Taxonomy Term en 9138 Do adobe homes really work in all climates? – Book review

The weather is turning cold here in southern Vermont. A friend just got chased off the Long Trail (which she was hiking from the Massachusetts to the Canadian borders) by 18 inches of snow on Killington. While the leaves are still turning here in the Connecticut River valley, it's time to start huddling up by the fire and thinking cozy thoughts.

It was with this frame of mind that I excitedly cracked open Adobe Homes for All Climates Simple, Affordable, and Earthquake-Resistant Natural Building Techniques by Lisa Schroder and Vince Ogletree. It's another well-produced addition to the library of natural building tomes offered by Chelsea Green Publishing.

Adobe Homes is filled with practical tips, gorgeous pictures, useful construction drawings, and step-by-step help for anyone looking to build adobe, whether a professional or a homeowner. There are tips on earthquake resistance for locations with seismic concerns. There is extensive guidance on the often-overlooked issue of setting up your site to mix, mold, dry, store, and build with adobe bricks. The book gets into finishes, integrating windows and doors, and a lot more.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn't looking at the book with this lens. Before I could really contemplate setting up a site for adobe production, I had to be sold on adobe for this climate. I was looking for ideas on cozy earth building in a climate with 7,500 heating degree days (many of them cloudy, for days at a time), 500 cooling degree days, and a distribution of those heating degree days throughout 12 months. And an adobe structure in this climate will be an energy hog, because, as the authors note, adobe has a very low R-value.

In short, the "for all climates" tagline, which drew me in, is a stretch. Yes, there is a suggestion to add a layer of insulation in colder climates (mentioned in the inspiring foreword by Bruce King, and in a subsequent paragraph in the book). Yes, there are nice pictures of snow-covered Rocky Mountain adobe (which may be cold--at times--but gets a lot more sun, making adobe a better choice). But building an adobe wall and adding insulation to it for this climate requires at least a whole chapter (more than the paragraph currently devoted to it), and perhaps a whole book. Here are some questions that this "missing" chapter might help answer:

  • What kind of insulation works well with an adobe structure?
  • How much is needed?  
  • Should the insulation be interior of the adobe, exterior of it, or both?
  • What are the benefits of building adobe and also a secondary insulation system? Why is it worth doing versus just using another construction system?
  • What construction and moisture details are necessary for adobe to be durable through a cold, wet, winter?
  • How does the addition of insulation affect the vapor profile of the adobe wall? Any issues to watch out for

I hope these will be considered in future editions or articles by the author. In the meantime, this looks like a great resource for natural builders in climates where adobe makes more sense--most classically, the Southwest U.S.

Correction: I realized after posting this article that Vince Ogletree passed away in 2005, well before this book was published. From the bio in the book, it sounds like he was a dedicated and generous natural builder. I had called for the "authors" to return to the points I outlined, but I feel that was insensitive to Vince's memory; I have changed this to the "author."

2010-10-26 n/a 11916 Urban Planning, 1948 Interesting how it's at once forward-looking and backward.

2009-12-17 n/a 11919 The Climate Scoreboard Here's a tool that tries to connect the best available science directly to the international climate change negotiations and commitments, and the politicians are using it! Perhaps that, in itself, is progress. "How Does It Work? In the run-up to COP-15, we are scanning UNFCCC submissions and news sources from around the world to collect a list of what we call 'current proposals' — possible scenarios for greenhouse gas emissions by UNFCCC parties. We share our compilation and use the C-ROADS-CP climate simulation to calculate the expected long-term impacts (in terms of GHG concentration, temperature increase, and sea level rise) if those proposals were to be fully implemented." For more info, see the Climate Interactive website. 2009-12-07 n/a 11893 Confronting Water Shortages — Post-Greenbuild Travels in Southern Arizona
(click photos for larger versions)
Greenbuild in Phoenix was the usual high-energy panoply of educational sessions, new product introductions in an ever-larger trade show, networking events, and — the reason our company sends so many of us — opportunities to promote our green building information resources. But this year, I was also looking forward to some vacation time following the conference. Jerelyn and I took five days' of vacation after Greenbuild to explore southern Arizona and celebrate our 25th anniversary. As day transitions to night on the flight back east, I reflect on that time. On Saturday morning, we traveled southeast from Phoenix, past Tucson, to the Hacienda Corona do Guevavi bed & breakfast in Nogales, Arizona, just a stone's throw from the Mexican border. The region is rich with wildlife and draws thousands of birders and others from throughout the world each year. Along with hundreds of bird species in the canyon oases sprinkled throughout Cochise Country (we saw about 60 species in our travels) are such exotic mammals as coati, ringtail, antelope jackrabbit, collared peccary (javalina), cougar (mountain lion), bobcat, and maybe (at least before the border fence) the rare cats ocelot and jaguar. Other than the antelope jackrabbit, we didn't see any others of those mammals, but it was great imagining them watching us from hidden spots rock ledges during our daily hikes. On all of these hikes, at least when I wasn't trying to identify another new bird species, I spent time thinking about — and discussing with Jerelyn — the water crisis facing this region.
Saguaro deeply ribbed and skinny; prickly pear wrinkled and thin; palo verdi leafless and brown; ocatillo appearing lifeless

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

Sabino Canyon
Nature adapts to water stress. The dramatic saguaro cactus, the signature species of the Sonoran Desert, shrinks in diameter during times of low water then swells when its wide skirt of shallow roots absorb water after rains, This year, the saguaro's circumference is deeply ribbed and skinny, putting this adaptation strategy to the test. Prickly pear cactus pads were wrinkled and thin. The thorny ocatillo wands looked lifeless as they await moisture (after a heavy rain they sprout leaves in a matter of days) — a wait that has lasted for months. And the palo verdi (Arizona's state tree with its distinctive green stems and trunks) were similarly bereft of leaves, leaving only the photosynthesizing stems and thorns to keep them going. Everything we saw was a study in adaptation to water stress. But the water table, upon which many of the species ultimately depend, has been falling with abandon in recent decades. Creeks and rivers that ran year-round a century ago are now dry beds, save for the occasional flash flood. Cottonwoods and sycamores along Sonoita Creek, where we spent a wonderful day exploring the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area in Patagonia, are stressed and sickly. What will become of these trees, some of which are hundreds of years old and towering — we measured the diameter of one massive cottonwood at 27 feet — should the water table keep falling in the region? In Tucson, where we spent our last two nights in the wonderful Desert Dove B&B (a short walk from an entrance to the eastern, Rincon Mountain district of Saguaro National Park), they had virtually no rain during their usual July-September rainy season and less than half of the usual annual 11-12 inches on rain has fallen in 2009. The city's water table has fallen as much as 150 feet just since the 1960s! Perhaps most remarkable to us is that hardly anyone seems to be paying attention. Other than officials whose job it is to deliver water, residents seem to be in denial. Predictions of climate change show that Arizona, like most of the western U.S., will become far dryer than it was during the 20th century, but even without climate change the region is in a water crisis. Perhaps there is such little focus on the water table in Arizona because Tucson now gets over half of its water from the ("renewable") Colorado River, and that fraction is projected to increase — so a falling water table isn't so important. Are they not aware of warnings from some researchers that the Colorado and its massive reservoirs could effectively run dry in the next few decades? Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir, is currently only half full — or is that half-empty? Where would a loss of the Colorado's water leave the parched cities of Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas? The thought is almost too scary to talk about — let alone do something about. Draconian measures are needed to dramatically curtail water use. Development restrictions — as a start — are needed if Arizona is to come to grips with this crisis. In a state where residents can openly carry sidearms (as we saw displayed in a coffee shop in Patagonia by a swarthy chap among a group of rather rough-looking motorcyclists) and where John McCain's tenure as a senator is threatened by his "liberal" views, who is going to stand up and tell a property owner that he or she can't put in another subdivision? I wonder if, unconsciously, residents of Arizona — and Nevada and southern California and elsewhere in the Southwest — know that, ultimately, there are just too many people living there and drawing from its precious water supplies. How do you talk about a crisis that might necessitate people not only giving up their way of life — their swimming pools and 15-minute showers and irrigated lawns — but actually recognizing that the land and climate can't support the human population it contains and moving back to Michigan or Pennsylvania? No wonder the topic is taboo. Jerelyn and I talked about all this as we reveled in the arid beauty of the area. I can see why people like Arizona and want to retire there. Indeed, we very much look forward to coming back and seeing the Sonoran Desert at a different time of year (perhaps a "wet season" when desert vegetation comes to life in brilliant colors to compete for the scarce pollinators). But, as with our recent vacation, we would be temporal visitors to a region whose human carrying capacity is far lower than its current population. You can follow more of my musings on Twitter.
2009-11-20 n/a 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 11868 Living With Climate Change: How to Design Buildings and Communities for Adaptation
The living space in this new home built by Global Green in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans is elevated four feet (1.2 m) to keep it above expected flood level. Numerous other "passive survivability" features are included.
A lot of people have been working for a long time to try to head off global warming — and some progress is being made. Buildings are becoming more energy-efficient, fuel economy standards for vehicles are finally rising again, and use of renewable energy is burgeoning. We need to continue these efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon dioxide, but the reality is that it's too little, too late to prevent climate change. Even if the CO2 spigot were turned off tomorrow, the earth would still see significant warming and the other predicted impacts of climate change: more intense storms, flooding, drought, wildfire, and power interruptions. It's time to design our buildings and the built environment to adapt to the very different climate that scientists say is going to be with us. That's the subject of the feature article in our September 2009 issue of Environmental Building News: "Design for Adaptation: Living in a Climate-Changing World" (requires log-in) (no login required — see Alex Wilson's note in the comments, below). Andrea Ward and I interviewed some of the nation's top climate scientists, including Stephen Schneider, Ph.D., of Stanford, and Jonathan Overpeck, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona, to establish context for the article — making the case that not only is climate change happening, but it's happening more rapidly than the best climate models predicted just two years ago. We address the question of mitigation vs. adaptation — whether we should put effort into preventing climate change or adapting to it — and argue that we must do both simultaneously. "The bottom line is that you've got to adapt to what won't get mitigated," says Schneider in the article. Moving on, we focus on measures for adapting to climate change. We describe 36 strategies, organized into five categories, providing context for each of the categories and succinct explanation for each strategy. These strategies are listed briefly here (details appear in the full article): Warmer temperatures
  • Design cooling-load avoidance measures into buildings
  • Design natural ventilation into buildings
  • Limit internal gains by specifying high-efficiency lighting and equipment
  • Model energy performance with higher cooling design temperatures
  • Provide landscaping to minimize cooling requirements
  • Address urban heat islands in building design and landscaping
  • Plan for termite ranges extending north
Drought and water shortages
  • Avoid new development in the driest regions
  • Specify water-efficient fixtures and appliances
  • Plumb buildings with water-conserving fixtures in mind
  • Plumb buildings for graywater separation
  • Harvest rainwater
  • Plant native, climatically appropriate trees and other vegetation
More intense storms, flooding, and rising sea levels
  • Avoid building in (expanding) flood zones
  • Expand stormwater management capacity and rely on natural systems
  • Design buildings to survive extreme winds
  • Raise buildings off the ground
  • Specify materials that can survive flooding
  • Install specialized components to protect buildings from flooding or allow flooding with minimal damage
  • Elevate mechanical and electrical equipment
  • Install check valves in sewer lines
  • Begin planning for rising sea levels in coastal areas
  • Specify Class A roofing
  • Eliminate gutters or design and maintain them to minimize fire risk
  • Avoid vented roofs or protect vents from ember entry
  • Install high-performance, tempered windows
  • Choose deck materials carefully
  • Install noncombustible siding
  • Manage vegetation around homes
Power interruptions
  • Design buildings to maintain passive survivability
  • Provide dual-mode operability with high-rise buildings
  • Design mechanical systems to operate on DC power
  • Provide site-generated electricity from renewable energy
  • Provide solar hot water
  • In urban and suburban areas, maintain access to the sun
  • Plan and zone communities to maintain functionality without power
The article also describes the work Global Green is doing in New Orleans to create homes that are better adapted to climate change, and we take a brief look at the idea of "engineering" our way out of the climate crisis (intentionally modifying the climate to offset or balance the warming that's occurring). If there is good news in all this, it is that most of the measures that help us adapt to climate change have other benefits, such as reducing operating costs, improving building durability, and reducing environmental degradation. The challenges are huge, but green building practices are at the leading edge of both mitigation and adaptation to climate change. You can follow my musings about this and more on Twitter.

