-30 n/a 11888 Green Economies of Scale (post-Greenbuild ruminations) By the end of Greenbuild, I was exhausted/troubled/elated with all sorts of conundrums swirling around in my head — not to mention a few partly written blogs, abandoned in favor of the next conversation... ... I had wanted to write about the 'executive roundtable' that happened that Wednesday — and responses to the twitter-submitted question "what single thing would have to change to make buildings actually regenerative?" (as in, way past 'less damaging' — past neutrality, even). I was encouraged to hear the execs express what I see as core issues (summarized and/or quoted below — no, I didn't record who said what):
  • Waste and consumption is ridiculously cheap. If energy costs go up to the tune of $150/barrel for oil (or on-site renewables became radically cheaper), and/or if a cost is attached to emissions (not just air — also sewer and solid waste), we could get there.
  • Our financial accounting systematically discounts the future. "We're trapped in a paradigm of net present value (NPV) — one of the worst tools known to man.... We need a new tool — 'Net Future Value'... and to start to reconceptualize buildings to see them as multigenerational assets."
  • Corporations have to focus on shareholder's financial return above all else. Yes, the technology is there to do zero energy buildings but "for a profit making business with shareholders expecting a return they cannot generally be duplicated over and over."
On the last point, the phrasing I found interesting — because later they were asked how to tell green from greenwash — and one of them said "you'll know a business has credibility when they stop talking about one-off projects and demonstrate [that performance] across the board." I put these two quotes together, out of context, because what I think it points to is that if we're really going to take green to the scale that is needed, we can't kid ourselves that we can do it all within the current economic rules-of-the-game that stack the deck against stewardship and the future. (Don't get me wrong, the Green Building movement is doing an incredible job within this context, but that doesn't mean the system works — rather, it's a testament to the smarts, creativity, passion, and perseverance of folks making change despite an imperfect market designed to thwart their best efforts). At another session, the speaker reminded us that our economic system is a social construct — it's a story we've created, and we can revise that story. Let's not forget that, because ultimately if we don't find a way to align individual and corporate financial success with the wellbeing of future generations and the environment, we'll find ourselves without either.
2009-11-30 n/a 11893 Confronting Water Shortages — Post-Greenbuild Travels in Southern Arizona
(click photos for larger versions)
Greenbuild in Phoenix was the usual high-energy panoply of educational sessions, new product introductions in an ever-larger trade show, networking events, and — the reason our company sends so many of us — opportunities to promote our green building information resources. But this year, I was also looking forward to some vacation time following the conference. Jerelyn and I took five days' of vacation after Greenbuild to explore southern Arizona and celebrate our 25th anniversary. As day transitions to night on the flight back east, I reflect on that time. On Saturday morning, we traveled southeast from Phoenix, past Tucson, to the Hacienda Corona do Guevavi bed & breakfast in Nogales, Arizona, just a stone's throw from the Mexican border. The region is rich with wildlife and draws thousands of birders and others from throughout the world each year. Along with hundreds of bird species in the canyon oases sprinkled throughout Cochise Country (we saw about 60 species in our travels) are such exotic mammals as coati, ringtail, antelope jackrabbit, collared peccary (javalina), cougar (mountain lion), bobcat, and maybe (at least before the border fence) the rare cats ocelot and jaguar. Other than the antelope jackrabbit, we didn't see any others of those mammals, but it was great imagining them watching us from hidden spots rock ledges during our daily hikes. On all of these hikes, at least when I wasn't trying to identify another new bird species, I spent time thinking about — and discussing with Jerelyn — the water crisis facing this region.
Saguaro deeply ribbed and skinny; prickly pear wrinkled and thin; palo verdi leafless and brown; ocatillo appearing lifeless

Many formerly year-round creeks and rivers are dry or low; even huge waterside cottonwoods are stressed and sickly

Sabino Canyon
Nature adapts to water stress. The dramatic saguaro cactus, the signature species of the Sonoran Desert, shrinks in diameter during times of low water then swells when its wide skirt of shallow roots absorb water after rains, This year, the saguaro's circumference is deeply ribbed and skinny, putting this adaptation strategy to the test. Prickly pear cactus pads were wrinkled and thin. The thorny ocatillo wands looked lifeless as they await moisture (after a heavy rain they sprout leaves in a matter of days) — a wait that has lasted for months. And the palo verdi (Arizona's state tree with its distinctive green stems and trunks) were similarly bereft of leaves, leaving only the photosynthesizing stems and thorns to keep them going. Everything we saw was a study in adaptation to water stress. But the water table, upon which many of the species ultimately depend, has been falling with abandon in recent decades. Creeks and rivers that ran year-round a century ago are now dry beds, save for the occasional flash flood. Cottonwoods and sycamores along Sonoita Creek, where we spent a wonderful day exploring the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area in Patagonia, are stressed and sickly. What will become of these trees, some of which are hundreds of years old and towering — we measured the diameter of one massive cottonwood at 27 feet — should the water table keep falling in the region? In Tucson, where we spent our last two nights in the wonderful Desert Dove B&B (a short walk from an entrance to the eastern, Rincon Mountain district of Saguaro National Park), they had virtually no rain during their usual July-September rainy season and less than half of the usual annual 11-12 inches on rain has fallen in 2009. The city's water table has fallen as much as 150 feet just since the 1960s! Perhaps most remarkable to us is that hardly anyone seems to be paying attention. Other than officials whose job it is to deliver water, residents seem to be in denial. Predictions of climate change show that Arizona, like most of the western U.S., will become far dryer than it was during the 20th century, but even without climate change the region is in a water crisis. Perhaps there is such little focus on the water table in Arizona because Tucson now gets over half of its water from the ("renewable") Colorado River, and that fraction is projected to increase — so a falling water table isn't so important. Are they not aware of warnings from some researchers that the Colorado and its massive reservoirs could effectively run dry in the next few decades? Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, is currently only half full — or is that half-empty? Where would a loss of the Colorado's water leave the parched cities of Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas? The thought is almost too scary to talk about — let alone do something about. Draconian measures are needed to dramatically curtail water use. Development restrictions — as a start — are needed if Arizona is to come to grips with this crisis. In a state where residents can openly carry sidearms (as we saw displayed in a coffee shop in Patagonia by a swarthy chap among a group of rather rough-looking motorcyclists) and where John McCain's tenure as a senator is threatened by his "liberal" views, who is going to stand up and tell a property owner that he or she can't put in another subdivision? I wonder if, unconsciously, residents of Arizona — and Nevada and southern California and elsewhere in the Southwest — know that, ultimately, there are just too many people living there and drawing from its precious water supplies. How do you talk about a crisis that might necessitate people not only giving up their way of life — their swimming pools and 15-minute showers and irrigated lawns — but actually recognizing that the land and climate can't support the human population it contains and moving back to Michigan or Pennsylvania? No wonder the topic is taboo. Jerelyn and I talked about all this as we reveled in the arid beauty of the area. I can see why people like Arizona and want to retire there. Indeed, we very much look forward to coming back and seeing the Sonoran Desert at a different time of year (perhaps a "wet season" when desert vegetation comes to life in brilliant colors to compete for the scarce pollinators). But, as with our recent vacation, we would be temporal visitors to a region whose human carrying capacity is far lower than its current population. You can follow more of my musings on Twitter.
2009-11-20 n/a 11875 The Great Passivhaus Face-off
The low energy use of the first Passivhaus in Bremen, Germany, is surprising, especially since the house has neither solar collectors, nor a PV array, nor a boiler.
I've been a big fan of building scientist John Straube for a long time. And equally as big of a fan, for just as long, of deep-energy engineer Marc Rosenbaum. To see the two of them face off over the ultra-low energy use Passivhaus concept is a green-building wonk's dream. Our always enlightening (and often entertaining) sister site,, has a pro/con pair of articles under the banner "Does Passivhaus Make Sense Over Here?" Gold. Start with John Straube's "con" article first: "Comparing Passivhaus Standard Homes to Other Low-Energy Homes." It handily describes the Passivhaus standard as it goes along, in case you're not familiar with it. Then read the "pro" rebut, "In Defense of the Passive House Standard," by Marc Rosenbaum and David White (who I don't know, but am going to keep my eyes open for). Passivhaus or not? Yes and no.
2009-10-21 n/a 11882 Why are people drawn to design inspired by nature?
I received an email from a Design student at Kingston University (London) writing a dissertation on "why people are drawn to design inspired by nature." Three questions were sent; I went overboard answering the first one, and basically wussed out on the second two. I'd be interested in your takes on this highly subjective stuff, and will be sure to let our dissertation author in on the discussion.
1. Why in your opinion are people so drawn to design inspired by nature?

2. What in your opinion is the finest example of design inspired by nature in the field of product and furniture design (my course)?

3. Do you think there are psychological benefits to design inspired by nature, and what do you think they are?

1. Why in your opinion are people so drawn to design inspired by nature? I don't think everyone is drawn to design inspired by nature. Some like Le Corbusier's buildings at their boxiest, and contemporary glass and aluminum offices and homes, and Danish Modern furniture, while others like nature-inspired design... simply because they do. There's no accounting for taste. I know that speaks to the shallowest part of peoples' immediate and visceral reactions to aesthetics, but I think that most of the time — especially in this day and age — that's all there is to it. It's certainly not true of everyone, but most people in these harried times never have any need or desire to consider why some fashion appeals to them while some other fashion doesn't. It is what it is, and there are ten thousand other urgent things to attend to. If pressed, they'll tend to latch onto any available notions that support their position without actually considering them. Look to politics as an independent example of that. Trying to detangle rationalizations from pure impulse is a tricky business. (But it would probably be a much better world if more people tried.) There was an international conference on the conservation of earthen architecture in Mali in February '08. In conjunction with the conference, the BBC hosted a call-in radio show about earthen buildings. People participated from cultures with traditions of earthen housing. Opinions were fiercely split — even among those in the same cultures and social strata — who felt that "mud huts" represented an embarrassing lack of wealth and sophistication, and those who considered them a proud and living heritage of beauty and functionality. Similarly, it was within my parent's lifetime in America that people routinely dispensed with handcrafted furniture in favor of sleek, new, chrome and plastic alternatives that represented prosperity and optimism with the memory of the Great Depression still smarting, as well as a triumph and transcendence over the capricious whims of nature. It wasn't really that long ago when the constituent natural materials making up the built environment were usually readily identifiable the world over — hand-worked wood, stone, mud, grasses, metals, almost invariably imperfectly rendered. Not wabi sabi, but partway toward it. People, especially ones that have clumped into city societies, are creatures of fashion — novelty is a driver. The industrial age ushered in an aesthetic that wasn't possible before, at least not widely. And then the High-Speed Injection-Molded Plastic Age really drove it home. Soon novelty becomes the norm as the poor emulate the wealthy. And then economics takes over as the primary driver. To some extent, we've come a circle: Natural materials that used to be considered cheap and inferior are now recognized by what seems to be a fast-growing number as expensive and high-quality. And certainly there have always been people inspired to action by nature — the Art Nouveau movement and Frank Lloyd Wright (ostensibly), to name a couple. But maybe I'm missing the question. In the case of biomimicry, nature-inspired design may not even be visually detectable.

2. What in your opinion is the finest example of design inspired by nature in the field of product and furniture design (my course)? Velcro.

3. Do you think there are psychological benefits to design inspired by nature, and what do you think they are? I do think there are psychological benefits to design inspired by nature, as suggested by biophilia research and many of the arguments presented by the natural building movement.

2009-10-13 n/a 11863 Stimulus-Funded Green Jobs = Left-Wing Conspiracy Over at GreenBuildingAdvisor, veteran journalist Richard Defendorf combined his abiding interests in green building and politics by taking a look at a Fox News Forum opinion piece from the policy director the conservative advocacy group (natch) Americans for Prosperity. It contained gems like this one:
"Most green jobs consist of hiring low-wage workers with caulking guns to weatherize buildings. We are trading away high-wage, high-value manufacturing jobs for these green caulking jobs. Any time you spend billions of dollars you will create some jobs, but the key question is, what the cost is when you divert resources from higher-value activities?"
Defendorf had the audacity to respond with thoughtfulness and logic. Take a couple minutes to read it: Stick 'Em Up, I've Got a Caulk Gun!
2009-09-23 n/a 11868 Living With Climate Change: How to Design Buildings and Communities for Adaptation
The living space in this new home built by Global Green in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans is elevated four feet (1.2 m) to keep it above expected flood level. Numerous other "passive survivability" features are included.
A lot of people have been working for a long time to try to head off global warming — and some progress is being made. Buildings are becoming more energy-efficient, fuel economy standards for vehicles are finally rising again, and use of renewable energy is burgeoning. We need to continue these efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon dioxide, but the reality is that it's too little, too late to prevent climate change. Even if the CO2 spigot were turned off tomorrow, the earth would still see significant warming and the other predicted impacts of climate change: more intense storms, flooding, drought, wildfire, and power interruptions. It's time to design our buildings and the built environment to adapt to the very different climate that scientists say is going to be with us. That's the subject of the feature article in our September 2009 issue of Environmental Building News: "Design for Adaptation: Living in a Climate-Changing World" (requires log-in) (no login required — see Alex Wilson's note in the comments, below). Andrea Ward and I interviewed some of the nation's top climate scientists, including Stephen Schneider, Ph.D., of Stanford, and Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona, to establish context for the article — making the case that not only is climate change happening, but it's happening more rapidly than the best climate models predicted just two years ago. We address the question of mitigation vs. adaptation — whether we should put effort into preventing climate change or adapting to it — and argue that we must do both simultaneously. "The bottom line is that you've got to adapt to what won't get mitigated," says Schneider in the article. Moving on, we focus on measures for adapting to climate change. We describe 36 strategies, organized into five categories, providing context for each of the categories and succinct explanation for each strategy. These strategies are listed briefly here (details appear in the full article): Warmer temperatures
  • Design cooling-load avoidance measures into buildings
  • Design natural ventilation into buildings
  • Limit internal gains by specifying high-efficiency lighting and equipment
  • Model energy performance with higher cooling design temperatures
  • Provide landscaping to minimize cooling requirements
  • Address urban heat islands in building design and landscaping
  • Plan for termite ranges extending north
Drought and water shortages
  • Avoid new development in the driest regions
  • Specify water-efficient fixtures and appliances
  • Plumb buildings with water-conserving fixtures in mind
  • Plumb buildings for graywater separation
  • Harvest rainwater
  • Plant native, climatically appropriate trees and other vegetation
More intense storms, flooding, and rising sea levels
  • Avoid building in (expanding) flood zones
  • Expand stormwater management capacity and rely on natural systems
  • Design buildings to survive extreme winds
  • Raise buildings off the ground
  • Specify materials that can survive flooding
  • Install specialized components to protect buildings from flooding or allow flooding with minimal damage
  • Elevate mechanical and electrical equipment
  • Install check valves in sewer lines
  • Begin planning for rising sea levels in coastal areas
  • Specify Class A roofing
  • Eliminate gutters or design and maintain them to minimize fire risk
  • Avoid vented roofs or protect vents from ember entry
  • Install high-performance, tempered windows
  • Choose deck materials carefully
  • Install noncombustible siding
  • Manage vegetation around homes
Power interruptions
  • Design buildings to maintain passive survivability
  • Provide dual-mode operability with high-rise buildings
  • Design mechanical systems to operate on DC power
  • Provide site-generated electricity from renewable energy
  • Provide solar hot water
  • In urban and suburban areas, maintain access to the sun
  • Plan and zone communities to maintain functionality without power
The article also describes the work Global Green is doing in New Orleans to create homes that are better adapted to climate change, and we take a brief look at the idea of "engineering" our way out of the climate crisis (intentionally modifying the climate to offset or balance the warming that's occurring). If there is good news in all this, it is that most of the measures that help us adapt to climate change have other benefits, such as reducing operating costs, improving building durability, and reducing environmental degradation. The challenges are huge, but green building practices are at the leading edge of both mitigation and adaptation to climate change. You can follow my musings about this and more on Twitter.

