Taxonomy Term en 8996 Asking the Right Questions About Sustainable Materials

Are there any sustainable materials? What does that even mean?

Near the end of another exciting and exhausting Greenbuild, I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with three other women deeply invested in sustainable material management: Lindsay James, InterfaceFlor; Gail Vittori, Center for Maximum Building Potential Building Systems, and Sarah Brooks, Natural Step Canada. We started the session with the question "Are there any sustainable materials?" and ended with the question " What does material stewardship look like in a sustainable society?"

In between these two questions lives a world of aspiration and complexity followed, if you're lucky--or defiant--by deeper aspiration. The thing is, this stuff is hard. It's complicated and can be messy. Simple answers can lead to different problems. The deeper answers we need to figure out together--no one can single-handedly provide the roadmap.

What became very clear to us as a panel, in all our discussions leading up to Greenbuild, was that we wanted to continue and deepen the conversation. It is our belief that the shift toward sustainable materials--and likely sustainability in general--will require dialogue across boundaries.

We asked the audience--"What new or different questions can you ask when considering material sustainability and material stewardship?" and here's what they said:

  • How do we change the economic model? What is the new model?
  • Who can I work with who's thinking about this stuff?
  • Maybe we should match the durability of a building product to the length of time it'll be used.
  • Can we achieve sustainability in the context of exponential growth of demand and an exploding global population?
  • Is sustainability a thing we can achieve--or a process we embark on? Does what it is depend on regional needs?
  • What do your competitors or critics say about your product? (If they don't answer, then don't work with them).
  • We need to form our own definition of quality. Ask manufacturers: are you helping or hurting?

The questions we brought to the table:

  • What if we acted like our quality of life depended on Nature and each other?
  • What if we saw our economic system as a design problem instead of a design constraint?
  • What if our materials contributed to creating conditions for health?
  • What if we could have more happiness with less stuff?

What other deeper questions do we all need to be asking? Who needs to be in the conversation? What are the best forums out there now for getting to the heart of the challenge we face in materials management, and what's still missing? If you'd like to be part of this continued conversation email, or comment on this blog post.

2011-10-12 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 9045 More Sloppy Cotton Batt Installations from Bonded Logic

Based on its own videos, the Arizona-based maker of recycled-denim Ultratouch insulation still doesn't get it when it comes to installation quality. 

What do you do when a green product doesn't live up to expectations? Here at BuildingGreen, we really want to see green building products succeed in the marketplace, and make it easy for professionals to find the best of the best in our GreenSpec guide.

But when we see something substandard, we feel it's important to point it out. To win the mainstream over to sustainability, we have to deliver on promises of reduced environmental burdens along with superior performance.

A little while back, I took Bonded Logic to task for flaws its Ultratouch cotton batt design and installation process.

The problems with Ultratouch


The worst flaw I found was that the product is too thin. After being compressed in bags for shipping from Ultratouch's Arizona plant, the post-consumer-denim cotton batts never regain their "loft." That means that insulation is going into wall and ceiling cavities with air spaces around it. Air that is completely stagnant insulates very well--at R-5, even better than Ultratouch's R-3.7. But air in wall cavities moves around with convection, contributing to heat loss and crippling the nominal R-value of the insulation. (Read more here on How Insulation Works.) I also found that the batts were too wide for 16-inch-on-center KD 2x4s (standard lumberyard kiln-dried sticks), leading again to air spaces due to poorly fitting batts.

Thirdly, I complained that the batts were really hard to cut. This was especially frustrating because the ill-fitting batts required a lot more cutting than a standard fiberglass batt.

The good news is that Bonded Logic is now perforating its batts at standard widths so that they are easier to cut for proper fitting. They haven't announced what those widths, are, however, and it seems like a tough problem. How standard are the sizes of the off-size stud cavities found in our buildings? Perhaps in new homes with designs optimized for manufactured material use they are standard, but in the retrofits and custom jobs that a lot of builders are doing today, I am not sure how useful these perforations will be.

Another piece of good news, according to a spokesperson I heard from, is that Ultratouch will also soon be available in different widths according to whether you're using wood or steel studs.

Bonded Logic still doesn't get it


However, Bonded Logic still doesn't seem to get it when it comes to installation quality. Whether you're using fiberglass or cotton batts, exact fitting to cavity sizes is key. That means cutting insulation around electrical boxes, wiring, and also cutting it for the occasional cavity of a different dimension. What I've seen of this installation video is pretty good, but there's a flub in the Bonded Logic video publicizing its new perforated batts. As the screen capture shows, the installer is placing a batt in a cavity with complete disregard for the unusual shape of the cavity. The installation will result in a classic poor batt installation--lack of complete contact with all six sides of the cavity. What kind of attention are they putting into other irregular cavities?

I brought up this issue with the same Bonded Logic spokesperson in two successive emails, and did not receive a response. That was a couple months ago. The video is still up, so I'm taking Bonded Logic to task again.

The real installation culprit: fiberglass


To be clear, I like cotton insulation for several reasons, including Bonded Logic's recent move to post-consumer recycled jeans (previously it was pre-consumer denim), and the fact that it's much less unpleasant than fiberglass to work with--although unlike the folks in their videos I would still wear a mask to protect from dust that comes off the product, particularly during cutting. Also, the real culprit in batt insulation is fiberglass, which has been poorly installed by so many people in so many buildings for so many years--to the extent that one observer called for it to be banned. All the more reason, though, that we need to do better in the green products community.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below.

2011-06-09 n/a 9048 Should Some Recycled Content Claims Get an Asterisk?

Recycling, and recycled content are good, right? Yes, but with some products you must look beyond that to decide if a product is truly green.

In a recent webcast on green building product certifications, I gave a counterintuitive example of greenwashing: a "recycled steel cabinet." Based on the number of questions I got about this, I realized this needed some more explaining.

Don't get me wrong: I'm very much in favor of recycling and laud the steel industry for its recycling rates. But a claim of recycled content in a product can be misinterpreted, and there's also more to the relative greenness of a cabinet than recycled content. Here's what I mean:

Recycling metals, including steel and aluminum, is vital. It dramatically reduces the embodied impact of the material relative to virgin (mined) metals. Continued focus on increasing reclamation and recycling rates is of great importance.

"Recycling = Good" is a sensible rule of thumb, but your actual mileage will vary. Using recycled content is generally an improvement over virgin material, particularly for metals--but watch the environmental impact. For example, according to ICE the average embodied carbon (kgCO2e/kg) of new aluminum is 12.79, while that of recycled aluminum is 1.81. In contrast, new glass is 0.91, while recycled glass is 0.59. It's possible, either in a specific stream of materials, or in a specific material type, that the environmental impact of collecting, and recycling would be greater than the impact of collecting and processing a virgin material or an alternative material. In that case, the rule of thumb wouldn't hold.
Recycling is one of many single-attribute claims that may or may not reflect the key issues for a product type.
It's time to take a broader life-cycle perspective when determining what to call green.  For an obvious example, we'd laugh if anyone tried to sell us on a commercial pre-rinse spray valve because of its recycled content without telling us about water usage and performance.

Back to that cabinet: A steel product that heavily markets its recycled content isn't better than a steel product that doesn't market that way. High recycled content is the norm for steel, and so a high recycled content steel cabinet, while a good thing, is status quo. It's cheaper to recycle steel than manufacture virgin steel, and if total demand weren't higher than what the recycled market could provide, steel could be pretty close to a closed-loop system. The steel industry is thus making an appropriate clarification by saying "steel with more than 80% recycled content cannot be described as environmentally superior to steel with 30% recycled content"--and you're not going to encourage greater recycling by specifying recycled steel. (See this EBN article for more explanation of recycled content in steel.)

Consider alternatives to aluminum. Here's another illustration of how a narrow focus on "% recycled content" can send us astray: Recycled aluminum has drastically lower environmental impact than virgin aluminum--so it seems like a no-brainer that recycled is the environmentally friendly choice over virgin. Depending on the product, this may not be the right comparison to make, however. With aluminum, worldwide demand for it is so strong that there isn't enough recycled material to go around. Buying something with aluminum, even if it's recycled, only increases overall aluminum demand. And once that aluminum is out there, only 42% of it will end up back in the recycling loop. If you really need aluminum for the application, choose recycled, but if the incredible properties of aluminum aren't vital for the product, another material may be a greener alternative.

Recycled content isn't enough anymore.  With furniture, there are a plethora of different materials and fabrications to choose from. While in the past we might have only had a single attribute like recycled content to assess a furniture product's "greenness," that is no longer the case. Many furniture companies now routinely share a much broader set of environmental characteristics. The BIFMA level certification, a multi-attribute third-party certification, helps us compare products based on multiple environmental impacts. Similarly, GreenSpec looks at a host of different environmental criteria when listing furniture, including product emissions, lower-impact materials and manufacturing processes, and third-party certifications.

Once we get through the glaringly obvious examples of greenwash, it's time to pay attention to greenwash the FTC is never going to catch.  When comparing alternatives, make sure the difference is real not just marketing, and look beyond single attributes to what else might be a concern for the product. Parting insight: Our process for listing products in GreenSpec incorporates just the kind of approach I'm talking about here--looking beyond a single attribute. Our list of recycled-content products is best-in-class green from a broader perspective than one single attribute. (We also display products based on LEED credit, such as contributing to MRc4.)

Illustration: Julia Jandrisits

2011-06-02 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 9152 Future Concrete Research
Figuring out the structure of concrete at the molecular level will go a long way toward greening this ubiquitous building material. Photo: Michael David Rose Photography.

When I began researching concrete for last month’s EBN feature article "Reducing Environmental Impacts of Cement and Concrete," one of my goals was to figure out how toxins are bound within concrete’s structure. I naively assumed that after over the 2000 years or so that concrete’s been in use, we had figured out everything there is to know about the material. How wrong I was.

Turns out that concrete’s crystalline structure was only just discovered in 2009 by researchers at MIT. It’s a major breakthrough but only the first step toward understanding concrete’s true carbon footprint and how cement interacts with ingredients like fly ash. “Concrete is a complicated material with a disorganized atomic structure,” according to Hamlin Jennings, executive director of MIT’s newly formed Concrete Sustainability Hub. Funded by the Portland Cement Association to the tune of 10 million dollars over the next five years and with technical assistance from the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, among others, the team’s research is “at the edge of modern computational ability” and employs a team of scientists from diverse fields not typically associated with concrete. One of the research center’s goals is to map the molecular structure of concrete to improve its environmental footprint, performance, and allow for predictive performance computer modeling of mixes without expensive and time-consuming testing. “On the molecular modeling side, it’s the best team ever put together,” said Jennings.

Perhaps the research investment is simply an acknowledgment of the cement industry’s need to adapt to rising fuel costs, stricter emissions regulations, and a changing building industry, but the center’s mission is forward thinking by any measure, especially for an industry with a history of being conservative and slow to change. I’m looking forward to tracking the progress of their research in the upcoming years. Hopefully the investment will pay off and we’ll see the materials breakthrough needed to minimize the environmental problems posed by current portland cement production.

2010-09-14 n/a 11955 There IS a certification for hazard-free products! Go figure I'd finish a feature article (Chemistry for Designers: Understanding Hazards in Building Products) saying there's no certification in the USA for products that are hazard-free and immediately a label gets launched. That's ok, I have no complaints with things moving fast in this field. I haven't dug into the details enough to vouch for this system yet – but the Hazardous Substance Free product label (HSF Mark), launched March 1, looks pretty good at first glance, though only for powered products (appliances, heating & cooling equipment, lighting, and home and office electronics). Products with the HSF Mark meet hazard restrictions set by ROHS, WEEE, or REACH (three European regulations addressing respectively, hazards in electronics, electronic waste, and a more general overarching program on chemical hazards in products). This means these products may still include listed hazards at the reduced levels acceptable in the regulation, or hazards we don't know about. But this is about as good as it gets right now, until people start proactively looking at hazardous properties instead of specific listed chemicals (the GreenScreen and BASTA systems mentioned in the feature article do this, but it's rare). To use the HSF Mark, Manufacturers (and their supply chain) have to engage in a "hazardous substance process management (HSPM) system, which includes a 3rd party assessment and annual surveillance – so rather than just testing the specific product, they're looking at the whole process, which I think is better in the long run. The plan is to have an online database of these products – supposedly there are over 2000 certified HSPM companies now with products that qualify now - but we'll have to wait and see if this turns out to be truly useful to purchasers in the US. 2010-03-10 n/a 11936 Exciting Developments at Marvin Windows I was at Efficiency Vermont's Better Buildings Conference in Burlington, Vermont last week. It's a great conference each February to learn about energy-efficient construction and find out about innovations in energy-conserving products, from lighting to heating systems.

Wandering around the trade show at Better Buildings, my attention was caught by several cut-away window corners at the Marvin Windows & Doors booth. For years at conferences, I've made it a point to ask the mainstream window manufacturers when they will give more attention to triple-glazed windows. Usually I just get blank stares from the salespeople. Marvin has offered a one-inch-thick triple-glazed window since the early 1990s, though never widely promoted the product. Then last year the company introduced a 1-1/2-inch triple-glazed window. Either can be ordered with whatever type of glass, low-e coatings, and gas-fill you want.

These triple-glazed windows are available with NFRC-certified unit U-factors as low as 0.21 (R-4.8), with solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) options from 0.20 to 0.39, depending on the coatings and gas-fill specified. While all of these performance numbers have been third-party certified, other glazing configurations have not gone through that process yet. Significantly higher SHGC values are available by using a higher-solar-transmission glazing, such as LoE-179, and lower U-factors may be achievable, for example with two LoE3-366 coatings. Marvin uses glazing from Cardinal Glass Industries and can provide the following low-e options: LoE-179, LoE2-240, LoE2-272, LoE3-366.

Marvin can also put the coatings on different surfaces to optimize performance for different climates. This means that glazings that will work well for south-facing windows (high-SHGC) are available as well as low-SHGC glazings optimized for east and west-facing windows and for southern climates where reducing solar gain is a priority.

With the 1-1/2" glazing option, I was particularly impressed with the thermal breaks that are designed into the frame, which are especially important with aluminum-clad windows. It is an extremely well-thought-out window that carries Marvin's 20-year, fully transferable warranty.

Triple glazing is available in the following Marvin product lines: Ultimate Double Hung, Ultimate Double Hung Magnum, Ultimate Casement/Awning, Direct Glazed Polygon, Tilt-Turn, and 2-1/4" French Door. Triple glazing is not currently available on either of Marvin's fiberglass lines: Integrity and Infinity.

There is significant added cost for triple glazing, though these windows generally price out lower than most Canadian fiberglass-framed triple-glazed windows, according to John Beeman, of A.W. Hastings, a regional Marvin Window distributor. Once a decision has been made to go to triple glazing, the added cost of a second low-e coating is usually only a few dollars per square foot. Contact a Marvin dealer for pricing information.

The other significant development from Marvin is the availability, starting February 1, 2010, of chain-of-custody Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified for any wood species used in Marvin windows. Along with Marvin's softwoods are FSC-certified tropical hardwoods Cedro Macho and Mahogany and domestic hardwoods in the company's Signature products.

As with triple glazing, there is an upcharge for FSC-certified wood. Chain-of-custody Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification is also available.

For more information:

Marvin Windows & Doors
Warroad, Minnesota

I invite you to share comments on this blog. Do you use or specify triple-glazed windows regularly? Any experience with Marvin's offerings?

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See more on this product in the GreenSpec Guide
2010-02-18 n/a 11938 SafeTouch Polyester Batt Insulation from Dow Update: We have learned that SafeTouch was discontinued by Dow in spring 2011 due to poor sales. More detail in the comments below. We have confirmed that EnGuard polyester insulation, from Vita Nonwovens, remains available. – The Editors I gotta say, I was pretty surprised to come across this product recently. I make it a habit of keeping up with new products as they come out--especially insulation materials. I had somehow missed this.

Dow Chemical launched SafeTouch in a few select markets in 2007, but expanded availability late last year to 53 market areas, mostly in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and exclusively through Lowes stores. You can find stores carrying the product using this locator. SafeTouch is a batt insulation material made from 100% polyester fiber. The material contains no fiberglass, so there are no respirable glass or mineral fibers to cause itchy skin, red eyes or respiratory problems--so there's no need for a dust mask, gloves, or goggles. It has no formaldehyde binder to hold the fibers together; there's not even an acrylic binder. And the product apparently requires no flame retardant, which is added to cotton insulation and virtually all other plastic insulation materials (see more below on fire-resistance properties).

Currently, SafeTouch is made from virgin polyester fiber, the same type of fiber used in clothing and bedding. According to Amy Millslagle of Dow, however, recycled content "will be included in the near future."

Batts are available in R-13 and R-19 thicknesses for standard-width stud walls. The retail cost is $0.72/square foot for the R-11 batt and $1.02/square foot for the R-19 batt, according to Millsagle; this is somewhat higher than fiberglass. The product is available unfaced and with a plastic facing.

A thicker, R-30 product will be offered in the future, according to Brent Salamon, a senior research specialist at Dow.

Dow says that the batts can be cut with a knife or torn after cutting the facing. Working with a sample I received from the company, I found cutting with a knife extremely difficult, but scissors worked relatively well. The material can be torn fairly easily, but the fit will then not be as snug.

I was surprised about the lack of flame retardant in SafeTouch, especially since polyester is a thermoplastic (a type of plastic that melts), but Salamon assured me that the company purchases standard polyester fiber--not polyester that has been treated with flame retardant. "Through selection of the fibers, we're able to pass the test," he told me, referring to the flame spread number of less than 25 and smoke-developed number of less that 450. "It meets the requirements of the building code," said Salamon.

Salamon explained that in a fire, the fibers melt and "tend to pull away from the fire." I confirmed this with some very anecdotal testing I conducted (outside!). Exposed to a match, the fibers quickly melted and pulled away from the flame, but did not burst into flame. I still wonder about the fire-safety of the product, however.

I like the fact that SafeTouch is free of respirable fiberglass particles, formaldehyde, and halogenated flame retardants. Except for cutting it, the insulation would be great to work with--no itchy skin and red eyes after a day of insulating! (And if you feel a nap coming on, you've got a pillow right there!)

I'll feel even better about SafeTouch once it's made using recycled content, and I'd like to see some more exhaustive fire test results. (I'm not a big fan of the ASTM E-84 Tunnel Test, which I suspect was used in testing SafeTouch.) But, I've got to hand it to Dow for broadening its insulation offerings with an emphasis on green.

For more information:

Dow Building Solutions
Midland, Michigan

I invite you to share your comments on this blog. Have you used SafeTouch? Any thoughts on its fire safety?

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2010-02-11 n/a 11939 From Grease Traps to Green Kitchens: Reflections of a Recovering Food Service Professional Over the years I've held a lot of job titles and have done most kitchen jobs, from cleaning a large supperclub's grease traps in mid-July after the obligatory upper-Midwestern Friday fish fry (I don't recommend that as a career path) to picking herbs and edible flowers from the garden that I'd use in lobster salads at a Relais & Châteaux restaurant (that was a pretty good job). So when I started writing the article Commercial Kitchens: Cooking up Green Opportunities for Environmental Building News I knew there wasn't enough space to adequately cover all the stories, equipment, and processes encompassing sustainable commercial kitchens. Kitchen size and demands vary enormously; each piece of equipment is worthy of a feature article; and don't get me started on menu choices and sustainable agriculture. Yet I hoped to give at least a cross section of the some of the more important issues. The most intriguing stories I heard while researching this article were from those pushing the envelope. From Don Fisher's tireless efforts at the Food Service Technology Center to David Yudkin MacGuyvering a heat exchanger onto a convection oven (pictured here), there are exceptional people out there doing creative things to make kitchens more energy and water efficient. But, industry wide, it is an uphill battle with entrenched ideas and priorities. I know a chef who controlled food costs down to the penny in order to save a few hundred dollars a year, while the display kitchen's ventilation hood ran full blast for twelve hours a day pulling conditioned air from the restaurant, wasting thousands of dollars in energy, heating, and cooling. The owner gave the chef a bonus for controlling food costs; the profits went up the ventilation stack. Maybe the feature will open a few eyes to the enormous energy and water waste in commercial kitchens, and the potential for savings (and increased profits). I welcome your tales of problems, creative solutions, anecdotes, or follow-up article suggestions. And would love to hear your kitchen-confidential-esque horror stories from the trenches. I kind of miss those days, minus the grease traps, of course. 2010-02-10 n/a 11941 TimberSIL Now Made with Waste-Ag Silicate We first wrote about TimberSIL from TimberSIL Products in a 2004 article in EBN, touting the company's treated wood as a revolution in the treated wood industry. From an environmental standpoint, a recent enhancement makes the product even better. I've just participated in the three-day Build Well conference in Sausalito--a first-ever think-tank conference organized by Bruce King, Ann Edminster, Jan Stensland, and Tom Hahn through the Ecological Building Network. It was a wonderful conference, one of the most exciting I've attended in years. Most of the hundred or so participants were staying at the gorgeous retreat center Cavallo Point Lodge where the event was held, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. The informal atmosphere afforded plenty of opportunity to get to know each other and carry on in-depth conversations on the topic of the moment.

Among the participants (and presenters) was Karen Slimak of Timber Treatment Technologies. In a discussion with Slimak over dinner the first evening, I learned--almost by coincidence--that the sodium silicate the company uses in its treatment process is derived 100% from burning rice hulls. Rice hulls have a high silica content--up to about 60%--and this silica is extracted in a gasification process in which the hulls are heated to produce three products: hydrogen (which is burned to generate electricity), carbon (used in making activated carbon for filters), and amorphous sodium silicate.

Timber Treatment Technologies switched entirely to this waste agricultural source of sodium silicate about a year ago. The material is sourced from a company that processes rice hulls from Louisiana and Mississippi. According to Slimak, millions of tons of rice hulls are available--an almost unlimited supply to support her company as it expands--though the company is investigating other clean sources of the compound.

Deriving the sodium silicate from a renewable supply reduces the environmental footprint of TimberSIL. Typically, the compound is derived from processing sand in an energy-intensive and polluting process.

This new feature of TimberSIL (it should now be able to help earn the rapidly renewable materials credit in LEED) adds to an impressive list of benefits of the product. Unlike chemically treated wood (using creosote, ACA, CCA, copper azole, and others), sodium silicate is totally nontoxic and VOC-free. It has been used in laundry detergents and other consumer products for well over 100 years. Rather than making wood toxic to decay organisms, the process surrounds wood cells with an amorphous glass--rendering the wood unrecognizable as a food source. TimberSIL is also noncorrosive and, in fact, sodium silicate is used as a corrosion inhibitor in sewage treatment plants.

TimberSIL is currently produced at a plant in South Carolina and distributed nationally by American International Forest Products, of Portland, Oregon. There are plans for additional plants, both in North America and abroad. Results of new fire tests (ASTM E-84) and accelerated aging (ASTM D-2898) have been very positive, with TimberSIL easily meeting the standard for Class A fire resistance and meeting California's stringent ignition-resistance standard for decking. More details are available in our January 2009 article in EBN.

For more information:

Timber Treatment Technologies
Springfield, Virginia

I invite you to share your comments on this blog. Have you used TimberSIL?  

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See more on this product in the GreenSpec Guide
2010-02-04 n/a 11925 Armstrong FSC-Certified Wood Flooring We've promoted the Forest Stewardship Council's wood certification program in the pages of Environmental Building News since FSC was formed back in 1994. We've always looked for companies offering FSC-certified wood products to highlight in EBN and GreenSpec. Over the years, most of those products have been from small companies; larger more industrial timber industry companies have shied away from FSC in favor of the less-rigorous Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification.

While we continue to feel great about small companies embracing FSC, we also find it exciting when larger players enter the FSC world--because these companies will help FSC become more accepted by the mainstream timber and building-products industries.

Thus, we were really pleased recently to learn that Armstrong World Industries, one of the world's largest flooring manufacturers, had entered the FSC world with FSC-certified engineered hardwood flooring products.