2009-09-09 n/a 11845 Mud and Straw in the Shadow of the U.S. Capitol

In 2008, the USBG (that's the US Botanic Garden — not the USGBC) organized "One Planet — Ours!" to showcase sustainable techniques and technologies including things like edible school yards, urban orchards, a solar greenhouse, photovoltaic panels, residential wind turbines, green roofs, and rainwater harvesting. Part of the exhibition was a gorgeous little strawbale demonstration building (video link). One of the results of that exhibition — besides the huge public exposure — was a Congressional briefing about straw bales as a building material. Last winter (after the inauguration), the demonstration building was lifted in one 8-ton piece by crane and trucked to a new location where it now lives on as a studio. And there's video of that, too. Even though you've missed the little strawbale house, there's more natural building on the next block. Always Becoming is an art installation on the grounds of the National Museum of the American Indian. "The five sculptures range in height from seven and a half to sixteen feet tall, and are made entirely of natural materials: dirt, sand, straw, clay stone, black locust wood, bamboo, grass, and yam vines." Here's some pictures I took while it was going up in 2007.

2009-08-21 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 11829 B'eau-Pal Bottled Water - Dichlormethane, Carbon Tetrachloride, Chloroform...
The label says:
Bottled at Source — Hand Pump #1, Atal Ayub Nagar, Bhopal, Madya Pradesh, India.
And in tiny print:
Not suitable for human consumption.

The nutrition label says:
Total Fat 0g
Cholesterol 0g
Sodium 22mg
Carbon Tetrachloride

The website says:
The unique qualities of our water come from 25 years of slow-leaching toxins at the site of the world's largest industrial accident.

The Yes Men's website says:
Twenty Bhopal activists, including Sathyu Sarangi of the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, showed up at Dow headquarters near London to find that the entire building had been vacated.

The 25th anniversary of the Union Carbide pesticide factory leak in Bhopal is coming up in December. The death toll from that event, according to Union Carbide, was 3,800. Local municipal workers who collected the bodies by hand estimated it was at least 15,000. The official death toll to date, compiled by local government, is 20,000. Survivors of the leak have been burdened with cancers and other medical conditions, and their children suffer debilitating illnesses, retardation, birth defects, and reproductive disorders. In 1999 it was found that the soil and water in and around the plant had organochlorine and heavy metal contamination. A 2002 study found mercury, lead, and organochlorines in the breast milk of women living near the plant. More from the Yes Men:
Though Dow has consistently refused to clean up the mess in Bhopal, they have taken numerous steps to clean up their image. In a recent press release, for example, Andrew Liveris, Dow's Chairman and CEO, noted that "lack of clean water is the single largest cause of disease in the world and more than 4,500 children die each day because of it." He went on to assert that "Dow is committed to creating safer, more sustainable water supplies for communities around the world."
Some links from
'That Night'
Bhopal's secret disaster
Health Issues
People's stories
Poisoned Water
International Campaign for Justice
2009-07-14 n/a 11806 Putting Greenhouse Gases In Your Face This morning, at 33rd St and 7th Ave in the middle of New York City — right outside of Madison Square Garden and Penn Station — a 70-foot-tall digital billboard displaying a real-time running total of atmospheric greenouse gases was unveiled. The display reflects a measurement of 24 long-lived greenhouse gases (not including ozone and aerosols) named in the Kyoto and Montreal Protocols, and is based on Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) research. The Carbon Counter is part of a "Know the Number" awareness and education campaign by Deutsche Bank's institutional climate change investment and research business, the DB Climate Change Advisors group (DBCCA). In a press release, MIT Professor of Atmospheric Science Ronald Prinn is quote as saying:
"It is useful to have an up-to-date estimate of a single integrating number expressing the trends in the long-lived greenhouse gases contributing to that change. This number can help convey how fast these greenhouse gases are increasing, and the progress, or lack thereof, in slowing the rate of increase. The number on the Counter is based on global measurements. It shows the total estimated tonnage of these gases expressed as their equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide, with seasonal and other natural cyclical variations removed to more clearly reveal the underlying long term trends driven by human and other activity."
The carbon footprint of the billboard, which includes nearly 41,000 LEDs, is offset using carbon credits. As a company, Deutsche Bank is working to reduce its carbon emissions annually by 20%, with a goal of carbon-neutrality from 2013. Carbon credits? RECs? It's still noteworthy and praiseworthy. How does your company compare? The Carbon Counter Number is also available anytime at — or right on your own computer via a free downloadable widget.
2009-06-18 n/a 11809 Northeast (U.S.) Natural Building and Living Colloquium

The Northeast Natural Building and Living Colloquium is a "conference" I go to every year. It's not everyone's cup of tea. No continuing education credits are offered. There's no high-power, big-project architectural, engineering, interior designing firm reps to hobnob with. There isn't a product expo in a cavernous auditorium. No suits, no ties, no shiny shoes. It takes place outside. You bring a tent to sleep in. Meals are provided (vegan). You get to be with good, mostly laypeople who care deeply about sustainability in the built environment, learning from world-class practitioners about things like strawbale, cob, cordwood, timber framing, straw-clay infill, permaculture, community-supported agriculture, small-scale living roofs, thatching, natural plasters & finishes, and more. You get your hands in the dirt. You go swimming. Evening presentations as good as any I've seen at mainstream green-building conferences — and often better — are given in a circus tent. Then, exhausted, you either relax around a bonfire or hit the sleeping bag to get ready to do it again the next day.
The sixth annual family-friendly Northeast Natural Building & Living Colloquium — Seven full days! — Sunday, July 26 through Saturday, August 1, 2009 — once again hosted by The PeaceWeavers :: Thunder Mountain — Bath, New York A hands-on event with an emphasis on natural building and sustainable living in the northeastern climate. From natural building and permaculture to water and energy conservation... from alternative fuels to sourcing your food locally... this event is for everyone concerned about how their lifestyle impacts our Earth.

The weeklong, camp-on-site, meals-provided colloquium offers very full (and very fun!) days of teaching, learning, building, and networking. World-class experts, authors, educators, innovators, designers, and builders offer hands-on experience with and educational presentations about "close to the earth" building materials and lifestyle choices. On-site camping and all meals (vegan) are included. Register early for a discount. What some of last year's participants had to say: "When I heard about this I knew it was going to be cool, but I've had ten times more fun than I ever thought I was going to. It's like nothing I've ever experienced. I'll definitely be back." — Matt M "I've been getting very interested in natural building, and this was recommended to me as sort of an overall vision of that. It's been great, very useful." — Sue J "Awesome. The timber framing project is great. Great instructor. Incredible group of people. And I had a ukulele lesson! It's very embracing." — Liz J "With fuel depletion, peak oil, and climate change happening, it's easy to understand the many compelling reasons for natural building. This is where it's at for a sustainable future in housing, building design, performance, community design... the whole thing." — Dan M "Connections — connections to people, connections to the natural methods, and ways to learn and grow." — Dave M "The presenters are really awesome — they've got a lot of great information and really seem to know their stuff." — Chris M "This is great! I was sort of expecting 'hippies.'There are people here with progressive ideas, but still planted in reality. People I can really identify with." — Clay D "This is my second year here at this gathering. For me it's a combination of inspiration and vacation, retreat and refuge. Being around people who are thinking the same thing as me ­ mostly ­ except for the crazy stuff ­ is such a gift. I can't imagine not getting here. It would take a pretty big blizzard." — Georgie D "No matter what age you are, or if you have children or not, this is a great place to come and play, or let your inner children come and play." — Alison B "I worked on the strawbale a lot, and I'm really inspired to go home and try it out. I've been really enjoying the company of the people I've been working with." — Emily A "It's out of my own skin a little bit — but this is a place to grow into some new skin. Very refreshing." — Aaron V "I've been coming up here every year, learning a lot about natural building and community. I enjoy the food, and sitting around the campfire is really nice in the evening, talking to people. I just love being up here." — Janice B "The best people in the world are on Thunder Mountain today." — David L
2009-06-16 n/a 11812 Renewables may fuel new import addictions It has become a truism that the U.S. is addicted to foreign oil. Heck, even George Bush owned up to it a couple years back. As we're trying to climb out of that addiction, are we about to fall into another? As a article points out, a boom in clean and renewable energy sources in the U.S. could lead to a new dependence on imported minerals and metals. We may shed our need for oil from the politically treacherous Middle East, only to replace it with a need for gallium and indium (ingredients in photovoltaics from central Africa, China, and Russia -- places with their own foreign-policy problems. Says the article:
How about batteries for storing wind- and solar-generated power or for hybrid and electric vehicles? They need vanadium, zinc, bromine, nickel, cobalt, manganese, lithium and rare-earth elements, a group of 15 metals that are "absolutely indispensable in the use of clean-energy technologies," said Mark Smith, CEO of rare-earth miner Molycorp Minerals. Many of those must be imported. Then there are energy-efficient light bulbs, which demand the rare-earth metals cerium, lanthanum and europium. Even wind turbines require neodymium, a rare-earth element, for magnets that produce electricity from turning blades. "All people see is a serene wind turbine turning out in a pasture with cows underneath," Smith said. "I don't think they see a lot of what it takes to get from rare-earth mine to turbine." The United States has the planet's second-largest concentrated rare-earth deposit, the U.S. Geological Survey says. But China nonetheless produces more than 97 percent of the world's rare-earth needs. "When you think about these dependencies -- and think about hybrid vehicles as an example -- the use of hybrid vehicles ... is an attempt to minimize dependence on Middle Eastern crude oil," Smith said. "But think about what we're doing here, if that's the purpose. We're trading one dependence for another." In the case of wind turbines, Smith said, even magnets from rare-earth elements are manufactured in China, despite the technology's development in the United States.
Read the full article here. Image from another excellent article: Clean Energy's Dirty Little Secret.
2009-06-10 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 11783 "You are brilliant, and the Earth is hiring" Paul Hawken gave the commencement address for the University of Portland earlier this month, and it's making the rounds. Deservedly. Its message is as good for the building industry — for anybody living, for that matter — as it was for those graduating seniors. Here it is. Please read it.
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was "direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful." No pressure there. Let's begin with the startling part. Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation... but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades. This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don't poison the water, soil, or air, don't let the earth get overcrowded, and don't touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food — but all that is changing. There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn't bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn't afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here's the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don't be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, "So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world." There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refugee camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums. You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way. There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity's willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. "One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice," is Mary Oliver's description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world. Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown — Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood — and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, non-governmental organizations, and companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history. The living world is not "out there" somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can't print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich. The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, which is exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a "little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven." So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television. This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn't stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn't ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn't make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
Paul Hawken was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by University president Father Bill Beauchamp when he delivered this address.
2009-05-24 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 11766 Food, Inc. The Obamas put in the first food garden (organic, natch) on the White House grounds since Eleanor Roosevelt's victory garden during World War II. We dig that. Skeptics may scoff that's it just symbolic, but I don't think so. According the The New York Times, the garden will have "55 varieties of vegetables, from a wish list of the kitchen staff. Cristeta Comerford, the White House's executive chef, said she was eager to plan menus around the garden, and Bill Yosses, the pastry chef, said he was looking forward to berry season." And 1100 square feet can produce a lot of produce — the Old Farmer's Almanac says that "A good-sized beginner vegetable garden is 10 x 16 feet [160 square feet]. A plot this size can feed a family of four for one summer, with a little extra." It's not likely, however, that the first family or their handlers are going to (publicly, anyway) spice up the reasons behind this good move with the hard arguments of filmmaker Robert Kenner in his high-impact new movie, Food, Inc.:

2009-04-29 n/a 11774 Grow Clean Air! The myth that plants will clean the air is a seductive one: if true, we could fix indoor air quality problems without expensive changes to mechanical systems and without worrying about what materials we introduce to the indoor environment. There is scientific evidence that plants clean the air, pulling formaldehyde and other pollutants out of the air and turning CO2 to oxygen (after all, this is what trees and outdoor plants do for the earth). But plants are not necessarily a practical approach to fixing indoor air problems. Kamal Meattle's talk on is a good example of how the myth of plants is promising, but not necessarily practical. He claims that three common plants can clean the air in homes and offices, and has shown this in an office building in New Delhi. Sounds great! But then you get to the numbers: four shoulder-high Areca Palm plants per person in a room that need their leaves wiped once a day; six to eight waist-high Mother-in-Law's Toungue plants per person in a bedroom; and several Money Plants, grown hydroponically, to remove formaldehyde. In his office building in New Delhi, he has 1200 plants in 50,000 square feet for 300 occupants. That's one plant for every 41 square feet (think of a large houseplant in an average office cubicle). In a new project, he has 60,000 plants in a building that's just over a million square feet--one plant for every 16 to 20 square feet! Meattle's talk is short (that's the beauty of TED talks), and he doesn't get into some of the potential problems with plants in buildings: added moisture levels, insecticides, soil contamination, and so on. Nor does he show any pictures of the office building with such a high plant load. I'm starting to think of Audrey II, that friendly meat-eating plant in the picture. 2009-04-13 n/a 11775 Experts Say a New Ice Age is Imminent
(For those who might feel that the Climate Denial Crock of the Week post needs some balance.)
2009-04-11 n/a 11776 Climate Denial Crock of the Week Peter Sinclair is a graphic artist, illustrator, animator, and environmental awareness advocate. He's been posting a series of "Climate Denial Crock of the Week" videos on the internet.
The Great Petition Fraud. "We've all heard about the 'Petitions' of 'Scientists' who disagree with Climate Science. This sordid little episode in the history of Climate Denial points up once again the fundamental dishonesty of the climate denial industry."

The Urban Heat Island Crock. "Could the scientists at NASA, the National Academy of Science, the American Meteorological Society, and every professional scientific organization on the planet really have been so silly as to miss something this obvious?"

That 1500 Year Thing. "Climate Deniers S. Fred Singer and Dennis Avery make their living by confusing and obfuscating the science of climate change. Their latest book, 'Unstoppable Global Warming every 1500 Years' is a compendium of vintage as well as cutting edge climate crocks. Let's find out who they are and how they are bamboozling their audience."
I Love the '70s!! "Everyone has a favorite decade, and for Climate Deniers, that decade has got to be the '70s. Yes, the decade of disco, kung fu, and watergate. Because in the '70s, Deniers will tell you, all climate scientists believed an ice age was coming. Those crazy climate scientists! Why can't they make up their minds? But is that really true? Maybe a little historical perspective is in order."

Mars Attacks!! "It seems to be agreed among Deniers that there is a warming happening on other planets in the solar system. And not just one or two planets. It is considered Climate Denier gospel that all the other planets are warming, and that this is proof that some kind of solar activity is warming the whole system. Let's look at the evidence."

It's cold. So there's no Climate Change. "'I looked outside, and it was snowing, therefore, there is no climate change.' If that's what passes for rational thought in your social group, you owe it to yourself to watch this edition of Climate Denial Crock of the Week."

See more videos from the series.
2009-04-11 n/a 11779 82 Tons of Earthquake: Straw House Gets The Shakes

On March 27, a shake-table simulation of twice the ground acceleration of the '94 Northridge CA earthquake was run in the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation's Large Structures Laboratory at the University of Nevada on a full-scale model of a strawbale housing unit developed in the wake of the devastating 2005 Kashmir 7.6 magnitude quake that killed nearly 100,000 people and left over three million homeless in Pakistan. Although the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI)-sponsored test was intended to be to failure, in the end the robust little straw house was still standing and structurally sound — check out the video footage below. The quake-resistant buildings designed by PAKSBAB (Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building) are intended to be affordable, energy efficient, and locally built with readily available materials. Bamboo rods and nylon fishing net act as the reinforcement and tie-down system; the netting is wrapped under a soil-cement-encased gravel-bag foundation (made with old vegetable sacks), up both sides of the load-bearing baled-straw wall, and attached to the wooden top plates. The wall-tall bamboo, which also engages both the foundation and the top plate, is attached upright in opposing pairs on either side of the wall at frequent spacings and 'sewn' together through the bales, providing flexible resistance to out-of-plane forces. The whole assembly is covered with earthen plaster. The roofing is light corrugated steel. The hand-made structural straw bales — there are no posts or other bearing members — are smaller than those produced by automatic balers, which are rare in developing countries. The plaster, as expected, experienced buckling and delamination, but there was no evidence of failure of the nylon net or bamboo. There are some similarities between this system and the one devised by the Getty Seismic Adobe Project. If you're into earthquake design (or just interested in watching buildings shake), check out the video there.
2009-04-06 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 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 11725 Building Science for Strawbale Buildings Over at, the online home of Building Science Corporation (where you can benefit from the big-brained research and synthesis of Joe Lstiburek, John Straube, and others), there are tons of great articles like Can Highly Glazed Building Façades Be Green?, Capillarity — Small Sacrifices, and Ground Source Heat Pumps ("Geothermal") for Residential Heating and Cooling: Carbon Emissions and Efficiency. A new article went up there in the last few days titled Building Science for Strawbale Buildings. Like we said in the May 2005 feature in EBN, The Natural Building Movement, people are getting smarter about these materials and methods. The Building Science website says:
This digest will begin with a brief description of the system and materials, review moisture problems in buildings, and summarize how moisture control should be dealt with in strawbale buildings.
Headings and subheads include:
  • The System
  • The Materials
    • Properties of Stucco
    • Properties of Strawbales
  • Durability and Performance: Moisture
    • The Moisture Balance
  • Wetting
  • Drying
  • Storage [of moisture]
  • Rain Penetration Control for Strawbale Buildings
  • Air Leakage Condensation Control for Strawbale Buildings
  • Summary
  • Reference
It might be noted that John Straube was a contributor to the book Design of Straw Bale Buildings: The State of the Art — this one should be in your library. Also check into Alternative Construction: Contemporary Natural Building Methods.
2009-02-26 n/a 11741 Growing Greener Over 18 years and more than 160 issues of Environmental Building News, I've written quite a few articles — I hesitate to think about how many — but out of all of those, I think I had more fun and learned more in writing my most recent than ever before. "Growing Food Locally: Integrating Agriculture into our Built Environment" examines opportunities for producing food around, and on, our buildings that few architects, builders, or developers have yet considered. I think I had my first vegetable garden when I was five or six — back in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. There were a few years during college and perhaps some of my time in New Mexico when gardening didn't fit into my life. But other than that, growing some of my food has always been important to me. Thus, I surprised myself to realize a few months ago that I had yet to write — or even consider — an article for EBN addressing the potential for integrating food production into our built environment. I had nibbled (sorry!) around the edges with articles about green roofs and passive survivability, but for some reason it never occurred to me to tackle this topic of food production directly. So I dove in with weeks of concentrated research, interviews, and even a quick trip across the country to participate in a symposium on "Building-Integrated Sustainable Agriculture" in Berkeley, sponsored by the start-up company Sky Vegetables. Reflecting on this research, I gotta say, I think have the best job in the world — to be able to spend such concentrated time learning about such inspirational projects around the country! From a community gardening program in the poor, Puerto Rican neighborhoods of Holyoke, Massachusetts (Nuestras Raices), to a nonprofit farming operation in Chicago (City Farm) that figured out a way to grow vegetables safely even where soils are contaminated, to a half-acre rooftop greenhouse operation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to an innovative aquaponic operation in Wisconsin that generates all the nutrients needed for organic hydroponic vegetable production from aquaculture wastes... these are amazing stories that I think will inspire you as much as they inspired me. And if you want to learn about something really bizarre, check out the sidebar in the article on using black soldier fly larvae to turn all sorts of organic waste into high-protein food for chickens or fish. While we didn't squeeze it into the February issue of EBN, I also wrote an editorial, available only online, that elaborates a bit more on why food production should be a part of green building. — Alex Wilson 2009-02-03 n/a 11713 Should the Plastic Bag Be Saved? I've traveled outside of North America only once in my life, and that was to Ireland in 2002. That was the year they switched from the Irish Pound to the Euro, and it was when they put a tax on plastic bags. We dopey tourists didn't know anything about that plastic bag thing before we got there. The deal, in theory, was this: If you wanted a plastic bag when you went to the store, you had to pay for it. But, at least where we were, in the southeast, the little goods-and-grocers we went to weren't even offering the option to buy a plastic bag — they simply didn't make them available at all. Or paper. Once I found out about the new tax, I asked quite a few people there how they felt about it — people working in stores, and people shopping in them. To a number, every response was positive. The older folks remembered when that's the way it was anyway... everybody brought their own cloth bags and wicker baskets when they went shopping. No big deal. The younger folks said that it made so much sense, even if it wasn't as convenient. And everybody said that they didn't miss all those empty plastic bags blowing around the countryside. They did say that there were people who didn't like the new tax at all, and that its introduction wasn't without some serious resistance. Resistance, I suppose, from people like the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, which seeks to expose "the anti-plastic bag misinformation campaign." Misinformation such as this, I'm guessing: I've read through the website, and I frankly don't care which points they are and aren't right about. I don't care if plastic bags aren't made from oil. I don't care if landfill space and animal deaths are overstated by the green zealots (or understated by the coalition). The fact is that we don't need plastic or paper bags for most shopping trips. A tax or even an outright ban will create a small environmental victory that can inspire greater change... because it's just so simple to do. I was listening to a discussion one time about the embodied energy of building materials and the construction process vs. the rest of the building's lifecycle energy. It was argued that since the operating energy of most buildings dwarfs the energy involved up to the point of occupancy, it seemed almost silly to even worry about anything but efficient envelopes and mechanicals. David Eisenberg, director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology, piped up and said that comparing just the two sets of information certainly would lead to that conclusion. However, it takes almost no adjustment in perspective to realize that embodied energy is of enormous importance... and even though operating energy has even greater impact, both are significant. 2009-01-20 n/a 11667 Stormwater Detention in a Parking Lot at The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center Posted live from Greenbuild.

Rock-filled channels between parking rows drain to a large detention area beside the lot.

In the background, rental cranes dance in the sky.

2008-11-19 n/a 11672 You have 61 trees... please don't lose them We humans number about 6.5 billion. How many trees are there? NASA has been taking satellite pictures of the Earth's forests for years and sharing them with ecologists who have figured out an algorithm for calculating worldwide tree totals based on patterns of sunlight. The result of that research is a worldwide tree census, as of 2005, of 400,246,300,201, or 400 billion. Now, do the math -- that's 61 trees per person -- a figure that professor Nalini Nadkarni of the Evergreen State College in Washington seems to have been the first to calculate. Speaking on NPR, Professor Nadkarni said, "This number is one of the interesting things you glom onto, because suddenly you can picture yourself and these trees." That's something I relate to, living in southern Vermont with intimate experience with hundreds if not thousands of trees per person. The figure, which Professor Nadkarni acknowledges is approximate, puts worldwide demand in perspective. Statistics from the North Carolina Forestry Association show that the average American uses over a ton of wood annually. That's equivalent to a single tree measuring 100 feet tall and 18 inches in diameter. Professor Nadkarni emphasizes that the tree census is not a strictly accurate number. Where do you draw the line on infants and the deceased? But, she says, "it is a way to personalize the number of finite trees that we humans can access, and ask is there a way to reduce our consumption." Thanks to David Foley for bringing this item to my notice. 2008-11-18 n/a 11680 Transportation Energy: Consumers vs. The Consumed A current article from Reason magazine (their tag line — "Free Minds and Free Markets" — might reveal a hint of a bias), "The Food Miles Mistake: Saving the planet by eating New Zealand apples" questions one of the main ecological premises of the localvore movement, saying:
...a comprehensive study done by the United Kingdom's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)... reported that 82 percent of food miles were generated within the U.K. — consumer shopping trips accounted for 48 percent and trucking for 31 percent of British food miles. In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food. According to a 2000 study, agriculture was responsible for 7.7 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In that study, food transport accounted for 14 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture...
It's a bit reminiscent of the Environmental Building News feature, "Driving to Green Buildings: The Transportation Energy Intensity of Buildings," which said,
With average new code-compliant office buildings "using" twice as much energy getting occupants to and from the buildings as the buildings themselves use for heating, cooling, lighting, and other energy needs, the green building community needs to focus greater attention on the transportation dependency of our buildings.
These transportation energy questions — whether it's about food, building products, or getting back and forth from work, are worth thinking about. The EBN feature "On Using Local Materials," said:
...short hauls generally represent a disproportionately large share of total transportation impacts... short hauls are almost always done in trucks, as opposed to rail or ship. Second, because the trucks used for short hauls are smaller than those used for long hauls, proportionately more of the energy is used for moving the truck itself. And third, because short hauls are typically over secondary roads with a lot of stopping and starting, efficiency is reduced. Given all these factors, the total environmental impact of hauling materials 1,000 miles by train to a supply yard may be less than the impact of hauling materials 100 miles by truck to a job site.
Depending on things like geography and transportation methods, Chinese bamboo flooring or a bottle of French wine could have a good bit less transportation energy to the same point of delivery than solid wood flooring from Oregon or a bottle of domestic wine from California.
2008-11-12 n/a 11686 Guerilla gardeners caught on tape Should we prosecute this type of illegal public improvement? Or participate in it? (The correct answer is the latter.) In this clip, ringleader Richard Reynolds incites rogue acts of civic delight: Previously on these pages: Guerrilla Gardening.