2009-09-09 n/a 11848 Men Should Pee Sitting Down Men should pee sitting down. Now before you call me a strident feminist, let me say that I'm backed up on this one by male colleagues and the reasons aren't what you think. I'm not arguing for toilet equality here. I'm talking about urine-separating toilets, which are much easier to use for men and women when sitting down. The bowl of these toilets takes urine in the front, feces in the back. It's hard enough to aim for the whole bowl (or so the evidence of many bathroom floors tells me), much less the front part of the bowl. One guy put a pee can in the corner, but that seems inefficient: pee in the can, then pour it down the toilet. Why not just pee in the toilet? Why should you care? Because urine contains up to 90% of the nitrogen and 50% of the phosphorous in domestic wastewater. Those chemicals make for great fertilizer — stuff we have to use a lot of energy to produce artificially. In healthy populations, urine is sterile, and removing it from feces makes composting the solids easier and more effective. Two models of these toilets are available in the U.S., both from Ecovita. But before you rush out to buy one and change your life, remember that composting solids and using urine to irrigate your tomatoes isn't legal in most places. You might be able to get special dispensation from the building code folks, but like most things involving wastewater treatment alternatives, it won't be easy. Watch for the coming article in the September issue of EBN. Update - the article is online (members only, though). Urine Separation: The Next Wave of Ecological Wastewater Treatment 2009-08-18 n/a 11852 How Green is Polystyrene Insulation? EBN's Position, and How It Affects GreenSpec-Listed Products
Chart from the feature (requires login):
Human Health and Environmental Concerns with Polystyrene Constituents
(click image to enlarge)
The August EBN feature article, "Polystyrene Insulation: Does it Belong in a Green Building?" (requires BuildingGreen Suite membership) and an accompanying editorial "Rethinking Polystyrene Insulation" (free content) has led our company to reexamine some of the products we list in the GreenSpec Directory. As those articles (and the related blog post, "Avoid Polystyrene Insulation") point out, there are some troubling health and environmental concerns with both extruded and expanded polystyrene insulation (XPS and EPS). These concerns relate both to the underlying chemistry of polystyrene (especially the benzene used in its manufacture) and a flame retardant, HBCD, that is used in all building-related XPS and EPS products. Given these concerns, our editorial staff reached the conclusion that polystyrene insulation made with HBCD is "less green" than most other insulation materials. This doesn't mean that there aren't green products made with EPS or that alternative products are necessarily benign. But when there are alternative insulation products that we consider to be more attractive from a health or environmental standpoint and when they offer comparable energy performance, then we consider those alternative materials to be preferable. So, what does this mean relative to our GreenSpec listings? Due to environmental concerns with ozone-depleting HCFC blowing agents (which are to be phased out by the end of this year), we do not, and have never, included XPS products in GreenSpec, so there is no change there. We did remove several EPS boardstock insulation products, and we are working hard to replace them with what we believe to be greener products, such as additional rigid mineral wool insulation products. However, there are a lot of EPS-based products that are remaining in GreenSpec because we believe that their energy-saving benefits outweigh the health and environmental concerns. These are mostly structural insulated panels (SIPs) and insulated concrete forms (ICFs) — of which we list dozens of each — as well as some specialized products, such as exterior insulation systems used for insulating existing buildings. These products are being used in many of the lowest-energy buildings being built today. Note that our inclusion of these products may be reconsidered in the future if good, non-EPS alternatives emerge in the marketplace and EPS manufacturers fail to find an alternative to HBCD. While we very much hope to see the HBCD flame retardant removed from these products — and we are confident that manufacturers are working to identify safer replacement chemicals — we recognize that energy performance of buildings is a top environmental priority, and EPS continues to play a vital role with many such products. We look forward to participating in a dialog about life-cycle concerns with polystyrene insulation and hope that our position begins that discussion. We welcome any comments you wish to post about this issue — use the comment function below. You can follow my musings about this and other issues through Twitter.
2009-08-11 n/a 11857 Avoid Polystyrene Insulation
Polystyrene Molecular Structure
Polystyrene Molecular Structure

Editor's note: Trying to understand the healthiest, highest-performing insulation choice to make? Our webcast provides essential guidance.

Insulation is a critical component of buildings. I like insulation and I like a lot of insulation. In northern climates, I recommend a minimum insulation value of R-40 in walls, for example, and I would personally aim for R-50 were I to build a house today.

That said, insulation materials are not all created equal. When we consider the health and environmental impacts of products over their life cycle (with life-cycle assessment or LCA), some materials look a lot better than others. That's just as true with insulation as it is with any other product, from flooring to adhesives and paints.

This brings us to the issue of polystyrene insulation. Recent concerns have been raised about the brominated flame retardant HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane for the organic chemists among us)—see Flame Retardant Used in Polystyrene to be Banned by EU—that is found in all polystyrene insulation, both extruded (XPS) and expanded (EPS). HBCD may not (yet) be a household word like bisphenol-A has become, but it's been raising plenty of concern.

There is now enough evidence that HBCD is hazardous to both human health and the environment that European agencies are moving to restrict its use. Based on this concern—along with better-understood concerns about the primary constituents of polystyrene plastic (benzene and styrene especially)—we now recommend that XPS and EPS should be avoided as long as doing so will not compromise energy performance.

This is the subject of two recent articles: Polystyrene Insulation: Does It Belong in a Green Building? and our editorial, Rethinking Polystyrene Insulation. What are the options we have for insulating our buildings without using HBCD-containing polystyrene insulation?

For above-grade insulation, there are lots of options. The easiest drop-in replacement is polyisocyanurate (polyiso), another rigid boardstock insulation material. In fact, polyiso outperforms polystyrene insulation with a somewhat higher R-value per inch. But it's also often possible to build highly insulated wall and roof systems that don't depend on rigid insulation. These can include fiber insulation materials in double stud walls separated by extra space, in non-structural "curtain trusses" or "Larsen trusses" that hang on the outside of the structural walls, and in raised scissor trusses for insulated roof systems.

The application where polystyrene insulation, and especially XPS, dominates the market is below grade. The alternatives here are less familiar. For foundation walls, the easiest option is simply to move the insulation to the interior--where moisture resistance is not so critical (as long as we've done a good job with exterior drainage of the foundation). This option also keeps the insulation away from sunlight and insects.

If you want to keep the insulation on the outside of the foundation wall, there are a couple options. First, it turns out that building codes do not require flame-retardant-treated foam insulation if there's at least an inch of concrete or masonry between the foam and the building interior — so if we could convince manufacturers to offer flame-retardant-free products, XPS would remain reasonable option. Such products would have to be clearly labeled as being for below-grade applications only. Assuming such a product doesn't emerge, an alternative to XPS is rigid mineral wool, such as Roxul Drainboard. Not only is the product fully fire-safe without flame retardants, but termites and carpenter ants don't like it so it's less likely to be compromised. And it's also highly hydrophobic (water-repellent).

Rigid fiberglass can also be used in this application, and it's currently used as part of the Tuff-N-Dri/Warm-N-Dri foundation insulation system.

Another option for exterior foundation walls is spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation. I hadn't realized that this was an acceptable application for SPF until my recent research, but it's becoming fairly common in Canada and parts of the Upper Midwest in the U.S. Beneath concrete slabs, XPS holds nearly 100% of the market today, but the use of SPF in this application is growing in Canada. Some insulation contractors use a higher-density SPF formulation in this application (the type used for roofs).

Finally, in Europe rigid mineral wool is used under slabs to some extent, and experts I interviewed for the article said they thought that would be a fine product here. The challenges are greater with structural insulated panels (SIPs) and insulated concrete forms (ICFs).

There are a few polyurethane SIPs on the market, but the vast majority of SIPs today are made with EPS. With ICFs, the only non-EPS products are cement-wood-fiber products (Durisol and Faswall), and these don't insulate as well as EPS products.

I think there's opportunity for some new product development—rigid mineral wool ICFs anyone? For that matter, how about SIPs made with a rigid mineral wool core? Apparently there are some specialized fire-safe panels in Europe with mineral wool cores and metal skins. The bottom line is that there are enough concerns about polystyrene insulation to look for alternatives when we're trying to make buildings as green as possible.

Sometimes there won't be any alternatives available locally, and for these applications I recommend sticking with XPS or EPS, but when there's an option that won't compromise energy performance, I believe it's time to leave polystyrene behind.

Read more

See our guidance on the healthiest insulation choices—and how to detail them in high-performance assemblies.

Can We Replace Foam Insulation?

2009-08-01 n/a 11827 TURI Loses Funding... maybe. We recently learned that the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) is losing its Massachusetts state funding. This strikes particularly close to home for me as I worked briefly with TURI after grad school and was quite impressed with the caliber of their work (and yes, full disclosure, I still have friends there). TURI is one of a select few organizations nationally that successfully champions the needs of both industry and the environment — for 20 years now they've been finding that practical common ground where we can really move forward in widespread adoption of safer alternatives. With our GreenSpec directory, editors at BuildingGreen constantly struggle to assess the use of a plethora of toxics in building products and manufacturing processes to determine what constitutes safe and healthy products and still gets the practical job done of building quality green buildings today. This requires the kind of pragmatic alternatives assessment that TURI excels at. The lessons I learned at TURI and their current research are a great help in my work here and it would be a huge loss to see their services cut. This isn't a done deal. There is an effort afoot this week to get a supplemental budget appropriation that would allocate $1.2 million of the business fees collected from TURA filers to support the continued operation of TURI — back to the original financing model that pays for itself with the companies using toxics paying for the reduction program. People living in Massachusetts can support the effort this week by contacting their representatives and asking them to sign onto the letter to Massachusetts House and Senate leadership requesting the appropriation. I did just that and was pleasantly surprised at the quick and positive response from my reps. Anyone from anywhere can comment on online articles about TURI and make it clear this self-funding program is too good to lose. This kind of thing goes beyond Massachusetts and TURI. The battle to retain the high-quality, high-impact green jobs we already have, as well as remake our struggling economy into a thriving green one, is going on across the nation through skirmishes like this one — and it is in these local and state level debates where a few voices can sometimes make a surprising difference. More information in BuildingGreen Suite: Funding Cut for Toxics Reduction. 2009-07-16 n/a 11808 Repower America: 100% clean electricity within 10 years Its website says:
Repower America is the bold clean energy plan to "repower" our country with 100% clean electricity within 10 years. By making buildings and homes more efficient, ramping up renewable energy generation, constructing a unified national smart grid, and transitioning to clean and affordable plug-in cars, we can address our country's economic and national security challenges — all while making huge strides to solve the climate crisis.
Is it possible? Yes, it is. Will we actually do it? I'm less certain about that. John F. Kennedy famously said in 1962, "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade." And in seven years, we did. We implemented new technologies and knowledge at a tremendous pace to support a vision, and we pulled it off. What motivated us? What was at the root of that amazing achievement? We were afraid of the Soviet Union conquering space, and then using space to conquer us. In the same speech, Kennedy said, "Only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war." Repower America uses this line of reasoning in their pitch, citing "our country's economic and national security challenges" as primary motivators, and noting that it can help solve "the climate crisis" to boot. Should nationalism be a motivator for renewable energy? We don't collectively seem to be afraid of the hellish potential of climate change (yet) to take unified, swift, and sweeping action... and it's not as if they're promoting jingoism, right? And it is unavoidably political after all, isn't it? The Apollo program — not including Mercury, Gemini, and other preceding programs — cost us 25 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that's about 145 billion. The Iraq war has so far cost us 680 billion. The war in Afghanistan, over 190 billion. What's the long-term return-on-investment to America of those expenditures? And what would it be for ending our reliance on non-renewable energy?

2009-06-16 n/a 11798 Putting wind turbines on buildings doesn't make sense For the EBN feature article this month I spent weeks learning about building-integrated wind. I'm a huge fan of wind energy in general, and the idea of putting wind turbines on top of buildings — or actually integrating them into the architecture of buildings — was really appealing. Why not generate the energy right where it's needed, and by putting turbines on top of buildings wouldn't you be getting them up higher where it's windier? What a cool idea. Unfortunately, as I point out in this month's feature article, "The Folly of Building-Integrated Wind," it's actually pretty hard to get wind turbines to perform well on buildings and, even if you can, the economics are not very good. A huge challenge is noise and vibration. Spinning things tend to generate noise and vibration, and that can be a big problem when people are occupying the building those turbines are mounted on. I went from being open-minded about the practicality of building-integrated wind to believing that it's usually a pretty dumb idea. Another big drawback to building-integrated wind is that even though it's often windy on top of buildings, that wind tends to be quite turbulent. It's twisting around and not nearly as effective for wind turbines as laminar flow. But a lot of rooftop wind turbines are being installed — how are they working? It turns out that it's really difficult to find actual data on how rooftop or integrated wind turbines perform. You would think that information would be fairly available — after all, electric meters aren't that expensive. But wind turbine manufacturers seem reluctant to share that information; so do building owners. Getting hold of actual performance information on real projects was like pulling teeth. I did find some data, however, and it's not a pretty picture. In one year-long study of rooftop wind turbines in the U.K., the average "capacity factor" was found to be less than 1% — while 10% to 30% capacity factors are typical for commercial wind farms. This is not to say that there aren't some really well-designed, functional, attractive wind turbines on the market. There are. Probably the most thoroughly engineered product is the AVX1000 from AeroVironment, a California company made famous by its human- and solar-powered planes, General Motor's EV1 car, and the revolution in unmanned military planes. Aerovironment's 1-kilowatt turbine is specifically designed to harvest the accelerated wind at the parapets of commercial buildings. There's a row of 20 of these on a MassPort office building at Logan Airport in Boston. The AVX1000 is elegant and it works — but from my analysis, it's not as cost-effective as building-integrated photovoltaics (PV). Vertical-axis wind turbines look even cooler than the more traditional, horizontal-axis machines, and they are usually quieter. But their efficiency is usually quite a bit lower. We're seeing more and more green buildings that include wind turbines, and this worries me. These turbines aren't cheap; some of the vertical-axis turbines sell for $30,000 to $40,000. If they end up not performing as they are supposed to, it's going to give the green buildings they're installed on — and the green building industry — a black eye. The mainstream media loves to cover green buildings that aren't operating as well as expected. If you have highly visible building-mounted wind turbines that just sit there failing to spin, or if it comes out in USA Today that these turbines have a dreadfully poor economic return, green building could take a hit. What do you think? Use the comments field if you have an opinion on building-integrated wind. I'd love to hear your views. Alex Wilson is the executive editor of Environmental Building News. 2009-05-01 n/a 11756 Greg Franta's Body Found They found Greg, and his car, yesterday — a month after he mysteriously disappeared. According to the Denver Post, he had slipped off the road and rolled into a ravine. Daily Camera has a more detailed article. I was hoping that when we found out what happened to Greg, even if the news was bad, there would be relief in the closure. There is some of that relief, but it's overwhelmed by the suddenly concrete sense of loss. And of my own vulnerability. It's funny how my response to someone else's huge misfortune becomes about me and my fears, but that's how it's playing out right now. Greg exuded vitality and energy. He embraced and energized those around him, literally all over the world. If someone with that strong a presence in the world can die so unexpectedly, what does that mean for me? A reminder that we're all here on borrowed time — at least in our current form. An invitation to use this time well. For his family and friends, for everyone who is committed to green buildings and making a better world, Greg's sudden departure is a huge loss. There is some consolation, however, in recognizing how much great work he left behind, in his designs, his ideas, and the thousands of people he taught and inspired. Look to the great folks at the Rocky Mountain Institute to help channel grief into yet more positive action. — Nadav Malin 2009-03-11 n/a 21075 Aiming for the Stars

Image © Keith NegleyA manifesto in the guise of a standard raises the bar.

LEED has gained enormous influence because the U.S. green building council (USGBC) intentionally set targets that are accessible to the mainstream building industry. That penchant for realism has created frustration with LEED, however, especially among a more activist crowd. These green champions are concerned that, even when LEED buildings perform as advertised—something that we’re learning we can’t take for granted—that performance represents incremental improvements to the status quo, far short of the revolutionary reinvention of buildings that environmental and social imperatives demand.