According to Daniel Call, Armstrong's vice president for wood product management, Armstrong's Somerset, Kentucky and Center, Texas facilities have carried FSC certification for about a year, while FSC certification of its Titusville, Pennsylvania plant has just been announced.

The company can make virtually any of its most popular engineered hardwood products with FSC wood, according to Call, including its Beckford Plank and Bruce American lines, for both commercial and residential applications.. Woods available include oak, maple, hickory, and walnut. Flooring widths range from 3" to 5-1/4" and lengths up to 47". As engineered product, the flooring does contain binders, but it meets CARB Phase II standards for low formaldehyde offgassing.

According to Call, "cost will be determined on a case-by-case basis, largely depending on quantity, but in general, users can expect 15-20% higher pricing than non-FSC-certified wood."

When asked if Armstrong might shift its entire hardwood flooring business to FSC-certified product, Call told BuildingGreen that there isn't enough FSC lumber to do this. "Given that all of the lumber processed in our plants comes from sustainably harvested U.S. forests," said Call, "we do not believe that FSC-certification of our supply meets a pressing environmental need the same way it does in South America or Southeast Asia."

For more information:

Armstrong World Industries
Lancaster, PA

I invite you to share your comments on this blog. If you'd like to receive an e-mail notice when my weekly product blog is posted, subscribe by entering your e-mail address in the upper right. You can also follow my musings on Twitter.
See more on this product in the GreenSpec Guide
2010-01-20 n/a 11927 People's Choice Top-10 GreenSpec Products of 2009 Here at, we recently announced our picks for the Top-10 green building products of 2009. The list is a pretty cool selection of newer products that could come in handy on your 2010 green projects. But what were your picks? If you were a subscriber to (which, I feel compelled to add, is a steal at our trial rate of $12.95 per week, or at $199 per year), you had access to our GreenSpec database of over 2,000 of the greenest products out there, thoroughly vetted by our editors, and sorted by CSI and applicability to LEED credits, among other things. We don't take advertising, by the way, so there's no hint of quid pro quo in our listings. Simple analysis of our website traffic statistics reveals which of those 2,000-plus products you read, researched, and generally clicked on most during 2009. Ladies and gentlemen...

The People's Choice Top-10 GreenSpec Products of 2009!

10) Navien Tankless Gas Water Heater

Navien offers ultra-efficient tankless condensing water heaters for commercial and residential applications. Microprocessors and sensors... Read more

9) Modular Greenwall Planting Systems

Tournesol Siteworks offers two greenwall applications. TerraScreen is an easily installed galvanized grid for hanging containered plants. The Tournesol VGM is a direct-planting system... Read more

8) Mooroof Recycled-Tire Roofing

 Mooroof roof tiles are made of post-consumer recycled tire rubber treads. The sidewalls are removed... Read more

7)  FSC-Certified, Formaldehyde-Free Wood Panel Products

Columbia Forest Products offers FSC hardwood plywood products, FSC hardwood veneers and FSC laminates using no-added-urea-formaldehyde (NAF) and no-added-urea-formaldehyde (NAUF) resins. Columbia manufactures hardwood plywood... Read more

6) Serious Windows

Serious Materials, parent company of Alpen Energy Group, has added Alpens's glazing to the company's own technology to create a variety of high-performance fiberglass windows under the Serious Windows brand. These windows use ... Read more

5) Suntech See Thru

Suntech See Thru (previously known as Photovol Glass from MSK) is photovoltaic glazing--a solar panel with a semit-ransparent finish that is installed as glazing and resembles tinted glass. See Thru sandwiches... Read more

4) Solar in a Box

Ready Solar manufacturers Solar in a Box, a pre-engineered and pre-assembled residential solar electric system. Partnering with inverter manufacturer KACO Solar and panel manufacturer... Read more

3) Moeding Alphaton and Longoton Rainscreen Panels

Shildan is the U.S. distributor of Alphaton and Longoton terra cotta rainscreens from the German company Moeding. Rainscreen cladding sheds moisture and allows venting of the exterior wall assembly, preventing moisture penetration... Read more

2) PermaFLOW

The PermaFLOW is a lavatory P-trap with a built-in cleaning mechanism. A paddle inside the unit can be manually rotated to wipe away build-up without having to open the trap. In addition, the PermaFLOW creates turbulence... Read more

1) Natura Interior Waterborne Paint

Benjamin Moore's Natura line of zero-VOC paints and primers are made for residential and light commercial applications. These spatter-resistant paints dry quickly... Read more

  • Used any of these products? Click through to them, and if you're a member, share your feedback with other members. Or, comment below.
  • What products do you like in 2010? Comment below, or see if we have them in the GreenSpec database. "Voting" for this year started January 1st!
  • The executive editor of GrenSpec is Alex Wilson, who just started a new blog, "Alex's Cool Product of the Week"--recommended reading.
  • 2010-01-14 n/a 11928 Clean Dry Hand Dryer Every time I turn around, it seems, I'm finding out about some new, really cool green building product. It's time to start sharing this information. Starting this week, I'll be writing a weekly "product of the week" blog. I'll be skipping around from category to category. Not every product will be brand new, but I'm guessing that most will be unfamiliar to most readers. I welcome suggestions of products I should cover. Contact me by email ( or use the comment field at the end of the blog to submit suggestions.

    Clean Dry Electric Hand Dryer from TOTO

    In Environmental Building News, we've been touting the new generation of high-speed electric hand dryers since January, 2002, just after Excel Dryer's XLerator hand dryer was introduced. The XLerator was the first electric hand dryer that used a very high-velocity air stream to not just dry hands by evaporating water, but to actually blow droplets of liquid water off hands. By doing this, the drying time is reduced from 30 or 40 seconds to just 10–15 seconds.
    By making electric hand drying more convenient, more users would find it acceptable, and hand dryers could be installed in place of paper towel dispensers. Life-cycle assessment (LCA) calculations we did back in 2002 (see inset figure in linked article above) found that drying hands with paper towels made from recycled paper (two per use) resulted in life-cycle energy consumption of about 460 kJ/use. By instead using a standard electric hand dryer, energy consumption per use is just 220 kJ, and the XLerator used just 76 kJ/use--one-sixth that of recycled-content paper towels!

    The problem with the XLerator is that it's really noisy. The first model introduced generated an alarming 90 dB when you put your hand right up close to the outlet. A subsequent model dropped the noise to 80–81 dB--nearly a ten-fold noise reduction (the decibel scale is logarithmic). But 80 dB is still pretty loud.

    This week's green product is TOTO's Clean Dry hand dryer. Available for several years in Japan and introduced into North America in 2008, the Clean Dry drops the noise down to just 58–62 dB, and TOTO claims it will dry hands in 12 second. Because the air isn't heated, the electricity consumption is just 510 watts, compared with 1,500 watts for the XLerator and 2,200 watts for a standard (old-style) electric hand dryer. I tried one last November at the Greenbuild conference in Phoenix, and it was certainly fast (though I didn't time it), and it seemed quieter than the XLerator and most other high-speed dryers I've tried. The air stream was cool, but the duration short enough that that didn't seem to be a problem.

    Rather than blowing air over hands in the open (which some sanitation experts suggest might disperse germs), TOTO's Clean Dry has an opening where users insert their hands. An inset model is mounted in the wall, so the outer surface of it is flush with the inside of the wall; this model generates just 58 dB. A surface-mount model is louder at 62 dB (because the wall cavity doesn't absorb as much of the sound), but it still works the same way.

    Operation is fully automatic, with an infrared sensor turning the dryer on. With both models, the droplets of water blown off a user's hands are captured in a hygienic drainage tray where germs are killed using UV light.

    The suggested retail price for the wall-mount version in a gray plastic finish (model HDR100) is $578. The price of the concealed (inset) version in a stainless steel satin finish (model HDR110) is $1,200. Discounting is typical with multi-unit purchases; contact a local dealer.

    For more information:

    Morrow, Georgia
    To find a dealer

    I invite you to share your comments on this blog. What's your experience been with the new high-speed electric hand dryers? Has anyone tried this product?

    Alex Wilson is the founder of BuildingGreen and executive editor of Environmental Building News and the GreenSpec product directory. You can also follow his musings on Twitter.
    See more on this product in the GreenSpec Guide
    2010-01-12 n/a 11931 Great User Feedback on Products - How Do We Get More? There was a flurry of excitement in the office this morning because of a volley of comments that came into about different products -- fantastic user insights on what works and doesn't in applying Murco joint compound, interactions between the Brac system and Toto toilets, and a cool unexpected benefit to DensArmor. This is just what we at BG want: real feedback on what works, what doesn't, tricky bits to installation - the kind of practical insight that makes a new product safer to try (or lets you know what to avoid). We can tease out what matters about a product from an environmental perspective, but this kind of practical insight is harder to come by. Also, we want to make sure our GreenSpec product listing decisions are based on solid data. Anecdotal evidence isn't standardized enough to use as criteria - but it sure helps if you're deciding whether to risk something new or trying to figure out a tricky problem. We know there are difficulties with sharing -- we're all short on time, it seems safer to grouse to a trusted colleague about the installation that went wrong than spread it around the internet, it's hard to be the one who speaks up about the poster-child green product that fails after a year -- but the benefits are huge. So here it is. We're trying to figure out how to help spread this kind of practical knowledge around. If a product in GreenSpec is faulty, or is exceptional, or needs to be installed a certain way, or has major lead time issues, or you can get an identical but cheaper version under a different name brand, we want to help you find that out from each other. It's easy to comment on any GreenSpec product. So how do we get you to do it? All those great comments linked to at the beginning of this blog? Margaret Rogers wrote them all. We adore her now. But it made us a bit sad not to hear from the rest of you. Of course, Margaret contacted us about her troubles with Fuhr, and we urged her to put a note in reader comments. We told her we'd let you all know about it so her effort wasn't wasted. And now we've unleashed a torrent! How do get more of that? Make a facebook ap? Send you candy? I'm serious. We're open to ideas. And in the mean time, thanks to those of you who have provided feedback over the years, and if you were going to comment but thought no one was paying attention, our product listings are eagerly awaiting your review. Recent comments are featured in the right column of our News page for all to see. 2010-01-05 n/a 11908 Bonded Logic Factory Tour in Chandler, Arizona (live fom Greenbuild)

    I've gotta say, I love visiting factories, especially those that make products I've been writing about for years. I just toured Bonded Logic's Chandler, Arizona plant, 20 minutes outside of Phoenix, where each month the company converts 300 tons of post-industrial recycled denim and other cotton fabric into the UltraTouch line of cotton insulation, sound-proofing materials, duct insulation, and related products. I never knew there was so much I didn't know about cotton insulation! Liz Obloy, the publisher of Sustainable Facility magazine, and I saw the manufacturing process first hand, from the bales of incoming raw materials to the packaging of finished product. This plant gets the cotton after it's already been fiberized — broken down into the constituent fibers. Bales of polyester and polyolefin "binder" fibers that give the material loft also come into the plant. The fiberized cotton is treated with a borate solution to make it resistant to fire, mold, mildew, and pests. All the fibers are then mixed in huge bins and a wide conveyor belt of these loose fibers then pass through gas-fired "bonding ovens" where the material is heated to about 350 degrees F. In the oven, the bonding fibers are activated in a way that holds the fibers together to produce batt insulation or higher-density sound-control panels.
    From there, the batts and panels are cooled and cut on a conveyor belt, then packaged — all steps of which may sound rather mundane, but I found fascinating. Ever wonder how they squeeze insulation bats to fit into those plastic bags?; it's fun to watch! All of the waste at the plant is captured and returned to the process. Along with producing batt insulation, Bonded Logic makes a wide range of other products. I was surprised to see a production line devoted to producing fairly high-density sound-isolation panels for those really quiet Bosch dishwashers — like the one we have in our BuildingGreen office. Bonded Logic products are not cheap. Our tour guide Jerry Weston, Bonded Logic's sales and marketing manager, told us about one customer who had reluctantly dropped their purchases of Bonded Logic products because of the higher cost, compared with fiberglass. A couple months later, they came back. The company's employees had rebelled, complaining about headaches, respiratory ailments, and other problems since the switch, and the company decided to deal with the higher costs to keep their staff happy. Neat product. Cool factory! You can follow more of my musings on Twitter.
    2009-11-11 n/a 11879 Trane Completes the Switch to Ozone-Safe R-410A
    Robotics at the Trane factory

    In the Trane factory
    I took the last train into Clarksville, Tennessee this week (that will mean something to those with enough gray hair) to visit Trane's commercial HVAC equipment manufacturing plant. I was invited, along with a half-dozen other editors, to report on Trane's transition to an ozone-safe refrigerant in its commercial HVAC equipment. Trane used the opportunity to show off the state-of-the-art mechanical systems at the new 270-bed Clarksville Gateway Medical Center, and give us a wonderful tour of their massive, 1.2-million-square-foot Clarksville factory (one of Trane's largest). This was followed with a presentation by the Ingersoll Rand president and other company managers to the assembled 1,300 employees in celebration of the company's 18-month conversion from R-22 to R-410A — an effort that cost the company more than $100 million. (Ingersoll Rand acquired Trane in June 2008.) That was followed by a great barbeque under tents outdoors, and an exhibit of the company's 17 newly introduced, redesigned, ozone-safe products. I've got to admit that I love touring industrial facilities. Seeing massive pieces of machinery turning raw materials into complex functioning equipment somehow gives me faith that we have the skills and technical know-how to solve the really big problems we're facing, such as climate change.
    At the Gateway Medical Center

    Heat exchanger assemblies at the plant
    But I digress. The shift away from HCFC-22 (R-22) was mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as part of the U.S. commitment to the Montreal Protocol, the 1987 treaty (with amendments) that addresses the phase-out of ozone-depleting substances. The deadline to make the R-22 conversion for new mechanical equipment is January, 2010; Trane beat the deadline. Most manufacturers of commercial HVAC equipment are converting to R-410A, which is a 50:50 mixture of HFC-32 and HFC-125. HFCs are hydrofluorocarbons, which unlike hydroclhorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) do not contain chlorine and do not destroy stratospheric ozone. (You've gotta like acronyms if you want to play in this space!) Because R-410A has to operate at a higher pressure than R-22, it is not a simple substitution. Mechanical equipment has to be redesigned pretty much from the ground up to work with R-410A. Because of the higher operating pressure, R-410A is somewhat less efficient, so additional changes were made in the equipment redesign to compensate with better heat exchangers — so that the resultant equipment efficiencies are actually better. For me, the day-long visit was a great opportunity to learn more about commercial-building HVAC equipment. Among the products manufactured at the Trane-Clarksville plant are the Voyager and IntelliPak lines of direct-expansion (DX) unitary packaged rooftop air conditioners, in sizes from 12.5 to 162 tons, and commercial split systems in sizes from 20 to 120 tons. Other Trane commercial HVAC products were on display as well, including their air-cooled and water-cooled chillers, variable air volume (VAV) terminal units, Axiom water-source heat pumps, and the advanced Tracer controls for HVAC equipment and building-wide systems. Along with all this, I had about 20 minutes to interview Mike Lamach, the president and chief operating officer of Ingersoll Rand, who was in Clarksville for the conversion announcement. Tidbits from this interview will doubtless make their way into EBN articles down-the-road, but most exciting to me was to learn that Trane is willing to share information that the company has been collecting on human productivity, such as testing scores in schools and speed of recovery in healthcare facilities. Getting real data on improvements in productivity or health in green buildings has been extremely hard to come by, so this is exciting indeed. We left Clarksville by van rather than train — to the Nashville airport — but otherwise it was the perfect visit. You can follow more of my musings on Twitter.
    2009-10-16 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 11862 Making Lime Mortars DVD Over at The Last Straw blog, Jeff Ruppert has posted a review of Making Lime Mortars, the first of a four-disc tutorial offered by St. Astier Natural Limes. Perhaps the thing I like best about the review is that it doesn't get into the whole "Why use lime" conversation... it respectfully assumes that you already know. But in case you don't know, here's most of the product description for St. Astier's natural hydraulic lime from GreenSpec:
    St. Astier Natural Hydraulic Lime, or NHL, is a 100% natural product that has been in production since 1851. St. Astier NHL Mortar is widely used in the restoration of old buildings. This natural hydraulic lime mortar imported from France allows stone to "breathe" naturally. Used in construction as plaster, stucco, mortar, and paint, its high level of vapor exchange and mineral composition can help reduce the risk of mold development and dry rot. NHL products are highly permeable, elastic, low shrinking, zero VOC, self-healing, and recyclable.
    2009-09-23 n/a 11864 "The drama of a 2x4 shot from an air cannon at glass windows" Architectural testing concern HTL will be at GlassBuild America shooting missiles at windows again. The demonstration/demolition follows the Miami-Dade large missile protocol by shooting 2x4s at impact-resistant and non-impact-resistant windows. A press release from HTL quotes NGA Industry Events Director Susan Jacob: "There is nothing quite like the drama of a 2x4 missile shot from an air cannon at glass windows." Wish I was going! I checked HTL's website for some footage, but was left wanting. There's a link for client videos (and there's some top name clients in there), but they all seem to be password-protected. So it was off to YouTube to find this:
    Another interesting short video — less than two minutes — was shot at last year's Glassbuild conference; a reporter from e-Glass Weekly played word-association with a few exhibitors. If this small sampling is any indication, the fenestration industry does not like the NFRC at all; was optimistic (as of last year) about commercial construction; and thinks green building and LEED are the future.
    2009-09-23 n/a 11873 More Toilet Flushing Fun Regular readers might remember the toilet-flushing video from March that showed ridiculous quantities of carrots, chess pieces, Gummi bears, hot dogs, plastic letters and numbers, grapes, golf balls, and dog food getting flushed. Fun, but it didn't qualify for GreenSpec because it only met the federal minimum standard for water use. Well, here's one that does. The H2Option Dual-Flush from American Standard offers an industry-first siphonic flush of either 1.6 or 1.0 gallons. And it's fun, too. Be sure to show this to the kids (because they don't already have enough ideas).
    • 20 golf balls (full flush)
    • 1 lb orange peels (full flush)
    • 11 water wigglers (full flush)
    • 56 chicken nuggets (full flush)
    • 2 lbs flushable cat litter (full flush)
    • 5 large hot dogs (full flush)
    • 5 large hot dogs (half flush)

    Wieners aside, it would have been nice to see how all of these went down — or not — on half-flush.
    2009-09-01 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 11825 Committee tightens up NSF-140 carpet standard Ah, if only it were possible to be a fly-on-the-wall in every committee for every standard... I know this is a fantasy only a standards-geek could have, and is one of those fantasies you don't really want to actualize, but there's no doubt much of the real work defining the rules of the game is done in committee meetings that most of us never hear about. In their last meeting, with little fanfare, the NSF-140 committee approved a simple change that greenwash-fighters should approve of, while finding the need for it unfortunate. The language in the standard was changed to say, "A certified and non-certified product cannot have the same trade name designation." What this means is that a company can't get, for example, NSF-140 Platinum on select options for a product line, and then go and market the main product line as NSF-140 Platinum. Apparently, this issue was brought to the table because one company was doing just that — marketing the product line as NSF-140 Platinum despite the fact that the platinum prerequisite of 10% post-consumer recycled material was only met with special order options. The discrepancy is being fixed by the company — as is the standard by NSF. The NSF-140 committee also removed a durability test that required 350 parts per million of fluorocarbons for stain resistance (after debating the counter-intuitive rationale for including a test in a sustainability standard that requires addition of an environmentally problematic substance). They also required less persistent C6 instead of C8 fluorocarbons; a change that suppliers are apparently making proactively given growing concern over the potential environmental and health impacts of fluorocarbons. None of this is final — there is more discussion to come and then at some point the decisions will be folded into the next version. But in general, I'd call all of this a good story of self-correction by the industry. When competitors police each other's greenwash and have animated discussions on proving durability without compromising other aspects of sustainability, we're starting to get somewhere — recognizing of course, that we still have a long way to go. From EBN: Making Carpet Environmentally Friendly and more 2009-07-16 n/a 11838 Making ice at night to cool buildings
    Calmac IceBank tanks at One Bryant Park, one of the nation's greenest high-rise buildings.
    Photo: © Gunther Intelmann for Cook+Fox Architects
    What surprised me most in researching thermal energy storage for the EBN feature article this month is that it's not incorporated into virtually all commercial buildings. In a nutshell, the idea is to use electricity at night to make ice and then use that ice during the daytime as the cooling source for the building. Thermal energy storage (TES) can also involve chilled water (instead of ice) or electric heat stored in bricks or other thermal mass, but I focused on ice with this article. A number of very well-known green buildings rely on ice-based TES cooling. One of the newest such buildings is the 2.1-million square-foot (195,000 m2) Bank of America building in New York City at One Bryant Park. I visited the sub-basement (three floors down) to see the 44 eight-foot-diameter, insulated CALMAC tanks in the building that collectively provide about a quarter of the building's cooling. Each of these tanks holds about 1,600 gallons of water that is alternately frozen and thawed by circulating a glycol solution through about three miles of plastic tubing. It's high-tech, but the result is surprisingly simple. Benefits of ice-based TES include the following:
    • Saving money by using less expensive off-peak electricity for cooling. Most utility companies offer less expensive off-peak electricity rates for commercial and industrial customers.
    • Saving money by reducing electric demand charges. Demand charges are based on the peak electricity consumption of a building. By shifting the operation of energy-intensive chillers or compression-cycle air conditioners from daytime (when electricity consumption in commercial buildings is highest) to nighttime, peak demand can be significantly reduced.
    • First-cost savings can often be achieved by downsizing chillers, pumps, ducts, and other components. In some cases, floor-to-floor height can also be reduced, because smaller ducts are used, resulting in dramatic savings.
    • Even though there is an efficiency loss with any heat-exchange process, a lot of the losses inherent in ice-based TES can be offset by higher efficiency that results from operating the chiller or A/C system continuously at night (eliminating the on-off cycling) and by operating the equipment with cooler nighttime air temperatures.
    • Reduced pollution emissions? This depends on where the building is located and how the local utility company generates power during on-peak and off-peak periods. If the baseload generation is hydropower and nuclear and peaking plants are natural gas or oil, minimizing peak electricity use can significantly reduce emissions — but with baseload coal plants and peaking hydropower or cleaner-burning natural-gas plants, the opposite can be true.
    • Using off-peak electricity for cooling will allow us to benefit from wind power and other renewable electricity sources. When the wind is blowing isn't always when we need power. That's fine if wind energy is only providing a few percent of our electricity, but if that fraction grows to 20% or more, it could be a problem. Shifting cooling loads to nighttime hours is an important way to help us benefit from wind power.
    More detail on these benefits, plus explanations of how different types of ice-based TES systems work, is described in Buildings on Ice: Making the Case for Thermal Energy Storage. The article lists more than a dozen companies that produce these TES systems, including CALMAC Manufacturing, Baltimore Aircoil, EvapCo, and Ice Energy. All but the latter of these companies produce TES equipment that works with chillers; Ice Energy makes TES equipment for smaller, packaged A/C systems. To access the full article, you have to be a paid subscriber to (Because we don't carry advertising in EBN, we have to charge for access to our information.) If you're not already a subscriber, you can either sign up for a week for $12.95 or get an annual membership for $199. Alex Wilson is the executive editor of Environmental Building News.
    2009-07-04 n/a 11840 Considerations of Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs) ICFs (Insulating Concrete Forms) are permanent, stay-in-place forms for making insulated poured-concrete walls, floors, and roof decks. Most of them are made with expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam produced with a non-ozone-depleting blowing agent (unlike XPS, an option to avoid from some manufacturers), while others are made with EPS beads (typically from recycled sources) or mineralized recycled wood chips glued together with portland cement. Generally, the pure-foam sort are direct replacements for standard removable forms and are used to make regular, flat poured-concrete walls with an equal amount of insulation on both sides; while the cement-bonded foam-bead or wood-chip type usually have voids that get filled with concrete to make structural grids, columns, or "waffles" encased in insulation. This is usually the way it is; there's some overlap and variation. From here on, it gets tricky and sticky. Pretty much all EPS (and ICFs are no exception) contain brominated flame retardants (BFRs), usually Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) — which is persistent and bioaccumulative with health consequences not fully known but suspect enough that engaging The Precautionary Principle seems well advised... at the least. Cement-bonded mineralized wood products don't contain BFRs. To protect against potential damage from insects, some EPS foam used in ICFs contains borates, which are benign to humans and the environment. Even though the cement-bonded variety are most often void-type forms (rather than simple flat wall forms) that usually result in less concrete use, the forms themselves are about 15% cement — enough so that the overall cement content of the finished wall is about the same as, and potentially more than, a solid concrete wall. This matters because the production of a ton of cement generally releases a ton or more of greenhouse gas emissions. However, while cement-bonded forms don't reduce environmental impacts up front, the insulation does reduce emissions from space conditioning over the lifespan of the building compared to uninsulated walls, and in most climates that's a far weightier consideration. The cement-bonded forms are also less insulative per inch than pure foam — but the void-type ICFs (which are usually cement-bonded, compared to the flat-wall type that are usually pure foam) typically provide more, though less effective, insulation material. Comparing thermal performance between the two types requires careful research and thought... which is easier said than done. An embarrassing number of ICF manufacturers prominently and breathlessly promote amazing "mass-enhanced" or "effective" R-values. These numbers are an attempt to capitalize on a real phenomenon, but are generally presented in an entirely misleading way. "Effective R values" aren't consistently derived from one manufacturer to the next, and are climate-, site-, and project-specific. For comparison purposes between not only ICFs but all wall systems, steady-state R-values should be the prize number, and mass effect considered as a subsequent part of the equation. If the sales literature doesn't provide a steady-state R-value right up front, engage your BS detector. Most ICFs have a steady-state R in the lower 20s. In almost all situations, mass should ideally be insulated on the outside, and not on the conditioned interior. A few ICF products are configured to provide more insulation on the outside of the wall and less on the inside; in climates where the average diurnal temperature is outside of the comfort zone — particularly in places with long, cold winters — this configuration is highly preferable. Almost as an aside in the midst of these bigger issues, it should be noted that some manufacturers recommend gluing the forms together in the field; their recommended adhesives may be high VOC.