2008-11-05 n/a 11633 Lost in Las Vegas: A Search of Irony in the City of Excess I spent three days in Las Vegas recently. I was there for the first annual WaterSmart Innovations Conference, sponsored by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the recently formed Alliance for Water Efficiency, EPA WaterSense, and several other sponsoring and partnering organizations and agencies. The conference and trade show were great. They really were. I saw more than a dozen new products­ — some really cool — that you'll be hearing about in EBN and GreenSpec over the coming months. It was one of the best conferences — from a learning standpoint — that I've attended in recent years. PDFs of all the PowerPoint presentations given at the sessions are available. But, I've gotta say, I'm still trying to recover from Las Vegas. For starters, the casino/conference facilities are designed so that, wherever you're going, you have to pass by banks of slot machines on the casino floor. They're hoping, of course, that us attendees will be tempted by the flashing lights, ringing bells, and buxom waitresses in bunny suits delivering cocktails. You kind-of expect that. What I didn't expect (or had blocked out since my last visit to the city some 15 years ago) was that nearly everyone smokes. I've been spoiled in recent years to find most public spaces smoke-free. Apparently the newer casinos have better ventilation systems, so the air isn't quite as bad. On a larger scale, though, what got to me is the consumption and excess that is embodied in just about everything Las Vegas. I spent one night wandering about two miles down Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip), checking out the casinos, stretch Hummers (and a lime-green Lamborghini), street-side bars, fountains, and the glaring neon and LED advertising that confront — affront — you everywhere. I made it back to my hotel after my escapades and, the next night, was content to stick closer to home and watch a documentary that was being premiered at the conference, The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry?, which was produced by Jim Thebaut and narrated by actress Jane Seymour. This is a powerful film that makes the case that we're heading off a cliff relative to water availability in the Southwest. Watch this film if you get the chance. Dozens of experts, from U.S. Senators and Congressmen to scientists (even Dr. Gene Whitney, science advisor to President Bush) to water agency leaders argue convincingly that we're nearing a crisis — a crisis that could make today's "energy crisis" seem like child's play.
Lake Mead, which supplies 90% of Las Vegas's water, is less than half full today.
Photo: Ken Dewey. Click for bigger.
So here I was watching a film about how there isn't enough water to go around. And I was sitting in a Las Vegas casino theater watching it. Las Vegas is America's driest city. In an average year, the city receives four inches of rain. So far in 2008 they were still not up to the one-inch mark for the year. It's dry! The city gets 90% of its water from Lake Mead, the nation's largest man-made reservoir. One of the Colorado River reservoirs, Lake Mead is running dry. There's a white "bathtub ring" around the reservoir walls that's now ten stories high — showing how much the water level has dropped in the last couple decades. Now at 48% of capacity, a study came out last year from Scripps Institute saying that there's a 50% chance that the reservoir will be functionally empty by 2021 — a scant 13 years from now. And meanwhile, Las Vegas keeps growing; the city's population has doubled just since 1995!
Photos: Alex Wilson.
Click for bigger.
Sobered by the film and worn out from conferencing, the next morning (my last in the city), I woke early and went out for a long walk, leaving the South Point Casino and Hotel behind and exploring the sprawling subdivisions of the south end of Las Vegas where the South Point is located. The photos here are a few that I took that morning. It was refreshing to be outdoors, but sobering to see and experience the absolute dryness. We talk about xeriscaping (low-water landscaping), but any place I saw a sprig of green I knew that I could look a little harder and see an emitter from an irrigation system. Though the Southern Nevada Water Authority, with one of the most aggressive water conservation programs in the country, offers $1.50 per square foot to homeowners or business owners to replace irrigated turf with water-efficient landscaping (with no limits on the conversion area and payment!), I still saw lots and lots of bright green turf. For more on our water crisis and what to do about it, take a look at the three-part series we've run this year in EBN. The first article addresses demand-side solutions (reducing the amount of water we use in and around buildings), the second covers alternative water sources (including graywater, rainwater, and air conditioner condensate), and the third covers policies and what we need to do to effectively reduce our water consumption. These three articles are all free on our site. —Alex Wilson
2008-10-30 n/a 11638 On the Path to Passive Survivability
Creating a superinsulated building envelope is one of the key requirements with passive survivability. I saw this superinsulated home feature when I was in Sweden last year.
Photo: Alex Wilson. Click for bigger.
(More below.)
Those who have kept an eye on the suggestions we've made over the past few years regarding passive survivability might be interested in some recent developments. By way of background for those who haven't tracked this issue, here's the thumbnail sketch: In an age with more intense storms, terrorist actions against our energy infrastructure, potential petroleum shortages, and drought, we should be designing homes, apartment buildings, schools, and certain other public-use buildings so that they maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages or interruptions in heating fuel or water. I had initially been proposing passive survivability as a smart design criterion. More recently I've been advocating that we mandate passive survivability through building codes. There are a number of developments along these lines:
Creating a superinsulated building envelope is one of the key requirements with passive survivability. I saw these superinsulated home features when I was in Sweden last year.
Photos: Alex Wilson.
Click for bigger.
First, an article I wrote making this case is coming out shortly in Building Safety Journal, the magazine of the International Code Council. I have no idea what the response to this article might be among code officials, but I'll be watching carefully. Second, I'm participating in a committee that's providing input to the upcoming revision of New York City's building codes. We're trying to figure out what it will take to make the city's buildings and infrastructure more adaptable to climate change. I'm not sure where this will end up, but one of the ideas we're pursuing is to require dual-mode buildings. Dual-mode buildings would operate with conventional HVAC systems in normal conditions, but could be switched over to a passive operation mode during a power outage. Third, I was recently in California speaking at a couple conferences — including on passive survivability at San Diego Green. Following the San Diego conference, I led a brainstorming meeting to address passive survivability. The group of a dozen or so individuals, including Bob Berkebile, Chuck Angyal, and Drew George, focused on three questions: 1. What constitutes "livable conditions"? We pondered whether a house would need to maintain 50°F in the winter to keep people safe (wearing coats), or if a house would need to be 55°F. How hot could a house get in the summer and not put its occupants at undue risk? We concluded that there's a significant body of knowledge out there to tap into on these questions — such as emergency management databases and ASHRAE technical committees on comfort. 2. How easy is it to model the "drift conditions" of buildings? I was surprised here to learn that our more sophisticated energy modeling software tools can do this without any modification — one only needs to vary the inputs. That's good news indeed. 3. Do we need "performance standards" for passive survivability or could "prescriptive standards" suffice? This is a tougher question. It's hard to deal with passive solar heating, daylighting, or cooling load avoidance on a strictly prescriptive basis, but we felt that having both a prescriptive path and a performance path would be ideal. We have a lot of work to do in answering this question and moving ahead with those prescriptive standards. One of the new ideas that came out of the San Diego meeting was to come up with labeling of houses to indicate how they stack up relative to passive survivability — perhaps an A through F scale — and get insurance companies to buy in to preferential rates for the higher-ranked buildings. I continue to believe that the insurance industry could be a big driver of passive survivability.
Lake Mead, which supplies 90% of Las Vegas's water, is less than half full today. Maybe it's time we begin designing buildings to get by if water shortages or water rationing become a reality — not all that unlikely, especially with Scripps Institute scientists telling us there's a 50% chance that Lake Mead will be functionally empty by 2021.
Photo: Ken Dewey. Click for bigger.
Finally, having just returned from Las Vegas, where I was attending the WaterSmart Innovations conference (about water efficiency and water conservation), I'm inspired to push harder to address water to a greater extent in defining passive survivability. In most cases, the idea with passive survivability probably won't be to create homes and other buildings that can be totally self-sufficient with water. Rather, we will push for buildings that can get by all right if water were to be rationed or only available intermittently for periods of time in the future. If anyone wants to be part of this ongoing discussion about passive survivability, reply to this posting or e-mail me directly:
2008-10-14 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 11619 Shhhhh....Don't Tell Anyone. I Love Plants. As I was researching the current feature article on indoor plants, I was constantly questioning the science behind indoor air quality and productivity claims (a certain amount of skepticism comes with the job). The analytical side of my brain was looking at how studies were funded, performed, and presented. It was asking questions about real-world verification. It was finding that although there have been some promising studies, the science behind indoor plant claims just isn't fully developed. Another part of my brain was making noise, though, piping up every so often with arguments for plants. Even as I was trying to pick apart the claims for indoor plants, I wanted those claims to be true. I love plants. To be honest, I find them pretty miraculous. I have some plants that have made it through several moves with me, from two different graduate school apartments in Chicago to an apartment and finally a house in Vermont. One aloe plant has created so many offshoots that it has spread to three pots in my house and several in the homes of friends. Outdoors, I cut back brown perennials in the fall only to see them emerge miraculously green in the spring. I marvel at my vegetable garden each year. At the office, I have a parlor palm (one of the "superplants" that's supposed to clean the air) that sits just to the right of my computer screen. Perhaps this is the reason why claims for indoor plants--cleaning the air, boosting productivity, and so on--are so often put forth in the popular press without the caveats present in the scientific studies. We want plants to work precisely because they are beautiful and fascinating. In the end, I think that plants do improve our buildings, but not in ways that are easy to test or prove. So I'm going to keep that parlor palm on my desk, and maybe get it a little superhero cape just for good measure. Image: A Parlor Palm 2008-09-25 n/a 11621 The Miniature Earth
Better version:
2008-09-21 n/a 11626 I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Plastics — chemical compounds which are compressed under heat into desired shapes, and thereafter are not subject to corrosion — are increasingly in use. Some are made of coal-tar products, some of milk; and one... utilizes the Chinese soy bean. This useful plant, is, next to rice, the staff of life in the Celestial republic; like beans, peas, and other "legume" plants, it contains the proteins, or nitrogen compounds, for which we eat meat. The mechanical uses of the soy bean (which does not resemble American beans) are of more recent discovery. It furnishes a fibrous flour, which gives body to a phenol (carbolic acid) compound. Under heat and pressure, this changes into a hard, strong, glossy substance, suitable for buttons, knobs, handles, mouldings, etc.
Excerpted from "Auto Made from Beans," Everyday Science And Mechanics, April 1936. (Tip of the hat to the Modern Mechanix blog.) Fast-forward to the Environmental Building News feature from July, 2001, "Plastics in Construction: Performance and Affordability at What Cost?"
In 1967, when [the film] The Graduate appeared, U.S. plastic production totaled 15 billion pounds (6.8 million tonnes). By 1999, according to the American Plastics Council, the annual total had increased to just under 85 billion pounds (38.5 million tonnes), with more than 60,000 different compounds in production. Plastics are used in virtually every industry, and their use is continuing to grow — at a compounded annual growth rate of 6.4% for the period 1995 to 1999. Nowhere are the presence and growth of plastics more apparent than the construction industry. North American sales for building and construction represent more than 22% of all plastic resin sales, second only to the packaging industry. It's hard to imagine a building today without plastics. Along with the obvious uses (siding, flooring, piping, wiring, appliances, and foam insulation), plastics are used in everything from concrete to paint. But at what cost to our environment?
2008-09-09 n/a 11631 Hurricane Disney: Stormstruck in Orlando I was down in Orlando last week — land of asphalt, ChemLawns, and Mickey Mouse. As is typical in that part of the world, it was too hot outside and too cold inside. In one of the mammoth Disney hotels, I was participating for two days in the Tenth Anniversary Annual Meeting of an organization called FLASH. FLASH is the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes — it used to be the Florida Alliance for Safe Homes, which explains the "L." FLASH is all about disaster resistance, so the sessions were about communicating fire-resistant construction practices, hurricane codes, 2x4 projectile penetration of wall systems, safe rooms in houses — cool stuff like that. In one session, two different speakers addressed pandemic flu — not because that's in the purview of FLASH, but because the challenges of educating the general public to those concerns are very similar to the challenges FLASH faces in communicating disaster resistance. Organizations involved with FLASH include insurance companies, manufacturers of building products that relate to disaster resistance (Simpson Strong-Tie, G-P Dens-Shield, etc.), product retailers like Home Depot, state agencies, the National Weather Service, FEMA, a few builders of disaster-resistant homes, such as Mercedes Homes, and the Salvation Army. As the conference progressed, participants at the conference were keeping a wary eye on Hurricane Gustav, which was heading for the Gulf Coast, and a few had to leave early. I was there to talk about how to get green building priorities more in line with disaster-resistance priorities. I did this by talking about passive survivability — the idea that we should be designing and building houses that will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages, loss or heating fuel, or shortages of water. That presentation was really well received — something new to worry about for a group that lives and breathes disasters and emergencies. But what I wanted to tell you about isn't passive survivability or even the FLASH conference per se — but rather, an evening event we attended at Disney's Epcot Center. Conference attendees were invited to a special evening reception at Epcot's new exhibit: Stormstruck: A Tale of Two Houses, which is sponsored by FLASH and a number of its commercial partners. As someone who rebels against everything Disney, I gotta say: Stormstruck is awesome! Visitors are issued 3-D glasses and ushered into a room that holds maybe 20 people. It was set up as the inside of a house, looking out through picture windows at the yard, street, garage, house across the street, etc. The tour guide issued a storm warning and told us to be sure our safety glasses were on. You can probably guess what's next. Disney's best 3-D visualization modelers have created a remarkably photo-realistic simulation of a Category 4 or 5 storm. You watch, mesmerized, as winds pick up, deck chairs and barbecue grills blow away, tree limbs come down, shingles are ripped from the garage, and part of the house across the street blows apart. As the winds pick up, an occasional 2x4 or limb crashes through the window in front of you, accompanied by a gust of wind, a spray of mist, and the vibrations of a robust surround-sound speaker system. All this is 3-D remember, so the tree branch seems to end up just inches in front of you. But it's not just a show; it's a lesson in storm-resistant construction practices. After the storm, each participant takes part in figuring out how to rebuild. The tour guide — a real person in front of the room — asks a series of questions and, based on the group score, the house and garage are rebuilt accordingly. We were asked to choose between features like a gable roof or a hip roof, metal strapping vs. nails alone for framing, inward-opening or outward-opening entry doors, clay-tile vs. storm-rated asphalt shingles, replanting of magnolia vs. a native sea pine in the yard, and whether or not windows should be opened during a storm to equalize pressure inside and outside. Each of us keyed our responses by pushing either the "A" or "B" button in front of us. Then, based on the group-averaged answers to these questions, we experienced another storm — exciting, like the first one, but hopefully with some of the storm-resistant features in place that we had collectively chosen. More crashing storm debris, more howling wind, and projectiles crashing through the windows in front of us. More gusts of wind and light mists of spray to add a semblance of realism. The show was good enough that I went through twice — the second time later in the evening, after our group had been able to enjoy more time at the bar. Guys being guys (yes, the FLASH group is mostly men) and lubricated by alcohol, our group decided to intentionally answer all the questions wrong. A knowledgeable group (some of whom were probably consultants to Disney on the exhibit), we succeeded in scoring a near-zero, and the ensuing destruction the more exciting. There are some other nice displays in the Stormstruck pavilion, but the show is definitely the lead attraction — and educational to boot! Anyway, if you have the misfortune of being dragged down to Orlando and Disney World, by all means check out Stormstruck: a Tale of Two Houses.