That frustration inspired Cascadia Chapter CEO Jason McLennan to draft the Living Building Challenge (LBC), an uncompromising checklist for creating buildings for an Ecotopian world. The Living Building Challenge eschews the whole system of optional points and goals based on percent improvement over conventional practice. Instead, it takes an all-or-nothing approach. To make the grade, a project can only be built on previously developed land, use zero-net energy, zero imported potable water, avoid any hazardous materials, and meet a dozen other requirements.

LEED has been accused—or credited, depending on your perspective—of being a Trojan horse—drawing people in with a checklist that looks at first to be straightforward, only to unleash a litany of detailed requirements that are not as simple as they first appeared. LBC takes an opposite approach, coming on with an idealistic vision of buildings that do right by nature in every way, but then introducing compromises in the form of “temporary exceptions” to account for marketplace limitations. Somewhere on a spectrum between LEED Platinum and Living Building status (which has yet to be achieved), the two systems meet.

For the right client, LBC provides a much more compelling vision of sustainability, untainted by the market-savvy compromises of LEED. Designers who have worked with it find that, even if LBC proves too demanding for a project, using it as a framework for discussion raises everyone’s expectations—taking projects that might have targeted LEED Silver up a few notches. “It's amazing when [LEED] Platinum becomes the fallback position,” notes McLennan.

McLennan and his team are already at work on a next generation of the Challenge, extending it more explicitly into the community scale.

Version one, however, is still in transition from its original release as a manifesto into a guideline with enough specifics for designers to engage with it. There is a requirement that projects purchase carbon offsets against the emissions associated with their construction, for example—but the organization has yet to agree on what tools can be used to calculate that carbon footprint. And early projects through the system are finding that the pure, healthy products needed to meet the hazardous compounds requirements are not always available within the radius dictated by the regional materials rule, according to Cascadia Chair Clark Brockman of SERA Architects in Portland, Oregon.

While each individual requirement in the system has been achieved by various projects, no project has yet put them all together to achieve “Living Building” status, and it’s likely to stay that way for a while. In part, that’s because of the inherent delay in a system that requires at least twelve months’ utility bills to prove that the building actually achieves its goals. But it’s also because the vision is, inherently, idealistic. “One thing you can be sure of: if you’re one of the first to try a Living Building, you’ll be one of the first to fail,” taunts Brockman, who is, of course, working on several such projects himself.

For now, the list of exceptions is growing, especially in the materials area. The goal, however, is to phase out these exceptions as the market matures. Once LED lighting becomes a feasible substitute for fluorescent, for example, the exception allowing hazardous mercury in lamps will disappear, according to McLennan.

Cascadia is aware of over 60 projects that claim to be pursuing Living Building status. Not surprisingly, many early LBC candidates are small buildings for clients with a strong environmental mission. Leading the race to achieve this goal is the Omega Institute’s Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, New York, and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As these pioneers blaze the trail, they inevitably encounter serious obstacles, especially in the materials arena. McLennan and his team will be forced to decide whether to let them fail, or to keep adding exceptions so they can claim success.

To show that the principles are not pie-in-the-sky, Cascadia commissioned a detailed study estimating the cost premium for achieving Living Building status for nine different building types in four different climates. With typical aplomb, they are using LEED Gold as the baseline for this study—implicitly establishing the expectation that nothing less is acceptable for any building.

A draft of the study shows that for some building types, in markets with strong financial incentives, the premium can be as low as 5 percent, while in others it exceeds 30 percent. At the low end of that spectrum, McLennan claims, the study proves that some institutional owners would be foolhardy not to demand living buildings, given the long-term savings. In creating conceptual designs for all the buildings, the research team found that the requirement that every occupant be within 30 feet of a window was the biggest driver of building form for the nine building types.

Brockman finds that the least measurable requirements—those for beauty and inspiration—are the ones that excite clients the most. That experience speaks for the system’s power. Cascadia’s challenge now is to retain that force as it codifies the manifesto, and extends it out to the community in version two.

This piece originally appeared in GreenSource March 2009. McGraw-Hill Construction material (c) Copyright 2009 by McGraw-Hill Construction,

2009-03-01 n/a 11739 Remembering Gail Lindsey

At the 2008 "Summer Camp" in the Adirondacks.
Photo: Mike Cox
The green building industry lost one of its pillars this week. Less than two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2007, Gail Lindsey, FAIA, of Wake Forest, North Carolina, passed away on February 2nd. She had been recovering from a third round of chemotherapy when a sudden recurrence of liver cancer was discovered late last week. Gail has been a key part of the green building movement since its earliest formative days. She was one of EBN's most enthusiastic supporters since joining our advisory board at the beginning of 1994, and was always willing to share wisdom and encouragement whenever asked. For architects, Gail was perhaps best known as chair of the National AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) during a particularly formative period when the annual Top-10 awards were launched. For thousands of architects, builders, developers, and facilities managers, Gail is remembered as an enthusiastic and inspirational teacher. She led more than 200 workshops and charrettes on green building, and never failed to brighten and inspire those participants. I remember sitting in one of those charrettes — I can't remember where or when. After each of the 30 or 40 of us sitting in a circle introduced ourselves, I was astounded to hear Gail repeat each of our names. It was one of Gail's many gifts, and it helped each of those participants feel listened to and important. It was all about them, the students, not about her, the instructor. Among the many charrettes Gail was involved with were the Greening of the White House, the Greening of the Pentagon, the Sustainable Design Initiatives for the National Park Service, and the Sustainable Design Training Program for the Department of Defense. I remember her describing the bizarre ending of a charrette at a military base on September 11, 2001. President Bush was diverted to this base on his return from Florida to Washington after the terrorist attacks. The military personnel didn't know what to do with these civilian instructors in their midst so, in the panic, locked them up in a room.
Photo: Mike Cox, December 2008
Gail was involved in creating the LEED Rating System, the Army's SPiRiT rating system, the North Carolina Triangle J High Performance Guidelines, and the International Green Building Challenge Assessment Tool. She was one of the first twelve LEED trainers for the U.S. Green Building Council, and she co-chaired the U.S. Team for the International Green Building Challenge starting with its inception in 1996. We worked very closely with Gail in creating the Green Building Advisor — not our new online tool, but the CD-ROM-based brainstorming tool of the same name that BuildingGreen produced ten years ago in partnership with Gail's company, Design Harmony, and the Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology (CREST). The early meetings about this tool at our home in Dummerston, Vermont are fond memories; Gail connected with my two daughters and always asked about them in the years since. In recent years, Gail was focused on the evolution of green building beyond energy and water and materials — the holistic aspects of this field. In 2005, Nadav worked closely with her, Bill Reed, Joel Todd, and others on the Expanding Our Approach workshop supported by the General Services Administration. A year later, I was fortunate enough to join Gail and thirty other visionaries in a symposium on biophilia. Last summer Jim Newman, on our staff, participated in a five-day "Summer Camp" in the Adirondacks organized by Gail and a few others pursuing deeper connections, personal growth, and fun (a pursuit that Gail thought didn't get enough attention in our meetings and conferences). When Gail was recognized in 2007 with a Leadership Award from the USGBC, Nadav noted, "Gail's influence on BuildingGreen, and on me in particular, has been nothing short of profound." Gail will be sorely missed by all of us at BuildingGreen and by thousands of others in the green building field whose lives she deeply touched. We offer our deepest sympathies to her beloved husband Mike, who has cared so ably for Gail these past two years, and to her wide circle of supportive friends. During her illness, Gail gave as much support to this circle of friends as we were able to give to her. Gail's endearing smile will live on for all of us. — Alex Wilson
2009-02-04 n/a 11741 Growing Greener Over 18 years and more than 160 issues of Environmental Building News, I've written quite a few articles — I hesitate to think about how many — but out of all of those, I think I had more fun and learned more in writing my most recent than ever before. "Growing Food Locally: Integrating Agriculture into our Built Environment" examines opportunities for producing food around, and on, our buildings that few architects, builders, or developers have yet considered. I think I had my first vegetable garden when I was five or six — back in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. There were a few years during college and perhaps some of my time in New Mexico when gardening didn't fit into my life. But other than that, growing some of my food has always been important to me. Thus, I surprised myself to realize a few months ago that I had yet to write — or even consider — an article for EBN addressing the potential for integrating food production into our built environment. I had nibbled (sorry!) around the edges with articles about green roofs and passive survivability, but for some reason it never occurred to me to tackle this topic of food production directly. So I dove in with weeks of concentrated research, interviews, and even a quick trip across the country to participate in a symposium on "Building-Integrated Sustainable Agriculture" in Berkeley, sponsored by the start-up company Sky Vegetables. Reflecting on this research, I gotta say, I think have the best job in the world — to be able to spend such concentrated time learning about such inspirational projects around the country! From a community gardening program in the poor, Puerto Rican neighborhoods of Holyoke, Massachusetts (Nuestras Raices), to a nonprofit farming operation in Chicago (City Farm) that figured out a way to grow vegetables safely even where soils are contaminated, to a half-acre rooftop greenhouse operation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to an innovative aquaponic operation in Wisconsin that generates all the nutrients needed for organic hydroponic vegetable production from aquaculture wastes... these are amazing stories that I think will inspire you as much as they inspired me. And if you want to learn about something really bizarre, check out the sidebar in the article on using black soldier fly larvae to turn all sorts of organic waste into high-protein food for chickens or fish. While we didn't squeeze it into the February issue of EBN, I also wrote an editorial, available only online, that elaborates a bit more on why food production should be a part of green building. — Alex Wilson 2009-02-03 n/a 11704 A LEED-certified building walks into a bar... What's so funny about green building? Email me and let me know, or comment below. Here's my latest contribution to the genre of green building jokes:
A LEED-certified building walks into a bar around closing time. It orders a drink, throws it back, and leaves. The next night, it comes in again, asks the bartender for a shot, throws it back, and leaves. It does this every night for the next year, without fail. On the 365th night, after the building has had its shot, the bartender is surprised to see it sidle up to the bar's piano instead of leaving. The building grabs a microphone and warbles Sinatra's "My Way." Before the bartender can interrupt, the building starts immediately into a shaky rendition of "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'" from "Oklahoma!" Again, before the bartender can interrupt, the building continues right on, belting out Abba's "Dancing Queen." After the third song the bartender is finally able to get the building's attention. "What's going on?" he says. "All you've done for the last year is come in here and quietly have a drink just like any other average person after a day of work. Now all of a sudden you think you're the entertainment." "What's the problem?" the building replies. "All I've been hearing since I was designed is 'It looks good so far, but wait till we see its actual performance numbers after a year of occupancy.' Well, here they are."
Image: The Schmitt Music Mural in Minneapolis, MN.
2009-01-28 n/a 11713 Should the Plastic Bag Be Saved? I've traveled outside of North America only once in my life, and that was to Ireland in 2002. That was the year they switched from the Irish Pound to the Euro, and it was when they put a tax on plastic bags. We dopey tourists didn't know anything about that plastic bag thing before we got there. The deal, in theory, was this: If you wanted a plastic bag when you went to the store, you had to pay for it. But, at least where we were, in the southeast, the little goods-and-grocers we went to weren't even offering the option to buy a plastic bag — they simply didn't make them available at all. Or paper. Once I found out about the new tax, I asked quite a few people there how they felt about it — people working in stores, and people shopping in them. To a number, every response was positive. The older folks remembered when that's the way it was anyway... everybody brought their own cloth bags and wicker baskets when they went shopping. No big deal. The younger folks said that it made so much sense, even if it wasn't as convenient. And everybody said that they didn't miss all those empty plastic bags blowing around the countryside. They did say that there were people who didn't like the new tax at all, and that its introduction wasn't without some serious resistance. Resistance, I suppose, from people like the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, which seeks to expose "the anti-plastic bag misinformation campaign." Misinformation such as this, I'm guessing: I've read through the website, and I frankly don't care which points they are and aren't right about. I don't care if plastic bags aren't made from oil. I don't care if landfill space and animal deaths are overstated by the green zealots (or understated by the coalition). The fact is that we don't need plastic or paper bags for most shopping trips. A tax or even an outright ban will create a small environmental victory that can inspire greater change... because it's just so simple to do. I was listening to a discussion one time about the embodied energy of building materials and the construction process vs. the rest of the building's lifecycle energy. It was argued that since the operating energy of most buildings dwarfs the energy involved up to the point of occupancy, it seemed almost silly to even worry about anything but efficient envelopes and mechanicals. David Eisenberg, director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology, piped up and said that comparing just the two sets of information certainly would lead to that conclusion. However, it takes almost no adjustment in perspective to realize that embodied energy is of enormous importance... and even though operating energy has even greater impact, both are significant. 2009-01-20 n/a 11714 Launches As promised, here it is. is dedicated to providing the most useful, accurate, and complete information about designing, building, and remodeling energy-efficient, sustainable, and healthy homes. A product of BuildingGreen, LLC, a provider of information on sustainable building for more than 23 years, also draws on the resources and expertise of partner Taunton Press, the publisher of Fine Homebuilding. Most of us who bring you (Our Team) are former builders, remodelers, and architects. Because of that we know the need for a single resource where design and construction professionals and knowledgeable homeowners can get the full complement of the information — and insight — they need to design, build, and remodel green. That's why we've brought proven construction details, in-depth how-to advice, a green-products database, green business strategies, design tools, and alternate paths to code compliance together in one place.
Who is it for? I've been scoping it out over the last couple days, and it's already so much deeper than I'd imagined it might be. Here's some quick links to some of my favorite content so far to get you going: Free membership allows commenting throughout the site and the ability to post questions in the Community area; a free e-newsletter is also available. A GBA Pro account unlocks a much deeper reservoir of access, including advice and videos from the advisory team, a growing volume of annotated CAD details (there's already over 500), and many more goodies... and one of the most useful for professional users will probably be the MyGBA project management space that allows you to bookmark articles, photos, drawings, and videos, and share information and instruction with clients, subcontractors, and colleagues.
2009-01-20 n/a 11692 Coal in Your Stocking Happy holidays! 2008-12-23 n/a 11678 Video: Household carbon emissions are... creepy If M. Night Shyamalan did a movie on carbon emissions, it might look something like this. The Alliance for Climate Protection has a video that helps homeowners visualize their carbon emissions. After all, they're colorless, odorless, and come with a nifty time-delay of consequences that can lull a person into thinking that it's all going to be fine. Everything was fine... until someone left the coffeemaker, but who? The bed is made, but no one's home. Whom does the dryer tumble for? The ancestral photo in the hallway? The lamp is on and blowing balloons. The refrigerator is strangely empty. Wait... it's happening in the whole neighborhood! "Village of the Damned... Emissions"?
2008-11-14 n/a 11685 We are living in exponential times No wonder you're having trouble keeping up. From the video Shift Happens:
"It is estimated that a week's worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century." "The amount of technical information is doubling every two years. By 2010, it's predicted to double every 72 hours." "We are currently preparing students for jobs that don't yet exist... using technologies that haven't been invented... in order to solve problems we don't even know are problems yet."
2008-11-08 n/a 11634 Big Wind Turbine Failures Watching a big wind turbine flying apart is spectacular. Even seeing still photos of the aftermath of a catastrophic failure, such as the one shown here, is pretty fascinating, in a train-wreck sort of way. The picture was taken in Searsburg, Vermont, at the only industrial-scale wind farm in the state, which produces about 12 million kilowatts annually. According to the Industrial Wind Action Group, "one of the blades came in contact with the turbine's tower causing it to buckle during high winds." It isn't clear from that whether the blade "came in contact" with the tower before or after it broke off from the hub this past September 15. It's been suggested that the failed blade had been previously repaired after a lighting strike, which may have left it in a weakened condition. Whatever. It's not the first failure of this sort, and it won't be the last. The first wind turbine in Vermont, installed in the early '40s in Hubbardton, similarly failed in 1945. These things are bound to happen. Everything falls apart. The Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, which tracks wind turbine accident data worldwide, offers the following statistics on the number of annual incidents:
Year:70s80s90 - 949596979899000102030405060708*
Manufacturers of these big wind systems generally recommend a safety zone of over a thousand feet from things like buildings and roadways. It's a good idea, and just common sense — a 2006 failure in Germany saw a blade thrown over 650 feet from a 325-foot tower. An article that ran in Business Week last year underscores the importance of safety zones. In addition to one industrial sized wind farm, Vermont has one nuclear power plant (Vermont Yankee, 540 megawatts), which is less than ten miles from where I write. Beset with and bedeviled by a chain of so-far non-lethal events — missing fuel rods, malfunctioning valves, cracks in the steam dryer, fires in the transformer station, accidental releases, a partial collapse of one of its cooling towers, and more — I'm a lot more comfortable with multiple catastrophic failures of wind turbines than a single catastrophic failure of a nuclear power facility. As a footnote, here's a video of Hermann Scheer — member of the German Parliament, president of the European Association for Renewable Energy, and general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy — speaking at the 7th World Wind Energy Conference & Exhibition Community Power in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, this past June, about his position that the global energy problem must be solved entirely with renewable energy.