    GreenSpec's ICF listings are currently being re-examined. Expect changes in Section 03 11 19: Insulating Concrete Forming in the near future.
    2009-07-03 n/a 11804 New to Green Building? Try GBA.

    Recently, I broke one of my long-standing rules and blogged about something BuildingGreen-related at my own blog. My Costanzian fears were indeed warranted, and I've been egged on to cross-post it to the Live blog. Here she is, warts and all: my unvarnished opinion on the very best parts of the BuildingGreen product

    I don't often blog about worky stuff here, but decided this week that my "Worlds Will Collide!" fears are probably completely unwarranted. Besides, I'm working on some cool stuff these days. And finally, when my wife asks me, "What have you been doing?," when I come to bed at an obscene hour, I have an acceptable answer: "Changing the world, baby. Changing the world."

    BuildingGreen launched a new property several months ago, (GBA). Now, this was in process as I came into the company in September 2008 and involved a whole lot of organization and reorganization to get the team in place for even content production, but I can't get into much of that here. What I *CAN* get into are what I think are the absolute coolest content areas on this Drupal-based site.

    Green Basics

    It's really important to come at a new field with a common vocabulary. Think of this as a vocab-building primer of terms and concepts bandied about in Green but seldom explained or contextualized. Click anywhere on that page and you get access to detail diagrams and explanations of key concepts and terms. I subscribe to a couple of building magazines and use their sites a lot. NOTHING is as good as this, period.

    Green Homes

    Now, case studies are not something new for BuildingGreen given the popularity of the High Performance Buildings Database, but there's one aspect in the corresponding Green Homes feature area that stands out: these pictures are gorgeous and inspiring. Sure, I can look up a product if I hear about and learn enough to put it in myself... but watching it get installed? Or seeing it in a context that gives me another product idea?? Reading about the compromises that lead to selection of that product in tandem with another? That's pretty awesome.

    Product Guide

    The Product Guide is some content syndication from GreenSpec, another key BuildingGreen property that provides a ready-to-use index of green products, manufacturers, and product categories. They sum it up on the GBA page with this: "Product manufacturers can not buy their way on to this list." These are a true best-of and where I first turned for ideas when we did our kitchen remodel this year.


    Now, I know I've probably alienated some portion of the site that's behind the payed membership wall (oh yeah, some of this content is part of a paid GBA Pro membership that gets you even more like CAD Details & whatnot), but these are the stand-outs from my perspective and key to what makes this site a truly amazing asset. At the time of this writing, you can get a 10-day trial to the premium GBA Pro content - the energy savings I've realized alone have outvalued the cost of this annual or monthly membership - or be a lurker for a while before you take the plunge. Personally, I'm probably not renewing some of those magazines whose sites I use in favor of this totally righteous tool.

    2009-06-22 n/a 11811 BuildingGreen and ecoScorecard Announce Partnership The press release says,
    This partnership pairs a respected and independent source of green building information with a platform that enhances the usefulness of green product information. The GreenSpec Directory helps the green building community find sustainable products, while ecoScorecard offers an effective way to identify and evaluate products against every significant environmental rating system.
    ecoScorecard is a web-based system where manufacturers provide detailed, SKU-level information about its products. Those details are run through a calculation engine to produce submission documentation for LEED, GGHC, Labs 21, CHPS, NAHB, Re:Green and third-party certifications. Verrry handy for architects, designers, and other building professionals. The two systems aren't interchangeable — not all products in ecoScorecard will be listed in GreenSpec, and vice-versa. The collaboration provides users with a combination of ecoScorecard's thorough reporting with GreenSpec's independent review process. This partnership is similar to the arrangement between GreenSpec and the Construction Specifications Institute's GreenFormat program. BuildingGreen doesn't charge for listings, or accept advertising. The editors have sole control of product selection and product descriptions. For information on how products get listed in GreenSpec, see the article How do products get listed in GreenSpec?
    2009-06-11 n/a 11818 Wanted by Chemical Industry: Young, Pregnant Spokesperson for Bisphenol-A On Friday, May 19, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal published a damning story based on the leaked minutes of a private strategy meeting of food-packaging executives and chemical industry lobbyists that took place in Washington DC the previous day. The story's authors spoke with the chairman of the North American Metal Packaging Alliance (NAMPA), John Rost, who verified the talking points, but indicated that the summary wasn't complete. "'It was a five-hour meeting,' he said." On Saturday, NAMPA responded by distributing a press release claiming that the leaked minutes were "blatantly inaccurate and fabricated." On Sunday, the Washington Post released its own story on the leaked minutes. They spoke with Kathleen M. Roberts, a lobbyist for NAMPA with Bergeson and Campbell. She happens to have been the meeting's organizer, and she also verified that the information in the summary was accurate. This looks pretty bad for NAMPA. So here's what happened. Last Friday, representatives of companies including Coca-Cola, Alcoa, Crown Holdings, NAMPA, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Del Monte, and the American Chemistry Council (a lobbying organization for chemical manufacturers) met to forge a strategy to combat the growing fear of bisphenol-A (BPA) in the public and the increasing legislative efforts to ban the substance. BPA, mostly used for polycarbonate plastic and epoxy resins, is everywhere — from polymer tooth fillings to electronics to Nalgene-type drink bottles, even toilet paper... and, according to the CDC, in detectable amounts in the blood of 90% of the population. It's perhaps most ubiquitously and immediately present in the interior epoxy lining of food and beverage cans. The Washington Post story sums up the concern:
    Over the past decade, a growing body of scientific studies has linked the chemical to breast cancer, testicular cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity, obesity, low sperm count, miscarriage and other reproductive problems in laboratory animals. More recent studies using human data have linked BPA to heart disease and diabetes. And it has been found to interfere with the effects of chemotherapy in breast cancer patients. Researchers have found that BPA leaches from containers into food and beverages, even at cold temperatures. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health published earlier this month found that subjects who drank liquids from plastic bottles containing BPA had a 69 percent increase in the BPA in their urine. Despite more than 100 published studies by government scientists and university laboratories that have raised health concerns about the chemical, the Food and Drug Administration has deemed it safe largely because of two studies, both funded by a chemical industry trade group.
    It's evidently this sort of reporting that frustrates the embattled pro-BPA faction so much that one suggested response during the meeting was to find a "'holy grail' spokesperson" — a "pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA." The minutes go on to state that "the committee doubts obtaining a scientific spokesperson is attainable." ScienceBlogs has posted what is apparently the full text of the leaked minutes. For the pro-BPA industry's take, see, presented by the American Chemistry Council (which "represents the companies that make the products that make modern life possible"), PlasticsEurope ("an association of plastics manufacturers that deals with complex legislative processes"), and the Japan Chemical Industry Association ("promoting the stable development of the chemical industry").
    2009-06-01 n/a 11789 The Lifecycle Building Challenge A design competition for professionals and students, the Lifecycle Building Challenge is sponsored by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, the American Institute of Architects, and West Coast Green. The competition is focused on design for adaptability, material reuse, and minimizing lifecycle impacts from products. Registration and participation is free. Submission deadline is August 30 2009. From the website:
    Lifecycle building is designing buildings to facilitate disassembly and material reuse to minimize waste, energy consumption, and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Also known as design for disassembly and design for deconstruction, lifecycle building describes the idea of creating high-performance buildings today that are stocks of resources for the future.
    • Create designs that facilitate local building materials reuse
    • Consider the full lifecycle of buildings and materials — from resource extraction through occupancy and, finally, deconstruction and reuse
    • Focus on quality and creativity of designs and concepts
    • Develop strategies that maximize materials recovery
    • Reduce the overall embodied energy and greenhouse gas emissions of building materials through reuse
    • Decrease environmental and economic costs
    • Address real world issues
    Enter the third year of the Lifecycle Building Challenge competition, to shape the future of green building and facilitate local building materials reuse. Submit your innovative project, design, or idea for reducing to conserve construction and demolition materials and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by designing buildings for adaptability and disassembly.
    Categories: Building — a whole building designed for disassembly and material reuse
    In addition, building entries can highlight any of the following focus areas:
    · existing buildings
    · local material sourcing Product — a building product that facilitates design for disassembly and material reuse
    In addition, product entries can highlight any of the following focus areas:
    · Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
    · Carbon Management
    · Water Efficiency & Quality
    · Material Optimization
    · Public and Ecosystem Health Protection Professionals may submit both built and design work. Students may submit only design work. In addition, entrants may also register for Outstanding Achievement Awards:
    · Best Greenhouse Gas Reduction
    · Best Green Job Creation
    · Best School Design
    See the website for more. (In the interest of full disclosure: I'm on the volunteer judicial panel this year.)
    2009-05-16 n/a 11793 The most overlooked building material in the U.S.? Even though there are extant and occupied earthen homes scattered throughout the northern states and Canada from the mid-19th century, raw earth as a building material is overlooked in most of the USA. See Richard Pieper's article, "Earthen Architecture in the Northern United States" and these photos of earthen houses in upstate New York that I took in 2004, following Pieper's trail. Those are the tip of the iceberg, of course. The Earth Architecture website notes, "Currently it is estimated that one half of the world's population — approximately three billion people on six continents — lives or works in buildings constructed of earth." The Adobe Association of the Southwest hosts a biannual conference, which is now just a week away.
    The 5th Adobe Conference of the Adobe Association of the Southwest, AdobeUSA 2009, will take place May 15 and 16, 2009 in El Rito, New Mexico on the campus of co-sponsor Northern New Mexico College in Cutting Hall Auditorium. Engineering and Architect Professionals will be eligible to obtain Continuing Education Units (PDH) during the conference.
    Check out the abstracts, including great-sounding titles like:
       · Adobe 2030
       · ASTM earthen building standards
       · Mechanical performance of nonindustrial building materials manufactured with clay as a natural binder
       · The Effect Interior Earthen plasters and Exterior Lime plasters have on Controlling Temperature and Humidity in Building Envelope

    What other natural materials can we use?