2008-09-02 n/a 11601 Toilet paper is major emitter of bisphenol-A As a key component in polycarbonate plastics such as those used for reusable water bottles, baby bottles, canned-food liners, and some building materials, bisphenol-A (BPA) has become the new chemical to fear. Despite that, I had to track down a paper from the Transactions of the Wessex Institute on research conducted at Dresden University to understand better what may be the next problem area to emerge for BPA: toilet paper. Backing up, it's really about the thermal paper that has become ubiquitous in the form of credit card receipts and other point-of-sale printouts. Thermal paper is a very smooth type of paper with a thin coating of leuco dye, and a phenol developer such as BPA. This chemical cocktail is like an invisible ink that reveals a message under application of heat, usually with a laser. The heat causes the chemicals to melt and react; as they do, the dye changes form and is able to reflect visible light. According to a source in Denmark, about 1,500 tons of BPA was produced in Europe for thermal paper in 2003. I'm sure it's a lot more now, and much more in the U.S. When that thermal paper is recycled, a lot of it goes into toilet paper, in which high recycled content has become quite common. And when that toilet paper is flushed, and digested in municipal wastewater plants, that BPA is released into surface water and groundwater. According to the Dresden research, the concentration of BPA in toilet paper can be 430 mg/kg dry mass. The researchers conclude:
Toilet paper, thus, was shown being an important source of xenoestrogen emissions to wastewater. Thermal paper again is assessed as being a major source for the contamination of recycled paper products with BPA. Because of the distinct contamination with xenoestrogens, both paper waste and recycled paper products should not be mixed with biological waste e.g. for co-composting or co-fermentation in order to derive organic fertilisers.
Pay in cash and bring out the bidets? (The photo above came from zigzag zombie.)
2008-08-26 n/a 11603 Learning From Ancient Fertilizer Factories Talk about appropriate technology. They cooperate with nature on all levels — the design, the materials, the function... and gorgeous to look at besides. How would we build something like this today? This is very sexy stuff, even if it's all about pigeon poop. Click the image for a high-res narrated slideshow (or here for low-res.) From Jadid Online:
The pigeon towers of Isfahan are a perfect example of man working with nature in common alliance. Before the use of chemical fertilisers alternative means had to be found for generating large quantities of fertiliser. Using their knowledge of the natural environment the architects of Isfahan created pigeon towers. By attracting wild pigeons with seed and a safe place to roost the towers acted as a natural collection point for waste which could then be used as fertiliser. The Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Saeed Mohasesi who has studied the pigeon towers of Isfahan explains the background to these ancient buildings.
2008-08-25 n/a 11605 Teardowns and McMansions
Across the nation a teardown epidemic is wiping out historic neighborhoods one house at a time. As older homes are demolished and replaced with dramatically larger, out-of-scale new structures, the historic character of the existing neighborhood is changed forever. Neighborhood livability is diminished as trees are removed, backyards are eliminated, and sunlight is blocked by towering new structures built up to the property lines. Community economic and social diversity is reduced as new mansions replace affordable homes. House by house, neighborhoods are losing a part of their historic fabric and much of their character.
Kim Del Rance of Gould Evans wrote in a post to the COTE forum today:
Having restored a "tear down" that I could only get a land mortgage on — the house had zero value — to what is now a contributing structure in a neighborhood nominated to the National Register, I know firsthand there are very few houses that cannot be repaired. Those that are called "money pits" are often still cheaper to repair than to build a house of the same quality on the same land.

Reusing land that has already been built on is better than taking over greenspace, but tearing down a house that is in fine condition is a waste of resources and embodied energy as well as removing character from historic neighborhoods... I see this as a green/sustainable issue as well as historic — I want our history and culture to be sustained as well as our air and water.
Find tools, resources, and information in the Teardowns and McMansions section of the National Trust for Historic Preservation website.
2008-08-21 n/a 11606 Planet Earth goes online This press release just came through; sounds like it will be a pretty great resource. It's not up yet though — check it out in a few days.
The Natural Environment Research Council — the UK's leading organisation that funds research into the environmental sciences — is launching an online version of its award-winning magazine, Planet Earth, on 29 September 2008. The website will be updated daily and feature news, features, blogs, opinion, podcasts and video from the environmental science community on climate change, biodiversity loss, volcanoes, earthquakes, the rainforests, oceans and poles. The content will appeal to a wide, non-specialist audience.
Editor Owen Gaffney said: "Environmental issues are at the top of the political and news agendas. We need to make independent, impartial environmental research news available to a wider audience. Planet Earth online will do just that. "We have unique access to a massive range of science. Our scientists travel to some of the most hostile and remote places on the planet to do their research, such as the Arctic, Antarctica, the Serengeti and the Amazon rainforests. We will run news, blogs and video from all of these places. "Our research is tackling the biggest environmental challenge facing this planet ­ sustaining its life support system. There couldn't be a more important time to communicate this research." A key difference between Planet Earth online and other science websites is the access it will have to a wealth of cutting-edge research. Many of the features will be written by researchers and then edited by experienced editors. "We want the website to be a key resource for the general public, students, teachers, journalists, researchers as well as policy-makers and MPs," said Owen. The content of the website in the first weeks will include:
  • SPECIAL REPORT: Global water resources
  • SPECIAL REPORT: Ocean acidification
  • SPECIAL REPORT: Poverty alleviation in China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa
  • FEATURE: The Amazon's carbon budget laid bare
  • FEATURE: Beyond the abyss — life in Earth's deepest trenches
  • FEATURE: Africa Gomez's extreme survivors
  • FEATURE: When scum ruled the Earth
  • BLOG: The cruellest place on Earth —working in the Afar depression
  • BLOG: Cape Farewell — scientists, writers and artists in the Arctic
  • PODCAST: Honey trap — robot spiders catch surprised bees
Research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and its partners — such as the Met Office, Defra, the Environment Agency, NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the European Space Agency and other research councils — is widely regarded as the best in the world. Planet Earth online will report from all parts of the research community supported by NERC, as well as related work from its national and international partners.
(I'm resisting the urge to make snarky comments about scum ruling the earth.)
2008-08-21 n/a 11585 The Gospel of Consumption America's buildings are no small contributor to our environmental difficulties and energy use... but they're far from the biggest part of the problem. The enemy is us — the choices we make individually and as a society. America's building envelopes are getting better and tighter, our heating and cooling systems are getting more efficient, but every year we keep using more energy. And our carbon emissions keep going up, not down. Part of the equation, certainly, is that the U.S. builds more buildings and is home to more people all the time. But per-person energy use and emissions aren't just staying the same, they're increasing. The LIVE post Plug Loads and Small Electronics addresses just one small piece of the puzzle, but the example is cross-applicable. An article in the current Orion Magazine, The Gospel of Consumption, takes a look at salient lifestyle trends over the last 80 years or so, with a dual emphasis on workplace issues and consumerism. (Excerpts below.) Yes, life is different than it was 80 years ago. It's different than it was ten years ago, or even five. We have more options now, greater convenience, better health care... we've made great advances. And there's no reason to turn our backs on the good things we enjoy today, and to continue to have even more. But have we abandoned some things that contribute to a greater happiness index and quality of life? From The Gospel of Consumption, an article in Orion Magazine:
By 1991 the amount of goods and services produced for each hour of labor was double what it had been in 1948. By 2006 that figure had risen another 30 percent. In other words, if as a society we made a collective decision to get by on the amount we produced and consumed seventeen years ago, we could cut back from the standard forty-hour week to 5.3 hours per day — or 2.7 hours if we were willing to return to the 1948 level. In 2004, one of the leading legal theorists in the United States, federal judge Richard Posner, declared that "representative democracy... involves a division between rulers and ruled," with the former being "a governing class," and the rest of us exercising a form of "consumer sovereignty" in the political sphere with "the power not to buy a particular product, a power to choose though not to create."
Now there's a harsh reality. I don't agree with it, though. The power to choose is a power to create... but what's created isn't something that can be bought or sold. The reader comments on the Orion site following the article are worth a look, too.
2008-07-22 n/a 11586 Mud, Straw, Sticks, Stones
In a few days I'll be leaving for the fifth annual Natural Building Colloquium East in Bath, NY. I go every year. So does David Eisenberg and a bunch of other people that I really like.
Is it anything like them green conferences?
No. It is nothing like them.
(Most of the quotes in this article were gathered at the first colloquium held at that location five years ago.)
Tantalizing photos after the jump:

More, bigger pics here
2008-07-21 n/a 11590 The Not-So-Green Grass of Home: "Nature purged of sex and death" Oh, we've written about lawns over the years. And so have other people. The current New Yorker has a great article about lawns — looking backward, forward, and around. A couple juicy excerpts:
The greener, purer lawns that the chemical treatments made possible were, as monocultures, more vulnerable to pests, and when grubs attacked the resulting brown spot showed up like lipstick on a collar. The answer to this chemically induced problem was to apply more chemicals. As Paul Robbins reports in "Lawn People" (2007), the first pesticide popularly spread on lawns was lead arsenate, which tended to leave behind both lead and arsenic contamination. Next in line were DDT and chlordane. Once they were shown to be toxic, pesticides like diazinon and chlorpyrifos — both of which affect the nervous system — took their place. Diazinon and chlorpyrifos, too, were eventually revealed to be hazardous. (Diazinon came under scrutiny after birds started dropping dead around a recently sprayed golf course.) The insecticide carbaryl, which is marketed under the trade name Sevin, is still broadly applied to lawns. A likely human carcinogen, it has been shown to cause developmental damage in lab animals, and is toxic to — among many other organisms — tadpoles, salamanders, and honeybees. In "American Green" (2006), Ted Steinberg, a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, compares the lawn to "a nationwide chemical experiment with homeowners as the guinea pigs." Mowing turfgrass quite literally cuts off the option of sexual reproduction. From the gardener's perspective, the result is a denser, thicker mat of green. From the grasses' point of view, the result is a perpetual state of vegetable adolescence. With every successive trim, the plants are forcibly rejuvenated. In his anti-lawn essay "Why Mow?," Michael Pollan puts it this way: "Lawns are nature purged of sex and death. No wonder Americans like them so much."
"Turf War: Americans can't live without their lawns — but how long can they live with them?" by Elizabeth Kolbert; The New Yorker; July 21, 2008
2008-07-17 n/a 11596 The Unclear Origins of Oil Excerpted from a post titled "The Unclear Origins of Oil" on Kevin Kelly's CT2 (Conceptual Trends and Current Topics) blog:
Crude oil is almost $140 per barrel. By now you'd think we would know where it comes from. The conventional wisdom is that oil descends from algae from eons ago. Lots and lots of algae. Unimaginable mounds of dead algae in quantities no longer found on this planet, pressed, and cooked into hydrocarbon liquids. Thus: fossil fuel. Others, notably the Russians, have an alternative theory that oil comes from non-biological carbon compounds deep in this planet, like the methane oceans we find on other planets. An emerging third theory is that bacteria living within rocks produce oil.
Read the original post...
2008-07-01 n/a 11570 The Carbon Calculator Morass In the process of looking into carbon calculators for buildings as a behind-the-scenes assistant for the EBN feature article "Counting Carbon: Understanding Carbon Footprints of Buildings," I took a short detour into the wider carbon calculator world. While construction calculators may still be rare, the Web offers a multitude of general carbon calculators for businesses and households and also specialized calculators for everything from wineries to land remediation activities. It seems everyone is getting into the act — utilities, environmental groups, oil companies, government agencies, and offset providers (especially offset providers) are all offering up their own calculators. These vary widely in their approach, scope, level of complication, rigor, transparency, visual appeal, and results — including what aspect of household or business operations is the greatest contributor to total emissions. The primary value of these simple calculators is getting people thinking about the issue and providing some motivation for change, but the system should at least be accurate enough to help users develop a reasonable sense of priorities for action. The ideal calculator would provide default values using average data while allowing users to improve the results by providing their own actual data on utility bills (including gallons, therms, kWh, not just dollars), vehicle fuel efficiency, miles driven, flights taken, and other behavioral characteristics. The ideal calculator would also provide tips for next steps, and allow users to track efforts over time, as well as test the likely impact of different strategies. Even better would be if you could dig behind the displayed answers and see what all the assumptions were underlying them — a major bonus for geeks like me. EBN did not attempt a comprehensive review of lifestyle calculators, or comparison of results (especially once we realized what a rabbit hole we'd be entering). A little browsing on the web shows how many others have tried variations on that theme — and how hard it can be. Also, new calculators pop up daily. The calculators below are just a few that we thought rose to the top while wandering through the morass of options. For a more in depth review (though still by no means comprehensive) try Consumer Reports' review of travel results, the Home Energy Saver table outlining the scope covered by a range of calculators, or check out the Earth Charter Initiative's list of calculators available by country. We'd love to hear of any truly thorough reviews you know of, or what calculators you think are best. A few notable calculators in the mix are the following:
  • Low Impact Living's Environmental Impact Calculator, which provides a comparative assessment of a range of impacts, not just carbon emissions; suggests actions; and lets users save and update their profiles. (In contrast, the Ecological Footprint Calculator has an animated custom avatar, but I'm not convinced it provides much life-changing value.)
  • The CoolClimate Carbon Footprint Calculator, which considers a wider range of activities at a detailed level. Inputs include what users eat and purchase as well as the more typical questions about the user's house, based on expenditures, and comparison with national and "similar household" averages. The calculator was developed by the Berkeley Institute of the Environment (BIE), at the University of California, Berkeley).
  • Safe Climate Calculator, by World Resources Institute, which is short and asks only the hard numbers: therms, kWh, fuel economy and miles traveled, and rewards you at the end with a little animated guy who becomes a devil or angel depending on your emissions.
  • TerraPass, like most if not all carbon offset providers, has a suite of calculators, including personal and business calculators as well as specific calculators for driving, flying, etc. Also typical, the only option to "take action" is to buy carbon offsets or other "green products. " None of these are designed to encourage behavioral change. Still, I liked that it allows users to input specific flights taken, rather than number of "short" or "long" flights, or total miles or hours traveled. This doesn't mean TerraPass's calculator is more accurate, while that is possible — all I know is it shows the lowest emissions on the Consumer Reports review, and I'd lean towards using one in the middle of the range in the absence of better info on accuracy.
  • EPA provides a whole suite of calculators themselves (including ones for waste, recycled content and durable goods), and links to other's calculators — but what is especially useful for folks trying to get the word out is their GHG Equivalencies Calculator — which lets you input a consumption unit and get out how that number compares to barrels of oil consumed, tree seedlings grown, passenger vehicles, etc, etc. With this you can put emissions into terms anyone can understand.
What's next? Well, it looks like we'll be getting calculators like the "Carbon Hero" that calculates a user's carbon footprint from transportation as you move around, carrying the tiny data-collector with you. While I'm not sure whether this is really any better a calculator, I'm pretty sure it'll appeal to the gadget-geeks (but, we also need a hand-held one that calculates the embodied and operational carbon of each gadget they purchase). Unfortunately, the most noticeable thing about carbon calculators is still the plethora of options and the lack of consistency amongst them and we will applaud all efforts to clarify the field. In the mean time we still think trying out some of these calculators is a worthwhile effort to get people thinking, but we suggest taking the results and recommendations with more than a grain of salt.
2008-06-18 n/a 11547 Making vs. Assembling I have a huge amount of appreciation and respect for (and some jealousy of) people plying artisan trades, and had a couple good conversations with AIA'08 exhibitors offering that sort of thing. The John Canning Painting & Conservation Studios goes beyond artisan; check out the featured projects on their website. In my capacity as poster boy for the A Little Knowledge Club, we chatted a bit about lime plaster and mortar while I stood in awe of their portfolio. And I threw some banal chatter at the patient folks staffing the booth for the Stained Glass Association of America, the members of which also provide amazing, timeless, world-class work. When my cathedral needs repair, these are the people I'm calling. But the highlight of the conference exhibition hall, for me, was Hugh Lofting Timber Framing.
As a longtime advocate for natural building materials, I approached the booth with a pre-existing soft spot for that craft. But I didn't know that they're still hand-cutting most jobs. I didn't know about their out-front preference for reclaimed, recycled, local, and FSC certified wood. Or that the founder, a leader in the resurgence of the art of timber framing since the '70s, has been a subscriber to Environmental Building News for just ages. Or that they actually get what LEED is really about. I like all those things about this company. (It also helps that timber framing is a little closer to my reality than castle restoration.)
What put it over the top for me was completely unrelated to any of that. The first question out of my mouth was, "Didn't Hugh Lofting write the book Doctor Doolittle?" (I've subsequently learned that I seem to be the only person I know who knew that.) The guy in the booth answered — a little surprised — "That was my grandfather!" That's really what did it — that personal thread, that bit of connection, that slice of humanity. And that may be why I love people that make, rather than assemble. The old-world built environment had a character of imperfection, a dose of wabi sabi, odd and lumpy bits that represent a connection that's both human and natural. Biophilia begins to recognize this. But there's a material dependency involved — a badly taped drywall joint doesn't evoke the same appreciation as a bit of mortar snot on the wall of an old cobblestone house.
2008-05-19 n/a 11552 Preparing for the 2030 Challenge (AIA'08)
"Using case studies of recent high performance architecture, this session will identify key strategies required to increase sustainable methods to achieve zero carbon goals by the year 2030. The case studies examine design strategies and processes for the next generation of sustainable architecture, going beyond current best practices through synergistic approaches to bioclimatic site design, envelope, energy optimization, daylighting, passive and active systems, and materials." Presented by Terri Meyer Boake and Mary Guzowski; provided by the Society of Building Science Educators.
So... much... important... stuff... So... much... common sense... There were entirely too many open seats — but nearly the entire audience was paying rapt attention. It felt like a real victory. Just eighteen credit-chasers left during the summary slide. I counted. True to form, during Q&A, the room cleared — but the exodus started comparatively late. Listen. There's no way I can do this presentation justice, so I'm not going to try. Forgive me. Download the slide presentation. Look at the information from COTE at the AIA website; scroll down, follow the links. It's better for you this way.
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 11558 Trucks Without Gas... Really
(click images to expand)
Jerelyn and Alex Wilson of BuildingGreen
What kind of truck doesn't use any gasoline or diesel fuel to move heavy materials around the city? A bicycle truck, of course. Back in March BuildingGreen was introduced to The New Amsterdam Project , a bicycle trucking firm in Cambridge, Ma. We tried them out moving our convention booth and materials in and out the NESEA BuildingEnergy 08 conference in Boston. If you attended BuildingEnergy this year, you may have seen their red bike-truck parked out front of the Seaport World Trade Center. We think this is a great development in transportation for cities like Boston. No carbon emissions, no diesel fumes, much easier on roads and traffic, and fast and efficient. Here is what they say: "NAP provides human-powered pick-up and delivery services for local businesses, organizations and universities. We can provide your business with full service route delivery- inclusive of drivers, fossil-fuel free vehicles, and unparalleled marketing opportunities for your business on our unique, environmentally friendly trucks." Here is what the Christian Science Monitor says: "In a city choked with diesel-spewing delivery trucks, the fledgling New Amsterdam Project (NAP), a Cambridge-based cargo-hauling company, is pedaling toward profits aboard an emissions-free fleet of urban 'cargo trikes.' " We say... Look for the New Amsterdam Project cargo trike at the upcoming AIA National Convention at the Boston Convention Center. BuildingGreen will be using that cute red trike to move our material to and from the convention center again.
2008-05-12 n/a 11524 Green Buildings and Infrastructure Are Half the Solution "Green buildings have captured the imagination of many in the mainstream, but for green professionals the time has come to stop designing for mere energy efficiency and start designing to regenerate and restore. And that means taking responsibility for what people do in buildings and communities after they are built." — Also from the website:
  1. Communities are people, not buildings.
  2. Communities will change when the people living in them change.
  3. At least half of human impact on the planet comes from our lifestyles — the choices we make every day. Where, and how, we travel. What we eat. What we wear. The stuff we buy, and how we get rid of that stuff when we're done with it.
  4. These lifestyle choices are not made in a vacuum. They are made in communities, and are indelibly influenced by community design and buildings.
  5. The way we've designed our cities and buildings in the past has created a template for living that most people follow without much thought, and that template makes it very inconvenient to live sustainably.
  6. Those of us who create and run the places we live in have tremendous influence to change this template, and and to make it easier for people to change their lifestyles.
  7. Some of us have been pre-occupied with making buildings, streets, and infrastructure that use building materials, water, and energy in smarter ways. We call ourselves "green professionals." We call our movement the "green building movement." But we now recognize that the biggest problems are fundamentally social ones.
  8. Since buildings and technology represent only half of the problem and half of the solution, clearly the present green building movement doesn't go far enough.
  9. All across our cities, entrepreneurs and environmental groups are emerging with solutions to specific challenges of our unsustainable lifestyles — car-sharing companies, local food advocates, re-use innovators. But most of these green lifestyle initiatives are not joined up with the green building movement, or each other.
  10. We urgently need an umbrella movement that will bring us all together to design, build, and operate truly sustainable communities with intent. The time has come to apply the vast ingenuity of the green building movement to making green lifestyles just as convenient as "grey lifestyles." The time has come to broaden our design teams, to bring green lifestyle experts to the table.
  11. We cannot wait for someone else to bring us all together. We are the ones we have been waiting for.
Read more. Take the pledge. Participate.