2008-10-29 n/a 11642 Elevated Freeways: The Low Road? The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) promotes neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl. As part of their Highways to Boulevards initiative they recently listed ten Freeways Without Futures — elevated urban freeways that they say wreak all manner of economic and social havoc on cities and are ripe for being torn down. The highway-building boom that started revving up in the late '50s to support our exploding car culture undeniably destroyed many urban neighborhoods, particularly ones where the less-wealthy lived. It "solved" two "problems" with a single solution. (And, frankly, it's a lot easier to push the poor folks around than the rich ones.) In addition to leveling great swaths of housing, it created noisy, air-polluting divisions between what was left. Elevated highways are, in theory, an answer to part of those problems. The noise and air pollution is lifted up above ground level, and the real estate is less interrupted. But clearly success is mixed at best — the areas abutting this kind of infrastructure are generally depressed and inhospitable. The CNU list (the result of an open nomination process and weighted by several factors including age, redevelopment potential, potential cost savings, and local support) suggests the best opportunities to "stimulate valuable revitalization by replacing aging urban highways with boulevards and other cost-saving urban alternatives... saving billions of dollars on transportation infrastructure and revitalizing adjacent land with walkable, compact development." The looming maintenance expense these aging structures are facing is, all by itself, a serious driver. But I'm not so sure about all the social benefits being claimed. Certainly a boulevard — with a lower speed limit, plantings, connected to the street grid — is going to have far superior commercial potential than a freeway. Usability goes up, along with real estate values, tax revenues (and rents, once again driving out the low-income population). However, I either don't have enough imagination to visualize or information to understand how routing freeway-volume traffic through a boulevard won't greatly elevate local pollution and congestion, creating a nightmare for commuters and pedestrians alike. Feel free to spell out the missing details in the comments. Related in BuildingGreen Suite:
· Americans Favor Short Commutes
· Reclaiming Our Cities & Towns: Better Living with Less Traffic
· Transportation Planning: It's Time for Green Design to Hit the Road
· Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back
· Elevated Childhood Asthma Risk Near Freeways
2008-10-09 n/a 11621 The Miniature Earth
Better version:
2008-09-21 n/a 11631 Hurricane Disney: Stormstruck in Orlando I was down in Orlando last week — land of asphalt, ChemLawns, and Mickey Mouse. As is typical in that part of the world, it was too hot outside and too cold inside. In one of the mammoth Disney hotels, I was participating for two days in the Tenth Anniversary Annual Meeting of an organization called FLASH. FLASH is the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes — it used to be the Florida Alliance for Safe Homes, which explains the "L." FLASH is all about disaster resistance, so the sessions were about communicating fire-resistant construction practices, hurricane codes, 2x4 projectile penetration of wall systems, safe rooms in houses — cool stuff like that. In one session, two different speakers addressed pandemic flu — not because that's in the purview of FLASH, but because the challenges of educating the general public to those concerns are very similar to the challenges FLASH faces in communicating disaster resistance. Organizations involved with FLASH include insurance companies, manufacturers of building products that relate to disaster resistance (Simpson Strong-Tie, G-P Dens-Shield, etc.), product retailers like Home Depot, state agencies, the National Weather Service, FEMA, a few builders of disaster-resistant homes, such as Mercedes Homes, and the Salvation Army. As the conference progressed, participants at the conference were keeping a wary eye on Hurricane Gustav, which was heading for the Gulf Coast, and a few had to leave early. I was there to talk about how to get green building priorities more in line with disaster-resistance priorities. I did this by talking about passive survivability — the idea that we should be designing and building houses that will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages, loss or heating fuel, or shortages of water. That presentation was really well received — something new to worry about for a group that lives and breathes disasters and emergencies. But what I wanted to tell you about isn't passive survivability or even the FLASH conference per se — but rather, an evening event we attended at Disney's Epcot Center. Conference attendees were invited to a special evening reception at Epcot's new exhibit: Stormstruck: A Tale of Two Houses, which is sponsored by FLASH and a number of its commercial partners. As someone who rebels against everything Disney, I gotta say: Stormstruck is awesome! Visitors are issued 3-D glasses and ushered into a room that holds maybe 20 people. It was set up as the inside of a house, looking out through picture windows at the yard, street, garage, house across the street, etc. The tour guide issued a storm warning and told us to be sure our safety glasses were on. You can probably guess what's next. Disney's best 3-D visualization modelers have created a remarkably photo-realistic simulation of a Category 4 or 5 storm. You watch, mesmerized, as winds pick up, deck chairs and barbecue grills blow away, tree limbs come down, shingles are ripped from the garage, and part of the house across the street blows apart. As the winds pick up, an occasional 2x4 or limb crashes through the window in front of you, accompanied by a gust of wind, a spray of mist, and the vibrations of a robust surround-sound speaker system. All this is 3-D remember, so the tree branch seems to end up just inches in front of you. But it's not just a show; it's a lesson in storm-resistant construction practices. After the storm, each participant takes part in figuring out how to rebuild. The tour guide — a real person in front of the room — asks a series of questions and, based on the group score, the house and garage are rebuilt accordingly. We were asked to choose between features like a gable roof or a hip roof, metal strapping vs. nails alone for framing, inward-opening or outward-opening entry doors, clay-tile vs. storm-rated asphalt shingles, replanting of magnolia vs. a native sea pine in the yard, and whether or not windows should be opened during a storm to equalize pressure inside and outside. Each of us keyed our responses by pushing either the "A" or "B" button in front of us. Then, based on the group-averaged answers to these questions, we experienced another storm — exciting, like the first one, but hopefully with some of the storm-resistant features in place that we had collectively chosen. More crashing storm debris, more howling wind, and projectiles crashing through the windows in front of us. More gusts of wind and light mists of spray to add a semblance of realism. The show was good enough that I went through twice — the second time later in the evening, after our group had been able to enjoy more time at the bar. Guys being guys (yes, the FLASH group is mostly men) and lubricated by alcohol, our group decided to intentionally answer all the questions wrong. A knowledgeable group (some of whom were probably consultants to Disney on the exhibit), we succeeded in scoring a near-zero, and the ensuing destruction the more exciting. There are some other nice displays in the Stormstruck pavilion, but the show is definitely the lead attraction — and educational to boot! Anyway, if you have the misfortune of being dragged down to Orlando and Disney World, by all means check out Stormstruck: a Tale of Two Houses.

2008-09-02 n/a 11609 Headlines from the year 2020 Here's a fun exercise that a group of architects, designers, and others completed today as part of the Designing for a Living World symposium that I'm attending, hosted by Interface at Shelburne Farms in Vermont. It's a little thing I call... "Headlines from the Future." Here's the deal. Take these ten topics:
  1. Oceans
  2. Agriculture
  3. Energy
  4. Poverty
  5. Terror
  6. Climate
  7. Water
  8. Health
  9. Cities
  10. Geopolitics
Now, imagine you are reading a newspaper (whatever form that might take -- pulp of dead trees, lit screen, cave scratchings -- from the year 2020. It might be a local rag, a national or international journal, a trade publication. It might be the sports, business, news, or entertainment sections. Write a headline for each of those ten topics. Take about 10 minutes to do this. If possible, do this in a group. A group from school, from work, your family, friends, you name it. Share what you come up with. Discuss. I'll give some examples in a sec. But first... here are some discussion questions once you've written your headlines. Do that now if you can! Are your headlines optimistic, pessimistic, realistic, something else? What does that say about you? What does that say about your hopes and fears? What does it say about where you are steering yourself? To paraphrase Paul Hawken, who led our discussion, which future are you designing for? How many things did you imagine as being 12 years out that might be only 2–3 years out, or may already be true? Do we have as much time as you imagine? Are there negative outcomes that become positive because they spur changes in our behavior? How do you see that taking place? How much do you think we can predict the future? Are there things that may happen that we haven't even imagined? Do you have an adequate sense of your own ignorance? Here are some favorite headlines that our group wrote in our exercise today:
  • Dubai Sells $1 Trillion in Petroleum Development Rights to Carbon Conservancy
  • Kyoto Underwater; Kyoto Protocol Targets Met by All Developed Nations
  • Eat Local, Says FDA; Closes Doors
  • Free Higher Ed for Children of Poverty Created UN Leaders
  • Global Ceasefire Reached for 2020 Tehrain Olympics
  • Reduced Oil Dependency Root Driver in Lower Terror
  • Former Terror Groups Protest Environmental Degradation
  • No More Insurance for Weather-Related Claims
  • Florida Blizzards; Malaria in Michigan
  • Cost of Tap Water Tops Oil
  • L.A. Mass Transit Works
  • Infrastructure Failure Rampant
  • U.S. Stripped of Security Council Veto Power
  • Carbon Tax Filing Deadline Approaching April 15th
  • Benyus-Hawken Ticket Wins Popular Vote
What are yours?
2008-08-15 n/a 11578 Suburban sprawl and recycling don't mix Add another item to the list of reasons why suburban sprawl is bad for the environment: recycling rates. Other environmental problems with sprawl are well-documented, such as the fact that the transportation energy intensity of driving to buildings can dwarf the operating energy of those buildings. I'm sure this is nothing new to sprawl watchers, but the New York Times reports that Houston's dismal recycling rate -- it ranks the lowest out of the 30 largest U.S. cities, recycling 2.6% of its total waste -- is at least in part to blame on its sprawling layout:
The city's sprawling, no-zoning layout makes collection expensive, and there is little public support for the kind of effort it takes to sort glass, paper and plastics. And there appears to be even less for placing fees on excess trash. "We have an independent streak that rebels against mandates or anything that seems trendy or hyped up," said Mayor Bill White, who favors expanding the city's recycling efforts. "Houstonians are skeptical of anything that appears to be oversold or exaggerated. But Houstonians can change, and change fast." High fuel costs do not help either. "I'm not going to send my truck 50 miles to pick up one can," said Chris Hickman, a recycling manager at Waste Management, the nation's largest waste company, whose headquarters is here. ...Private businesses, like office towers, apartment complexes, and restaurants, are responsible for their own garbage, although advocates of recycling are pleading with the city to regulate them. Commercial recyclers say that despite a recent increase in public interest, their services remain a tough sell.
Countering high fuel costs are high commodity prices, leading recycling rates higher in places like Boulder, Colorado. Eric Lombardi runs director of Ecocycle, the nation's largest nonprofit recycler, in Boulder:
Mr. Lombardi's operation claims a 60 percent recycling rate, despite landfill fees of $15 a ton -- less than half of Houston's costs. With commodity prices at a record high, he said, if recycling can be profitable "in my landlocked state without easy access to buyers like China, then it can be profitable anywhere."
The full article from the Times is here. Photo: Michael Stravato for The New York Times
2008-07-29 n/a 11584 Counting Carbon... Wrong?
Oops... (corrected graphic below)
Well, all you can do when you screw up is try to make it into a learning opportunity, I guess. The image we featured most prominently with our "Counting Carbon" article in July had a blatant error. In our defense, the image we asked for was OK — we just failed to make sure that the one we got was the same as the one we thought we were getting... The graphic had cubes representing one metric ton of steel, concrete, and wood, and much larger cubes representing the associated carbon emissions. The carbon quantity shown for concrete, however, actually represented the carbon associated with one metric ton of cement. A ton of concrete is responsible for much less carbon, because cement only represents about 12% of a typical concrete mix, and the other ingredients are much less carbon intensive. In addition to the fully justified outcry we got from the concrete folks about this graphic, we also got a complaint from the steel industry. They quibbled with the numbers, but they also had a more interesting point: that it is somewhat misleading to compare these three materials in this way, because their mass does not represent their utility. A structure made of concrete will weigh much more than a structure made of steel or wood, for example. (Here's a bonus graphic coming at it from this angle.) Here's the full text of both letters, plus a corrected graphic:
Corrected graphic

Dear Mr. Wilson:

For years I have admired Environment Building News' skill in providing balance on the many areas of sustainable development and design, clearly researching and documenting the details, in a manner that is easy to read and comprehend. So, it was somewhat surprising to see on the front cover of your latest issue (Vol. 17, Issue 7, July 2008) a volumetric depiction of a ton of three basic building materials and the carbon dioxide generated to manufacture them. If I had a nickel for every time someone confused cement and concrete, I'd be a wealthy man. It's easy to do, it happens all the time. Sometimes it is less important, like when someone speaks of installing a new "cement" patio. On other occasions, it matters a great deal. The design community is being asked to evaluate how we design, construct, operate, and deconstruct buildings in a carbon-constrained world. Carbon taxation and cap-and-trade issues are being discussed in the states; globally, nations vie for position on international climate change standards. Cement, as an ingredient in concrete, is energy intensive, but accounts for a small percentage of concrete's overall mix design (around 8 to 14%). The remaining ingredients of sand, gravel, and water generally require very little energy to obtain, process, and ship. Furthermore, today's concrete frequently contains supplemental cementitious materials (SCM) derived from industrial by-products. These further reduce the embodied energy and CO2 for a unit of concrete. Instead of the 1.2 metric tons depicted in the graphic, the Portland Cement Association has calculated the following CO2 equivalent per metric ton of concrete:
  • .11 metric tons for 3000-psi with no SCMs
  • .09 metric tons for 3000-psi with 20% fly ash
  • .065 metric tons for 3000-psi with 50% slag cement
Note: these numbers do not include the CO2 that would be absorbed from the air through carbonation over the life of the concrete. Also note that we get the same results using two other methods: The EDIP (Environmental Design of Industrial Products) method (Danish) and IMPACT 2000+ method (Dutch). We calculated the carbon equivalent footprint of three typical concretes using (1) the climate change factors from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with a timeframe of 100 years (this is one of the methods in life cycle assessment software SimaPro) and (2) the life cycle inventory data in from research (PCA SN3011). We chose a 3000 psi strength; however, specifications can range widely. I am not denying that the concrete industry does have a large footprint. However, the sole reason is not its energy intensive component, but because of concrete's multitude of applications. It's everywhere: from houses to high-rises, roads and runways, stormwater systems and stadiums. What was once a material for roads and building foundations has evolved to create high-performance insulated wall systems, water piping, siding, roof tiles, decorative flooring and countertops, and cultured stone. It's even a solution for in-situ soil remediation. The industry, however, is not merely dedicated to promoting the uses of its product. We recognize our responsibility to continue manufacturing and usage improvements. We have reduced the amount of energy to make a ton of cement by more than 37% since 1972 and pledge progress toward future reductions. Recycled ingredients make up an ever larger portion of our business. And our industry has invested a great deal of resources into better educating our customers about how to use concrete for superior sustainable solutions. The most significant environmental impacts over the building's lifetime are not from construction products but from the production and household-use of electricity and natural gas. Today, and in the future as we strive to improve our products, concrete's versatility and use in many green building applications makes it an excellent material for sustainable designs. Sincerely,
David Shepherd, AIA
Director, Sustainable Development
Portland Cement Association
Skokie, IL