    2009-05-07 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 11780 Something (Bioaccumulative) in the Water
    "The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the first-ever nationwide report this morning on the level of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) found in U.S. coastal areas and the Great Lakes. The report contradicts earlier surveys that suggested PBDEs, chemicals commonly used as flame retardants in commercial goods since the 1970s but in large part discontinued because of health concerns, were found in only a few U.S. sites." — Water & Wastewater News
    Building on the recent post about flame retardants, here's an excerpt from the executive summary of An Assessment of Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in Sediments and Bivalves of the U.S. Coastal Zone, a study developed by NOAA's National Status & Trends Program:
    "In recent years, PBDEs have generated international concern due to their global distribution and associated adverse environmental and human health effects. Laboratory studies indicate that PBDEs may impair liver, thyroid, and neurobehavioral development, and the most sensitive populations are likely to be pregnant women, developing fetuses, and infants. PBDE production has been banned throughout Europe and Asia, and production of some PBDE mixtures has been voluntarily discontinued by U.S. industry, although one form of PBDE is still produced. While production of PBDE flame retardants began in the 1970s and peaked in 1999 they are still found in many consumer products including many household items. Because the application of PBDEs has been so widespread including many consumer plastics, textiles, electronics, and furniture scientists speculate that they may present an ongoing and growing problem in coastal environments."
    2009-04-03 n/a 11759 Don't drop your wallet in this toilet. Or your pants. The toilet from St. Thomas Creations in the video below doesn't qualify for GreenSpec — it's a 1.6gpf toilet (the federal minimum), and GreenSpec requires 1.28gpf or less — but it sure is fun to watch it flush stuff. (More fun than miso in condoms, anyway.) What do I mean by "flush stuff"?
    • 2.5 pounds of carrots
    • 4 complete sets of plastic chess pieces
    • 3 pounds of large Gummi bears
    • 18 large hot dogs
    • 78 plastic letters and numbers
    • 3.5 pounds of grapes
    • 20 golf balls
    • 3.5 pounds of dog food
    Eat your heart out, Dave Barry.
    2009-03-09 n/a 11763 Redux: What do you do when a good product has bad stuff in it? About three weeks ago I posted here about a product that decreases heat loss, decreases installation time, provides a termite shield, prevents damage, is cost-competitive, and is partly made with PVC. We ended up listing this product in GreenSpec, and to our members' credit, we got some pushback. I cross-posted a response from the members-only system to the public comments of the earlier blog post; now we've received another thoughtful member comment, so I figured I'd bring the concern back here to the blog to hear what you smart people have to say. A BuildingGreen Suite member wrote to suggest that this product, and any others containing EPS, should be reconsidered for potential removal from GreenSpec due to the use of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), "a persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic fire retardant [...] widely detected in household dust, sewage sludge, breast milk and body fluids as well as wildlife and the global environment. [... P]olystyrene insulation [...] is likely the primary source of the global contamination." What a great comment. What a can of worms. I wrote back:
    Another mighty important subject. As noted in the Environmental Building News article, Insulation: Thermal Performance is Just the Beginning, "All foam plastic insulation materials rely on flame retardants to meet fire-resistance standards. EPS and XPS are produced using the brominated flame retardant HBCD (hexabromocyclododecane) at concentrations of 0.5-2.0% by weight. HBCD is not the focus of as much attention as another class of brominated flame retardants (PBDEs), but some evidence indicates that it is more bioaccumulative than PBDEs and just as likely to be toxic to humans." It then refers to another EBN article, Flame Retardants Under Fire, which goes into additional detail about HBCD: "Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD) — the third most widely used brominated flame retardant in the world and the BFR of choice for polystyrene foam — may actually be more prone to bioaccumulation than PBDEs. HBCD is just as likely to be toxic to humans, according to an October 9, 2003 article in the American Chemical Society's journal, Environmental Science and Technology. The Chemical Stakeholders Forum in the U.K. determined in March 2003 that HBCD is persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic. The European Union is carrying out a risk assessment of HBCD, suspecting the compound of being an endocrine disruptor by impairing thyroid function." (It's interesting to note that Europe, having taken steps to ban penta and octa PBDEs, was in 2001 using more HBCD than the Americas, Asia, and the rest of the world together. I don't know if that has changed.) The problem is on our radar. The real difficulty comes in weighing the overall consequences of using a product with flaws versus not using it (when an equally viable alternative doesn't exist). Foamed glass insulation seems like it could be a great alternative for high-moisture applications, if only it were affordably — or even just readily — available in the Americas. Canadian manufacturer Roxul has mineral wool products that could do the trick, but they're almost impossible to get in the US. If I'm missing some obvious solution, I hope somebody will speak up. There was a timely conversation during the most recent GreenSpec review meeting. We were talking about glazed curtain walls, which are basically an energy catastrophe when weighed against other design options. (So why are all these big green high-rise projects being specified with glazed curtain walls?) The question came up: Even though GreenSpec only lists the highest-performing glazed curtain walls that set the bar for energy efficiency, should it be listing any of them at all? Discussion ensued. What is GreenSpec for, and how does it support the BuildingGreen mission of transforming the building industry? Should we put our energies toward supporting the bleeding edge, or toward facilitating change in the larger (perhaps less committed) green building community? The answer was that we need to continue trying to do both. It ain't easy. GreenSpec is intended to be a best-of-the-best directory, a starting point for further research — that's why each listing is accompanied by links to related information in BuildingGreen Suite, like the two articles I cited above. We've also been working behind the scenes to beef up the section introductions with deeper and more concise information about categories of products, and thinking about how to make that too-often-overlooked bigger picture more visible and accessible. Conversations like this are a definite help in that effort. So, back to slab edge insulation. Uninsulated slab edges can account for more than 10% of a home's heat loss. This is particularly exacerbated when "green-friendly" radiant-floor heat is used — the Radiant Panel Association says, "Slab edge insulation is a given. No one should be installing a radiantly heated slab, basement or on grade, without this important piece of insulation." (Why did I put "green-friendly" in quotes when talking about radiant floor heating? See the article Radiant-Floor Heating: When It Does — and Doesn't — Make Sense.) Uninsulated slab edges are a problem requiring a solution. This particular product, despite its incorporation of undeniably nasty materials like PVC and HBCD, can prevent significantly more toxic emissions and environmental degradation over their service lives by reducing energy consumption than if they weren't used. Deciding which side of the coin represents the worse consequence is no easy feat — this one's almost a lose-lose situation. As the article Building Materials: What Makes a Product Green? says, "The Holy Grail of the green building movement would be a database in which the life-cycle environmental impacts of different materials were fully quantified and the impacts weighted so that a designer could easily see which material was better from an environmental standpoint. [...] Very often, we are comparing apples to oranges. We are trying to weigh, for example, the resource-extraction impacts of one product with the manufacturing impacts of another, and the indoor-air-quality impacts of a third." On a note related to HBCD, the foam cushioning used in some furniture and lots of car seats can be up to 30% HBCDs (compared to 0.5-2.0% in rigid insulation). Especially as the foam ages and it becomes increasingly friable, HBCD-laden dust can be released directly into the room's air as people sit down, get comfy, stand up. It's even more acute when the fabric is ripped. There's also foam carpet padding to consider — the dust works its way up through the carpet when it gets walked on, thrown into the air when vacuumed... Which isn't meant to be an excuse. Just one more thing to think about. Here's another one that gets into PVC and flame retardants, if you'd like — Wire and Cable: Untangling Complex Environmental Issues. Thanks for your important note, and do keep up the good work. Please feel free to continue this dialog and to point out other concerns as you come across them.
    For more about HBCD, see the Environmental Health Perspectives article, Brominated Flame Retardants: Cause for Concern? We're always willing to entertain doubts. Did we go too far in including this product?
    2009-03-02 n/a 11731 Google your 'Fridge The tireless folks from Google's for-profit charity,, are developing a web-based application called PowerMeter that takes advantage of the increasing availability of "smart meters" from utility companies and independent manufacturers. Millions upon millions of homes and businesses are expected to be upgraded to these meters in the coming years, which (among other things) track electrical use in real time rather than just offering a simple sum of total use. This creates an opportunity for people to discover usage trends — and even help to identify specific loads — encouraging informed conservation. Google puts it like this:
    How much does it cost to leave your TV on all day? What about turning your air conditioning 1 degree cooler? Which uses more power every month — your fridge or your dishwasher? Is your household more or less energy efficient than similar homes in your neighborhood?
    Our lack of knowledge about our own energy usage is a huge problem, but also a huge opportunity for us all to save money and fight global warming by reducing our power usage. Studies show that access to your household's personal energy information is likely to save you between 5-15% on your monthly bill, and the potential impact of large numbers of people achieving similar efficiencies is even more exciting. For every six households that save 10% on electricity, for instance, we reduce carbon emissions as much as taking one conventional car off the road.
    The application is still in prototype — you can't get it yet — but when it comes online, how much will it cost? Answer: Nothin'. Free to the users, free to the utilities. We really don't know when it will be rolled out to the public, but it's likely not too far off. So why are utility companies switching over to the smart meters in the first place? Partly because they transmit data — providers can save money by pretty much eliminating the dwindling population of meter readers. It also opens up the opportunity to introduce peak billing to residential users.
    2009-02-23 n/a 11732 What makes it green?
    What color is green?
    The fundamental, unanswered — perhaps unanswerable — question. And it's not just people new to the concept of "green" who are asking it as technology, information, and philosophy continue to evolve. "Green" seekers are all spread out on an incredibly wide path, and all are at different points along the way. At least most of them seem to be heading in more or less the same direction. One of the things we do as a public service at BuildingGreen is facilitate a couple email lists — greenbuilding (begun in 1996, it's hosted by REPP and we provide day-to-day management)... and focusing on large-scale projects, Big Green (begun in 1999, which we host and manage). Recently there was a thread on the greenbuilding list hashing over the basest definition of "green building." You can read it in the archives if you'd like. I posted the following, which appears to have been a thread-killer. But it feels like it's lacking something fundamental; what did I miss?
    Here's what I've learned as an associate editor for BuildingGreen (publisher of Environmental Building News, which is now in its 17th year, predating the USGBC and LEED and even "green building" as a recognized movement); as co-editor of the GreenSpec database (online and in print); as co-editor of the book Green Building Products (now in its third edition); as products editor for GreenSource (the member publication of the USGBC, published by McGraw-Hill); as blah blah blah —
    It comes down to this: What makes anything green is having any person (as often as not somebody in marketing) point at any given item or assembly of items and invoke the following incantation: "This is green." There are labeling programs, there are design guides, there are books, and there are endless opinions, but there's no universal law about what "green" is. Nor does any individual hold a universal definition of it. Is energy use reduction the most important aspect of green building? It's been argued on this list recently that to say so reveals a limited focus, that it's a distortion of the reality that green building is more than just energy efficiency... that a residence needs to also have low emissions and be happy-making and the like in order to be green. Well, sure. But there's a counterpoint: It can easily (and successfully) be argued that restricting the green baseline to what an individual residence has to be in order to be green is actually the far more egregious limited-focus distortion — one that fails to consider the global perspective. In the larger view — the other, possibly truer, more holistic view that sees the world at large rather than the world as a single-family dwelling (even though that's a really great analogy) — energy use reduction is the most imperative green thing to do. Yes, it's the first thing on the list. Other things are also important... but no amount of zero-VOC materials or design-for-spiritual-well-being is going to compensate for the effects that unchecked energy use has on the health and happy-making of our Earth.
    2009-02-23 n/a 11735 Venting about Sustainable Commercial Kitchens Despite the economic downturn and the trend toward smaller crowds at building trade shows, Efficiency Vermont's 2009 Better Buildings by Design Conference was a great success and actually increased attendance this year. The enthusiastic response is a tribute to the sustainable building community at large and to Efficiency Vermont, which put on a conference that was well organized, informative, and pragmatically optimistic. The quality of the presenters and workshops was impressive. William Miller from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Steve Selkowitz from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Kevin Dowling from Philips Solid State Lighting Solutions, John Straube from Building Science Corporation, and others, spanned topics ranging from high-performance roofs to the latest in LED technology. I attended a commercial kitchen ventilation (CKV) workshop featuring Don Fisher, co-founder of Fisher-Nickel and the Food Service Technology Center (FSTC). Administered by Pacific Gas and Electric, FSTC is a pioneer in the testing of water- and energy-efficient commercial kitchen appliances. (Anyone interested in commercial kitchens has to visit Fisher's presentation was geared toward experienced kitchen and/or HVAC professionals and discussed his company's work improving the efficiency of existing ventilation systems. For background information, commercial kitchens require massive CKV systems to remove heat and fumes generated by gas ranges, broilers, fryers, and — the biggest emitter — the grill (think of a large, white-hot barbecue burning indoors for 12-18 hours a day). Most CKV systems contain rooftop-mounted fans and controls, ductwork, dampeners to control fire risk, stainless-steel hoods, and grease removal "filters," and may also include automatic controls such as Melink's Intelli-Hood system to monitor and vary the fan speed, or additional grease removal in the form of UV or water spray systems. CKV systems run as much as 18 hours a day exhausting air from commercial kitchens at rates up to 12,000 cubic feet per minute (institutional kitchens can be as much as 30,000 cfm), which has to be replaced by make-up air that often comes from the conditioned building space, i.e., the restaurant. About 30% of a restaurant's total energy and 75% of its HVAC load are consumed by kitchen ventilation, and it typically does a lousy job of capturing grease, which is deposited on duct walls or condenses on the building's roof, creating a serious fire hazard. Fisher suggests improving CKV performance through better make-up air diffusion and by adding stainless-steel sides and back walls to the hoods to focus the ventilation and limit cross breezes, but even at their best, these units are energy hogs. Fisher discussed improving CKV, but how does a restaurant owner reduce the ventilation needed in a kitchen in the first place? What if we minimize, or even eliminate, the use of these energy-consuming, high-emitting appliances? Are there alternatives? Perhaps we need to start by rethinking our choice of food and how it's prepared. Raising cattle, for instance, requires more resources and creates more greenhouse gases than most other proteins and should be consumed sparingly. But even if chefs use beef (and they will), eliminating the grill could, potentially, be healthier for the diner and environment, without compromising taste. As we know, grilling food creates carcinogens, which is — obviously — not a good thing, especially when there are alternatives. The main benefit to using a grill is that grilling meat is fairly simple and the surface is large, so a lot of food can be prepared at once by cooks with limited skills, providing an easy way for a chef to manage the staff and menu at a busy restaurant. But with careful menu planning, other cooking methods can be equally easy and effective. For instance, pan-searing proteins leaves residues in the pan that are typically used as the base flavor for sauces, and poaching can infuse food with flavors without introducing a lot of fat. And there is an alternative to poaching or sautéing on ranges that generate heat and combustion gases; Cooktek will be offering a six-burner commercial induction range in the upcoming months — the first available commercial-quality induction range in the U.S. Induction cooktops use electromagnetic fields to heat iron-based cooking pots (aluminum, copper, and most stainless steel pots will not work) at efficiencies of up to 84% compared with <40% for gas. The flat surface of the cooktop stays cool to the touch and only the pan gets hot. There is no flame or combustion gases to exhaust. Though restaurant-grade single "burner" induction cooktops have been around for years, due to novelty and cost, their rollout in the U.S. has been limited. But a durable, six-burner induction range that can stand up to a commercial kitchen's abuse is an exciting development. Using these units could result in faster cooking times; cooler, safer, more comfortable employees; fewer emissions and improved indoor air quality; faster cleanup with fewer chemical cleaners; and, most importantly, significant energy savings upfront and via a reduced need for restaurant ventilation, heating, and cooling. While expensive, an induction range could pay for itself fairly quickly through these reduced HVAC demands. Completely eliminating external ventilation from a commercial kitchen may be unrealistic, but decreasing the size of an HVAC system offers benefits that go beyond energy consumption. Fewer HVAC intrusions mean designers would have more options with the interior space. And on the facilities side, with no grill or gas range, less money would be needed at start-up for installing gas lines; interior surface, duct, and hood cleaning costs would be reduced; and the roof would be saved from grease damage, creating a cleaner, safer, better looking restaurant inside and out. And, as we all know, in the restaurant business, presentation is everything. 2009-02-18 n/a 11737 What do you do when a good product has PVC in it? There are still people on both sides of the PVC issue, but let's go ahead and assume that most green builders don't like the stuff — mostly because of its upstream and downstream environmental burdens. PVC taken in isolation from its birth and death enters murkier territory. There's a product available that decreases a building's heat loss, doesn't increase materials costs, decreases installation time, provides a termite shield, prevents damage commonly inflicted by the landscaping crew and ongoing grounds maintenance... and contains a fair amount of PVC. It's a stay-in-place form for slab-on-grade construction called EnergyEdge that insulates, finishes, and protects a slab's exterior face. Dan Morrison wrote a blog post about it over on that sets the stage:
    "Slab on grade construction is extremely common in the southeast and southwest US because it's a fast, affordable way to get out of the ground and into the house. Slabs are also a great way to incorporate hydronic heating into a house."
    But (he goes on)...
    "Slab foundations can be energy sieves if not insulated on the outside with rigid foam. Both heat and cold can penetrate deep into a house through an un-insulated slab edge in summer and winter."
    The product was also given a brief presentation in the first issue of Insider, the print newsletter distributed to GBA Pro members (where it's got a Michael Chandler byline), which notes:
    "EnergyEdge saves labor costs because you don't have to add foam later or strip the forms. And the product is comparable in price to 2x8 forms or modified insulated concrete forms."
    (As a bit of an aside, both GBA pieces mention that the PVC is recycled from post-industrial sources [i.e., pre-consumer], which in the scheme of things is usually a baby-step or less removed from virgin PVC. However, something is askew somewhere. A company representative told me on the phone that they're "looking into" using recycled PVC with only a thin virgin wear layer. It could be that the company is investigating the use of post-consumer PVC as the bulk, which would be great... though using a recycled PE, rather than PVC, would probably be better.) So where's the line? The GreenSpec research crew has had quite some discussion about it. The product has a lot going for it... but as a general rule, GreenSpec doesn't include PVC products. This one, though, can contribute to significant energy savings, which translates into better environmental health. What would you do?
    2009-02-10 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 11715 How Window Screens Affect Winter Fuel Use in Heating Climates The Midcoast Green Collaborative is a Maine-based public nonprofit with the wide mission of socially responsible economic growth for their region. There's also an associated good blog with a high percentage of building-based posts — lots of nice, accessible, generally bite-sized, hands-on observational science. One swell example begins, "Do you leave the screens in your windows and storm windows during the winter? We have been telling clients to remove them, but didn't have a number for amount of energy saved. Searching the web, I found nothing, so I decided to do a little testing..." Excerpt:
    Next, I placed three pieces of dark soapstone (12 x 12 x 1/2 tiles) near a window facing south, on a sunny March day around noon. One piece was placed in the shade, one in direct sunlight (through the window), and one with the screen in the window. I came back and measured the temperatures of the three stones with an infrared thermometer from a distance of about 1 foot. The shaded stone measured 76.7ºF, the one in the screened window 88.7ºF, and the one in the unscreened window 96.7ºF.
    From this it would appear that leaving screens in windows or storms during the winter block about 30-40% of the heat that would otherwise enter through the windows. Audits have the amount of heat obtained from passive solar through windows ranging from 10-25% of the fuel based heating. So, window screens represent somewhere between 3-10% of total fuel.
    Of course, in climates and seasons where solar gain isn't wanted, there's an inverse corollary. There are interior and exterior window shades listed in GreenSpec. The section introduction says:
    Window shades, blinds, and other treatments can control daylight penetration and significantly reduce heat loss or heat gain through windows. In commercial buildings, engineered window shading installations can be part of an integrated design strategy addressing glare, heat gain, and solar penetration. In residential buildings, insulating window blinds and quilts may be appropriate retrofits for older, leaky windows, when window replacement can't be justified. In new construction or when replacement can be justified, installing high-performance windows is usually a better option than investing in energy-conserving blinds or shades.
    2009-01-20 n/a 11697 Touring the Greenbuild Expo with CNN I'm not usually all that comfortable in front of a camera, but I had fun walking the Greenbuild 2008 Expo floor with a video crew from and Fortune magazine. We focused on four or five technologies in our tour, only two of which made it into the final two minute video (after a nice lead-in by Scot Horst of 7group). The CNN crew were looking for photogenic presentations, while I was looking for products I believe in to talk about. I'm pleased with how it came out in the end — though it would have been nice to cover a lot more stuff!
    2008-12-07 n/a 11699 Exploding Low-Flow Toilets
    In 1997, humorist Dave Barry wrote a newspaper piece titled "The Toilet Police," about those newly mandated 1.6-gallon low-flow toilets that honestly and truly deserved to be dumped on. The column is still floating around the internet, and clearly people are still moved by it. But, y'know, that was over a decade ago. There are still crappy toilets to be had, just like there are lousy products of all sorts readily available, but smart toilet makers have strained to get the kinks out to the point that a one-gallon flush can outperform some of those old three-and-a-half-gallon water-hogs. It looks like Dave is still making a stink with that old log, judging from his website. But an exploding toilet under almost any circumstance is entertaining. A number of the most efficient commercial and residential toilets available are listed in GreenSpec; the state-of-the-industry and the standards considered by its research team are described as follows:
    Since 1992, federal law has mandated that nearly all new toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) — the exception being commercial blow-out toilets, which are still allowed to use 3.5 gallons in some states. As toilet flushing is the largest single use of water in most residential and commercial buildings (accounting for up to 40% of residential use), water savings from toilet replacement is very significant.
    In addition to improvements to the traditional gravity system, pressure- and vacuum-assisted flushing systems have been developed that offer superior performance, albeit with the addition of some noise. Dual-flush toilets have been available for years overseas and are now making inroads in the U.S. These save additional water by making two flushes available: one for solid wastes and a lower-volume flush for liquids and paper. Products listed here must meet the minimum standards of the Uniform North American Requirements (UNAR) for toilets, which includes elements of the Maximum Performance (MaP) flush-quality testing protocol and Los Angeles Supplementary Purchase Specification (SPS), which discourages the use of toilets that might be adjusted to use significantly more water. Products listed here use at least 20% less than the federal minimum of 1.6 gallons (6 liters) per flush — that is, 1.28 gallons (4.8 liters) or less. The toilet must also evacuate at least 350 grams of solid waste per flush, as tested under the Maximum Performance (MaP) protocol. Toilets that are included without MaP testing are extremely low-water use or have other unique green features. For dual-flush toilets, we factor water savings by averaging the high and low volume flush levels. Two reduced flushes and one full flush cannot average more than 1.28 gallons per flush. Other factors considered in GreenSpec evaluations include bowl washing effectiveness and water surface area.
    Want more? Of course you do. See "All About Toilets," an archived feature story from Environmental Building News.
    2008-12-05 n/a 11700 "Zero Energy" Exit Signs A post went up on Treehugger a couple days ago about "an eco alternative to plug-in exit signs" — photoluminescents. I posted the following reply there, and thought I'd just as well share it here, too.
    Environmental Building News (where I work) reported on photoluminescent exit signs in 2006. With tens of millions of exit signs deployed in North America that use up to 350 kWh each annually (as much as a nicely efficient refrigerator), it's a big deal. EPA estimates are that exit signs in commercial buildings use 30 - 35 billion kWh per year... the output of about a dozen 1000-MW coal-fired power plants. CFL exit signs use far less power and require far fewer lamp change-outs than incandescent. LED exit signs use only a couple watts. Electroluminescent signs use even less power than LEDs. Electricity-free radioluminescent exist signs — the tritium ones noted in another comment — have been around since the '20s, generally have 5 - 20 year lifespans, and disposal is regulated in the U.S. by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (though it's probably a given that most of them end up in landfills anyway). And PL exit signs, as noted in the post, also need no power at all... sort of.
    The manufacturers' recommendations for some of these signs call for a minimum continuous face exposure of of five footcandles (54 lux) of ambient light. But with low-energy lighting designs for interior spaces, the ambient light at the ceiling — where these signs are installed — the face of the exit sign would get on the order of 1 footcandle. Accommodating the charge requirements for PL exit signs in this kind of situation creates a significant energy penalty. It should be noted that the NYC law requiring PL exit markings (in all Class E commercial high-rise buildings over 75 feet in height) isn't actually about exit signs — though maybe the other commenter is talking about a different law that I'm not aware of. The post-9/11 NYC Building Code Reference Standard RS 6-1 and 6-1A didn't change requirements for exit signs above doors, but did create specific requirements for PL exit path markings on stairs, handrails, exit doors, and other places. That law also requires at least 2 footcandles of light on the floors of corridors to maintain the markings' charge, and nixes motion sensors that interrupt continuous light levels of at least that much. What sort of exit signage and marking is appropriate is part of an overall lighting and energy-use design that meets local code requirements and national laws. PL can be appropriate. It isn't always. It can get especially tricky when the concept is removed from general theory and inserted into design reality.
    The Evolution of Exit Signs (and Why the Latest is a Bad Idea) Support for Photoluminescent Exit Signs More
    2008-12-04 n/a 11647 Other's efforts to bring clarity to product certifications I promised participants at my GreenBuild session (Nutrition Labels for Products: Taking control of deciding what is green for you) a list of the efforts to bring clarity - through summaries, comparison tables, databases, whatnot - to the plethora of green building product certifications out there. I should have done this in the session, but here it is now: Building Products only: A lot of different areas:
    • Ecolabeling's wiki-like database of now 301 labels across the board. It's a bit clunky, and not made for comparison, but it exists, and they're open to suggestions
    • Consumer Reports Eco-labels center from their website provides a consumer reports take on things, but they don't really cover building products (other than wood). I haven't made up my mind whether we should try to convince them they should – or not.
    In the session Q&A I said what we really needed was a coordination of these independent efforts to bring clarity – to save everyone's energy and so there really was one place for building professionals and consumers to go for clarity. One other way out of the mess, is a real game changer where a couple of big players define THE overarching label to cover all product areas and eliminate consumer confusion... like what USDA organic was meant to do, or the model in many countries where one organization is contracted by the government to set standards, verify, and label. That's tricky though, because these different certifications and standards do have different niches in the ecosystem of environmental labeling... some aim for a really high aspirational bar that only a few products meet but can inspire companies to creative genius in the direction we really need to go, while others aim to certify the top 25% of products to incrementally pull along the majority, etc., etc.... I'd love to see something happen that eliminates the greenwash, but puts the others in context somehow without eliminating the range of aspirations – so people don't see the midlevel stepping stone as the end goal. There is hope for coordination of some sort – in the variety of collaborations (or at least the intellectual/political mating dance that proceeds collaboration) that are cropping up here and there around the need to address this issue in a comprehensive way. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next year or so brings. PS: The session was actually about product information systems, which give you real information to make up your own mind – not just a checkmark. I'm excited about these, and again, there are stepping stones here today – but the other game changer is when we really get a environmental & sustainability information on a product over its lifecycle in a form that can be aggregated up to the building level and integrated into BIM tools (note to the LCA folks - I mean adding carbon + carbon, not necessarily creating a single score for carbon + IAQ). The foundation is there, and people are working on it, but it still seems like a LOT of work to collect, verify, understand, and use all that info. My hope is someday soon, all these efforts will make it so, as with financial information, collecting and using data on sustainability implications of processes, products, companies, households, policies, societies is just standard operating procedure, and we base decisions on those indicators just like we do now with cost, profitability, GDP.
    2008-11-26 n/a 11650 "Listed on GreenFormat" - What Does That Actually Mean? There were quite a few of these placards in booths on the expo hall floor at Greenbuild. They were nice-looking signs, and seemed to give some green cred. But... no. As it says on GreenFormat's website, " GreenFormat is open to any manufacturer that wants to list a product." Now, I don't want to dis GreenFormat — BuildingGreen is actually working with CSI on this project, which is sort of an offshoot of their MasterFormat system — but being listed doesn't actually mean anything. Product manufacturers pay a fee to be listed; they input their own data; and GreenFormat takes no responsibility for the relative greenness of anything listed. Their FAQ answers the question "What about greenwashing?" like this:
    GreenFormat does not seek to determine whether a product is green. Instead, using a comprehensive questionnaire, GreenFormat reports on the properties of a product, referencing specific industry standards wherever possible, and allowing space at the end of each category for individual manufacturer input.
    This system is designed to allow users to compare product data and make their own judgments — and the potential for it to be exceptionally valuable is high if there's enough buy-in from manufacturers. We're excited about GreenFormat and are pleased to be assisting in its ongoing development. The day when it's de rigeur for any building products being introduced to the market to be added to this database is going to be a mighty fine day. The placards at Greenbuild were really publicity for GreenFormat, to help achieve its purpose... but were easily misconstrued as some kind of endorsement — which unfortunately means that those signs were helping to create the very mess that the program is intended to help clarify. That said, this well-intended misstep doesn't diminish GreenFormat's ultimate goal. Check it out if you haven't already.
    2008-11-23 n/a 11651 Being 22.1% (give or take) of the Top Ten Feels Darned Good! Preston Koerner, over at Jetson Green, posted his "Top 10 Tidbits from Greenbuild 2008." Check out numbers 2, 4, 6, and 7:
    2. The LEED AP Program undergoes major overhaul and the GBCI talks about LEED Green Associates, Legacy LEED APs, LEED AP Fellows, and the other family of LEED APs (ID+C, BD+C, Homes, O+M, and ND).
    This item links to a post our own Tristan Korthals Altes wrote here on's blog.

    4. BuildingGreen soft launches a new online information resource on residential green building and remodeling called
    That's us.

    6. The USGBC gives 2008 Leadership Awards to Alexander Karsner, Alex Wilson, Scot Horst, Ted Strickland, CB Richard Ellis, San Diego Gas & Electric Sustainable Communities Program, and the founding members of AIA COTE.
    Alex Wilson! BuildingGreen's founder.

    7. BuildingGreen announces their seventh annual list of green building products with the 2008 Top-10 Green Building Products
    That's us, too.

    Seriously, it's great to be a contributing cog in an organization that was a major player in defining the green building movement at its inception and is still at the forefront after all this time. Here's to the next 23 years.
    2008-11-22 n/a 11653 New Residential Green Building Website Posted live from Greenbuild. Press release:
    BuildingGreen, LLC, announces a new online information resource on residential green building and remodeling., which will be officially launched at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas January 20, 2009, is an online suite of expert advice, proven construction details, and real-world tools for residential architects, builders, remodelers, and highly engaged homeowners. "GBA builds on the decades of experience and depth of the two partner companies that came together to create this resource: BuildingGreen, publisher of Environmental Building News and The Taunton Press, publisher of Fine Homebuilding," says BuildingGreen director of residential services Peter Yost. "In the works since the two companies joined forces in early 2008, will be the most comprehensive, useful, and easy-to-use online resource serving the residential green building community," noted Yost., which was previewed at the Greenbuild Conference in Boston, will include seven primary components:
    Green building encyclopedia. is an encyclopedic resource on green building and remodeling, providing a wealth of information. For recent entrants into the green building field, introductory information makes it easy to get up to speed quickly. Green product guide. BuildingGreen has produced the leading national directory of green building products, GreenSpec, since 1997. GreenSpec products relevant to residential construction are all available through, along with links to other articles and discussions. Construction details. The site includes more than 1,000 highly sophisticated yet clear and thoroughly vetted green building construction details. Illustrations build on the well-known visual presentation and technical detail of Fine Homebuilding magazine, and are supported by the know-how of top building science experts. Users can paste the more technical CAD drawings directly into architectural drawings or print them out for subcontractors. Green building strategy generator. Users can enter information about a building project and will generate tailored green strategies. In-depth advice. is a forum for the exchange of information through blogs, forums, and Q&A­, drawing heavily from the 15 experts serving as Green Building Advisors. The website also links to detailed background information from Fine Homebuilding and Environmental Building News. Code issues. serves as a clearinghouse for information and advice on building codes as they relate to green building — providing clear, concise advice on streamlining the approval process. Real-world examples. provides a place to see how green building practices are being successfully used in hundreds of homes nationwide­including both new construction and remodeling. is a fee-based information service. Members will pay an annual or monthly fee for access, with annual access priced at $149.99. "Our primary goal is to serve the people who need and will use this information — builders, remodelers, architects, and designers," said vice president and publisher Bill Tine. "By offering subscriptions we ensure that our information is objective. BuildingGreen has proven this model for years as a way to provide high-value information that will help the industry advance." In addition to fee-based information, includes extensive free content, including the product listings, case studies, news, blogs, a community forum, and more. At the heart of this new resource are the "Green Building Advisors" — 15 of the nation's leading experts on green building, green remodeling, energy efficiency, and building science. This team includes builder John Abrams of South Mountain Company on Martha's Vineyard; mechanical engineer Joe Lstiburek, P.E., of Building Science Corp. of Westford, MA; remodeling contractor Eric Doub of Boulder, CO, who specializes in carbon-neutral houses and renewable energy; architect and green building materials expert Ann Edminster of Pacifica, CA; architect and used building materials expert Jennifer Corson of Halifax, Nova Scotia; green remodeling consultant Carl Seville of Decatur, GA; building inspector Lynn Underwood of Norfolk, VA; developer Vernon McKown of Ideal Homes in Norman, OK; and natural building expert and structural engineer Bruce King, P.E., of San Rafael, CA. The full list of Advisors can be found at once the site is launched January 20th. In addition to online delivery, a monthly print newsletter will be provided to members. "We will fully utilize online delivery of our content,"says managing editor Dan Morrison (until recently an editor at Fine Homebuilding), "but a lot of people still like to hold something in their hands and read it." Members will be able to receive the print newsletter in the mail or download and print it themselves. Also on the editorial team for are Martin Holladay, until recently the editor of Energy Design Update, and Rob Wotzak, a former remodeler specializing in historic preservation. Alex Wilson, the founder and president of BuildingGreen, is enthusiastic about this new online information source. "Since we launched Environmental Building News nearly 18 years ago, we have covered both residential and commercial green building," he said. "As the green building industry has matured, it became clear that we needed to target readers more precisely; with we are doing that," he said. " will be the most useful resource available on residential green building and remodeling." BuildingGreen, LLC, has been providing the building industry with quality information on sustainable design and construction since its founding in 1985. BuildingGreen's publications include Environmental Building News, the GreenSpec Directory of green building products; and the BuildingGreen Suite of online resources. In early 2008, BuildingGreen entered into a partnership with The Taunton Press.
    2008-11-21 n/a 11655 Jute Ceiling Tiles, Soon Posted live from Greenbuild. I mentioned Armstrong Ceiling Systems' booth earlier, and the fact that they don't use any wood that's not FSC, and that they don't have any added formaldehyde in any of their products. I didn't mention that all their ceiling tiles are Class A fire rated, because it started to feel I was cheerleading. There's one other thing that I didn't mention. In February, they're slated to roll out a ceiling tile made with 46% jute. The stuff goes from seed to harvest in 90 days; talk about rapidly renewable. Like all their tiles, no added formaldehyde. There was a sample there... it looked and acted just like fiberglass. These tiles will have the standard scrim facing that most of their lines use. No word on what the line will be called. 2008-11-20 n/a 11659 2008 Top-10 Green Building Products Posted live from Greenbuild. Here's another little scoop for you. The press conference announcing this doesn't start for another 15 minutes... but since I'm the co-editor of GreenSpec, I'm going to take this liberty.
    BOSTON, MA, November 20, 2008 — BuildingGreen, LLC, publisher of the GreenSpec® Directory and Environmental Building News™, today announced the 2008 Top-10 Green Building Products. This seventh annual award, announced at the U.S. Green Building Council's Greenbuild Conference in Boston, recognizes the most exciting products drawn from additions to the GreenSpec Directory and coverage in Environmental Building News. "Our selections of the Top-10 Green Building Products represent a wide range of product types in many different application areas," noted BuildingGreen president Alex Wilson. There are a particularly large number of interior products in this year's group of winners: the first FSC-certified and formaldehyde-free bamboo flooring; doors made with wheat-straw particleboard; a line of zero-VOC paint; a transparent finish produced from a byproduct of cheese making; and a line of organic fabrics. Three of the products this year save energy, including a low-cost, solar water-heating system; a combination heating, water heating, and heat-recovery ventilation system; and a system for monitoring real-time energy (and water) use in buildings. Water saving products are represented by a line of rainwater storage tanks — the first rainwater storage equipment ever recognized in our Top-10 lists. Fully half of the products this year are green in part because they are made from natural, rapidly renewable, or agricultural waste materials; natural materials often require significantly less energy to manufacture. A new compressed-earth masonry block is particularly noteworthy in this regard. "Most of the Top-10 products this year have multiple environmental attributes,"said Wilson. BuildingGreen's Top-10 product selections, as in previous years, are drawn from new additions to the company's GreenSpec product directory. More than 200 product listings have been added to the GreenSpec database during the past year. "New products seem to be appearing all the time, making it a challenge for our staff to keep up,"said Wilson. The GreenSpec database the company maintains now includes more than 2,000 product listings. A big driver in the development of green products continues to be the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED® Rating System (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which awards points for the use of certain product types, such as certified wood, or for the energy or water savings that green products can achieve. "Designers of LEED buildings are looking for green products, and manufacturers are responding," said Wilson. In the online version of GreenSpec, users can find products organized by LEED credits. The 2008 Top-10 Green Building Products are listed below. More complete descriptions and contact information is provided on the linked pages:
    About GreenSpec GreenSpec is the leading national directory of green building products. Products are selected by editors of Environmental Building News (EBN) based on criteria developed over the past 15 years. Manufacturers do not pay to be listed in GreenSpec, and neither GreenSpec nor Environmental Building News carries advertising. "Our policy of not accepting money from manufacturers allows us to be objective in our review of products," said Wilson. The GreenSpec product database is also available online as part of BuildingGreen Suite. Environmental Building News, founded in 1992, is the oldest and most widely respected newsletter in the green building field. BuildingGreen, LLC., celebrates its 23rd year in business this year. For information on BuildingGreen resources, visit
    2008-11-20 n/a 11662 The Strip Show at Greenbuild Posted live from Greenbuild. There are a couple booths that warrant special mention. This year, the Armstrong Ceiling Systems booth is a metal greenhouse frame (below banners reading "Come see what's growing") that, after the show, will be donated to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Nice. Most of the companies at these trade shows, especially the big players, spend scads on high-concept booths — shiny, gleaming, lots of lights, computer screens, motorized gizmos — that may only see a few shows, if that. I'm not cynical about Armstrong's motives. Sure, it doubles as a sweet marketing device — so what? I think it qualifies as permaculture. (And guess what else? Where wood is used in Armstrong's Ceiling Systems, that wood is FSC. You can't not get FSC from them. And none of their products have added formaldehyde. I think they've made a commitment, and I don't believe it's entirely market driven.) But there's another big-player booth that's taken this sort of concept to an awesome extreme. Antron, the carpet fiber maker, has a booth that's not a booth at all. There are a few used chairs, and a couple old schoolhouse chalkboards sort of defining a space. It's got mismatched, used (really used) carpet underfoot. There's no lights. No computer. No booth swag giveaways. They don't even have cut sheets! What gives? I asked Henning Bloech, Antron's sustainability guy, to explain, and he did it in under two minutes. Listen.