2008-04-30 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 11532 CO2 maps zoom in on greenhouse gas sources One summer day a few years ago I was standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon expecting to look down and across at light and shadows melding with multicolored layers of bedrock, the whitewater from the Colorado River calmly glistening a mile below as it carves through rock and time itself... etc etc. Instead, I found my gaze drawn to a line of gray clouds blowing in from the west. They didn't look like rain clouds, and it wasn't long before I discovered it was smog carried on the wind all the way from Los Angeles. I did spend part of that day contemplating the vastness of nature and the power of time, but it was done through a haze of personal guilt. I had just come from a wedding in LA and was sightseeing my way back to Colorado. Part of that cloud was most certainly mine, just as the 3-D explosions of CO2 shown here engulfing most of the U.S. and beyond are collectively ours.
Text accompanying the video: "A new, high resolution, interactive map of United States carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels has found that the emissions aren't all where we thought. The maps and system, called Vulcan, show CO2 emissions at more than 100 times more detail than was available before. Until now, data on carbon dioxide emissions were reported, in the best cases, monthly at the level of an entire state grid. The Vulcan model examines CO2 emissions at local levels on an hourly basis. Purdue researchers say the maps are also more accurate than previous data because they are based on greenhouse gas emissions instead of estimates based on population in areas of the United States." More at Purdue's website.
2008-04-08 n/a 11534 Great Cities and Climate Change Last week was great for learning about positive approaches to solving our collective climate change problems. First, I attended the MassImpact: Cities and Climate Change symposium at MIT on Friday (March 28, 2008). Then I got to see Michael Singer present some of his work at the down2earth event in Boston on Saturday. Pretty jam-packed. Jaime Lerner lead the MassImpact event through a visual description of his understanding of the ways that urban livability and vitality are directly related to reducing environmental impact and creating regenerative built environments. Jaime's perspective is summed up in his statement, "Every city that has a good quality of life... is sustainable." Here's Jaime speaking at last year's TED conference.

In Jaime's view, many policymakers and politicians don't have a very "generous" view of their cities. His goal is to bring the place and its inhabitants together into a joyful community. Jaime's commandments for great cities:
  1. Use cars less
  2. Separate your garbage
  3. Live closer to work
  4. Multi use all of the city — don't have parts of the city that are used only a small part of the time
  5. Sustainability is the relationship between use and waste — don't waste things
Jaime's idea of sustainable cities led to Daniel Pearl's presentation on the idea of getting cities and suburbs to work together — to bring their advantages to each other and share needs. This was a compelling presentation of the positive relationship that urban and suburban communities can support.
The next day, I headed over to the Down:2:Earth Exploration Into Sustainable Living, which turned out to be way better than the name would suggest. In exploring sustainable living, I got to eat some ice cream, try some chocolate and some coffee, sip some wine, and even have a shot of vodka. Seems like sustainable living is kind of consumptive. But the highlight of the day was hearing Michael Singer describe his large-scale infrastructure/art projects. This presentation seemed to fall neatly in line with the previous day's vision of urban generosity. Michael's recent projects are at the confluence of urban infrastructure and public art — a landfill station as community center and public art installation, a wastewater treatment plant as park and plant nursery — viewing all of the inputs as food and all of the outputs as product, including the pleasure created by the park. This is a further definition of the theme of linking livability and sustainability in cities and a pretty compelling vision all around.
2008-04-07 n/a 11538 Earthen Architecture in Earthquakes Down To Earth Building Bee (Vancouver, BC, Canada) had a shake test on a half-scale model of a cob structure done at the UBC Earthquake Engineering Research Facility. It happened a while ago, but they just posted video:
The model was of a circular structure with a shed roof, described as "about 6 ft diameter and 5 ft high"... not representative of houses in the developed world, but a start for more research. There was a small window on the rear, which is easy to miss in the video. (Fenestrations normally weaken a structure, so they're important to include.) There also doesn't appear to be a stemwall — highly recommended for cob buildings, and another likely point of seismic catastrophe. A larger or other-shaped structure would have performed differently — which is not to say that cob wouldn't outperform many other building methods. But a person needs to know how the same structure, built from other materials, performs before any comparisons can be made. In the video, Carlos Ventura, director of the research facility, said that the impacts generated in the first part of the test "usually will destroy a structure that's not properly done." Which means that a structure — of any sort, presumably — that is "properly done" would also have survived. He goes on to describe it as a "satisfactory performance." None of which is meant to denigrate the research and findings. Just showing (beyond anecdote) that cob can perform at least as well as proven materials and methods under seismic conditions is an excellent victory. When we in the developed world hear about loss of life in earthquakes due to collapsing houses in places where earth building is common, we tend to think that earth building plus earthquakes automatically equals death. But there's more than one way to build with earth, just like there's more than one way to build with anything else. This excerpt from the proceedings of The 1855 Wairarapa Earthquake Symposium in New Zealand isn't surprising:
Within the highest intensity areas, many brick, cob, and stone buildings were seriously damaged, some collapsing during the earthquake and many requiring demolition after. However, there were a few brick buildings that suffered little damage. Some wooden structures were also seriously damaged and several collapsed. Most wooden buildings, however, seemed to have remained standing although many were damaged by falling chimneys.
In the Vancouver test, the first point of failure appeared to be typical: diagonal cracks radiating from the corners of the door. I suspect the window at the rear of the structure had similar behavior. At the end of the final test (culminating in a massive 9.0 Richter), the building was breaking apart into large pieces, mostly diagonally — as would be expected under these forces on this kind of shape. But there was also horizontal failure between lifts, suggesting that cob building may not always be quite as monolithic as generally suggested — though clearly far more so than typical unreinforced, unstabilized adobe:

Compare the preceding to this reinforced adobe shake test:

Also see this video from the Getty Seismic Adobe Project:
and the article When the Earth Moves: The Getty Seismic Adobe Project.

Another video, from GVTV, in addition to offering a couple technical misstatements for the sharp-eared, shows some of the Vancouver testing. A couple interesting further reads are the articles Making the Building Code Work for Cob by architect John Fordice, and Some Thoughts on "Adobe Codes" by seismic engineer Fred Webster.
I'd be very interested to see strawbale get the shakes. There have been a few crunch tests done, but nothing like this yet, to my knowledge.
2008-04-01 n/a 11511 RoofBloom "Instead of waiting for green roofs to come to the Twin Cities [St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota] as a product for mass consumption, RoofBloom was created to empower individuals with the knowledge and materials needed to install green roofs themselves. A collaboration between the Minnesota Green Roof Council and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, RoofBloom is taking action at a grass roots level, while focusing on improving the sustainability and effectiveness of green roof construction." — RoofBloom builds a green roof in 7 minutes
At their website, RoofBloom offers a downloadable 19-page booklet introducing their concept, Green Your Garage: Volume One. Excerpted:
Why small green roofs? Garages and other small outbuildings may not seem like the place to start promoting green roof technologies. These are the smallest roofs in the watershed, and make up only a small fraction of total rooftop area. Garages are generally not heated or air conditioned, and cannot take advantage of the reduced energy demands that are provided by green roofs. But garages are a great place to start:
  • Even though green roofs have a proven record spanning several decades in other countries, they're still an unfamiliar idea to most Americans. Few people risk using unfamiliar technology on their homes; more homeowners are willing to experiment with green roofs on their garages.
  • Garages and other outbuildings do represent a significant land use in urban areas. As an example, fifty thousand two-car garages, each with a 480-square foot roof, represent 24 million square feet of impermeable surface. That's 550 acres of green space.
  • Garages in Minnesota generally have roofs sloped between 20 and 30%. This is shallow enough to support many different green roof systems. Many single family homes in our region feature roofs sloped at 50% or more, which is too steep for most green roof systems. Also, garage roofs are usually simpler and easier to roof, with fewer complicated valleys and penetrations.
  • Garage roofs are visible. People will be able to see a green roof on a garage. This is in contrast to many commercial green roofs, which are often inaccessible and invisible to the public on top of a building. A garage with a green roof sends a clear message that green roof technology can be used economically on a wide range of building types.
  • Once green roofs are established as a viable means of reducing roofing costs and energy use, all while protecting our watersheds, homeowners will find ways to use green roofs on their homes. For now, though, garages and other small outbuildings present an ideal place to demonstrate the possibilities of green roofs.
2008-03-27 n/a 11516 All the water, all the air
"Left: All the water in the world (1.4087 billion cubic kilometres of it) including sea water, ice, lakes, rivers, ground water, clouds, etc. Right: All the air in the atmosphere (5140 trillion tonnes of it) gathered into a ball at sea-level density. Shown on the same scale as the Earth."
— "Caption: Global water and air volume. Conceptual computer artwork of the total volume of water on Earth (left) and of air in the Earth's atmosphere (right) shown as spheres (blue and pink). The spheres show how finite water and air supplies are. The water sphere measures 1390 kilometres across and has a volume of 1.4 billion cubic kilometres. This includes all the water in the oceans, seas, ice caps, lakes and rivers as well as ground water, and that in the atmosphere. The air sphere measures 1999 kilometres across and weighs 5140 trillion tonnes. As the atmosphere extends from Earth it becomes less dense. Half of the air lies within the first 5 kilometres of the atmosphere."
— Science Photo Library
2008-03-15 n/a 11523 Regional Natural Building Conference I'm in Ithaca, NY, this weekend at the third annual meeting of Natural Builders Northeast (NBNe), an association of professional natural building practitioners. Like the early days of the NESEA conference — another annual gathering of regional experts working to help the built environment move toward something more environmentally sane (and often a fair piece ahead of the curve) — it's a small, enthusiastic, well informed, and forward-looking group of smart, funny, concerned designers, builders, architects, engineers, and doers. It's inspiring to see the pool of knowledge and experience growing and maturing, hearing the softly exhaled expressions of new understandings as people learn from their peers. Punctuated with lots of laughter.
Meetings in previous years were held in northern Massachusetts and central Vermont. The location of next year's meeting is a decision coming up on the agenda. A website is under construction, and should be implemented shortly. Self-guided tours of four projects by local NBNe members were available Friday afternoon for early arrivers, and the weekend gathering officially started with group visits to two more on Saturday morning. Afterward, a freewheeling technical conversation unfolded unabated from lunch until a break seemed in order not long before supper — careening from topics like the effect on thermal resistance by vapor and temperature gradients in straw bale walls, to the proper implementation of stone windowsills, to foundation details, and on and on. After supper, a modified "pecha-kucha" slam session began: 15-minute open presentations for each person to talk about projects, tools, inspirations. Being an old fart, I left about 10:00, and based on past meetings, things are likely to carry on until the wee hours. There's another day tomorrow. Photos from the field trips follow:
Friday: Straw-clay house under construction.