Mr. Nadav Malin
Environmental Building News
122 Birge Street, Suite 30
Brattleboro, VT 05301
Dear Nadav, Your article, "Counting Carbon" in the July 2008 Environmental Building News is thoughtful throughout, as always. Unfortunately, however, the simplistic rendering on the cover page of this newsletter does not lend itself to "Understanding Carbon Footprints of Buildings" accurately. Specifically, the small and large cubes in the rendering very seriously misrepresent the carbon footprint of steel relative to concrete and wood. Additionally, the values provided for each material are believed in error. Steel, for example, is 1.7 metric tons rather than 2.0. We think the values for concrete and wood are out of date, too, but they are not our domain. Of course, the careful reader realizes for any given building application, one ton of steel does not equal one ton of concrete or one ton of wood. Steel has a very high strength to weight ratio and is strong in both tension and compression. Concrete is strong in compression but relies upon embedded steel reinforcing bar for tensile strength. Naturally, no building is made with all steel or all concrete. (The same is usually true of wood.) Case studies are available that show the quantities of steel vs. concrete in alternative building designs. The resulting carbon footprint for steel is smaller than for concrete. Another consideration that makes this rendering misleading is its failure to address end of life recycling for steel, as its embodied energy is amortized over many future generations of new steel. A growing case is also being made for an alternative end of life for steel, namely, re-use, as part of one or more iterations before its ultimate recycling. Steel is well known for durability. We see that its longer service life, with less replacement, is a major point not incorporated into the rendering. Therefore, the rendering in question offers no meaningful comparison of these three materials in a building application or in general. We recommend that EBN's on-line downloadable archive newsletter for July 2008 be revised by removing the rendering on page 1 and replacing it with the other rendering from page 11. We appreciate your consideration in making this important correction, as LCA and other approaches for studying and effecting environmental improvement go forward responsibly. Sincerely,
Gregory L. Crawford
Vice President, Operations
Steel Recycling Institute
Pittsburgh, PA

2008-07-23 n/a 11585 The Gospel of Consumption America's buildings are no small contributor to our environmental difficulties and energy use... but they're far from the biggest part of the problem. The enemy is us — the choices we make individually and as a society. America's building envelopes are getting better and tighter, our heating and cooling systems are getting more efficient, but every year we keep using more energy. And our carbon emissions keep going up, not down. Part of the equation, certainly, is that the U.S. builds more buildings and is home to more people all the time. But per-person energy use and emissions aren't just staying the same, they're increasing. The LIVE post Plug Loads and Small Electronics addresses just one small piece of the puzzle, but the example is cross-applicable. An article in the current Orion Magazine, The Gospel of Consumption, takes a look at salient lifestyle trends over the last 80 years or so, with a dual emphasis on workplace issues and consumerism. (Excerpts below.) Yes, life is different than it was 80 years ago. It's different than it was ten years ago, or even five. We have more options now, greater convenience, better health care... we've made great advances. And there's no reason to turn our backs on the good things we enjoy today, and to continue to have even more. But have we abandoned some things that contribute to a greater happiness index and quality of life? From The Gospel of Consumption, an article in Orion Magazine:
By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day — or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. In 2004, one of the leading legal theorists in the United States, federal judge Richard Posner, declared that "representative democracy... involves a division between rulers and ruled," with the former being "a governing class," and the rest of us exercising a form of "consumer sovereignty" in the political sphere with "the power not to buy a particular product, a power to choose though not to create."
Now there's a harsh reality. I don't agree with it, though. The power to choose is a power to create... but what's created isn't something that can be bought or sold. The reader comments on the Orion site following the article are worth a look, too.
2008-07-22 n/a 11595 Declaration of Energy Independence Over at the New American Village blog:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the Emotional and Economic bonds which have connected them with a destructive Energy Policy, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should chart a New Course. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Energy sources are not created equal...
It goes on.
2008-07-06 n/a 11567 "The Anti-American Non-Energy Bill"
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, swings and swings and swings and misses the point entirely. As do most of the comments — over 2,200 of them so far. So much darkness.
2008-06-19 n/a 11570 The Carbon Calculator Morass In the process of looking into carbon calculators for buildings as a behind-the-scenes assistant for the EBN feature article "Counting Carbon: Understanding Carbon Footprints of Buildings," I took a short detour into the wider carbon calculator world. While construction calculators may still be rare, the Web offers a multitude of general carbon calculators for businesses and households and also specialized calculators for everything from wineries to land remediation activities. It seems everyone is getting into the act — utilities, environmental groups, oil companies, government agencies, and offset providers (especially offset providers) are all offering up their own calculators. These vary widely in their approach, scope, level of complication, rigor, transparency, visual appeal, and results — including what aspect of household or business operations is the greatest contributor to total emissions. The primary value of these simple calculators is getting people thinking about the issue and providing some motivation for change, but the system should at least be accurate enough to help users develop a reasonable sense of priorities for action. The ideal calculator would provide default values using average data while allowing users to improve the results by providing their own actual data on utility bills (including gallons, therms, kWh, not just dollars), vehicle fuel efficiency, miles driven, flights taken, and other behavioral characteristics. The ideal calculator would also provide tips for next steps, and allow users to track efforts over time, as well as test the likely impact of different strategies. Even better would be if you could dig behind the displayed answers and see what all the assumptions were underlying them — a major bonus for geeks like me. EBN did not attempt a comprehensive review of lifestyle calculators, or comparison of results (especially once we realized what a rabbit hole we'd be entering). A little browsing on the web shows how many others have tried variations on that theme — and how hard it can be. Also, new calculators pop up daily. The calculators below are just a few that we thought rose to the top while wandering through the morass of options. For a more in depth review (though still by no means comprehensive) try Consumer Reports' review of travel results, the Home Energy Saver table outlining the scope covered by a range of calculators, or check out the Earth Charter Initiative's list of calculators available by country. We'd love to hear of any truly thorough reviews you know of, or what calculators you think are best. A few notable calculators in the mix are the following:
  • Low Impact Living's Environmental Impact Calculator, which provides a comparative assessment of a range of impacts, not just carbon emissions; suggests actions; and lets users save and update their profiles. (In contrast, the Ecological Footprint Calculator has an animated custom avatar, but I'm not convinced it provides much life-changing value.)
  • The CoolClimate Carbon Footprint Calculator, which considers a wider range of activities at a detailed level. Inputs include what users eat and purchase as well as the more typical questions about the user's house, based on expenditures, and comparison with national and "similar household" averages. The calculator was developed by the Berkeley Institute of the Environment (BIE), at the University of California, Berkeley).
  • Safe Climate Calculator, by World Resources Institute, which is short and asks only the hard numbers: therms, kWh, fuel economy and miles traveled, and rewards you at the end with a little animated guy who becomes a devil or angel depending on your emissions.
  • TerraPass, like most if not all carbon offset providers, has a suite of calculators, including personal and business calculators as well as specific calculators for driving, flying, etc. Also typical, the only option to "take action" is to buy carbon offsets or other "green products. " None of these are designed to encourage behavioral change. Still, I liked that it allows users to input specific flights taken, rather than number of "short" or "long" flights, or total miles or hours traveled. This doesn't mean TerraPass's calculator is more accurate, while that is possible — all I know is it shows the lowest emissions on the Consumer Reports review, and I'd lean towards using one in the middle of the range in the absence of better info on accuracy.
  • EPA provides a whole suite of calculators themselves (including ones for waste, recycled content and durable goods), and links to other's calculators — but what is especially useful for folks trying to get the word out is their GHG Equivalencies Calculator — which lets you input a consumption unit and get out how that number compares to barrels of oil consumed, tree seedlings grown, passenger vehicles, etc, etc. With this you can put emissions into terms anyone can understand.
What's next? Well, it looks like we'll be getting calculators like the "Carbon Hero" that calculates a user's carbon footprint from transportation as you move around, carrying the tiny data-collector with you. While I'm not sure whether this is really any better a calculator, I'm pretty sure it'll appeal to the gadget-geeks (but, we also need a hand-held one that calculates the embodied and operational carbon of each gadget they purchase). Unfortunately, the most noticeable thing about carbon calculators is still the plethora of options and the lack of consistency amongst them and we will applaud all efforts to clarify the field. In the mean time we still think trying out some of these calculators is a worthwhile effort to get people thinking, but we suggest taking the results and recommendations with more than a grain of salt.
2008-06-18 n/a 11573 Trucking, Hunger, and Resilience A friend of mine near Barcelona wrote me that truckers in Spain are on strike and are blocking roads. They demand the government set a 35% haulage tariff, which would be in proportion to the increase in fuel costs in the past year. Anticipating the stores will soon be empty, my friend made a trip into town, by train, to get a 50-pound bag of rice and some butane cylinders to run his family's kitchen stove. News reports say perishables are expected to run out within a week. Of course, if people make a run on the stores, perishables and non-perishables alike could be scarce faster. Is this how famine starts? Europe isn't suffering crop failures or drought. There's food. But if it doesn't get where it is needed, hunger can set in quickly, especially in places where people are accustomed to shopping frequently and tend not tend to store much in their homes. The truckers say that they're better off not working than losing money on every delivery due to fuel prices. The interruption in food shipments is unlikely to last long, this time. A political solution will be devised. But I can't help seeing in this strike a foreshadowing of things to come. Where a society depends on moving food long distances--especially when it depends on relatively inefficient means, like trucks--it is vulnerable. Food that isn't shipped because it isn't profitable to do so, or that is shipped but becomes unaffordable because its price, reflecting the cost transport, is too high, is food that might as well not exist. Famines caused can be caused by high prices, not just outright shortages. When the potato crop failed in Ireland in 1879, there was other food, but not that poor Irish could afford. And in the Bengal famine of 1943, during which at least 1.5 million died, while rice supplies were down, that was not sufficient to account for the widespread starvation. It was rising prices and many workers' falling wages that put rice out of reach for multitudes of Bengalis. The fragility of our food system and the consequent danger of famine is yet another reason (beyond reducing energy consumption, decentralizing power and developing more distinctive, place-based cultures) to guide development, and re-development, toward compact settlements situated amid productive countryside capable of supporting them, and to keep our supply chains short and comprehensible. Green buildings, as EBN explained in this article on the transportation energy intensity of buildings, can be wonderful in themselves, but involve high costs when they can only be reached by driving. In the same vein, transportation and access to essential supplies needs to be taken into account across the board in planning of towns and regions. Perhaps vegetated, or green roofs should in some cases be growing produce rather than sedums (though it would require deeper soil as with intensive green roofs); as valuable as parks are, perhaps urban green space should more frequently be set aside for garden plots; perhaps town-dwellers should be encouraged, rather than forbidden, to keep a few chickens; and perhaps lawns should largely give way to fruit trees and vegetable patches. (On the problems with lawns, check out "Reconsidering the American Lawn" in EBN.) To move toward resilience, buildings and settlements need to be more often thought of not as isolated entities but as parts of a complex survival system in which they need to be productive assets and not merely loci of consumption. There seems to be a trend toward speaking of "resilience" rather than sustainability. It may be that terms simply go in and out of fashion, but to me "resilience" emphasizes the ability, not just to get along without undermining one's own foundations, but to bounce back when things go badly. It means taking into account passive survivability in order to be able to endure a long power outage or an interruption in fuel delivery. It acknowledges that sooner or later trouble comes, often in unpredictable ways, and that getting through hard times requires ample margins. To be resilient is to have flexibility and toughness, not the strength of sheer force but the ability to change course when necessary, before it is too late to do so with some grace. 2008-06-10 n/a 11575 Beware of CGREPs (it's not THAT easy being green) Greasy Socks and Certifications Recently I was doing research for a brief item about green education for "real estate professionals," that is, real estate agents, appraisers, house inspectors, and loan officers. I read about a new course being offered, covering global climate issues, green building, indoor and outdoor air quality, and, last but surely not least, using all this green material in marketing. Those who complete this course are allowed to add CGREP -- for Certified Green Real Estate Professional -- to their collection of post cognomenal letters. It sounded good until I discovered how much time was allotted to instructing prospective CGREPs in all this: three hours. Three hours? I would spend about that long finding out about the course and writing my 200-word brief. I began to perceive the stink of greenwashing. Soon I was feeling perturbed, then angry. I decided to talk to the person who developed this three-hour session, and while I knew I would be polite, I wasn't feeling very open. I thought of it as a confrontation. In the course of the interview, she told me about being diagnosed with emphysema, her subsequent keen interest in air quality, and her decision to end her real estate practice and devote herself to educating her fellow REPs about matters environmental. Realtors aren't interested in science or technology, she told me, they're in a hurry, they're money-oriented, and these days they are stressed out as they watch the market crumbling. She acknowledged that in such a short time it's only possible to give a superficial overview of some basics, but even that is more than most participants have had. She said that she hoped that she could influence real estate agents to suggest green upgrades when their clients ask what they should do to make their property more attractive, and that she wanted them not to fall for greenwashing and call a house green just because it has bamboo cabinets or low-VOC paint. She sounded sincere. Yes, a three-hour course on a bunch of complex subjects is ridiculously inadequate. But isn't some orientation to these subjects step forward? Given that real estate agents are required to take continuing education classes each year -- but only a small number of credit hours -- isn't it good that some of them learn at least a little about green building and climate change instead of the basics of real estate auctions or accounting made easy? The problem, the deception, is the certification. Well-meaning clients will see that an agent is a Certified Green Real Estate Professional and expect that agent to be well informed about ... uh, something "green." And many of the CGREPs are no doubt well intentioned, too, but who can blame them for using whatever marketing mojo they can, especially when it has been made so easy for them, with ARELLO, the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials, approving this impressive-sounding designation? If they are as ignorant and uninterested as my informant tells me, they may even believe themselves to be well informed. The result is everyone involved feeling happy to be doing the environmentally friendly thing, without really knowing what that might mean. It reminds me of a guy I knew in college, a fellow member of the campus environmental organization. In the dining hall, he wiped his fingers on his socks rather than use a disposable paper napkin. I didn't see any reason to go around with greasy socks just to avoid the paper napkins, so I brought a cloth napkin with me. But more importantly, while it was fine and admirable that he was saving napkins, what drove me crazy about him was he seemed to honestly think he was saving the Earth that way. I didn't believe it would save the Earth if the whole human population never used another paper napkin, and I thought it was a gross trivialization of the problems facing us to think that it would. That's still what I think. All the greasy socks or three-hour-class-taking CGREPs under the sun don't amount to a hill of shade-grown coffee beans if fundamental changes in how human beings (especially affluent ones) live aren't made, and thinking otherwise just induces complacency and simple-mindedness. We'd all like to believe we can save the world without going to a lot of trouble, and there are plenty of people with things to sell ready to assure us that we can. It's not PCB-soaked, radioactive, black rhino horn-based impotence remedies cloaked in the language of sustainability that pose the real danger of greenwashing, but modestly useful green goods and services that make overblown claims. 2008-06-05 n/a 11577 About half of the homes, office buildings, stores and factories needed by 2030 don't exist today. So says the Urban Land Institute. The following grabs are from a couple slides in A Plan for Tomorrow: Creating Stronger and Healthier Communities Today and the nearly identical A Plan for Tomorrow: Creating Stronger and Healthier Cities Today, companion PowerPoint presentations to Higher Density Development: Myth and Fact.