    Antron's "booth"

    Henning Bloech

    UPDATE — Thanks to Andrew's comment (below), I went to have a look at Forbo's booth. Turns out that they'd unboothed so well that I'd walked right by the day before. There were a couple tables — one with two computer stations set up on it — in an area that had some flooring tiles and sheet laid down. The tablecloths did say "Forbo" in big letters, and there was obvious signage in the corners on easels, so I don't really have a good excuse for missing it... I guess the fancy displays work for people in a state of overload. Anyway, Andrew was right — this one absolutely deserves mention too. I spoke with Eric Bower, northeast regional manager for Forbo Flooring Systems, and he explained how they reduced their booth's carbon footprint from 12,000 pounds to a slim 906. Listen.

    Forbo's "booth"

    2008-11-19 n/a 11663 Three of the Products I Liked at Greenbuild Today Posted live from Greenbuild.

    Vortex Fine Filters by Wisy, offered in the U.S. by Rainwater Management Solutions, passively filter debris in rainwater collected from drains and downspouts. An offset input on the top of the unit spins draining water around a self-cleaning stainless steel mesh filter; 90-something percent of the water is filtered and exits to holding tanks or more processing. (The rest goes somewhere else.) A first-flush occurs by design at each rainfall. (Until they pointed it out to me at this booth, I hadn't realized that the convention center we're in was the first in the U.S. to use siphonic drainage — another thing I like.)

    Big Belly Solar compacting public trash cans and recycling kiosks. I saw these things last year, maybe even the year before, and they're still a favorite. The real savings they can offer aren't immediately apparent under the glare of novelty. They increase capacity by five times over ordinary receptacles of the same size; and they signal wirelessly for pick-up when full, further reducing — by lots — the emissions generated and energy expended for pickups. The standard black side panels and hopper cover are made from 80-100% post-consumer recycled ABS. The exterior is 85% recycled galvanized steel (which is about normal for steel anyway).

    Tournesol VGM modular green wall planting system. No PVC! Their grid is 100% recycled polypro, with a steel mounting system. The soil depth... er, thickness... is a choice of either 4.5 or 8.5 inches — unusually generous for living wall systems, and great for the plants. This is a brand-new product that they rolled out at this show; it's not even on their website yet.
    2008-11-19 n/a 11664 IES VE-Ware Add-Ons for SketchUp Posted live from Greenbuild. Yesterday, the president of Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES), Don McLean, stopped by our booth at Greenbuild to run through the features of his company's Virtual Environment energy and carbon footprint simulation tool for SketchUp and Revit. The new version of the software already works with the new features in SketchUp 7. While this was going on, an attendee whose office uses SketchUp for preliminary design and Revit for the hard stuff (an increasingly common configuration) happened by, and was surprised to find out the depth of information this software pulls out of SketchUp models. It's pretty amazing. There's the free version, which has limited capabilities, and purchasable modules for energy, lighting & daylighting, solar, value & cost, egress, mechanical, and more — or the whole schmear is available in a suite. Today Don and I had an unscheduled quick bite of lunch together up in the food court. Faced with the prospect of trying to explain his product here, I asked him to do it for me — using as few words as possible while providing the most meaning. He spoke extemporaneously while I scribbled: "It enables SketchUp users to incorporate more of their model in more effective ways into the analysis process." And then we talked about Greenbuild over the years, the rising trend of greenwash, the increasing difficulties that professionals new to green have in cutting through the crap, and European sitcoms. UPDATE: Check out the following from the Google SketchUp blog — if you're here in Boston, or know somebody who is, this could be a sweet thing:
    Guess who's going to Greenbuild 2008? Well, not us, but our friends at IES are! We wanted to let you know because they are offering Google SketchUp Pro customers a discount on their new Architectural Suite and Architectural Suite Plus software. Here's the deal: If you go to the Greenbuild Expo in Boston next week, visit the IES Booth (#1447) and you'll receive $250 off their software using the promo code GB08. This offer is also available on their website. If you're going to the conference to learn about building green, you may as well save some green while you're there.
    2008-11-19 n/a 11666 Vertical-Axis Wind Generator Area Lighting Posted live from Greenbuild.
    At the Selux booth, I'm told that these will be introduced to the market shortly, intended for grid intertie.

    Their standalone PV area lighting has been on the market for some time.
    2008-11-19 n/a 11671 Scoop! Breaking News - TimberSIL Wins EPA Approval Posted live from Greenbuild. We're fans of TimberSIL. We're such big fans that we named it a Top-10 product in 2004. And now, despite efforts by the chemically treated wood industry to have it classified as a pesticide (as well as a nearly disastrous situation with a licensee a while ago), they've received some news that should turn the tide. It's a few minutes before the expo floor opens at Greenbuild, and Karen Slimak, the environmental chemist who invented TimberSIL, has given BuildingGreen the scoop. It hasn't been announced anywhere else yet — so here's a world debut for you: After a four-year assessment, despite the aggressive lobbying of traditional wood treatment chemical companies which led to an unusually thorough investigation, the EPA has determined TimberSIL to be a nontoxic physical barrier product exempt from pesticide regulations. What's more, this is the first time the EPA has ever expressly stated that any product of this sort qualifies as a barrier product — though it had determined that such a thing could potentially exist within its regulations over two decades ago. Evidently somebody at the EPA 20 years back had some foresight. Specifically, TimberSIL is the first material to qualify for the 40 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Section 152.1 Barrier Exemption which defines such products as "intended to exclude pests only by providing a physical barrier against pest access." Additionally, a letter signed by Frank T. Sanders, director of the Antimicrobial Division of the Office of Pesticide Programs of the EPA, states that "the product has no toxic mode of action." In other words, TimberSIL is everything its proponents have claimed it is all along. Congratulations! 2008-11-18 n/a 11675 SketchUp 7 Released Last Friday a few of us gathered around a phone behind the closed doors of one of the conference rooms here at BuildingGreen and had a chat with John Bacus from Google's team of SketchUp developers, and Aaron Stein, one of their PR folks. The supersecret talk was about the next release of that program — SketchUp 7 — which within the last couple hours has gone public. They described it as a major upgrade, 18 months in the making, that improves the core usability and basic capability of the modeler. "Subtle but important" was a phrase that popped up... it may have been an understatement. Some of the improvements are only available in the Pro version, but here's a quick rundown of the ones that made me sit up: The seemingly most simple change from previous versions may be the most significant for most users. Now, when two lines cross in a plane, they both break into separate lines. Before this, they simply overlapped. If the significance isn't apparent, it might not mean that much to you — but folks doing things like facades and floor plans will rejoice. Another potentially big one for the architecture crowd is Dynamic Components. Individual components now have the ability to carry attribute data, like part numbers and cost. The possibilities in this are tremendous — windows can have embedded U-values, transmissivity, etc.; appliances, their Energy Star operating energy numbers; conditioning units, COP; and like-that. Conversely, users can create components that carry the attributes they need — reverse-engineering of a sort. (This is an expansion of the ability to apply attributes to objects like cores or faces, which is what IES is using for their SketchUp plugin.) Wisely, Google isn't prescribing how these data fields should be used, so industries and third parties can devise standards and plugins that utilize the data. This improvement provides a nice incentive to manufacturers to create objects that can be dragged into designs from the online 3D Warehouse. Dynamic components can also be designed to scale in a fascinating way — by automagically adding or removing bits to maintain proper relative size without proportional stretching. To make a simple example, a picket fence object that has 20 individual pickets could be stretched to the full length of a property, resulting in a fence with 200 pickets. Next, imagine designing a high-rise, and stretching windows over it... now hold that thought and read the next paragraph. These two new abilities lead to another exciting one: the ability to generate tabular reports detailing these dynamic components. How many pickets are on that fence, how many windows are on that facade? Click a button, get a report. Further, if component designers attached part numbers, cost, weight, performance data attributes, that info could be included. So, out of the box, it's a way to do a sort of material analysis on a model... but down the road, there's the possibility of basic BIM functions if plugin developers can make hay from standard usages that haven't been defined yet. The Google folks don't claim expertise in things like acoustical analysis or construction insulation — their goal is to provide a design tool that's transparent and usable, but with opportunities built in for people with specific needs to create specific uses of the tool. They stressed that SketchUp 7 is by no means an entrance into the BIM world — it's simply "geometry with attributes on it." This is smart. Oh yeah, these Dynamic Components also have the ability to do simple animations. Click on a door or a window, it opens. Nice to show the clients, anyway. I'm sure the function could be used for something astonishing... I'm just not sure what it is. Maybe the door or window could have different embedded attributes depending on its state. Hmm. There are sharing and collaboration enhancements as well. The 3D Warehouse can now be browsed directly from the program, and there are better permissions in place for objects stored in the Warehouse to prevent or allow sharing and editing. And one more thing — Google's LayOut program add-on for SketchUp (Pro only) is now out of beta — it provides a presentation front-end for SketchUp models, allowing users to make presentation boards, booklets, and slideshows. Google's press release from this morning also says, "have a look at the Official Google Blog and the Official SketchUp Blog for posts from Aidan Chopra, SketchUp Product Evangelist. Happy modeling!" 2008-11-17 n/a 11679 BuildingGreen Bulletin: Advanced Storm Windows — GreenSpec News Updates Twice each month, BuildingGreen publishes an email news bulletin with current news and product information briefs. Sign up here — it's free. We will never share or sell your email address, and you may unsubscribe at any time.
    2008-11-13 n/a 11681 BuildingGreen — Sessions at Greenbuild We'll be at Greenbuild in force this year — I think it's more than a dozen of us — checking out your booths, staffing our own (come see us at #1728, almost smack-dab in the middle), going to sessions... and giving a bunch of sessions as well. On Monday the 17th, during the two-day Green Affordable Housing Summit that happens before Greenbuild proper actually starts (but which is a little-known part of it), Peter Yost is chairing a panel on residential retrofit and rehab. My info is a little fuzzy, but it seems that our own Allyson Wendt may be on that panel, or somehow else involved. On Tuesday, Nadav Malin does a preconference LEED workshop on "Costs and Returns." Peter Yost pops up again on Wednesday at 2:00 to teach education session BL01 in room 104ABC, titled "Call it REGREEN," about the Regreen residential remodeling guidelines. Also on Wednesday, also in the 2:00 time slot, session BL07 in room 156ABC — "Nutrition Labels for Products: Taking Control of Deciding What's Green for You" — features our ace researcher Jennifer Atlee. The next day, Thursday, Nadav Malin sits on a panel talking about lessons learned from a couple case studies of high-profile LEED buildings. This is Specialty Update session SU16 in room 160ABC, at 2:00. And Alex Wilson has back-to-back presentations on Thursday. He'll announce the annual Top Ten Green Products during a Specialty Update session that also begins at 2:00... though, oddly, I can't quite figure out where. This is generally a pretty popular thing. When I find out, I'll post an update here. UPDATE: Room 104 ABC, on Thursday from 2 - 3 pm. Then at 4:30, Alex sits on a panel for a Homebuilder's Day presentation titled "Green Products and Technologies: Making Sound Choices in the Age of Hype" — session BR3d in room 257A. When Friday rolls around, Tristan Korthals-Altes is on the panel for a 9:00 a.m. session, PL16 in room 204AB, on "Greening our Historic Legacy: Sustainability and Preservation Standards." And finally, also on Friday, Peter Yost is giving a half-day workshop on those Regreen residential remodeling guidelines. 2008-11-11 n/a 11682 Getting ready for Greenbuild Here comes Greenbuild again. It keeps getting bigger. For instance, last year there were 480 exhibitors in the expo hall... this year, over 800. I've got the expo hall on the brain. Like last year, I've been mapping which of the exhibitors do and don't have products listed in GreenSpec. There's about 300 — something over a third of the hall. Frankly, I feel really good that there's about 500 exhibitors at this year's Greenbuild that don't meet the high GreenSpec standards. A couple days ago I wrote here that "GreenSpec is a 'best of the best' directory reserved for the top 10% or so of the most environmentally preferable products available... intended to be a reference to the best stuff we know about, and a launching pad for additional research," and that "Attempting to create and maintain a fully comprehensive compendium of everything that's even slightly green would not only be practically undoable, it would actually be much less useful in defining high benchmarks." Sure, there's undoubtedly a quite a good few new products that we'll learn about there, and some of them will end up added to the directory. Most of them won't. Here's a graphic of the expo floor; booths highlighted in green represent manufacturers with one or more products in GreenSpec. The variety of booth sizes is another encouraging sign to me — big fish or small fry, it doesn't matter.

    (Stay alert! Here it Comes: The Year of Greenwash)

    2008-11-10 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 11643 Living Future 08 'Unconference' Proceedings Online Back on May 6, Jennifer Atlee posted here on this blog:
    "If I could adopt a conference, it would be the USGBC Cascadia chapter's Living Future 'Unconference'. As someone who generally prefers to stay behind the scenes talking shop, it was a delight to find myself surrounded primarily by the obsessed of the green building world..."
    She went on to briefly describe some highlights of the event, and even provided her notes from the presentation she gave, "Be a Product Detective: Sleuthing the Truth About Building Materials". Now here's some great news for those of us who weren't there: The Living Future 08 conference is now online. Follow these links to audio tracks, powerpoint files, program descriptions, and presenter bios: · Living Building: Energy and Carbon Neutrality
    · Wholistic Engineering: Applied to a Living Building Water System
    · Be a Product Detective: Sleuthing the Truth About Building Materials
    · The Birds, the Bees, the Flowers and the Trees: Biodiversity in the Urban Environment
    · Living Buildings and the Precautionary Principle
    · Green Land Development of the Year, LEED-H Platinum. . .Now What?
    · BIM and Sustainable Design: Current Abilities and Future Possibilities
    · Design for Deconstruction and Zero Waste
    · Big Barriers — Financing and Codes
    · Sustainable Design: Ecology, Architecture and Planning
    · 15 Minutes of Brilliance: Transformative Solutions for the Next Generation
    · New Tools to Assess and Alter the Carbon Impact of Development
    · Carbon Markets: How Communities and Buildings are Supplying and Buying into Tradable Offsets
    · Green Building Materials Through the Pharos Lens
    · Successfully Sourcing Local FSC Products
    · Crafting a One Planet Community: What Does Zero Waste and Zero Carbon Really Look Like?
    · Charting a Course Towards Water Independence: Achieving Net-Zero Water in Living Buildings
    · Residential Remodeling - Model Remodel: Renovating for Massive Change
    · Scaling it Up: Beyond Buildings to Low Carbon Communities
    · Living Cities — Remaking Our Cities One Neighborhood at a Time
    · Alternative Ownership Models and Housing for the Homeless
    2008-10-09 n/a 11644 Outlawing Toilet Seats The current issue of The New Yorker has a sprawling piece about the illegal logging market, titled "The Stolen Forests", which cuts a global swath and at times reads like a spy novel. They've also posted a couple related treats on their website: an audio interview with the article's author and a nice little movie showing poached Russian timber winding up as a toilet seat at Wal-Mart. Which, in addition to being a Russian crime, is about to become an American crime. Finally. As noted in the article "Illegal Timber Trade Targeted by New Law" in the current issue of Environmental Building News, congress amended the Lacey Act in June to prevent sales in the U.S. of all timber and other plant materials illegally harvested elsewhere. Also see The U.S. Lacey Act: Frequently Asked Questions About the World's First Ban on Trade in Illegal Wood from the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency. 2008-10-08 n/a 11604 Medievel Nanotechnology? Finding an energy-efficient air purifier technology that actually works can be a tricky proposition. Most purifiers use ionizers that generate ozone or have HEPA and carbon filters that require inefficient fans that run constantly. Oh sure, you could try to keep toxins out of the house in the first place, but if you should find yourself living with a cigar-smoking roommate with a humidor made from non-CARB-compliant urea-formaldehyde particleboard (and, honestly, who hasn't?) and happen to be searching for a purifier, what are ya gonna do? As we look to the future of air-purification technology, maybe we need to take a look back to the Middle Ages for a possible solution. Zhu Huai Yong, from Queensland University of Technology, studied medieval stained glass and found that windows colored with tiny gold particles work as a "photocatalytic air purifier with nanostructured gold catalyst" (see article in Science Daily). When sunlight hits the windows, an electromagnetic field is formed that destroys volatile organic compounds, with only small amounts of CO2 as a by-product. Sure, gold mining is an environmental disaster, the long-term environmental impact of nanotechnology is unknown, and the frames of the stained glass windows were probably lead, but still — this is as viable as some air purifiers we've seen submitted to GreenSpec! Now if someone can market a cost-competitive, triple-glazed, krypton gas, low-e version with a U-factor of 0.20... 2008-08-24 n/a 11610 Wishful (Magical?) Thinking on Products and LEED's Materials Credits In my years as chair of LEED's Materials & Resources Technical Advisory Group (MR-TAG) I've gotten lots of questions and comments about interesting interpretations and claims from product manufacturers. Most manufacturers are sincere in their efforts to understand the credit requirements and present their products in a positive light. Sometimes they just don't go far enough in studying the credit language before making their claims. Sometimes they just lapse into wishful thinking. Perhaps the best examples of wishful thinking that I've seen are those who claim that if a product is formed or molded on the building site than they can claim that it contributes to the regional materials credit because it was manufactured on site. Terrazzo flooring manufacturers all seem to jump on this wacky interpretation (here's just one example), and I've heard that spray-foam insulation companies are making it as well. Another claim I see a lot is for products that supposedly meet LEED's requirement for low indoor emissions, even though they are not in one of the categories to which that credit applies. Those categories are adhesives & sealants, paints & coatings, carpet, composite wood, and (for LEED-CI) furniture. The carpet category has now been extended to include other flooring. Insulation doesn't count as a sealant in LEED, even if it is a foamed-in-place product that reduces air infiltration. Finally, there is the wild west of recycled content claims. Some products and material sources admittedly fall into a gray area, so it's hard to blame companies for interpreting things to their benefit. Others are not so excusable. Float glass manufacturers, for example, have always recycled off-spec glass back into their product, and it's recycled right back into the same production line. Those conditions clearly violate LEED's definitions of what constitute recycled content, even under the older guidelines which were based on Federal Trade Commission rules. LEED for New Construction has updated its citation to reference ISO 14021, which is clearer on these matters — but nothing is clear enough, apparently, to survive wishful reinterpretations. 2008-08-14 n/a 11615 Q: What innovative cooling system appears everywhere but in the U.S.? A: Mini-splits and variable-refrigerant-flow multi-splits. It's not that mini-splits and their multi-split kin aren't available in the U.S. at all. Daikin, Mitsubishi, and Sanyo all sell products here, along with a few other manufacturers. It's that this cooling technology (which uses an air-source heat pump and can provide significant heating capacity along with cooling) is in millions of homes and businesses in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe, and is comparatively absent here despite numerous benefits. (The photo is from T'bilisi, in the Republic of Georgia. It shows an exterior unit that provides cooling to an indoor air handler at a hotel. Condensate is piped down to a potted plant -- a nice touch.) Sensing that the technology was getting short shrift, I investigated it in a feature article in the latest Environmental Building News. Here's what I found:
    • Efficiency numbers potentially matching those of ground-source heat pumps, even for heating in a Northeastern climate!
    • Efficiency is really boosted where simultaneous heating and cooling is needed in the same building (not that uncommon in larger buildings
    • Not the cheapest products, but costs comparative with other cooling systems
    • Appropriate for homes, small commercial, and up to medium-sized buildings
    • Variable speed-compressors and air-handling units function very efficiently at partial loads
    • And, more benefits and drawbacks, summarized here.
    The technology is all over the place in the rest of the world. It was a common sight for me in the Repubic of Georgia, a rebuilding post-Soviet republic. Here's the inside air-handling portion of the exterior unit shown in the photo above: Typical street scene in Georgia with an older cooling unit on the left and a newer mini-split on the right: Jeff Pratt, an energy efficiency consultant to the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (Portland, OR) working on market transformation initiatives, was kind enough to send me a few images for the EBN article. Here's a nice house in Sweden with a unit: One representative I spoke with at an unnamed American manufacturer (one that doesn't have much of a presence in this product line) seemed to suggest that mini-splits are somehow... not American. Americans like open floorplans, big homes, cooling that they don't have to think about rather than adjustable units in each room, he said. He talked about the Asian market as though mini-splits owned it because of the small rooms there. Read the full EBN article here.
    2008-08-01 n/a 11583 Marble flooring and... the Taliban?! The New York Times recently revealed yet another reason to get your building materials regionally -- or to at least know where they're coming from. With every shipment of the prized white marble from the Ziarat quarry in Pakistan, the Taliban takes a cut. The outlaw group, the major enemy of the U.S. and coalition forces in Afganistan, has pocketed tens of thousands of dollars from the marble trade. From the article:
    The mountain of white marble shines with such brilliance in the sun it looks like snow. For four years, the quarry beneath it lay dormant, its riches captive to tribal squabbles and government ineptitude in this corner of Pakistan's tribal areas. But in April, the Taliban appeared and imposed a firm hand. They settled the feud between the tribes, demanded a fat fee up front and a tax on every truck that ferried the treasure from the quarry. Since then, Mir Zaman, a contractor from the Masaud subtribe, which was picked by the Taliban to run the quarry, has watched contentedly as his trucks roll out of the quarry with colossal boulders bound for refining in nearby towns.
    According to the Times, the Ziarat stone is on par with some of the finest marbles in the world. While the paper doesn't claim that the marble has a market in North America, parallels to well-established illegal trade in other prized building materials, such as exotic lumber, would suggest a policy of caveat emptor:
    Of all the minerals in the tribal areas, the marble from Ziarat is one of the most highly prized for use in expensive floors and walls in Pakistan, and in limited quantities abroad. A government body, the FATA Development Authority, failed over the last several years to mediate a dispute between the Masaud and Gurbaz subtribes over how the mining rights to the marble should be allocated, according to Pakistani government officials familiar with the quarry who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the effort's failure. A new government mining corporation, Pakistan Stone Development Company, offered last year to invest in modern mining machinery, but even with the lure of added value, the development authority could not sort out the feud. The arguments were fierce because the tribes knew that the Ziarat marble was of particularly fine texture and purity, comparable to Italian Carrara marble, according to an assessment done for the FATA Development Authority. The Taliban came eager for a share of the business. Their reputation for brutality and the weakness of the local government authorities allowed the Taliban to settle the dispute in short order.
    Perhaps bamboo flooring, or better yet, domestic stone or hardwoods, aren't just environmental choices for flooring -- they're the support-our-troops choice? Read the rest of the article here. Photo: Akhtar Soomro for The New York Times
    2008-07-24 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 11592 BuildingGreen Bulletin - Harvesting Drainwater Heat; GreenSpec Updates Twice each month, BuildingGreen publishes an email news bulletin with current news and product information briefs. Sign up here — it's free. We will never share or sell your email address, and you may unsubscribe at any time.
    2008-07-17 n/a 11566 What Goes Around Comes Around In researching Forbo's Marmoleum Composition Tile (MCT) for the July issue of EBN, I found out that the product wasn't actually all that new. We had first covered the idea of it in 1998: "Forbo Industries also has some exciting new developments. The company is introducing a new linoleum tile this December that will be thinner (2.0 mm) and priced to compete more directly with VCT. This 13" by 13" (330 mm x 330 mm) tile is being targeted specifically toward K-12 schools." (EBN Vol. 7, No. 9) Curious, I got in touch with Tim Cole, the director of environmental initiatives and product development for Forbo. He told me that the product met with limited success ten years ago, but that the market for environmentally friendly products had grown, particularly for schools, so MCT's chances of making it as a product now were quite good. LEED for Schools, the Collaborative for High-Performance Schools (CHPS), and other programs are bringing green schools into the mainstream. Parents are worried about their children's exposure to chemicals at school, including those present in vinyl composition tile (VCT). Enter MCT. In one sense, MCT is a product made mostly of marketing. It's the same material as Marmoleum, only thinner and less expensive. At the same time, MCT's similarity to VCT in size, thickness, and cost may make it more acceptable to a market that tends to stick with what it knows. The guaranteed installed cost is pretty cool, too. So maybe Forbo was just ahead of its time ten years ago, and now the time is right. 2008-06-27 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 11568 World Cement Production A graphic from The Oil Drum — Gigatons per Year of Cement Produced:
    Quoting from the website:
    Remember, in China, oil isn't used in cement production. In the "clinker" stage, it's all coal. In the blending stage it's electricity (which is generated 80% from coal in China). And cement production in China is inefficient. There are hundreds of small plants, both wet and dry processes, and the local environmental impact is severe.
    There is some interesting discussion about the chart in that site's comments. For more about cement production and its environmental impacts, see the Environmental Building News feature, "Cement and Concrete: Environmental Considerations." Much more information about the cement industry is in BuildingGreen Suite as well.
    2008-06-18 n/a 11576 Problems installing cotton insulation I bought some Ultratouch cotton fiber insulation a few months ago thinking that it would be a great natural product for the cabin I am building. This is the stuff that comes in blue unfaced batts, and is often said to use recycled blue jeans, although it uses pre-consumer denim from factory waste. I bought it from a (great) Brattleboro, Vermont retailer Renew Building Materials and Salvage for for 88 cents a square foot. Unfortunately they ship it from Arizona but it seemed worth the effort. Within a couple hours of working with it, however, I was ready to abandon it in favor of blown-in cellulose, and returned all of the unopened bags minus a restocking fee. What went wrong? Three things.
    • It's too thin
    • It's too wide
    • It's hard to cut
    The worst flaw of the product is that it is too thin. I bought the R-13 batts that are supposed to be 3.5 inches thick to fill the stud cavities in a standard 2x4 stick-frame wall. Just like the fiberglass insulation I've worked with in the past, the batts were compressed into a bag for shipping. You are supposed to be able to take them out of the package and they will "fluff up" to full size in a process called "loft rebound." However, as the photo above shows, that never happened. The actual thickness varies. At best it's three inches; at worst it's less than two. This photo, by the way, is taken after the batt has been sitting out, uncompressed, for six full months. It did all of its "fluffing" in the first few hours and hasn't improved since. What's wrong with that if it's R-13? Well, it's not really R-13. The air pockets provide the insulation, not the cotton. If you take the same cotton and compress it into a smaller space, there are fewer air pockets and thus less R-value, as the cotton conducts more heat. That R-13 value is based on 3.5 inches of fluffy cotton with lots of airspaces, not two inches. Also, since the batts are so thin, they leave about half the stud cavity open. That massive air cavity (which remember, I already paid 88 cents per square foot to fill) provides ample room for air currents to move, sucking out heat and bringing in cold air, worsening the total R-value of the wall even further. The people I bought it from at Renew were concerned. They noted that the larger R-19 batts seemed to fluff up better. They encouraged me to give my feedback to Ultratouch. When I asked the Ultratouch reps about this problem they told me that they haven't had such problems. Secondly, it's too wide. According to Bonded Logic, the makers of Ultratouch, this is a feature, not a bug. To quote the website: "UltraTouch is manufactured in oversized widths to ensure a tight friction fit and fill capacity." Indeed, the insulation I bought is a full 16 inches wide. Meanwhile, the standard 16-inch on-center stick-frame wall that I had built has a stud cavity that is 14.5 inches wide. So a full 1.5 inches of the stuff is added on for a "friction fit." I wasn't expecting this when I opened the package, but I was willing to give it a try. In practice, I would say that a 1/4-inch of extra width would be enough to provide the friction fit. So what happens to the additional inch-and-a-quarter? It gets squeezed into the corners. You then have two problems. One is that the batt balloons out a little to the front, creating a significant airspace behind it. Two is that the insulation on the edges gets compressed, reducing its R-value. That also rounds the corners of the insulation, and since the stud cavity is rectangular, not rounded, it adds air gaps running all the way up and down, creating convection and further reducing thermal performance. You can see both effects taking place in this photo: Again, Bonded Logic insist that this is not a problem. At Greenbuild last year, the reps told me that it worked for them when they installed it. Curious, I came back to their booth at the recent AIA National Convention in Boston to research the issue further. The Ultratouch booth features a gorgeous stick-frame wall with batts of Ultratouch installed, looking perfect and also, strangely unattainable. So how'd they do it? Using a tape measure from the Lafarge booth down the row (thanks!), I measured the wall and found that the official Ultratouch mockup uses 17-inch on-center construction. This allows an extra inch to accommodate the wide batts. Wacky! But clearly these guys knew what they were doing. My question is--why haven't they told the rest of us? Knowing what I know now, if I were to use this product again, I would either use a nonstandard framing technique such as 17-inch-o.c. walls like Ultratouch did, or I would rip every single piece lengthwise to attain a more exact fit. But -- and this offers a good segue into my third point -- the stuff is really hard to cut. Treating it like fiberglass, foam, or many other types of insulation that can be cut with a utility knife will give you a shredded, uneven end -- see the lower end in the photo. (Tearing it by hand, as Peter Yost and Nadav Malin here at Environmental Building News found they had to do when they reviewed the product eight years ago, works somewhat better, although it generates a lot of dust. Peter also noted the same problem with loft rebound in that article. It would be great to to into his attic to check on that now.) Bonded Logic recommends the Insul-Knife made by Cepco Tool Company to cut it instead. I acquired one of these and found that it's a really nifty tool that has all kinds of uses. Cutting cotton batts is not one of them. It does create a satisfactory cut when it's really sharp -- see the upper end in the photo (above). But it requires a lot of elbow grease, and it dulls within a few cuts and requires sharpening. Also, it works best on crosscuts, and is not very practical when it comes to getting a long, straight rip. Bonded Logic recognizes this, apparently, because they also recommend a Bosch Foam Rubber Cutter as a motorized cutter. I wasn't that interested in buying a specialized power tool just for installing insulation. If I were doing a large commercial job, however, I imagine that this would work well and probably wouldn't take much longer than cutting fiberglass, at least until you factor in the ripping. For the several pieces that I did install, I found that a tablesaw worked best for long cuts, and a circular saw worked reasonably well for crosscuts. I have talked to other residential installers and found that people who stick with the product find a motorized system that works for them using standard tools. I might have done so if not for the product being too thin. As I stood there in my freezing cabin last winter (which wasn't getting warmer very quickly with the problems I was having with Ultratouch), I thought about setting up a motorized cutting system with tools on hand, and ripping every single piece. But I realized that I could do all that and still not get the thermal performance that I had paid for because of the lack of "fluff." I was already planning to blow cellulose into the ceiling so I decided to do the walls as well. Have you installed cotton insulation? How did it work for you? I do have some good news to report from my search for the ideal way to cut Ultratouch. I came across the Olfa 45-mm rotary cutter. While this didn't work for Ultratouch, I love using it on materials like burlap, housewrap, and red-rosin paper--provided that I am cutting on top of a hard surface. Because it rolls and avoids thus avoids catching on things, it works much better than a utility knife in some applications. Replacement blades are spendy, though.
    2008-06-05 n/a 11539 Notes from "Be a Product Detective: Sleuthing the Truth About Building Materials" Jennifer Atlee has posted notes from the session she co-presented at USGBC Cascadia chapter's Living Future 'Unconference'. See them here. 2008-05-30 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 11549 Overheard at AIA'08 "I kinda liked the expo this year. There seemed to be a lot of stuff." —a guy to another guy
    A piece of it. Just a piece.

    2008-05-16 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 11554 Has the time come for vinyl siding? I'm no fan of vinyl, but someone (actually a lot of someones) keep buying lots of it, year after year. Why? A recent article, "Vinyl makers push for New Urbanism market," in New Urban News looks at the benefits. Since vinyl is pretty much Evil (I picture it as the smoldering stuff in the toaster oven in "Time Bandits") in the environmental world, I thought this article was pretty fun. Apparently there is a campaign afoot to get some respect for vinyl siding, and it's winning over people in the New Urbanist community. A big part of that is aesthetic improvements:
    Probably the most notable advance made by vinyl manufacturers is the expanding range of colors. Vinyl siding used to come in pastels and neutral tones -- what some called "twenty shades of beige." Now it is also produced, at a higher price, in deeper and darker colors, such as hunter green, deep blue, and barn red. Torti Gallas and Partners, a new urbanist architecture and planning firm in Silver Spring, Maryland, has had extensive experience with vinyl siding, employing it in developments where budgets are tight -- particularly military housing and HOPE VI projects. Bombaugh, a design principal at Torti Gallas, welcomes the darker or deeper hues, referring to them as "colors you would get in a painted neighborhood."
    Don't you love that term, by the way--painted neighborhood? I used to think that "gated community" was synonymous with the upper class... but now, maybe if the houses around you are coated with latex, that's a clue that you're part of the upper crust. But seriously... vinyl has even added some modest energy benefits:
    ...For many people, a siding that gives when you press your hand against it will always feel insubstantial, reminiscent of the flimsy house that was blown down in the story of the Three Little Pigs. Manufacturers have ameliorated its unsatisfying touch -- and increased the product's energy-efficiency -- by introducing vinyl siding with a hard insulated backing. The rigid insulation backing "gives the vinyl siding more strength and stability," Bombaugh notes. The backing delivers an extra 2 to 4 R value, says Matt Dobson of VSI. Torti Gallas designed a concept house with insulation-backed vinyl siding last year in Omaha as part of the Partnership for Advancement of Technology in Housing (PATH), a collaborative effort of HUD and the building industry intended to jump-start new technologies.
    But what really drives customers to vinyl has been and remains the low cost:
    The chief advantage of vinyl siding is its cost. R.S. Means estimated the installed cost of vinyl siding in 2007 as $166 per 100 square feet. By comparison, fiber-cement siding cost $225, wood $255, stucco $320, brick $1,000, and stone $2,700.
    Is it all good news? Even the New Urbanist folks, who seem to be remarkably open to vinyl, have their reservations.
    Wood's idiosyncrasies enrich its character. It's difficult or impossible to give vinyl clapboards the same character -- and some attempts at doing so just make matters worse. Christine Franck, a New York architect involved in an Institute for Classical Architecture & Classical America program to upgrade the quality of house design, does not use vinyl, but says, "If I did use it, I would absolutely steer clear of any of the wood grain looks. Always remember that if a real piece of wood siding turned up with a highly visible wood grain pattern, you'd send it back."
    The article also addresses "cues to care." I first learned about this concept from an EBN article about natural landscaping. The idea is that humans are drawn to environments that demonstrate care and attention to a space. Think about how a decrepit house can be creepy, as opposed to a newly painted fence or freshly mowed lawn. Of course, today's market for supposedly maintenance-free building products has created a perversion. We have been sold a fiction, that buildings need no maintenance. So apparently we are training ourselves to not even see it when this stuff falls apart. Back to the article:
    ..."I have a friend who lives in what he, with deprecating humor, refers to as his 'plastic palace,' in King Farm, a well-known TND in the DC area," says Milton Grenfell, a Washington architect. "When I pointed out that a four-foot piece of vinyl siding was missing up in a gable end, he shrugged and responded that a windstorm had ripped it off a year or so ago, and he hadn't gotten around to fixing it ... When your house resembles your daughter's Barbie Dreamhouse, it's hard to take it seriously enough to care for it."
    The article also looks at the significant environmental and health drawbacks to vinyl, which we have also done in EBN on more than one occasion. Again, the full article is in New Urban News.
    2008-05-15 n/a 11531 FSC-certified bamboo? Yes.

    Smith & Fong's bamboo plywood panels are now available with FSC-certified bamboo.

    If you're a regular reader of the posts here on LIVE, you might remember that we had a couple folks from Smith & Fong in our offices back in January. That was when we first got wind of their pending FSC certification — for bamboo. But it wasn't a done deal. Now BuildingGreen is pleased to be the first to report the breaking news that FSC certified bamboo plywood is on the ground and available for specification. Though Smith & Fong isn't releasing the news until next week, they've given us the scoop and the go-ahead to tell all. Read the story FSC-Certified Bamboo Plywood Now Available.
    2008-04-11 n/a 11513 Regreen Residential Remodeling Guidelines from ASID and USGBC After months of hard work and collaboration, they're ready: the Regreen Residential Remodeling Guidelines, produced under a partnership of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Foundation and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The guidelines were developed by a technical committee of diverse industry experts, and refined by public comment, to synthesize product selection, systems integration, and proven technologies. Organized according to the ten most common types of remodeling projects, the guidelines address scope, integrated pre-design issues, and environmental considerations, and provide a topical library of strategies as well as case studies of successful renovations. Download it now if you haven't already. A hearty handshake to the following people from BuildingGreen for the tremendous effort they gave to this project: Peter Yost, Amie Walter, Rachel Navaro, Julia Jandrisits, Alex Wilson, and Jennifer Atlee. Phil Scheffer isn't acknowledged in the document, but he did the tedious and valuable job of adding all the clickable links. These folks did a vast amount of work. (And I watched them do it. I did take the photos on pages 31 and 43, though, and they're clearly the most important pictures in the guide. Yep. I ain't proud.)
    The "Gut Rehab" shot was taken during our office expansion in the old Estey Organ Factory buildings in Brattleboro, VT.
    Environmental Building News first reported on the Regreen project in December '07: Guidelines in Development for Residential Remodeling.
    2008-03-25 n/a 11521 Photovoltaics more expensive lately... but still green The current issue of Environmental Building News reports that PV prices have been going up, reversing the declining cost trend of previous years. Seems to be due to a combination of demand exceeding supply coupled with polysilicon shortages. But PV is still part of the good answer. A few days ago, a report titled Emissions from Photovoltaic Life Cycles was released, authored by representatives from the PV Environmental Research Center of Brookhaven National Laboratory (New York), the Center for Life Cycle Analysis of Columbia University (New York), and the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development of Utrecht University (The Netherlands). From the abstract:
    "Based on PV production data of 2004–2006, this study presents the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, criteria pollutant emissions, and heavy metal emissions from four types of major commercial PV systems... Overall, all PV technologies generate far less life-cycle air emissions per GWh than conventional fossil-fuel-based electricity generation technologies."
    For more, see Low Emissions, Quick Energy Payback for Thin-Film PV.
    2008-03-10 n/a 11494 Do we want to clean up another country's scrap tire problem?

    The title of this post is taken from a question we received about the source of recycled rubber used for a parking-bumper and speed-bump manufacturer. It motivated me to do some digging to get a better understanding of the scrap tire industry. As it turns out, it's actually kind of fascinating. The following is unverified single-pass research, and any thoughts, additions, or corrections are welcome.

    The Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) provides a bunch of info on domestic scrap tires in a 2006 report titled Scrap Tire Markets in the United States. According to their data, in 2005 almost seven-eighths of domestic scrap tires were finding their way to end-use markets — about 259 million tires. Nearly seven-eighths, or 87%, is an exceptionally respectable rate of reuse. (The EPA estimated an 80.4% end-use market rate in 2003, two years earlier.) For comparison, a reclamation fact sheet from the The Aluminum Association shows that just 52% of aluminum cans were recycled in 2005 (down from a 1997 high of 66.5%).

    The RMA estimate appears to be based on U.S.-manufactured tires only, however. Their report says that "about 299 million tires were generated in the U.S. in 2005" — seven-eighths of that number is right in the neighborhood of the number of scrap tires generated. It's not clear, however, that the scrap tire number excludes tires of non-domestic origin, which would change the figure some. A 2006 article in the Toledo Blade titled U.S. tire maker betting on China reported, "Nearly 102 million passenger tires were imported into the United States last year, estimates the Rubber Manufacturers Association. And although $7.7 billion worth of rubber tires and tubes were imported into the United States last year, only $2.8 billion worth were exported, according to the U.S. Census Bureau." It's a little frustrating that they switched from units to dollars in mid-stream, but we can derive that in 2005 we imported about 36% more new tires than we exported, and it appears that something over 25% of the tires sold in the U.S. came from somewhere else. (In 2005, anyway. In 2006, Tire Business magazine ran an article titled Off-shore tire influx deepens amid slumping domestic production that reported, "Every other replacement market passenger tire sold in the U.S. today is made outside the U.S. Three out of five replacement light truck tires sold in the U.S. are made elsewhere. Two out of three replacement medium truck tires sold in the U.S. are made outside the U.S.")

    One more little complication: In addition to not counting "retreadable casings" as scrap tires, the RMA also doesn't count "used tires" that are either resold in the U.S. or — more significantly — exported for sale in other countries. RMA notes that "there is a significant likelihood that more tires are exported than have been reported." The EPA chimes in, "Many scrap tires are exported to foreign countries to be reused as retreads, especially in countries with growing populations of automobile drivers such as Japan and Mexico. According to Mexico's National Association of Tire Distributors, as many as 20% of tires sold in Mexico are imported as used tires from the US and then retreaded for reuse. The downside of exporting scrap tires is that the receiving countries may end up with a disproportionate amount of tires, in addition to their own internally-generated scrap tires."

    An argument seems to be shaping up that scrap tires, like just about every other complex manufactured thing, generally aren't very local to anywhere. The constituent materials of tires include natural rubber (a.k.a. polyisoprene — 95% of which comes from Asia... and tires and tubes account for over half of total global use); synthetic rubbers such as styrene-butadiene co-polymer (SBR), polybutadiene, and halobutyl (crude oil is the principal raw material of synthetic rubber — RMA indicates that it takes about five gallons of oil to make a tire, and two more for the energy of the manufacturing process... which accounts only for the onsite manufacturing part of the lifecycle); carbon black (a nanomaterial used for coloration and reinforcement, it's generally produced by the incomplete combustion of 'sour' natural gas); and smaller amounts of other reinforcing, cross-linking, accelerating, activating, and antioxidant compounds and materials.

    But it remains that reducing the transportation energy along any part of the lifecycle of tires is to be applauded. And even when mitigating factors like how things are counted or not counted are considered, the reuse ratio is still nothing short of inspiring.

    So to what markets are these scrap tires going? Mostly, they're getting burned at cement factories. According to the RMA report, 52% were burned as fuel for cement kilns, pulp and paper mills, and industrial and utility boilers. 16% were used for civil engineering and construction purposes — such as using shreds in road projects, septic fields, and landfill construction (which is evidently different than putting shredded tires in a landfill). Ground-rubber applications including playground and sport surfacing, rubber-modified asphalt, and feedstock for new products had a 12% share... which, unfortunately, is still catching up with the 14% "land disposed" slice of the scrap tire pie. (Only two years earlier, however, 25% were being landfilled.)

    This brings me to an uplifting note to close on: tire dumps — that is, "stockpiles" — are being rapidly and significantly depleted... over 80% since 1990. Which sets the imagination looking toward the future, when demand for dead tires exceeds supply.