"About half of the homes, office buildings, stores and factories needed by 2030 don't exist today." That's only 28 years from now. The importance of the 2030 Challenge can't be emphasized enough.
"Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, and the U.S. carbon footprint is expanding. Since 1980, carbon emissions in the United States have increased by almost 1 percent each year. Emissions from the residential, commercial, and transportation sectors each increased by more than 25 percent during the past 25 years. Industrial emissions have declined during this same period as the country has moved away from energy-intensive manufacturing and toward a service and knowledge economy. Much of what Americans once manufactured is now being imported from China, India, and other countries, thereby lessening U.S. greenhouse gas accounts. "As a result, consumers are increasingly the driving force of domestic energy consumption and carbon emissions. Residential and commercial buildings and road transportation are expected to dominate energy demand and carbon growth in the future. Total U.S. carbon emissions are projected to grow by 16 percent between 2006 and 2030..."
From Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan America, a report from the Brookings Institution.
2008-06-03 n/a 11541 AIA: Part of the Problem, or Part of the Solution? In some of the posts I wrote during the recent AIA convention, I was coming down pretty hard on "credit-chasers" in the ranks. (AIA members are required to earn 18 "learning unit" hours annually, with at least eight about health, safety, and/or welfare.) The conferences I typically attend are smaller and more focused than the AIA behemoth, and the people who come to them are eager to wring out every bit of information from the sessions that they can. At AIA, on the other hand, people began streaming out of most of the sessions I attended as soon as it was clear that the presentation was nearly over. Not done, but getting there. There were a couple exceptions, and others from BuildingGreen attended sessions where most of the room stayed put through the duration. On the way back to Vermont, after the conference, I had a conversation with Nadav about it. He was much more understanding — and/or more forgiving — than me. Architects are busy people, as a commenter also pointed out. But I'm still not sure I entirely buy that they're too busy to stick out the final five or ten minutes of a session, if not the Q&A... when some of the most useful and enlightening information is turned up as a result of other professionals — in this case, other architects — getting important clarifications and asking questions based in on-the-ground situations. But anything negative I had to say falls far short of the thoughts architect Peter Gluck shared in a September 2007 article in Metropolis. "I don't belong to the AIA," he said. "I think they're the problem, not the solution. It's a group of people who get together to promote themselves; they're not interested in really looking at the profession and trying to see where its problems are." Me, I'm not dissing the AIA; there are parts of its ethical and practice rules and guidelines that impress me. I do think that at least some part of the organization's efforts are solution-oriented (often for problems caused by architects in the first place, however). I know there are caring individual members. I'm a giant fan of COTE. Take a read of the article about Gluck. It's interesting. And contrary. And problematic. There's something in it for just about anyone to take great exception to... and I'm no exception. 2008-05-28 n/a 11544 Here it Comes: The Year of Greenwash Michelle Moore, a senior vice president of the USGBC, recently spent a day in our offices. Speculating on the shapes of things to come both near and far, she said something that stuck with me: "We're entering the year of greenwash." As if it wasn't already bad enough. The reduction of social and environmental movements to merchandising means that a cause has hit the big time... but the increased breadth tends to come with a commensurate loss of depth. If you're old enough to remember the solar-design movement of the '70s, you probably also remember when bell-bottoms became available in the Sears catalog. A report titled Trends in Trademarks by Glenn Gunderson, chair of the Trademark Group of the international law firm Dechert LLP, notes that 2007 was the busiest year ever for the Trademark Office, with over 300,000 new applications — the previous high was during the internet boom of 2000 — and that green branding was the big trend, "with multiple companies filing for almost-identical marks at nearly the same time." Applications using the word 'green' more than doubled — "it was the third year in a row when GREEN branding far outpaced the overall increase in applications, following a 37% increase in 2006 and a 23% gain in 2005." The prefix 'eco' also more than doubled in new applications, in conjunction with products ranging from building materials to cosmetics. 'Enviro' was also popular. 'Earth' increased by 60%, 'planet' by 50%, and 'energy' by 25% (though about a third of those were for things like energy drinks and supplements). People need to get it: Green products do not a green building make. 2008-05-23 n/a 11547 Making vs. Assembling I have a huge amount of appreciation and respect for (and some jealousy of) people plying artisan trades, and had a couple good conversations with AIA'08 exhibitors offering that sort of thing. The John Canning Painting & Conservation Studios goes beyond artisan; check out the featured projects on their website. In my capacity as poster boy for the A Little Knowledge Club, we chatted a bit about lime plaster and mortar while I stood in awe of their portfolio. And I threw some banal chatter at the patient folks staffing the booth for the Stained Glass Association of America, the members of which also provide amazing, timeless, world-class work. When my cathedral needs repair, these are the people I'm calling. But the highlight of the conference exhibition hall, for me, was Hugh Lofting Timber Framing.
As a longtime advocate for natural building materials, I approached the booth with a pre-existing soft spot for that craft. But I didn't know that they're still hand-cutting most jobs. I didn't know about their out-front preference for reclaimed, recycled, local, and FSC certified wood. Or that the founder, a leader in the resurgence of the art of timber framing since the '70s, has been a subscriber to Environmental Building News for just ages. Or that they actually get what LEED is really about. I like all those things about this company. (It also helps that timber framing is a little closer to my reality than castle restoration.)
What put it over the top for me was completely unrelated to any of that. The first question out of my mouth was, "Didn't Hugh Lofting write the book Doctor Doolittle?" (I've subsequently learned that I seem to be the only person I know who knew that.) The guy in the booth answered — a little surprised — "That was my grandfather!" That's really what did it — that personal thread, that bit of connection, that slice of humanity. And that may be why I love people that make, rather than assemble. The old-world built environment had a character of imperfection, a dose of wabi sabi, odd and lumpy bits that represent a connection that's both human and natural. Biophilia begins to recognize this. But there's a material dependency involved — a badly taped drywall joint doesn't evoke the same appreciation as a bit of mortar snot on the wall of an old cobblestone house.
2008-05-19 n/a 11553 Product Certifications, and Social Justice (AIA'08) Nadav Malin and Scot Horst offered up a great, head-twisting presentation about product certifications called "It's Certified Green But What Does That Mean?" to about 500 people. It covered all the territory in the EBN feature "Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications" and more. There may have been some misunderstanding on the part of some attendees who only read the title, however, and not the program description: It sounded like it might have been about LEED certification rather than product certification. And the amount of information to process, even though they presented it in an engaging, conversational style, was voluminous — especially for the abject novice — bringing to light individual certification program histories, inconsistencies, and limitations in what was probably about the simplest way to do it, which was nonetheless hard to digest. Additionally, the sound in the conference center rooms is pingy, with a pronounced slapback echo. I say these things mostly to give the benefit of the doubt where it might be deserved. I outlined my theory about a largely disinterested AIA membership merely pursuing the required continuing education credits in the last two paragraphs of the "Legally Green" post. The same thing happened at this session: four-fifths fled when Q&A started. It's that remaining one-fifth that are the leaders of the (near) future.
^ shortly after the session began
^ immediately after Q&A began
But what gives me the right to gripe about the choices other people make? I left a session earlier in the day myself, about three-quarters of the way through. (I'm not an AIA member, though.) Called "Architecture and Human Rights: Shelter, Justice, and Ethics," it was a fine presentation to the half-full room — just not what I expected. The program description said, "The AIA Code of Ethics states, 'Architects should uphold human rights in all their professional endeavors.' But have we, or our projects, ever crossed the line? What needs to be done to fully deliver on the promise of universal human rights in the built environment? Can a building itself violate human rights? Speakers from architecture and legal organizations will consider the intersection of architecture practice and international norms of justice in today's increasingly complex world." Sounded great. And it did turn out to be just as described, but not quite the slant I thought was coming. The first speaker of three, Kathryn Tyler Prigmore, after a detailing what ethics are and where they come from, spoke to AIA's general ethical basis and member requirements, noting that the AIA Code of Ethics is about more than personal practice — it includes aesthetics, heritage, human rights, and civic responsibility. I was reminded of David Eisenberg's call for a Hippocratic corollary in architecture: that buildings should first do no harm. The guy in front of me, I noticed, was doing Sudoku. Second up was Chester Hartman, an urban planner. Not an architect, he pointed out. In what seemed to be a completely extemporaneous and slightly disjointed presentation, he gave an oral history of his deeds and studies. I had a hard time focusing — not understanding the points he was making, and not sure he was actually making any. He wrote something, he co-edited something, he studied something; he said that we've got to do something about housing stability, but didn't say what. He made a last point for a few minutes, then made another last point for a few minutes. Then he made a last point. When he finished, people applauded with some enthusiasm. I feel dopey, like I'd missed something. Chances are that I did. Shayana Kadidal, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, was a fast-talking, witty, and clearly brilliant guy involved in prisons — "mass incarceration facilities" — with an apparent specialty in isolation. He spoke to some history of prisonry (and the unexpected connection of isolation facilities to Quakers). He's involved in one of the Guantanamo lawsuits, and I slipped out when he started discussing that set of facilities. It's not that it wasn't interesting; it simply wasn't what I was after. And that probably should have been the best reason for me to stay.
2008-05-15 n/a 11556 Legally Green — Legal and Practice Issues of LEED (AIA'08) This morning began (for me) with a 7:00 (early!) session called "Legally Green: Legal and Practice Issues of LEED," presented by Betsy del Monte and William Quatman. The room had a capacity approaching 400, and got close to filling up. Betsy's presentation was, for the most part, understandably basic. The big majority of the audience, by show of hands, had not worked on a LEED certified project, or a LEED certifiable project, and were not LEED APs. They were there for continuing education. More on that shortly. Betsy's take on legislation and owner requirements for buildings to be LEED certifiable, but not certified, falls just a bit short. She noted that the cost difference between a certifiable project and a certified one is marginal at best... and that when somebody says that they saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by not pursuing actual certification, it means that they almost certainly did not build a certifiable building. According to Betsy, USGBC fees are the smallest amount of the increased costs of a certifiable building. Bill's part of the presentation addressed the potential legal concerns facing architects that are working in the greenstream. There was quite a bit made of the fact that the AIA's policies, contracts, and code of ethics all demand — not just support — sustainability and environmental proactivity by its members. (He admitted that the bar is sometimes pretty low, however.) He presented research showing that 83% of designers feel that they have a responsibility to present green options to their clients — but that only 17% actually do it. Does this constitute negligence? — "conduct below the professional standard of care"? If green is a requirement of practice, and you don't do it, are you negligent? He asked if having LEED APs on staff raises the bar. Does it represent expertise? Does citing performance standards and LEED AP credentials in your marketing imply a warranty that can create potential liability? With green building increasingly being required by legislation, new liabilities arise. "Strict Liability" means that if legislated requirements aren't met, a jury isn't needed to convict you (as opposed to "Negligence Per Se.") If a statute requiring LEED certifiability isn't achieved, you're guilty. No trial needed. He noted that a CD can be requested from the AIA Trust that contains all the information he covered. Now, about the continuing education thing: It's a requisite part of AIA membership, and AIA members get continuing education credits for attending these sessions. It's a good thing when a professional organization demands that its members stay abreast of their field. But I was disappointed to see all but about 40 people stampede for the door when Q&A started. It begged the unasked question: Were they only here for the continuing ed credits? To put in their minimum requirement? The people who stayed were deeply engaged — leaning forward in their seats, taking notes, participating. They are the future, and they give me hope. 2008-05-15 n/a 11528 How the 2008 AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Projects were chosen Rebecca Henn, AIA, was a jury member for the 2008 AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Green Projects awards. She is pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, studying how sustainability influences the building team, and although you won't find it in her official bio, she worked here at BuildingGreen during the summer of 2006. I called on the connection to ask for her perspective on the Top Ten experience. –TKA

In the middle of dinner conversation about mosque design, car racing, and sole proprietorship, I realized that I was surrounded by architecture's luminaries... one Pritzker Prize winner and a handful of AIA Fellows. I could have spent the rest of the weekend nervous and self-conscious, but as the "student" member of the 2008 AIA COTE Top Ten Awards jury, I realized that expectations for my participation were probably pretty low, so I just went with the flow and drank in the experience.

Our jury of six knew ahead of time that we had to pick ten of the 77 entries. (At different points we discussed selecting three or eleven or eight, but I was pretty firm about one thing--we were going to have ten winners for the Top Ten awards.) Sunday morning, our collaborative process started with aesthetics, as we could not--and determined we would not--give an AIA Award to an aesthetic mess of a building. And on that criteria, we had a surprising amount of aesthetic consensus, considering the diversity in the room.

Once you see the official published jury comments, you'll hear a note of disappointment. One of the conclusions we came to, mirrored in the Cranbrook 2007 "Integrated Practice and the Twenty-first Century Curriculum" conference comments, was that higher sustainable performance should now be a minimum bar for all design awards, not just the AIA COTE Top Ten.

I may be an academic playing with words here (i.e. how does higher performance set a minimum bar?), but as LEED was set up to capture the best performing 25% of its "market," our goal for all AIA awards should include excellence in all areas of our professional responsibility--Vitruvius certainly didn't limit his advice to "delight" alone. So we found entrants that were high "performers" but not very... um.... exceptional, shall we say... in design. Or the inverse happened, with attendant spirited discussions. Surprisingly, we all knew of stellar projects that our colleagues did not enter into the competition, and so concluded that the niche of COTE should expand into the national design awards. Lucky for us, the ear of next year's AIA president was at the table.

With those caveats, I can say that there were some truly inspiring projects. Jury comments about the winners will be published, so I'm not going to repeat them here. And since this is a blog, I'm going to take the liberties granted me and switch gears to my critical observations, not just a recap of a jury process.

My interests lie in the social barriers to sustainable/environmental/green construction/design/building (circle your favorite combination). As we looked at the projects, we all had an unease with projects that did not meet the maximum performance known to green building. But that's when we started to look at context. So a test for readers: Which was a larger accomplishment: a big federal agency who regularly produces dim bland boxes now getting a more sustainable and beautiful building, or yet another LEED Platinum-rated environmental center (yawn...)?

What about the inspirational design done for a project that faced budget cuts (twice) and a hurricane, but still stuck to its sustainable goals? The house we wanted oh-so-badly to give an award to had 4,000 square feet for two people. The big box store that could have been an exemplar of sustainability was, frankly, really ugly. The history of environmental design has enough poor aesthetic examples for people to use in repudiation of environmental goals. We refused to feed that fire.

We (the profession of architecture) must recognize where leadership needs to come from, and also where it flows through. Our decision was not to select the ten "best" buildings. Instead, it was to select the ten best exemplars of sustainable design that currently on-the-boards work will be held to. A speculative condominium that makes both an environmental and design statement should inspire other developers to step closer to this edge of respect and responsibility to future residents. C'mon in, the water's great!

At the evening panel session with Seattle's local architecture community, I suggested that to meet the goals of sustainability, we need to bring green design into the difficult places--resistant clients, poor clients, prominent clients. Sustainability needs to be seen in our profession less as a technological fix reserved for the spec writers and engineers. Instead, it should be seen as our responsibility to society in exchange for the state-licensed monopoly we enjoy. If we don't hold both beauty and sustainability as equal cultural commitments, then we might as well hand over our licenses and call ourselves aesthetic consultants.

– Rebecca Henn, AIA

2008-04-22 n/a 11498 Guerrilla Gardening It's not a new idea, but this book is less than a year old. From the blurb for Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto, by David Tracey:
"In the case of guerrilla gardening, the soldiers are planters, the weapons are shovels, and the mission is to transform an abandoned lot into a thing of beauty. Once an environmentalist's nonviolent direct action for inner-city renewal, this approach to urban beautification is spreading to all types of people in cities around the world. These modern-day Johnny Appleseeds perform random acts of gardening, often without the property owner's prior knowledge or permission. Typical targets are vacant lots, railway land, underused public squares, and back alleys. The concept is simple, whimsical and has the cheeky appeal of being a not-quite-legal call to action."
Just sowing some seeds. Spring is right around the corner.
2008-02-19 n/a 11483 Will the New List of LEED Innovation Points Lead to Greener Buildings — or Just More Points?

Innovation point for the Hearst Tower in New York: reduced steel in the structure.

In the first few years of LEED, you could count the Platinum-rated buildings on one hand. Now it's hard to keep up with the announcements. There are several reasons for this evolution — more experienced project teams making better buildings, and more buildings going through LEED in general, for example. At risk of exposing my cynical side, however, I have to admit that I suspect that much of the change has to do more with teams having figured out how to work LEED for the most points, as opposed to really making better buildings. One way that teams are getting more sophisticated is in knowing which innovation points are the best bet. It's now well established, for example, that certain specific activities — like entering a case study in DOE's Database — earn you a relatively easy innovation point for "occupant education." To find that information, however, you had to talk to someone in the know, or dig through the online database of credit interpretation requests (CIRs). The scorecard that USGBC publishes listing the points each project has achieved identifies the innovation points by name, but it doesn't provide any details on what was done to achieve those points. For years, designers have been pleading for a more accessible list of previously approved innovations. Why force everyone to reinvent the wheel? If the point of LEED is to help the industry as a whole innovate its way to greener buildings, shouldn't USGBC be doing all it can to share that information? As far as I know, no one at USGBC disagreed with that argument, but the perpetually over-extended information technology (IT) staff there had more urgent fish to fry. Well, it seems that they've finally come up with a way to share this information. It's not pretty or slick, but it does serve the purpose of getting the information out there. This 28-page PDF file lists about 200 innovation points achieved (or approved as CIRs), with summaries of what was done to achieve them. Presumably it will be updated over time. As a long-overdue first effort, this file is certainly welcome. It would be more useful if it identified which rating system each innovation credit was achieved in — some of them only make sense from the perspective of an existing facility, so there is not point in teams working on new projects wasting time on them. And others just list actual credits, such as the LEED for Commercial Interiors credit 4.5 on low-emitting furniture, presumably because this credit earned an innovation point in some other version of LEED, where it isn't listed as a credit. But USGBC is trying to de-emphasize the different flavors of LEED as it moves towards it's One LEED vision, so we may be stuck with those confusing listings for now. The main point is that teams now have a handy new resource to mine for possible innovations in their projects. Let's hope that those translate into more real, beneficial innovations and environmental benefits, and not just into more points.
2008-01-15 n/a 11488 Fail early, fail often, and other riffs from Bruce Sterling "There's one thing worse than being young and full of stormy tantrums, and that's being old and backward-looking and crotchety." So said Bruce Sterling (author, thinker, critic, doer) in this year's annual rollicking and roving discussion of the state of the world at The Well — the still-kicking "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link" founded by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985 (more than 20 years ago!) for the writers and readers of the seminal, sadly defunct Whole Earth Review. Among much else, Bruce is the instigator of the Viridian design movement, described as a confluence of "environmental design, techno-progressivism, and global citizenship," from which grew the popular Worldchanging website, and more recently, book of the same name. The turn-of-the-year conversation is still unfolding. A freewheeling email discussion presented chronologically, it can be slightly trying to follow — but the thoughtful, informed, witty participants make it so worth the effort. After the jump, I've excised some quotes from Bruce Sterling that range from insightful to wry to what some might find abrasive, depressing, and contrary. It was not only difficult to choose which to include here, but also took strength limiting myself to just the "headliner." There's a lot of thought-provoking material throughout from others. Thanks to the lovely and brainy-hilarious Jeanine Sih Christensen of for reminding me of this once-a-year treat. The following quotes are from Bruce Sterling from the 2008 State of the World exchange on The Well. I've added referential links for your convenience.
There's stuff going on that's "moving forward," like, say, LEED ratings and legislative requirements for green energy, and then there's stuff that claims itself to be "progressive," but is basically Lysenkoist, since it doesn't want to submit itself to any standard of objective proof. Well, I say that hairshirt-green stuff fails to innovate. I say that it's corny and it's retrograde, and it's inherently corny and retrograde because its approach to society and technology is mistaken, wrong-headed, dogmatic and poorly thought-through. I say that its smallness is too small. Its appropriateness is inappropriate. It has failed like the Arts and Crafts Movement failed. No, it failed worse than Arts and Crafts; it failed like the communal movement and the Human Potential Movement and the League of Spiritual Discovery failed. As a design critic, I can't claim anything else with honesty. Thirty-eight years after Earth Day, the facts on the ground speak for themselves. I'd never claim that Hairshirt Green was as violently pernicious as the Great Leap Forward or Muslim fundamentalism, but there's just not a lot of there there. It doesn't work.
Quoting Kim Stanley Robinson:
Well, at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, what we thought — and this is particularly true in architecture and design terms — was: OK, given these new possibilities for new and different ways of being, how do we design it? What happens in architecture? What happens in urban design? As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that's now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time.
I had all those books on my shelf, too. And yeah, their tech is obsolete. And that's not a bug, that's a feature. It's a feature of hairshirt-green thinking. It's not that Thatcher and Reagan killed green technology; Reagan and Thatcher scarcely had an idea in their heads. It's that this kind of design was bad design. If you focus "progress" squarely on "survival," it's like rising from bed thinking, "Boy, I better make sure I somehow manage to get to the end of this day." It immediately bleaches all the whimsy and serendipity out of industrial development. It's stupefying to be always conscientious. That is not how alternative technologies and new ways of life are successfully generated. It's certainly not how good design happens. Mindful design bears the relationship to actual design that a socialist allocation depot bears to a laboratory. If you're serious about design, you can't quote Ruskin and try to build Gothic cathedrals in your tiny arts and crafts atelier. You've gotta prototype stuff, fail early, fail often, and build scalability into it so that, if you have a hit, you can actually have a big hit. A success as large as the problem. If your point is to live in an ashram because you oppose materialism, that's your prerogative, but that is not industrialism, that is spirituality. You could do that tomorrow. Go ahead. You won't be the first to try it and you won't be the first to quit, either. If you think it's great to totter around breathing shallowly and accomplishing as little as possible, you ought to go befriend somebody who's ninety. Eventually, that's what you will get. You will have a very strictly delimited life where taking a hot bath is a major enterprise. And shortly after that you'll be dead, and there is nobody so "green" as the dead. Practically every moral virtue delineated in those books was better accomplished by a dead person than a live person. So it was no way to live. And nobody lived that way.
I love the fringes of society, but, as great designer Henry Dreyfuss used to say, the best way to get three good ideas is to brainstorm a hundred weird ideas and kill off 97 of them. And we need to get used to that process, and not, say, shut down Silicon Valley because there are too many start-ups there wasting Microsoft's valuable resources. We really do need to learn to generate lots of prototypes, throw 'em at the wall, search them, sort them, rank them, critique them, and blow the best ones into global-scale proportions at high speed. That's what our contemporary civilization is really good at, and it is simply beyond the imagination of the 1960s. If there's hope, it's in the facts. It's not in faith.
To me, "sustainability" means a situation in which your descendants are able to confront their own problems, rather than the ones you exported to them. If people a hundred years from now are soberly engaged with phenomena we have no nouns and verbs for, I think that's a victory condition. On the other hand, if they're thumbing through 1960s Small World paperbacks and saying "thank goodness we've finally managed to pare our lives back exclusively to soybeans and bamboo," well, that's not the end of the world, but it's about as appealing as a future global takeover by the Amish. Give me the computronium problems; at least I can get out of bed and not have to mimic every move my grandpa made.
I sincerely don't think the American population is as mentally frail as everybody in the American population seems to think the American population is... I never heard any American sincerely say that their life would end if they lacked an SUV and a McMansion. Those are fashionable possessions in some circles, but they're not entirely necessary to American self-esteem. Big junkola cars and tract homes are actually something of a hayseed lower-middle-class possession. Genuinely rich Americans are vastly more interested in immaterial stuff like stock options and boardroom positions than they are in big burly vehicles. The SUV-critique thing is more like bohemians dismissing the straight-life than it is a principle of consumer behavior. If you go to the Davos Forum you don't meet a traffic jam of SUVs. You do see a traffic jam of sunglassed bodyguards and elegant, multi-lingual mistresses clad in Gucci, but not a lot of, you know, big Winnebagos. If civilization cracks, it's gonna be because something really cracks it, not because it's really scary to talk about terror and loss.
Serious-minded people everywhere do know they have to deal with the resource crisis and the climate crisis. Because the world-machine's backfiring and puffing smoke. Joe and Jane Sixpack are looking at four-dollar milk and five-dollar gas. It's hurting and it's scary and there's no way out of it but through it. Everybody's reluctant to budge because they sense, probably correctly, that they have to wade through a torrent of mud, blood, sweat, and tears. Maybe, then, they emerge into the relatively sunlit uplands of something closer to sustainability. So: I don't expect too much to happen in 2008: except for that intensified smell of burning as people's feet are held to the fire.

2008-01-07 n/a 11461 Studying for the LEED-AP Test 7/1/09 Update: The LEED AP exam has significantly changed, and the following information has not been updated to reflect this. And by the way, if you are looking to learn about the LEED 2009 rating systems, there's no better tool out there than our own The LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) exam consists of 80 questions, and is scored on a scale of 125 to 200, with a score of 170 being good enough to pass. I thought that writing for Environmental Building News and earning a master's certificate in sustainable design online through the Boston Architectural College, I was in good shape for taking the LEED-AP test and joining the ranks, so I scheduled my accreditation exam for later this winter. I remember the drill from taking the SATs in high school -- practicing actual questions is the best way to study. So I started looking for sample tests and other test prep junk, which led me to the popular ARE Forum, where I got my first reality check. Here's what some people said about the test: "I took the LEED NC 2.2 test on Friday and scored a 168 out of 170. I plan on taking it again this week. Kills me as I was so close. The test was pretty fair but hard. There about 5 questions that I believe were unfair." -ReddFL "The report said I failed bad in the credit intent and understanding which confuses me as I know the requirements like the back of my hand....well for most of them." -Hobstar "I just got back from failing the exam... 163. I'll be retesting next Thursday. The proctor told me that if I had gotten one more question right, I probably would have passed. IF. I now despise that word... IF. " - it aint ez bein green I'd heard that the test had gotten harder since the early days, but comments like these really underlined that. So I've dug in, taken (and failed) a practice test, and made up flashcards to learn just what are SMACNA, IPMVP, BMP, and good ol' EPA, and in what credits they are relevant (the University of Florida also has free online flashcards). One way of looking at LEED is as a standardized test for buildings, an approach that has pluses (it's democratic and transparent, or at least tries to be) and minuses (it encourages building by checklist, much like American schools "teach for the test"). The LEED-AP exam, then, is a standardized test to qualify to proctor a standardized test. That about sums up how much it has to do with actually building a green building. In the plus column, now I've finally learned what is SCAQMD. (I had been picturing a bureaucracy of squid doctors, when in fact it's the South Coast Air Quality Management District, it regulates stationary sources of air pollution in Orange County, CA, and its standards are referenced in EQ Credits 4.1 and 4.2, Low-Emitting Materials). What are your LEED-AP exam experiences? For those who have earned them, how do you feel about having those letters after your name? 2007-12-30 n/a 11468 Notes from Sweden #2: Western Harbor in Malmo

[Clicking an image in this post will load a larger version of the image. A slideshow of the images in this post, and more, is also available. Previous posts in the "Notes from Sweden" series include #1: How They Get Around.] It's enough to make architects go weak at the knees. I'm not an architect, but wandering around Malmo's Western Harbor (Vaestra Hamnen), I can imagine my architect friends going bananas about these buildings — many of which were designed and built through an architectural competition that attracted many top architects. Overlooking the area is the remarkable 190-meter (630-foot) Turning Torso building designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. I'm usually not so taken by architectural statement buildings, but one could literally spend hours gazing up at this twisting spire with its exposed exoskeleton on one side. Its appearance changes dramatically as one wanders around the building and views it from different angles.

Santiago Calatrava's 190-meter Turning Torso building in Malmo, Sweden

Turning Torso building — looking up

The Turning Torso seen behind some modern homes in the Western Harbor area

Another view of the Turning Torso

But even more exciting to me is the sustainability overlay for the entire Western Harbor region. My daughter Lillian and I were brought down here on a windy, drizzly Sunday afternoon by my host, Stellan. He's a lawyer in Lund, the brother-in-law of a good friend in Brattleboro. He showed us around not because of the green characteristics of Western Harbor, but because of the vibrancy of the area. It just exudes diversity, innovation, and high design — and has become a real draw for people from throughout southern Sweden. Then yesterday — Monday — Lillian and I returned with an associate of my Brattleboro friend, who had arranged several visits during a day-long sustainability tour of the region. This time, we were met by Trevor Graham, the project manager of the Western Harbor development with the City of Malmo — and we were able to see it from a whole new light. The Western Harbor site is a former shipyard that was closed down in the 1980s. A Saab factory came in the 1990s, lured by heavy government subsidies to provide jobs for displaced shipyard workers — but it left after a few years. (Gaming the system by big companies apparently happens in Sweden too!) Following the closing of the Saab factory, the city of Malmo embarked on a bold vision for a city of the future on the harbor-front site. The first phase of redevelopment coincided with the 2001 European Housing Expo Bo01 — and the 25-hectare (62-acre) site for this portion of the overall project carries the Bo01 name.

Taller buildings at the outer edge of the Western Harbor development shelter interior buildings from the strong winds

Housing in the Western Harbor area; extensive use of bright colors

To date, Bo01 has over 1,000 housing units, along with restaurants, student housing, and a senior housing project. The first buildings were completed in 2001, and construction continues at a rapid pace. According to Graham, developers are now almost tripping over themselves to better the energy and environmental performance of earlier projects. Several new multifamily buildings are under construction that are designed to achieve the European PassivHaus standards.

A row of houses in the Western Harbor; the one at the end (on the left) was designed and built by a Norwegian team

Interesting architecture in a row of houses designed by different international teams; note the solar collectors on the roof

Heavy use of cast-in-place concrete in these housing units

Use of autoclaved aerated concrete (I believe) in a multifamily house in Malmo's Western Harbor area

One house we walked past was a modular house that won the low-energy award for the first phase of housing development — with annual energy consumption of just 87 kWh per square meter. Some of the PassivHaus buildings now under construction will have even lower energy consumption.

This modular home uses just 87 kWh per square meter annually for heating and hot water

Another shot of the low-energy modular home; to the left is Trevor Graham, the Western Harbor Project Manager for the City of Malmo and in the center Karl-Erik Grevendahl

A few other features of the Western Harbor region: The area is (or will be) served by 100% renewable energy. Eight-five percent of the heat is derived from heat pumps that draw energy from an aquifer 90 meters (300 feet) underground. The electricity to power the heat pumps is derived from large windmills located offshore in the harbor between Sweden and Denmark. The other 15% of the heat for the area is being supplied by solar-thermal energy collected on ten of the larger apartment buildings — see photos with the large arrays of evacuated-tube solar collectors. There are also some sizeable photovoltaic arrays, but Graham admitted that these are mostly for show, providing only token power for the project.

A photovoltaic array on the roof of a multifamily building in the Western Harbor; the array slides out to provide seasonal shading

A building with rooftop evacuated-tube solar collectors

Two buildings with the south-wall and rooftop solar collectors

An organic restaurant in the lower floor of this building, Salt & Brygga, where we ate, uses almost exclusively locally produced produce and meats

Like many areas in Sweden, the Western Harbor area is entirely served by a district energy system (buried, insulated pipes that carry hot water for heating and water heating). Unlike most district energy systems, this is a low-temperature system — there is only one other like it in Sweden. Instead of the water being distributed at just over 100°C (standard practice for distributed heat), the water in this system is distributed at about 65°C. This allows solar-thermal energy to be used more effectively. Car dependence is minimized. Walkability and public transit keeps the need for vehicles very low. In fact, parking space provided in the Bo01 area is just 0.7 cars per apartment — well below the typical 1.1 figure for Malmo (which is far below parking allocations in the U.S.). Most of the parking here is underground. The geometry of the area is designed to have taller buildings on the outside (toward the windy harbor) to shelter the housing on the interior. While the development is dense, there is a point-based "green space factor" that mandates biodiversity features. Such features can include green roofs, trees, nesting boxes for birds and bats, adequate soil depth for vegetables and wildflowers. There are extensive provisions for recycling of most waste materials, including the collection of organic waste for a municipal biogas plant. These organic wastes are collected through an advanced central vacuum system.