    One last tidbit: Waste reduction fast facts: Tires and rubber

    2008-02-26 n/a 11505 The Relative Environmental Merits of Steel Cabinets The GreenSpec review team has been debating the relative environmental merits of steel cabinets as compared to other alternatives. (GreenSpec is reserved for the very top green products — and within that top few percent, those products that rise above the rest.) Generally speaking, the up-side is that steel cabinets don't support mold; are low- or zero-VOC (depending on finish, principally); are long-lasting; almost always have some amount of recycled content; and have good end-of-life recyclability. All of these things can also be true of cabinets made from wood and other materials. In special purpose applications such as sterile and particle-free environments, metal may be the most appropriate solution. Thin steel — including things like metal studs and roofing — is typically produced in basic oxygen furnaces, which are more polluting than the electric arc furnaces used for heavy steel. And while heavy steel typically has a very high percentage of recycled content, light steel only contains up to 30% recycled content (i.e., 70% or more virgin steel). How does this stack up against sustainably harvested wood or ag-fiber? Steel cabinets are sometimes fitted with non-steel faces, such as wood or thermofoil-laminated MDF, which alters the equation. Is the wood from certified sources? How is it finished? Is the MDF high VOC? And what is thermofoil? (It's PVC.) Certainly there are stinky, poorly-made, environmentally catastrophic wood cabinets available just about everywhere. But how does steel stack up against the best wood cabinets? And among steel cabinets, are there any that are substantively "better" than others? So far, we haven't pinned it all down. Any thoughts? 2008-02-07 n/a 11477 Plug Loads and Small Electronics There are a couple big-picture links I want to put right out front. You can come back to them later, but I want you to be aware of them in case they're not already on your radar. OK. The Energy Star people have been putting out occasional interview-style podcasts on topics like the energy use of computers (including servers and data centers) and imaging equipment. But the first three, in late 2006, were about consumer electronics — and those are the ones that have really stuck with me. Though rooted in the residential sector, the takeaway is broad. The following long bullets are taken from those podcasts, which are also available transcribed.
    • "Consumer electronics is probably the fastest growing category of electricity growth in the home. And in a home that has a lot of the latest devices, it could easily represent 15 to 20 percent of a home's electricity use."
    • "If you go back about 25 years, about 5 percent of the energy used by your home was consumer electronics. And that has almost tripled to current rates of about 13, 14 percent. We're estimating right now we'd probably be somewhere closer to 20 percent of the home energy bill in 2015 being related to consumer electronics devices."
    • "The typical American owns 25 consumer electronics products and spends more than $1,200 a year buying them, according to the Consumer Electronics Association."
    • "In the U.S., TVs consume around 46 billion kilowatt hours per year, or about 4 percent of residential electricity use. This is roughly equal to the annual electricity use of all households in the state of New York."
    • "If you go to someone's home who just bought a new big-screen TV, that new TV might use two to three times more power than the one they're replacing, and they have no idea. They could be adding the equivalent of two new refrigerators into their home."
    • "Those little black boxes, the external power supplies... we have five or ten in our home typically. If all external power supplies met the standards set in California and met the Energy Star spec, we could cut the world's electricity bill by more than a billion dollars a year — that's "B" as in boy — and eliminate the need for six large power plants."
    • "When a consumer goes into a retail setting and looks at televisions, for example, they tend to be displayed in a manner where the picture is the brightest, most vivid, to catch their eye. And there is very little focus, if any, on the energy consumption."
    • "I went to the Consumer Electronics Show to all the different booths of every manufacturer and said, could you tell me how much energy your TV uses? And they couldn't answer me. Then I finally got one company, and they said, oh, you want to talk about power? Hold on. And they got the engineer, who said, oh, this is very powerful."
    • "We've spent the last decade or so trying to make our refrigerators and air conditioners more efficient. It would be a shame to throw away all those savings as we introduce all these new, full-featured consumer electronic products in the home."
    • "We've taken some aggressive steps to try to come up with specifications to recognize the more efficient power supplies and battery chargers. But in the end, consumers are going to have to demand that. It doesn't have to be all consumers, it just has to be enough of them to make a difference in the eyes of manufacturers."
    • "One thing that many consumers do not know is that the average home pollutes twice as much as the average car. All those devices churning away in your home, they get their energy from a power plant. And those power plants are very polluting, or can be. People need to know that what goes on inside the house is as significant as what they're doing on the road."
    Bonus links:
    2008-01-22 n/a 11479 Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating Retrofits In his book Your Green Home, Alex Wilson refers to radiant floors as "a great heating option for a poorly designed house." He goes on to explain that the heating requirements of an extremely well-insulated home with a properly airtight envelope, even in most cold climates, will most likely result in an overheated house if the radiant floor is warm enough to actually feel warm underfoot — which is the main selling point of these systems. If passive solar is a design feature, the slow response of high-mass radiant floor systems can also contribute to overheating. The expense of a wall-to-wall radiant floor system would generally be better spent, he says, on improving the envelope's insulation and airtightness, and downsizing the space conditioning system, particularly in new construction. For more information, see the article "Radiant-Floor Heating: When It Does — and Doesn't — Make Sense." But radiant floor heating can be a good choice under the right circumstances. Mostly, those situations exist in expansive commercial buildings with tall ceilings, particularly where inordinate air changes occur: fire stations, garages, hangars, where the large area of warmed mass provides quicker recovery with less energy. In residences and small commercial structures, radiant floor heating makes the most sense for buildings with standard levels of insulation and typical double-glazed windows — particularly when they're located in climates with small cooling needs. Retrofits of older houses in cold climates fall into this description. Underfloor radiant hydronic heating retrofit systems that install between the joists below existing wood floors are available from a number of sources. Metal plates or "fins," usually aluminum, that fit tightly around the tubing and make continuous contact with the floor significantly improve heat transfer; but in general, the more layers there are between the radiant heat source and the occupants, and the less thermally transmissive those layers are (think wall-to-wall carpeting), the more diminished the warm-floor effect will be. And for radiant floors to work well — particularly the "staple-up" variety — there also needs to be insulation underneath, which is too frequently overlooked. Often, simply insulating a floor can provide rich rewards without installing the heat delivery system. The other retrofit option for radiant hydronic floors is installing the heat-delivery system above the existing floor (which raises issues about doors that will have to be adjusted, cabinets that end up too short, and trim that needs to be dealt with). This is often accomplished by embedding hydronic tubing in about 1.5" of self-leveling, cementitious material — a process that can add up to a gallon of moisture loading to the building per installed square foot, and could potentially require temporary or permanent structural augmentation. Some of these flowables also have admixtures that may present VOC concerns. While "wet" installations provide extra mass for thermal storage, that extra mass means that they react more slowly to changes in thermostat settings as compared to a lower-mass system — which may or may not translate to reduced energy use, depending a good deal on how the occupants operate the system. There are a growing number of above-the-floor, dry-install, lower-mass (e.g., faster-response) options for radiant hydronic floor retrofits. One of them is the first, and so far only, radiant-hydronic-floor heat-delivery product to be listed in GreenSpec. It took several months of pondering and deliberation before we made the decision. GSC Modular Radiant Flooring Panels, which are installed on top of an existing floor structure using screws (which avoids VOCs from adhesives, and means that the panels are reusable), incorporate preformed channels on the underside to accommodate radiant tubing. The 1.25-inch-thick panels are made using a recycled-plastic tray into which a lightweight concrete incorporating flyash and recycled-glass aggregate is precast, avoiding moisture-loading the structure. The panels weigh seven to eight pounds per square foot.
    Even though hydronic radiant-floor heating systems using high-efficiency components can use less energy than conventional forced-air furnaces, the sentiment that improving the envelope in order to use a significantly downsized heating system of any type that costs less to install — and more significantly, to operate — is unchanged. But low-temperature hydronic floor (or wall) heat, particularly when used in conjunction with solar and renewable energy, is an option that can warrant a review when considering the structure as a system, especially in the increasingly critical challenge of retrofitting our existing housing stock.
    2008-01-21 n/a 11481 No-added-formaldehyde bamboo flooring and panel products

    This interior features Plyboo bamboo flooring and cabinets made with Plyboo panels.

    On the heels of the announcement of the market introduction of Smith & Fong's no-added-formaldehyde PlybooPure bamboo flooring and panel products in the current issue of Environmental Building News, Dan Smith of Smith & Fong — the makers of Plyboo, and more recently, Durapalm — along with PR guy John McIsaac (who used to be with Columbia Forest Products), were in our office yesterday morning to discuss the state of their art with some of the Environmental Building News and GreenSpec staff. The company's backstory is interesting: According to Smith (who incidentally has a degree in Mandarin Chinese), they started in 1989 out of a simple fascination with bamboo — it didn't really have anything to do with being green. They used Paul Hawken's book, Growing a Business (predecessor of The Ecology of Commerce), to guide their venture. Initially, they imported bamboo plywood to make decorative boxes "that nobody bought" (at first). The end of the lean years really started when the flooring thing came along in 1993. Consistently introducing new product lines and innovations since then, the company has grown by 25 to 40 percent per year since... with a rousing 70 percent increase in 2007. Unlike most bamboo flooring companies, Smith & Fong owns the facilities that produces their products, giving them quality control and R&D opportunities most of the rest of the industry doesn't have, and providing the ability to ensure safe and healthy conditions for the workers. They do not, however, own the land where the bamboo is harvested; the five-year-old poles are purchased from local stewards. (Land "ownership" in China is a tricky thing. Technically, the government owns it all — but individual people are assigned use-rights to individual tracts, which are inherited by successive generations.) The poles are harvested from natural groves by "farmers" — for want of a better word, since the bamboo isn't planted, irrigated, fertilized, or treated with pesticides — who selectively cull 20% of the age-commingled grove annually. So, every five years the natural supply has been 100% harvested without any clearcutting. The groves are admittedly a monoculture, albeit a natural monoculture. Which brings us full circle, back to PlybooPure. Smith & Fong have been using a 0.05ppm formaldehyde adhesive for their bamboo products — low, but not low enough to achieve the "no added urea-formaldehyde" LEED threshold. Finding a different binder that is cost-effective isn't simple. Formaldehyde resins are cheap and fast; other binders tend to cost more, and are typically slower-setting, which not only retards workflows, but can require changes in machinery and processes. Worker safety is wrapped up in this as well. They've worked out the bugs on an isocyanate binder, and now have no-added-formaldehyde flooring and panel product out the door and on the ground — which is just the beginning. Plans are to convert the entire production. (Their coconut palm products have used this non-formaldehyde adhesive all along.) For more about bamboo materials in general, see the March 2006 Environmental Building News feature, "Bamboo in Construction: Is the Grass Always Greener?"
    2008-01-16 n/a 11485 What's Your Water IQ? The folks who make Waterless No-Flush urinals (we've had one in our office since 1998) have been distributing the following quiz.
    "Large areas of western United States and even parts of Canada are either in a drought or have received considerably less rainfall than normal. It has not yet been determined if this is simply a temporary weather trend or signs of a climate change. Nonetheless, Waterless Co LLC believes everyone needs to become more water-conscious. Understanding where and how we use water is often the first step in saving this precious resource. (All statistics are derived from various reliable studies or from U.S. state and local government water district Web sites.)"
    1. A small drip from a leaky home or office faucet can waste about how many gallons of water per year?
      • 100
      • 1500
      • 3000
      • Negligible
    2. Switching to low-flow showerheads in homes and gym locker rooms can save about how much water per minute?
      • One gallon
      • Four gallons
      • Six gallons
      • More than eight gallons
    3. On average, low-flow sink faucets can save about how much water per use?
      • One gallon
      • Two to three gallons
      • Four to five gallons
      • More than five gallons per minute
    4. A leaky toilet can waste how many gallons of water?
      • As much as four thousand gallons per day
      • More than four thousand gallons per year
      • About one thousand gallons per month
      • About one thousand gallons per year
    5. A waterless urinal can save how much water per year?
      • As much as 10,000 gallons
      • As much as 25,000 gallons
      • As much as 50,000 gallons
      • As much as 40,000 gallons
    6. On average, how much of our water use is for landscaping?
      • As much as 25 percent
      • As much as 30 percent
      • As much as 70 percent
      • As much as 40 percent
    7. An office has 250 males who use 10 urinals about three times per day. If waterless urinals are installed, how much can this typical office save in sewer and water costs per year?
      • About $500 per year
      • About $1500 per year
      • About $2000 per year
      • About $3000 per year
    8. Which of the following countries has the highest average per capita water consumption per day?
      • United States
      • Canada
      • France
      • England
    1. 3000 (source: Dalton, GA Utilities)
    2. Four gallons (source: Midland Power Cooperative, Jefferson, IA)
    3. Two to three gallons (source: Wright Design, Philadelphia, PA)
    4. As much as two hundred gallons per day (source: U.S. EPA)
    5. As much as 40,000 gallons of water per year (source: Waterless No-Flush Urinals)
    6. As much as 70 percent (various sources)
    7. About $3,000 per year (source: Waterless No-Flush Urinals)
    8. Canada (currently most sources say Canada)
    2008-01-08 n/a 11486 Green Building Products radio interview I'll be interviewed about GreenSpec and Green Building Products this evening on Santa Fe Public Radio, KSFR, at 7:10 p.m. (Eastern time), for 15 or 20 minutes. Tune in if you'd like — 101.1 FM if you're in New Mexico (pretty much anywhere between Taos and Albuquerque)... or streaming on the web (looks like you'll need Windows Media Player, which is free, and available for Macs). The show is The Journey Home, hosted by Diego Mulligan. It's not a call-in show, sorry.

    2008-01-08 n/a 11492 Product Certifications and Ratings Systems... it's all so gooey The GreenSpec team is regularly contacted by manufacturers and their marketers asking how to get products "certified as green." The question itself reveals one of two things: that they either haven't done any work yet to understand what it is they're actually asking... or that they have. In the first case, good on 'em for looking into it. (Although getting the question as often as we do can be frustrating, it's a big compliment to be recognized as the go-to people.) In the second case, the overall state of certifications and ratings systems is revealed as a commingled muck that's as confusing to manufacturers as it is to everyone else. Environmental Building News to the rescue. The current feature, "Behind the Logos: Understanding Green Product Certifications," identifies over two dozen of the most active of these programs and provides brief synopses — a great general reference, and a launching pad for additional research. Then it goes further, taking a look at where these programs are going... or should be going. BuildingGreen's brilliant researcher director, Jennifer Atlee, along with EBN managing editor Tristan Korthals Altes, pulled this must-read piece together. If nothing else, at least look at the sidebar "How to Use Green Product Certifications." Further:
    Related articles from
    Building Materials: What Makes a Product Green?
    How do products get listed in GreenSpec?
    2008-01-02 n/a 11462 Notes from Sweden #4: CHP and District Heating

    [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, #2: Western Harbor in Malmo, and #3: The Scandinavian Green Roof Institute in Malmo.] In Brattleboro, Vermont, I'm involved in an effort to establish a wood-chip-fired combined-heat-and-power (CHP) plant that will — if we can pull it off — generate power and provide district heating through a network of buried, insulated pipes. It's pretty exciting, really. While district heat is used in many large cities, university campuses, and medical complexes, there are no systems I am aware of that serve smaller towns. Brattleboro could be the first! Brattleboro could have the first small-town district heating system in the United States, that is. In Europe — especially Northern Europe — district heating is very common. Half of all buildings in countries like Sweden and Denmark are heated in this way. I've been learning a lot about this on my travels here. I had two in-depth tours of wood-chip-powered CHP plants that provide district heat to homes and businesses — and I stopped briefly at the Lund Energiplant that is a wood-chip-fired, heat-only plant used for district heating in Lund. At the C4 Energi plant in Kristianstäd (pronounced "cree quon staad"), I met with CEO Göran Thysén and was given a tour by him and a young plant engineer, Henrik Mattson. The company is 100% municipally owned, employees 95, and comprises three businesses: electricity production and distribution; district heating; and broadband Internet distribution through a fiber-optic network.

    An exterior shot of the C4 boiler building, stack, and 4,000 cubic meter (1.1 million gallon) hot water accumulator tank.

    Plant engineer Henrik Mattsson showing off the chip sorting facility at the plant. Chips are screened at the C4 plant, and larger pieces of wood that might jam the auger feeders are separated out (on the lower left).

    Wood chips arrive by tandem tractor-trailer truck; the C4 plant uses 18-20 loads of chips per day during the peak heating season.

    Piles of stored chips at the C4 plant. Steam can be seen rising from the middle pile — as a result of heat from decomposition, which sometimes occurs. Occasional fires break out.

    Wood chips are delivered to the boiler through the sloping, enclosed conveyor belts at the C4 plant.

    The heat and electricity production is accomplished with two wood-chip-fired boilers: one producing 50 MWt (megawatt-thermal) and 15 MWe (megawatt-electric); and the other producing 25 MWt and 6-7 MWe. (Wisely, Europeans use megawatt and kilowatt to refer to either electricity or heat, while in the U.S. we still refer to the British Thermal Unit [Btu] to refer to heat — see our discussion of that in a recent Back-Page Primer.) Total annual production by the plant is 334 GWt and 54.7 GWe. The boilers use "bubbling-bed" technology, which I'll try to describe later. Like most CHP plants in Europe, this is a "thermal following" plant in which the output of the boilers is governed by the heat demand, with the electricity output "following" that. Thus, the production is much lower during the summer months when thermal loads are much smaller. Sweden has a lot of hydro power and nuclear power; if biomass were to be depended on for a high percentage of year-round electricity production, more heating loads would have to be found for the summer months.

    C4 Energi CEO Göran Thessén standing in front of several large motors that power the pumps circulating hot water through the district heating network.

    The large insulated pipes are feeding pressurized steam into the top of the steam turbine.

    Power generation components in the C4 plant. The square unit on the right is the electric generator, and the unit with black corners and door houses the gearing that converts the steam turbine's high-speed shaft rotation to a more moderate speed for use by the generator.

    C4 Energi entered the district heating business in 1980 with oil-fired boilers. In 1980 biogas (methane produced from decomposition of organic matter) was added to the mix, and in 1994, most production was converted to wood-chips as the fuel source. Today, the plant is 97.6% fired by renewable energy sources — nearly all wood chips. The wood chips come from an 80-kilometer (50-mile) radius. Several days later, we took a two-hour a train trip from Lund to Växjö (pronounced sort-of like "vek' shua"), and I visited the Växjö Energi AB Sandvik plant. Before describing the Sandvik plant, let me say a little something about the city of Växjö. The municipality includes 80,000 residents, with 55,000 in the more densely populated city of Växjö. Ms. So Hie Kim-Hellström, the environmental coordinator for Växjö spent an hour describing the many initiatives that have led to Växjö being widely touted as "Europe's greenest city. " Strong interest in the environment here began in the 1960s, but the United Nations Rio Earth Summit in 1992 really galvanized this focus, especially through the "Agenda 21" Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. In 1995-97 the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation worked with Växjö to develop sustainability goals, which led to a unanimously passed decision by the Växjö city council to become fossil-fuel free. Okay, back on CHP and district heating. Monica Sandberg from the City of Växjö took me out to meet with Lars Ehrlén, the business manager for power and heat at Växjö Energi AB (VEAB), with whom I spent two hours learning about the company and then touring the Sandvik plant. The municipal power company VEAB was founded in 1887 — only five years after London and New York City began their own municipal power companies. In 1970, the company supplied its first district heat (produced by burning oil), and in 1980 it began burning wood chips, which supply the vast majority of energy today — along with some peat and oil.

    The Sandvik plant of Växjö Energi AB in Växjö, Sweden, generates electricity for 29,000 customers and district heating for 6,500 customers, including 5,500 single-family houses.

    At the main entrance of the Sandvik Plant one sees this monitor showing real-time conditions and output of the plant.

    In 1996, smaller, heat-only, wood-chip-fired boilers were installed in several outlying villages in the Växjö municipality to serve smaller networks of district heating. In 1998, a fiber-optic network was added to provide broadband for Internet, television, and phone — a third service in addition to electricity and heat.

    The visitor parking area at the Sandvik plant, where my host from the Växjö City office parked her ethanol-powered Ford, is paved with porous grid pavers, which allow rainwater to soak into the ground while keeping grass roots from being compressed by the vehicle weight. I saw porous paving in many places in Sweden.

    VEAB is significantly larger than C4 Energi in Kristianstad. Including the output of the several small district heating plants in the municipality, annual production in 2006 totaled 580 GWh of heat and 190 GWh of electricity. The plant serves 29,000 electricity customers and 6,500 district heat customers (including 5,500 single-family houses). District heat is supplied through a 350-kilometer (220-mile) network. This compares with VEAB's electricity distribution network of 1,250 km (780 mi) and their fiber optic network of 420 km (260 mi) — fiber-optic cables are installed in buried conduit at the same time district heating pipes are laid. The company uses biofuels for 95% of its energy and has a staff of 171, including 45 who run the Sandvik plant I visited. There are actually four boilers of various sizes at the VEAB Sandvik plant, some older oil-fired boilers that are used for back-up and peak energy production. The plant uses about 60 tandem-trailer-truck loads of wood chips per day for a total of about one million cubic meters of wood chips per year. As with the C4 plant, this one is thermal following.

    The VEAB plant is almost entirely powered by wood chips — using 60 of these tandem tractor-trailer loads per day during peak operation.

    Each load of chips is tested as it comes in — by an independent company — for moisture content and value is determined accordingly. Different sources and conditions of the chips result in the different colors. You can make out some steaming on the left side of this pile.

    The largest boiler at VEAB's Sandvik plant produces 104 MW of total thermal energy. Like the C4 plant I visited, it is a circulating fluidized bed (CFB) boiler. Here's how this technology works, as described in a brochure from the company:

    "Combustion takes place in a sand bed at a temperature of 800-900°C (1450 - 1650°F). As the sand bed becomes permeated with the combustion gases, it starts behaving like a boiling liquid. Some of the sand is swept up in the flue gases and is separated in the following cyclone and recycled to the combustion chamber."

    Inside the main boiler building, Lars Ehrlén, VEAB's manager of heat and power shows me a schematic of the massive boiler building.

    This heat generates high-pressure steam — initially at a pressure of 140 bars (2,030 psi) and temperature of 540°C (1,000°F). This is used to generate 38 MW of electricity. Various heat exchangers, flue-gas condensers, and other components extract as much of the heat as possible to use for district heating. There are also extensive pollution-control components.

    My host, Mr. Ehrlén, in front of the huge steam turbine at the plant.

    The generator components, shown here, convert the rotating energy generated by the steam turbine into electricity.

    Heat captured from the steam after it generates electricity is transferred to water, and that hot water is stored in this multi-million-gallon insulated tank. Having all this stored hot water allows the plant to supply continuous hot water while only operating the boilers intermittently — and it reduces the need to fire the supplemental oil boilers.

    Rather than being distributed directly, it heats water in a 40,000 cubic-meter (10.6 million gallon) insulated tank (accumulator), from which hot water is drawn off to supply the district heating network. The insulated pipes leaving the plant (district heating is always provided through paired supply and return pipes) are 80 centimeters (31 inches) in diameter. Further from the plant, the pipe diameters drop as they branch and as feeds go off to heat buildings. At individual single-family houses, the pipe diameters are as small as 15 mm (0.6 in). There is typically a 50°C (90°F) delta-T (difference in temperature) between the outgoing and return water. Water leaves the plant at about 100°C (210°F) and returns at about 50°C (120°F). So that's a quick lesson in CHP and district heat. For more on this, visit our feature article on the topic (Vol. 16, No. 3). I was struck, on visiting the two plants, by just how organized and clean they were. Perhaps it has to do with power plants — I haven't visited others of this scale — but more likely I suspect it's because of the Swedish attention to detail, order, and cleanliness. You could have eaten off almost any of the floors in the two plants!

    I was stuck by how clean everything was at this plant. You could eat off the floor!

    The control room for the VEAB Sandvik plant is highly organized, efficient, and attractive — hardly a surprise in Sweden.