These disposal chutes are used to transfer organic waste to a central location where it is collected to feed a municipal biogas plant

I don't understand how these chutes work either, but they apparently rely on a vacuum

Biogas is mixed with the natural gas used in Malmo's busses and many cars. Currently, biogas provides 25% of municipal fleet energy use, with an increase to 50% in 2-3 years (once a new biogas plant currently under construction goes online) and eventually 100%. There are many innovative stormwater solutions seen here, including green roofs, rooftop rainwater catchment, and surface water features throughout the development. Expertise for the green roofs comes from the Green Roof Institute in Malmo, founded in 1998. (I'll make a separate post about that here on LIVE.) If I have one complaint about the Western Harbor project it is the lack of commercial space. Except for a few restaurants, the buildings are almost entirely residential. This place would be even better if there were mixed uses. For more on the project, see the following websites (in English!) Västra Hamnen — The Western Harbour Bo01 - An Ecological City of Tomorrow in the Western Harbour, Malmö Case Study: 100% locally renewable energy in the Western harbour of Malmö in Sweden, Sweden — Alex Wilson, Malmo, Sweden, 10 December 2007

2007-12-11 n/a 11469 Who's Gonna Change the World? The answer to this question is... MIT might, but only if it wants to. I went to a "lecture" at MIT a few days ago — part of the "Critical Issues" series put on by, of all groups, the MIT Women's League. (Kira Gould, author of Women In Green would have a field day with this!) The idea for the evening was to present ways in which MIT might think about greening the campus, in the context of making a much wider impact on the world. Lofty goals indeed. The interesting points from the afternoon were that first, a little elementary school in the woods of New Jersey has had a disproportionate impact on its community by following its regenerative design ideals; and second, that MIT could easily perform a similar duty in a much larger community and have pretty far-reaching effect. The folks presenting ideas were:
  • Rebecca Henderson, the George Eastman Kodak Professor of Management at MIT's Sloan School of Management. (I'm sure we could toss a few more words in there... but why?) Rebecca is the classic big thinking, big consulting client strategy professor at MIT who is scared to death about climate change and other environmental issues.
  • Mark Beidron, co-founder of the Willow School, a kindergarten through 8th grade private school in New Jersey focused on environmental literacy for its students. An interesting choice for a conversation about MIT... but hang with me here.
  • Bill Reed, one of the leading voices in green design issues. But that just scratches the surface of Bill's vision of regenerative design and community building. Bill is exactly the right person for this discussion.
  • Steven Lanou, the Deputy Director for the Environmental programs Office at MIT. Steve's job is to manage the Energy Initiative at MIT and help green the campus.
Professor Henderson did a great job of channeling Ed Mazria in presenting the need to radically reduce energy consumption. The question that Ms. Henderson left the audience with was this: Why bother with greening MIT? it's just a tiny part of the problem. Why not reach outward? This is where Mark Beidron teed up the answer that Bill Reed knocked out of the park (to mix my sports metaphors). Mr. Beldron described his small private school in Gladstone, New Jersey as a resource for the whole county around how to use built environments to restore damaged landscapes. Of course, they also do a nice job with bringing kids into this process, thereby spreading the ideas into the future. Mr. Reed took the opportunity to get the small crowd excited with his description of regenerative design, forcefully making the point that the seemingly small but focused actions of a single campus in a larger community can amplify the results of those actions. One of Bill's examples of such effect was a local town's opportunity to change how it deals with stormwater and how that would affect the whole watershed, as well as a host of activities in the town itself, costing the town about half of what it was expecting to spend for a more technological solution. Mr. Reed's point was simple: change the game, even on a small scale, and other will start to play by your new rules. Turn MIT into an oasis of regenerative thinking and action, and you have changed the game for the whole city. Unfortunately, Steve Lanou was somewhat mired in his current vision of how MIT works to jump into a new mindset. He did present some interesting information about the energy demands of MIT into the future, showing a 5% to 10% increase in demand for energy onward into the foreseeable future. Steve's question was about how MIT can meet this demand with renewable energy. Steve was not really ready to jump into the idea of transforming that energy demand. Steve mentioned a 2004 study of MIT employee commuting habits that indicate that an effort by MIT to reduce driving by employees has been pretty successful, cutting the transportation energy intensity (see the EBN feature, Driving to Green Buildings) of the campus. It looks to me that the MIT campus could use a similar effort to change the overall approach to energy and water use and conservation. Hopefully, this symposium continues the push.
2007-12-11 n/a 11470 Notes from Sweden #1: How They Get Around

[Clicking an image in this post will load a larger version of the image. A slideshow of the images in this post is also available.]Despite the light drizzle and the fading light of Sweden's mid-afternoon dusk when I arrived in Lund, it was immediately clear that the prevalent form of transportation here is bicycling. Bicycles are everywhere. Hundreds are parked at the train station, where I arrived from Copenhagen. For every person I saw in a private automobile, there were probably 20 on bicycles.

It's such a pleasant contrast to the U.S. and our car-dependent cities and towns. Of course, I suppose it helps that this part of southern Sweden is quite flat. The region has some of the best farmland in the country.

Many of the cobblestone-paved streets have designated bicycle lanes and sidewalks, demarked by different paving patterns. There are also separate bicycle/walking pathways, usually with marked bike lanes for travel in both directions, with walkways on one side — or both. These pathways, at least in the Lund University campus, have their own roadway underpasses, signage, intersections, and even traffic lights in some places. One can bike all the way to Malmo, maybe 25 kilometers away, on paved bicycle pathways — and I get the sense that there are good pathways connecting most towns and cities here. The city is the most pedestrian-friendly I've ever experienced. Traffic-calming features are everywhere: all manner of speed bumps, including raised platforms, and pedestrian bump-outs (allowing easy crossing for pedestrians while slowing traffic with the narrowed feel of the street). At these bump-outs, provision is made for bicyclists to pass through, rather than being squeezed into the vehicle lane.

And then the public transit! Most of the vehicles in Lund are low-entry, green Mercedes buses, inviting with large windows and easy access — no flight of steps like most of our buses in the U.S. I haven't had need to ride a bus, since we're almost exclusively on foot, but it looks like a breeze.

And the train from Copenhagen to Malmo and Lund is wonderful: quiet, comfortable, efficient, easy. One catches the train right at the Copenhagen airport, and it crosses the sound between Denmark and Sweden on the second-longest rail-vehicle bridge in the world. It was overcast and raining when I came in, so we couldn't see the large offshore wind farm just to the south and (often — apparently) visible from the train. The evening I arrived, we went back into Malmo to rendezvous with a friend from DOE, who happened to be in the city for an International Energy Agency meeting; again, the train trip was a breeze.

Somewhat surprisingly, the private cars I do see here are larger than I had expected. When I visited France a few years ago, the cars were mostly tiny: smaller than the littlest cars one sees in the U.S. and unlikely to even be legal in the U.S. I saw the same in Brazil several years ago. This being Sweden, quite a few of the cars here are Volvos and Saabs — and many are the same models (fairly large and not that efficient) that we have in the States. I don't see many of the small European and Japanese diesels that were so common in France. But I also don't see any cars larger than a mid-size Volvo.

Today, my host toured my daughter and me around — driving south through Malmo. The highways seem highly organized, efficient, and not too crowded (though it is a Sunday). Roundabouts are far more common than traffic lights, so one can drive through without having to come to a stop — a significant energy-saving feature. Where there are traffic lights, I was interested to see that before a red light turns green, the yellow comes on as well for a second or two — so that someone driving toward the intersection can see that the light is about to change and avoid having to slow down (and wasting energy when re-accelerating).

All in all, the Swedes are so far ahead of the U.S. when it comes to transportation infrastructure and planning that it isn't even funny. It's a pleasure to avoid cars here!

A wood-chip boiler facility; stay tuned...

— Alex Wilson, Lund Sweden, 9 December 2007

2007-12-09 n/a 11474 Green Building Jokes

"Humor is a serious thing. I like to think of it as one of our greatest natural resources, which must be preserved at all cost." —James Thurber

We talk a lot about energy efficiency here at Environmental Building News. If we follow Thurber's lead and add environmental humor to our concerns, what do we get? The green building light bulb joke, of course. I wrote these for your enjoyment. Feel free to add yours below!

  • How many daylighting consultants does it take to change a light bulb? None—the sun will be back up in exactly 10 hours.

  • How many LEED Accredited Professionals does it take to change a light bulb? Four—one to tell you how to earn LEED points by changing it, one to change it, one to document the change, and one to deliver the check to the U.S. Green Building Council for certifying the change.

  • How many product manufacturers does it take to change a light bulb? 10,001. Ten thousand to resist the change for as long as possible, and then the same 10,000 to tell you how many LEED points you can earn from making the change with their product. Oh, and one to change it.

  • How many occupants does it take to change a light bulb? None. They'd rather curse the broken light bulb, the electrician, the landlord, and the architect.

  • How much actual energy performance data does it take to change a light bulb? Don't know—we're still waiting for information from the engineer, who's waiting for information from the utility, who won't provide information until a submeter is installed, and the owner decided not to pay for it.

  • How many salvage contractors does it take to change a light bulb? Two—one to change it, and one to sell the broken light bulb as aggregate for landscaping around the new light bulb.

  • How many code officials does it take to change a light bulb? CHANGE?! I think not.

  • How many life-cycle assessment experts does it take to change a light bulb? Two—one to change it, and one to change it back again after more data has come in.

  • How many LEED credits does it take to change a light bulb? One—but you need a writer, 18 committee members representing manufacturers, government, the environmental community, the social justice community, and the health and safety community, three draft versions, two public comment periods, one life-cycle analysis, one pilot period with 100 pilot light bulbs, one member ballot, and one competing system with completely different standards.

  • How many State of California regulations does it take to change a light bulb? Three—one to require that you change the light bulb, one to warn you that changing it could cause cancer, and one to ban disposal of the old light bulb.

  • How many inventors of new lighting technology does it take to change a light bulb? It just looks like it's broken—the color temperature on these is in the Celsius scale.

  • How many Forest Stewardship Council-certified light bulbs does it take to change a light bulb? None—the indigenous light bulb population won't allow it. And that new light bulb isn't certified for chain-of-custody, is it?

  • How much greenwashing does it take to change a light bulb? Don't change at all. Just fund an "independent" organization, use it to write a "sustainability" standard, and put this cool planet logo on the same old light bulb.

  • How many advocates for market transformation does it take to change a light bulb? Just one to write a green light bulb standard, changing the light bulb market forever. Oh, and one to specify a light bulb certified under that standard; one to start a foundation to subsidize purchases of the certified light bulbs; one to search the ends of the Earth for the actual product; one to buy it, and one to change it.

  • How many William McDonoughs does it take to change a light bulb? The real question is, how do we love all the light bulbs of all species for all time? Let's eliminate the concept of the broken light bulb.

  • How many commissioning agents does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to note the problems with the light bulb, the design of the lighting controls, the lightshelves, and the shading system, and one to change the light bulb.

  • How many owner's representatives does it take to change a light bulb? Sorry, that item has been value-engineered out!

  • How many U.S. Green Building Council Cascadia Chapter members does it take to change a light bulb? You can change the light bulb, but only if there was already a light bulb in that socket before, if you use a light bulb with no PVC, formaldehyde, or halogenated flame retardants, and if the new light bulb is beautiful and inspiring.

  • How many natural builders does it take to change a light bulb? Two—one to change it, and one to sculpt a decorative mud-and-straw wall around the old light bulb.

  • How many lighting designers does it take to change a light bulb? Uh... "light bulb"? That's a lamp, what you are calling a "socket" is a luminaire, and I think you'd get better efficacy if you changed the ballast instead.

  • How many Environmental Building News editors does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change it, and one to write, "One billion light bulbs will be changed in 2008, according to U.S. Department of Energy statistics. It's critically important that we use energy-efficiency light bulbs to replace the broken ones, but unfortunately, many light bulbs don't meet our GreenSpec standards, and changing light bulbs entails numerous health and environmental risks that you have never heard of before. In this article, we will examine the history of the light bulb, from its origins with tungsten filament..."

  • This just in...
  • How many LEED AP exam takers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Let's see... EA Credit 1, EA Credit 5, MR Credit 2 if you recycle it, and maybe SS Credit 8, depending on the location. Sorry... what was the question?

2007-12-03 n/a 11422 IPCC to Building Industry: Tag, You're It So, this is it. The shoe has dropped. The Fourth (and final) Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is out, and people seem to be paying attention. It got prominant coverage in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and a zillion other places—would have had even more impact if it were not on a Saturday, but what can you do? Apparently emboldened by their shared Nobel Prize, the scientists on the Panel reportedly stood their ground against attacks from the big polluters (that's us, and China) and from Saudi Arabia. They released a final Synthesis Report and a Summary for Policy Makers that doesn't mince words in laying out the likely consequences of various levels of warming. It's scary stuff. The warming has already started. Some more is inevitable. How much is hard to say. At low levels the impacts are severe, especially on those populations (both human and other) who can least afford to adapt. At higher levels predictions get fuzzy, because unforeseen secondary and tertiary effects of the phenomena that can be predicted could prove overwhelming. If the ice shelves in Greenland and Western Antarctica melt, all bets are off—the Panel won't even hazard a guess as to how much sea levels might rise. Hopefully that part got the politicians' attention. They meet in Bali next month to figure out what act follows the bag of hot air that was the Kyoto accords. More hot air is not what we need. But thanks to a press release that came today from the energy modeling tools company IES, I was drawn to another part of the report. Working group III, on mitigation strategies, has gone through and explored the options throughout the global economy, sector by sector. Guess which one counts the most: That's right, buildings (see chart, stolen from page 11 of Working Group III Report's Summary for Policymakers). Buildings account for the largest share of CO2 emissions. The good news is that in buildings resides the biggest opportunity for cost-effective carbon reductions. Much of those reductions can be achieved with a net gain in economic value. Amory Lovins has been telling us that for years. It's nice that the Panel of scientists noticed. So, the future is in our hands. Sitting on our hands is not an option—if we in the buildings industry don't do our part, the rest won't be enough to make a difference. Of course, the other sectors still have to do their parts (and, as we've seen in Alex's work on the transportation intensity of buildings, the sectors are not really all that isolated). But in buildings, we still have a chance to reduce carbon emissions and save money in the process. Money that can be spent on better things than importing more oil or digging more coal. 2007-11-20 n/a 11429 Community Leader Gail Lindsey Mark posted earlier about David Eisenberg and his organization, DCAT, getting USGBC's Organization Excellence Leadership Award at Greenbuild 2007. David has certainly been a great friend and mentor to many of us here at BuildingGreen. Personally, I have to say that no one has had more impact on my career in green building than Gail Lindsey (except, of course, BuildingGreen's fearless leader Alex). You can see a summary of her achievements in this online bio (PDF format). Gail was recognized by USGBC for her role in creating Community, which is certainly apt. She has an amazing ability to make connections—between people, ideas, projects, you name it—everywhere she goes. In conversations about specific projects, whenever there is the suggestion that a choice has to be made between two competing possibilities, Gail speaks up as the "And Police"—not "this OR that" she says, but "this AND that". Nothing can be excluded in her holistic view of the world. Another favorite inside joke is that when Gail is involved in structuring a document or event you always end up with five categories, no more and no less. Ever wonder why LEED has five topic areas? Because Gail was involved when LEED transitioned from an alphabetical list of credits to its current category structure. Gail's influence on BuildingGreen, and on me in particular, has been nothing short of profound. She was one of EBN's original advisory board members. She came to us when some defense contractors brought her a half-baked software tool in need of resuscitation, and worked with us (and with CREST) to create the Green Building Advisor. The case studies that she developed (with our input) for that tool became the basis for our work (again, with her help) on U.S. DOE's High Performance Buildings Database. And later on, when DOE asked us to manage AIA's Top Ten Green Projects competition using that database, we realized that AIA's competition was also Gail's baby, from her years as chair of the Committee on the Environment in the mid 1990s. As if that wasn't enough, it was Gail who recruited me in 2001 to chair the Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group for what we thought at the time was LEED version 3. I'm still trying to extricate myself from that role, having engaged with the development of LEED for New Construction versions 2.1 and 2.2, LEED for Core and Shell, LEED for Commercial Interiors, LEED for Existing Buildings, and a handful of other rating systems, before "LEED 3.0" was officially retired in favor of the new LEED Bookshelf nomenclature. Gail was also central to a project that I worked on for GSA called Expanding Our Approach, based Bill Reed's vision and the amazing synthesis skills of John Boecker and Joel Ann Todd, and she brought me into the Green Building Challenge initiative, through which I was able to travel to Vancouver, Maastricht, and Tokyo to participate in Sustainable Building Conferences. But perhaps most amazing of all is the fact that I'm not unique in this debt I owe to Gail. She's had this kind of influence on lots of people! Maybe we should form a club. 2007-11-13 n/a