    I was interested to learn, from Ehrlén, of the VEAB Sandvik plant, that the taxes in Sweden are a significant driver of biofuel use. Included in the operating cost for a company like VEAB is a carbon dioxide emission permit, a carbon dioxide tax, a sulfur tax, and the price of the fuel itself. With wood chips, the commodity fuel price (cost per tonne) accounts for 100% of the total fuel cost; with coal, the commodity fuel cost represents less than 40% of the total fuel cost; with heavy oil the commodity price represents about 75% of the total. When I asked about the minimum density of houses needed to make a district heating system economically viable, Ehrlén said that it's a complex issue, influenced by subsidies and laws that new housing be served by district heat, but they have a rule of thumb that you can put in about one meter of pipe if you can sell 1 MWh of heat per year for that meter of pipe. In the Växjö city region (with 55,000 residents) over 50% of single-family homes are served by district heat, as are 95% of multi-family buildings (also called "houses" here). Some useful resources for more information:
    — Alex Wilson, Växjö, Sweden, 14 December 2007

    2007-12-21 n/a 11466 Shipping Container Housing SG Blocks of Charleston, NC, refabricates sea-truck shipping containers into modular construction units, and has been getting buzz on the likes of Bob Vila's show, the NBC Nightly News, and other newsy outlets. It's not an original notion, but they seem to have had the most success so far in commercializing it. Or the idea of commercializing it, at any rate. Coverage generally seems to start by showing towering stacks of containers in a port — "up to 300,000 of them stockpiled across the country." Cut to containers being modified, sparks flying from grinders and welders. Cut to a crane setting a modified container onto a concrete-block foundation. Cut to a finished, charming, conventional-looking, stucco-covered bungalow. The pitch is that it's fast, safe (hurricane-proof up to 175 mph, and fire-, mold-, and termite-resistant), affordable, and environmentally friendly. Is it? Dropping pre-framed ~320-square-foot modules in place with a crane is going to move things along at a nice clip at the site; most of the time-eating work has already taken place somewhere else. According to the NBC news piece, "in a day, a crane and a welder can have a container house ready to finish." They're talking about a four-container house: two containers end-to-end on the left, and two more on the right, with an open space in between — the ceiling of that open space to be formed by the bottoms of wooden roof trusses; the gap in the end walls to be framed with metal studs and sheathed with 16-gauge steel. If the only person on the ground is a welder (though the footage of the module placement process shows at least three people scurrying around, in addition to the crane operator), "ready to finish" appears to mean that the day is used to place four container modules, and perhaps do a bit of steel-stud framing and sheathing. Whether modified-shipping-container modules are a faster way to create the bones of a building will depend on design and scope. The style of small, simple houses shown in the clips can be conventionally framed onsite with surprising speed by experienced professionals. If the offsite work of modifying the containers — which has the upside of avoiding weather delays if the refabrication happens indoors or under cover — is included, it's likely a wash, in both calendar and labor hours. The time and money are invested offsite rather than onsite. (The ins and outs & ups and downs of prefabrication are discussed in the EBN feature, Prefabricating Green: Building Environmentally Friendly Houses Off Site — a good read.) There are safety benefits. Steel framing and sheathing won't burn, it's true. The wood components, such as the roof framing and gable end sheathing, will. Same goes for termites: not much they can do with the steel parts except use it to get to the wood. Metal also isn't a good substrate for mold... but once again there are those wood components, as well as interior finish materials, that need to be considered. In at least one of the projects profiled, fiberglass-faced wallboard was used on the interior because the usual Kraft paper facing is a terrific mold host. With hurricanes, the issues include wind loads and flooding. Catastrophic flooding would have much less structural damage capability and mold potential on steel components than it would for wood framing and sheathing. And it seems like a no-brainer that the welded steel structure — welded to steel plates embedded in the concrete foundation — and 16-gauge steel sheathing would better suffer wind and wind-borne debris than a wood-stud, wood-sheathed wall built to Southern Florida Building Code standards. (Let me say that again: It seems like a no-brainer. Anybody in hurricane country can feel free to weigh in.) The pitched wood-truss roofs, using what appear to be standard hurricane ties, are nailed to a wooden roof plate that's bolted to the steel modules. Is it a cheap way to build? Bruce Russell of SG Blocks, on Art Fennell Reports, says that their system runs about $20 - $30 a square foot — "for the structural part of the building." Apparently that means the walls. (Math time: a 320-square-foot module at $20 per square foot equals $6,400 per module... installed, presumably. At $30 per square foot, $9600 per 320 square feet. The price of the raw material — surplus containers — is reported to run anywhere between $500 and $2000 each.) He adds, to his credit and with some merit, "You could probably stick-frame in the midwest and do it cheaper than that. But for coastal areas, for expensive areas where it's hard to build — and then [you] expect it to be there for a long time... a 50-year kind of proposition is really what we're about. The affordability comes on both the front side and the back side of the project." Durability is a financial asset — and a green one. As usual, the green part is the most slippery. David Cross of SG Blocks, on Art Fennell Reports, said, "It takes approximately 800 kilowatt-hours of energy to recycle the 8,000 pounds of steel that's in a container. It only takes 400 kilowatt-hours to 'value-cycle' that container into a building block... that's a 95% less carbon footprint." (NBC used the figure 33,000 pounds in their reporting, but that must have been referring to much larger containers.) Two things: 1. Isn't 400 kilowatt-hours 50% of 800 kilowatt-hours? — how does that add up to a 95% reduction in carbon? There's not enough information in that statement — or at their website — to make a critical assessment of the quality of those numbers; and 2. Since these containers are being stockpiled, and not melted down, talking about how much energy it takes to recycle them is a red herring. It would be more useful to compare apples to apples: wall systems to wall systems. The biggest environmental concern that came to my mind was inspired by the hollow, reverberating thud that happened when people in the video clips rapped on the sides of the finished houses. It sounded like... an empty shipping container. The corrugated walls are skinned on the outside with sheet steel, and on the inside with gypsum board — and are otherwise hollow. No insulation is added to the wall cavity. Nor would it help much to do so, with so many thermal bridges linking the two surfaces. Instead, Super Therm 'Insulating Ceramic Coating' is used. The architect for a Florida prototype shown in one of the clips describes the "high tech ceramic insulation" that was "developed by NASA for the shuttle" as having "R-19 for a 50-mil thickness — about the thickness of a credit card." Folks, I don't even want to get into this. A BackPage Primer about "insulating paints" is in the Environmental Building News editorial queue; when it happens, I'll post a link. In the meantime, if there's a LIVE reader who wants to pick up the ball in the comments, have at it. There are any number of ways that proper insulation could be added; all drive up complexity, cost, materials use, and build time. Google "shipping container architecture" for more information... including a Wikipedia entry, an old TreeHugger post, and the Shipping-Container-Architecture Information Repository. Want to do it yourself? Here's a book: Intermodal Shipping Container Small Steel Buildings. 2007-12-13 n/a 11467 Notes from Sweden #3: The Scandinavian Green Roof Institute 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, and #2: Western Harbor in Malmo.]On a wide-ranging tour of interesting projects, programs, and companies in the Skåne region of Sweden this past Monday, we visited the Scandinavian Green Roof Institute in Malmo. It's a fascinating project in an equally fascinating neighborhood in this very green city.

    At Augustenborg's Botanical Roof Garden, there are wonderful displays of different roof planting options

    A small vertical panel showing a variety of sedums

    The institute is a centerpoint of the Augustenborg neighborhood. This neighborhood of affordable housing was created in the late 1940s in a depressed part of Malmo with an unemployment rate of about 65%. The multifamily housing units were quite modern in their day, but deteriorated over the years. Efforts to retrofit them for energy conservation in the 1970s and '80s caused moisture damage, and flooding has been a frequent problem in the low-lying area. In the 1990s, two local political and business leaders in Malmo began an effort to rejuvenate the neighborhood, and they centered the effort around the emerging concept of green (vegetated) roofs. Augustenborg's Botanical Roof Garden project was launched in 1998, and the roof garden construction began in May, 1999. This is the world's first demonstration roof garden, according to superintendent Louise Lundberg, whom we met with.

    Louise Lundberg shows off the mat of an extensive green roof; in the background is a decorative green roof pattern

    The sprawling green roofs cover about 9,000 square meters (nearly 100,000 square feet) of roof on industrial buildings and maintenance garages owned by the City of Malmo. Here, they are demonstrating green roof construction systems, stormwater management practices, living roof horticultural practices, and wildlife habitat types. The facility — and the Scandinavian Green Roof Institute that manages it — promote such benefits as stormwater runoff reduction, traffic noise reduction, energy savings, human health and productivity improvements, extended life of roof membranes, and bringing greater biodiversity into cities. (For background on green roofs, see EBN Vol. 10, No. 11.)

    A portion of the Botanical Roof Garden is an "intensive roof," which has significantly deeper planting media than an "extensive roof"

    The recycling Center in Augustenborg (foreground) also has a green roof - in this case on a pitched roof

    Along one section of building supporting the demo green roof, PV panels are used as shades above windows - the PV panels are partially translucent, transmitting about 10% of the sunlight; note the solar-thermal panels on the garage building in the background

    Even this birdhouse has a green roof!

    During our visit, we bought some honey that is produced from beehives situated on a portion of the green roof. They also grow herbs and some vegetables, though most of the roof areas are planted to sedums. For more on the Augustenborg Botanical Roof Garden and the Scandinavian Green Roof Association, visit their website. — Alex Wilson, Malmo, Sweden, 12 December 2007

    2007-12-12 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 11471 The Story of Stuff From
    "From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It'll teach you something, it'll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever."
    Watch the whole thing for free at their website. Download it to your computer.
    2007-12-05 n/a 11417 Solar Hydronic Radiant Space Heating Frank and I are going to tag-team on this post. We attended a presentation at Keene State College in New Hampshire yesterday about solar-hydronic radiant space heating, given by Jack Mann of Nobis. It was arranged by BuildingGreen's pal Joseph Cincotta of LineSync Architecture as part of the "Sustainable Design and Building Science" course he teaches. Nobis has partnered with German manufacturers Ensol, Meibes, and Huch to create a veritable bolt-together hydronic space-heating system for all North American climates. They aren't touting new technology: this stuff has been around for decades, growing up overseas while we reveled over here in cheap oil. The real achievement is that they're presenting the entire system, from the collectors to the tubing, as a package delivered on three or four pallets to the building site—quicker to install than custom one-offs, and providing a more uniform out-of-the-box reliability. And it doesn't hurt that it has the sort of "clean" look that inspires confidence in laypeople facing an unfamiliar technology. It's pretty straightforward. Flat-plate glycol arrays on the roof, and a heavily insulated storage tank in the basement. A downsized auxiliary water-heating system—typically an on-demand heater—is plumbed to the storage tank for times of need: some of us live where it gets mighty cold and overcast for long stretches. Heat exchangers in the storage tank deal with the domestic hot water and the heating loops in floors and walls. (Walls? It's another one of those things that they do over there, but we don't do here.) Thermostats tell the pumps when to pump.
    I'm going to throw this over to Frank:
    Jack Mann, the presenter, has six panels on his own roof and the rest of the necessary gear in his basement for heat and domestic hot water for his 2,500 ft2 Rhode Island ranch. (It's interesting to note that the supply and return pipes between the storage tank and the rooftop array are corrugated [flexible] stainless steel.) In Jack's case, the system reduced their oil consumption by 70% while also providing heat for their pool, and for melting snow in the winter. If you don't have a swimming pool to displace the excess heat in the summer, you'll need to get creative. Nobis has options, all of which involve some form of heat sink. It's a shame it can't be stored for long-term use (or sold to your neighbor). He did say you could add more tanks—a typical installation has 270 gallons of storage. Another option is wrapping the foundation with PEX. If you really wanted to go all out—and this is not a Nobis project, but was mentioned by someone attending the presentation—you could do what they did at Drake Landing Solar Community in Alberta, Canada, which is to flow excess heat into a borehole thermal energy storage system. See EBN coverage Stored Solar Heat Warms Alberta Development and Solar Thermal District Heating Comes to North America. Andy Cay, a proponent of net zero energy homes and president of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, also attended the presentation. He mentioned a nearby Habitat house built this year that uses long term storage of solar heat. Basically, solar panels direct heat into PEX buried in eight feet of sand in a superinsulated container below the basement slab during the summer, with the hopes of storing 4-5 million Btus that will be tapped during the cold Vermont winters. Stay tuned for the results. Getting back to Nobis, the payback for a system like Mann's—which costs between $16,000 and $25,000—is five to eight years. A few years ago, the payback period would have been substantially longer. It goes without saying that the recent spike in the price of oil helped shortened the payback period.
    Back to Mark: It also should go without saying that these sorts of systems work best as part of an overall strategy that includes heavily insulated, tight envelopes and appropriate footprints. And one more thing to chew on: our fearless leader Alex Wilson, in his book Your Green Home, characterizes radiant-floor heating as "a great heating option for a poorly designed house." A full-out radiant floor system, he argues, is overkill for a super-efficient house, which could be heated with a point-source heater or two. And in a well-designed, well-built home, the romantic warm-foot thing touted for radiant floors won't happen without overheating the place. Read the EBN feature, Radiant-Floor Heating: When It Does—and Doesn't—Make Sense." Check DSIRE—the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency—to find information about state, local, utility, and federal incentives for purchasing and installing renewable systems.
    2007-11-30 n/a 11421 Part 2: Non-chemical water treatment systems It's not all about magnets. Two other nonchemical water treatment systems that have exhibited at Greenbuild for at least the last couple years are worth noting... for one reason or another. During the '06 show in Denver, I spent some time learning about the VRTX—say it "vortex"—sidestream "hydrodynamic cavitation" and filtration system. The company was there again this year. As I understand it (and please do understand that I don't claim to really understand it), it works by blasting two spinning, high-velocity cones of water into each other, which releases high localized heat, creates a strong vacuum, and generally bangs things into each other. A paper assessing an installation at the Ford Motor Company describes it like this:
    The VRTX unit consists of a pressure equalizing chamber and a cavitation chamber. Inside the cavitation chamber, nozzles are positioned opposite each other at specific distances, lengths and angles. Water is pumped into the pressure-equalizing chamber at ~94 psig and then channeled into the cavitation chamber. Inside the cavitation chamber, water is forced to rotate at high velocities through the nozzles. The rotation creates a high vacuum (~ -28.5 mm Hg). The high vacuum causes micro-sized bubbles to form and grow in the water streams. The water streams in the nozzles are greatly accelerated and rotate in opposite directions. Upon exiting each nozzle, the opposing streams collide at the mid-point of the cavitation chamber where the pressure increases dramatically causing the spontaneous implosion of the micro-bubbles.
    The process is claimed to induce calcium to precipitate; suck dissolved C02 out of the water, which drives up the pH, helping control scale and kill bacteria; and physically rupture the cell walls of microorganisms. Scale and biofouling prevention without chemicals, and potentially saving a lot of water through significant blowdown reduction. It's been on the market for 10, 15 years. The website has the usual compelling case histories—but, like the magnetic systems, statements are made without detailed hooks to hang the science on. (Doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't work.) Could be that it's more info than most people want... but some of us are curious that way. The company may have additional technical literature; I'm planning to ask. One striking thing about VRTX is that they provide a service package and performance contract emulating the ones that the chemical industry offers. For a fixed monthly fee, the company will provide and install their treatment and filtration system, do monthly service and water analysis, monitor bacteria, deploy corrosion coupons, and more.

    And then there's—oh boy—Natural Technologies, Inc. If you've been looking for something to flip your wig, dig into this. I'm doing my level best to keep an open mind, but this is a toughie. From the manufacturer's website:
    Treatment involves passing the subject water through or around the GRANDER® Technology equipment. The equipment contains sealed chambers of water that has already been placed into a coherent, highly ordered molecular condition at the manufacturing facility in Austria. Acting as a singular system, this water develops a physical field that Johann Grander describes as positive information. When the subject water comes into contact with the information field, the properties of the field are conveyed to the water through molecular resonance. Through interactions within the information field, the degree of correlation, or coherence, within the subject water is increased and the water's molecular structure is improved.
    Basically, a sealed vial of magic water (from Austria, not Lourdes) is placed in the flow path. Energy fields emitted by the vial transform the process water into a self-healing state. No electricity, no magnets, no chemicals, lasts forever. (Well, they suggest an expected lifespan of 15 years—but then add, "The life span of a unit will believably continue to lengthen as the GRANDER® Technology continues to grow in the marketplace." Please tell me I'm misinterpreting that.) Yes, they have case studies. Of course they do. I asked them at the show to send me technical literature, but haven't received anything yet. I suspect, if something comes, that it will be this brochure.
    2007-11-20 n/a 11424 Non-chemical water treatment systems Sometimes it's hard to suspend disbelief enough to make an unbiased judgement about a product, particularly when it's from an industry with a history of charlatanry, if not outright chicanery. For instance, chemical-free water treatment—which most people associate with sticking a speaker magnet on a pipe under the kitchen sink. The systems I'm talking about, though, are industrial-sized... used for cooling towers, boilers in big buildings, even large fountains. There were a small handful of companies offering such non-chemical systems exhibiting at this year's Greenbuild. At least three of them use advanced magnetics for at least part of the system, and that's a giant hurdle for a lot (probably most) specifying engineers and prospective clients to get past. A couple years ago, Clearwater Systems submitted their pulsed-electromagnetic Dolphin system to be considered for GreenSpec. They had case studies—impressive ones from large multinational corporations—but it's not enough for us for manufacturers (or their clients) to just say something works. We want to understand and verify the science, particularly for a product like this. To our surprise, after spending entirely too much time chasing down both the rudiments and the details of things like cellular electroporation, methods of coagulation induction, and ways to do cold pasteurization, along with interviewing hydronic engineers, plant managers, and detractors from the chemical water treatment industry, there seemed to be merit left over when all was said and done. See the Environmental Building News product review, "Non-Chemical Water Treatment for Cooling Towers." Long story short, the Dolphin is listed in GreenSpec as a nonchemical alternative where water conditions are appropriate. At Greenbuild, I learned that Evapco, which manufactures evaporative condensers and cooling towers, has introduced a remarkably similar system. Seems like a company that makes evaporative cooling systems wouldn't involve itself with a component that could screw up its mainstay. A similar product listed in GreenSpec (approved on the heels of the Dolphin) that exhibited at Greenbuild is the Superior Water Conditioner system, which uses fixed magnets with overlapping, reversed poles to induce calcium carbonate to precipitate. It was helpful in our deliberations that it had already been found effective for scale control in an ASHRAE 2002 research project. These products are not appropriate for all conditions. They have to be engineered. They are not one-size-fits-all. A monitoring and maintenance package should be included. This is a developing industry; you have to do your homework and make your wisest choice—no different than going the chemical route. 2007-11-15 n/a 11433 Alex Wilson on Water Conservation at Greenbuild While there were lots of highlights at Greenbuild, the only way I can really be productive at such a big conference is to narrow my focus. I'm researching water conservation and water efficiency for an upcoming EBN feature article, and I made great progress on that in Chicago. First, there was doubtless lots of water saved here by not having drinking water readily available. The water jugs were often empty (and even when they still had some water in them, I have a hard time using those high-density polystyrene cups so I would go looking for a drinking fountain and usually get into a conversation before finding one)—so there was doubtless a bit of water savings here! At least there were none of those PET water bottles in the conference facility! Rachel Navaro and I had great conversations with water efficiency experts John Koeller of Yorba Linda, California and Bill Hoffman of Austin, Texas before their presentations Thursday afternoon. In the conversation with John we were joined by Mary Ann Dickinson, executive director of the brand-new Alliance for Water Efficiency (based here in Chicago). AWE opened its doors this summer as the first and only national organization focused on water conservation and water efficiency. You'll be hearing more about AWE in the forthcoming feature article. There were also lots of water-conserving products exhibited on the huge exhibit floor. Unfortunately, my available time in the expo was limited, but I did get a chance to visit with the manufacturers of several cool water-saving products. Some highlights: Sloan Valve Company's new eighth-gallon urinal was rolled out, as was their AQUS graywater system that collects wastewater from a sink and sends it to the fill-valve of a toilet next to it. And I finally got a chance to learn from the founder and president of EcoTech Water about their retrofit non-liquid check-valve for waterless urinals, their new 0.8-gallon pressure-assist toilet, and really interesting work they have been doing on air conditioning condensate recovery—that is enabling some buildings to almost disconnect the water-supply lines into the buildings. I still have lots more to learn and would love input to hear from anybody reading that knows about innovative incentives and regulations to encourage water efficiency and water conservation—things like retrofit-on-rebate and demand-offset programs. Send comments to 2007-11-09 n/a 11443 BuildingGreen's Top-10 products, 2007 Alex Wilson is about to begin the session presenting the Top-10 products added to GreenSpec and/or reviewed in Environmental Building News over the past year... and because I can, vested by the power of the internet, these are them, just for you, even before the standing-room-only crowd of a couple hundred here in the room gets to see them. (Only a few minutes before, but there's bragging rights involved.)

    Read all the details in the press release!

    Update—a view of the session, now underway:
    2007-11-08 n/a 11449 Greenbuild booth swag, part 2 This may not count as booth swag either; it's just a paper handout from the EcoLogo people called The Six Sins of Greenwashing. I can't find it online (not this version, anyway), so I'm going to type it in arduously by hand... I think it's worth the effort.
    Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
    Focusing consumer attention on a single environmental attribute such as recycled content while ignoring additional important environmental issues such as toxics content or the impacts of the manufacturing process. Example: Paper products focusing only on recycled content and ignoring the significant impacts of the paper bleaching and manufacturing process. Sin of No Proof
    Being unable or unwilling to provide proof of an environmental claim. Example: Manufacturers being unable or unwilling to provide proof of post-consumer recycled content or claims that their products do not contain any hazardous materials. Sin of Vagueness
    Making broad, poorly defined environmental claims that are essentially meaningless. Example: Products claiming to be "chemical free" but even water is a chemical. Or products claiming to be 100% natural when lots of naturally occurring substances are hazardous (e.g., arsenic, formaldehyde, and hemlock). Sin of Irrelevance
    Making an accurate statement that is unimportant and unhelpful for consumers seeking more environmentally responsible products. Example: Products claiming to be CFC-free even though CFCs were banned 20 years ago, or biodegradable garbage bags even though it would take thousands or years for them to degrade in a modern landfill. Sin of Fibbing
    Making a blatantly false or misleading claim. Example: Products falsely claiming to be EcoLogo certified or to meet the Energy Star standard. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
    Claiming environmental benefits for products that are actually harmful or that pose significant environmental challenges. Example: Organic cigarettes.
    The list appears to be based on this more thorough one—but that's OK: the author, Scot Case, works for the organization that manages the EcoLogo program.
    2007-11-07 n/a 11457 What Greenbuild is Bringing to Chicago GreenerBuildings put together a nicely thorough intro to Greenbuild '07. Their article "What Greenbuild is Bringing to Chicago" includes us:
    In what has become a much-anticipated annual feature of the Greenbuild conference, BuildingGreen, the publishers of the GreenSpec Manual and Environmental Building News will announce its top 10 green building products of 2007 on Thursday. Last year's list included lumber salvaged from beneath man-made lakes; electronic, tint-on-demand glass for windows and skylights; water-conserving showerheads and irrigation controls; high-tech evaporative air conditioners and more.
    Watch for more info about this year's Top-10 here on Thursday.
    2007-11-03 n/a 11458 Recycled Decking Manufacturers Launch Virgin PVC Options In the BuildingGreen Suite we have a Discussions feature on just about every page that allows members to respond to content with their comments and questions. There was a brief exchange the other day in response to a November 2007 Environmental Building News piece titled "Recycled Decking Manufacturers Launch Virgin PVC Options." Excerpts from that article:
    In a series of developments that may signal trouble for the composite decking industry, two industry leaders, TimberTech and Trex Company, appear to be hedging their bets by introducing new product lines made of virgin PVC... Although both Trex and TimberTech cite consumer benefits for their new PVC products, the Healthy Building Network's Tom Lent has a different view. "I consider these moves a disaster environmentally," he said, adding that the health and environmental effects of the PVC life cycle should also be considered when looking at these decking products. Compared to the use of recycled plastics in composite decking, Lent said, the PVC decking "is a big step backwards."
    A reader spoke up:
    I thought the movement was away from PVC as there seem to be lots of questions as to its actual green characteristics. Any comment on that?
    To a lot of us, the answer is clear and immediate... but like so much of what we're all dealing with in this green pursuit, the closer you get to the cut-and-dried answer, the wigglier things start to look.
    Re: PVC? Posted by Mark Piepkorn on Nov 1, 2007, 08:14 AM There are a lot of questions about PVC, primarily stemming from its manufacture and disposal—the worst disposal case (sidestepping the problem of plastics in landfills) being incomplete combustion, whether by accidental fire or improper incineration. During its useful life, PVC is generally considered benign. (We similarly avoid listing epoxy- and polycarbonate-based products in GreenSpec due to the use of endocrine-disrupting, bioaccumulating bisphenol-A as a chemical precursor in the manufacturing process... though those products can also provide excellent service during their useful lives.) As noted in the article, it's troubling that these manufacturers are throwing their hats into the virgin PVC ring. But, put simply, they wouldn't be doing it if they thought there wasn't a market. Like one of the corporate reps said in the piece, "We want to offer people products, whatever their needs are." Pretty telling, as statements go. Continuing marketplace and professional education are needed, along with continued study of the conflicting data and opinions. It remains a complicated and contentious ongoing issue. See "USGBC Releases Final Report on PVC Avoidance" from our March 2007 issue of Environmental Building News.
    I'm not sure if my response was adequate. You tell me. Also see "What USGBC's PVC Report Means for GreenSpec" from Environmental Building News; and from the Healthy Building Network, the recent article "Schwarzenegger Bans PVC Additive In Toys."
    2007-11-03 n/a