Friday: Strawbale duplex in the Ecovillage at Ithaca, with a sculpted cob wall feature.

Friday: A green-remodeled ranch; this house was featured in the book Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House.

Friday: Strawbale house; the porch frame was raised last weekend.

Saturday: Earth-bermed strawbale house.

Saturday: Round strawbale house under construction.

Related, the fourth annual natural building colloquium in Bath, NY will be Sunday, July 27 through Saturday, August 2, 2008.
2008-03-01 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 11496 YES! Jerelyn Wilson — who has the inadequate title of "Outreach Director" for BuildingGreen — came down the hall and into my office a few minutes ago, bright-eyed and holding the current issue of YES! magazine in front of her, folded open. "Have you seen this?!" she asked, holding it out for me:
Powerful image — even more powerful in the magazine, where it's bigger and crisper. If you haven't read YES! before, please pick one up at a newsstand... or request a free trial issue. About that photo:
"Tsewang Norbu lives in the village of Digger across the 4,500 meters high Khardungla pass in the Leh District. He is twenty-eight years old, has five children and keeps goats. He was selected by his community to be trained in the installation, repair and maintenance of solar photovoltaic units. All the solar units he installed were brought to the village by Yak and on the backs of people from the village. He was trained on the job: he installed fifty-nine units himself, taking three months to complete the work. The units were installed in 1992. They are still working." Photo by Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia
Copyright 2008 Barefoot College, Tilonia, India
(More pictures and words.)

Being around and working with people to whom not just an enthusiastic and positive world future, but an enthusiastic and positive here and now, matters, is inspiring and humbling. People who celebrate goodness, and strive for it.
2008-02-22 n/a 11498 Guerrilla Gardening It's not a new idea, but this book is less than a year old. From the blurb for Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto, by David Tracey:
"In the case of guerrilla gardening, the soldiers are planters, the weapons are shovels, and the mission is to transform an abandoned lot into a thing of beauty. Once an environmentalist's nonviolent direct action for inner-city renewal, this approach to urban beautification is spreading to all types of people in cities around the world. These modern-day Johnny Appleseeds perform random acts of gardening, often without the property owner's prior knowledge or permission. Typical targets are vacant lots, railway land, underused public squares, and back alleys. The concept is simple, whimsical and has the cheeky appeal of being a not-quite-legal call to action."
Just sowing some seeds. Spring is right around the corner.
2008-02-19 n/a 11507 Walking in the Footprints of Dinosaurs, Childhood Nature Trauma, and other thoughts from Yale I had the great pleasure to speak on a panel last week as part of the nationwide Focus the Nation series. Billed as the largest campus teach-in in U.S. history with events at over 1,000 colleges and universities, it was timed to inject climate change into local, state, and national political debates in the thick of the presidential primary season. A student group at Yale University invited me to speak, and I was joined by a green chemist, an artist, a pastor, and a mayor -- kind, accomplished, insightful people who had a lot to share. Our topic was environmental sustainability, what are the needs that we see from our vantage points in our various jobs, and what today's students can do about it in their careers. Among the insights shared by several panel members were how their careers were shaped by childhood experiences with nature -- and by being traumatized by destructive land development. Myself, I riffed on green building and ethics. The panel, from left to right as shown in the image:
  • Bill Finch – Mayor of Bridgeport, former Chair of the Environment Committee in the Connecticut State Legislature
  • Paul Anastas, Ph.D. – Scientist, Director of the Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, Professor in the Practice of Green Chemistry, Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
  • Tristan Korthals Altes – Journalist, Managing Editor of Environmental Building News
  • Lillian Ball – New York-based artist and environmental activist
  • Rev. Tom Carr – Pastor, Co-Founder and Co-chair of the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network, Pastor of the First Baptist church in West Hartford.
  • The panel was moderated by Dean Gus Speth of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
I could have hung out talking with this sextet for much longer than our allotted hour and half or so. Fortunately, I can revisit it thanks to an audience member who shared what she got on her digital voice recorder. The sound is bootleg-quality but audible.
  • Introduction to the panel by Dean Speth, and introduction to Dr. Anastas (8:43)
  • Dr. Paul Anastas (8:33)
  • Lillian Ball – with intro from Dean Speth (9:23)
  • Rev. Tom Carr – with intro from Dean Speth (15:17)
  • Mayor Bill Finch – with intro from Dean Speth (15:15)
  • Tristan Korthals Altes – with intro from Dean Speth (10:35)
  • Audience question, and Bill Finch and Lillian Ball on educating children (5:47)
  • Audience rumination, and Tristan Korthals Altes on recognizing children's wisdom (4:02)
  • Audience question, and Paul Anastas on communicating with climate change doubters (3:20)
What about the dinosaur footprints mentioned in the title of this post? On the way down to Yale, we stopped in Holyoke, Massachusetts, at the Dinosaur Footprints park, sandwiched between Route 5 and the Connecticut River, and just a few minutes off of I-91's Exit 18. For free admission and a 10-minute stop on the side of a major highway, you can go back 190 million years and physically walk in the fossilized footprints of Eubrontes giganteus and friends. On the drive south from Exit 18, you'll also notice a 146-MW power plant burning 1,200 tons of coal daily. Will we become like the dinosaurs by burning them? Hmmm.
2008-02-04 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 11488 Fail early, fail often, and other riffs from Bruce Sterling "There's one thing worse than being young and full of stormy tantrums, and that's being old and backward-looking and crotchety." So said Bruce Sterling (author, thinker, critic, doer) in this year's annual rollicking and roving discussion of the state of the world at The Well — the still-kicking "Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link" founded by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985 (more than 20 years ago!) for the writers and readers of the seminal, sadly defunct Whole Earth Review. Among much else, Bruce is the instigator of the Viridian design movement, described as a confluence of "environmental design, techno-progressivism, and global citizenship," from which grew the popular Worldchanging website, and more recently, book of the same name. The turn-of-the-year conversation is still unfolding. A freewheeling email discussion presented chronologically, it can be slightly trying to follow — but the thoughtful, informed, witty participants make it so worth the effort. After the jump, I've excised some quotes from Bruce Sterling that range from insightful to wry to what some might find abrasive, depressing, and contrary. It was not only difficult to choose which to include here, but also took strength limiting myself to just the "headliner." There's a lot of thought-provoking material throughout from others. Thanks to the lovely and brainy-hilarious Jeanine Sih Christensen of for reminding me of this once-a-year treat. The following quotes are from Bruce Sterling from the 2008 State of the World exchange on The Well. I've added referential links for your convenience.
There's stuff going on that's "moving forward," like, say, LEED ratings and legislative requirements for green energy, and then there's stuff that claims itself to be "progressive," but is basically Lysenkoist, since it doesn't want to submit itself to any standard of objective proof. Well, I say that hairshirt-green stuff fails to innovate. I say that it's corny and it's retrograde, and it's inherently corny and retrograde because its approach to society and technology is mistaken, wrong-headed, dogmatic and poorly thought-through. I say that its smallness is too small. Its appropriateness is inappropriate. It has failed like the Arts and Crafts Movement failed. No, it failed worse than Arts and Crafts; it failed like the communal movement and the Human Potential Movement and the League of Spiritual Discovery failed. As a design critic, I can't claim anything else with honesty. Thirty-eight years after Earth Day, the facts on the ground speak for themselves. I'd never claim that Hairshirt Green was as violently pernicious as the Great Leap Forward or Muslim fundamentalism, but there's just not a lot of there there. It doesn't work.
Quoting Kim Stanley Robinson:
Well, at the end of the 1960s and through the 70s, what we thought — and this is particularly true in architecture and design terms — was: OK, given these new possibilities for new and different ways of being, how do we design it? What happens in architecture? What happens in urban design? As a result of these questions there came into being a big body of utopian design literature that's now mostly obsolete and out of print, which had no notion that the Reagan-Thatcher counter-revolution was going to hit. Books like Progress As If Survival Mattered, Small Is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, The Integral Urban House, Design for the Real World, A Pattern Language, and so on. I had a whole shelf of those books. Their tech is now mostly obsolete, superceded by more sophisticated tech, but the ideas behind them, and the idea of appropriate technology and alternative design: that needs to come back big time.
I had all those books on my shelf, too. And yeah, their tech is obsolete. And that's not a bug, that's a feature. It's a feature of hairshirt-green thinking. It's not that Thatcher and Reagan killed green technology; Reagan and Thatcher scarcely had an idea in their heads. It's that this kind of design was bad design. If you focus "progress" squarely on "survival," it's like rising from bed thinking, "Boy, I better make sure I somehow manage to get to the end of this day." It immediately bleaches all the whimsy and serendipity out of industrial development. It's stupefying to be always conscientious. That is not how alternative technologies and new ways of life are successfully generated. It's certainly not how good design happens. Mindful design bears the relationship to actual design that a socialist allocation depot bears to a laboratory. If you're serious about design, you can't quote Ruskin and try to build Gothic cathedrals in your tiny arts and crafts atelier. You've gotta prototype stuff, fail early, fail often, and build scalability into it so that, if you have a hit, you can actually have a big hit. A success as large as the problem. If your point is to live in an ashram because you oppose materialism, that's your prerogative, but that is not industrialism, that is spirituality. You could do that tomorrow. Go ahead. You won't be the first to try it and you won't be the first to quit, either. If you think it's great to totter around breathing shallowly and accomplishing as little as possible, you ought to go befriend somebody who's ninety. Eventually, that's what you will get. You will have a very strictly delimited life where taking a hot bath is a major enterprise. And shortly after that you'll be dead, and there is nobody so "green" as the dead. Practically every moral virtue delineated in those books was better accomplished by a dead person than a live person. So it was no way to live. And nobody lived that way.
I love the fringes of society, but, as great designer Henry Dreyfuss used to say, the best way to get three good ideas is to brainstorm a hundred weird ideas and kill off 97 of them. And we need to get used to that process, and not, say, shut down Silicon Valley because there are too many start-ups there wasting Microsoft's valuable resources. We really do need to learn to generate lots of prototypes, throw 'em at the wall, search them, sort them, rank them, critique them, and blow the best ones into global-scale proportions at high speed. That's what our contemporary civilization is really good at, and it is simply beyond the imagination of the 1960s. If there's hope, it's in the facts. It's not in faith.
To me, "sustainability" means a situation in which your descendants are able to confront their own problems, rather than the ones you exported to them. If people a hundred years from now are soberly engaged with phenomena we have no nouns and verbs for, I think that's a victory condition. On the other hand, if they're thumbing through 1960s Small World paperbacks and saying "thank goodness we've finally managed to pare our lives back exclusively to soybeans and bamboo," well, that's not the end of the world, but it's about as appealing as a future global takeover by the Amish. Give me the computronium problems; at least I can get out of bed and not have to mimic every move my grandpa made.
I sincerely don't think the American population is as mentally frail as everybody in the American population seems to think the American population is... I never heard any American sincerely say that their life would end if they lacked an SUV and a McMansion. Those are fashionable possessions in some circles, but they're not entirely necessary to American self-esteem. Big junkola cars and tract homes are actually something of a hayseed lower-middle-class possession. Genuinely rich Americans are vastly more interested in immaterial stuff like stock options and boardroom positions than they are in big burly vehicles. The SUV-critique thing is more like bohemians dismissing the straight-life than it is a principle of consumer behavior. If you go to the Davos Forum you don't meet a traffic jam of SUVs. You do see a traffic jam of sunglassed bodyguards and elegant, multi-lingual mistresses clad in Gucci, but not a lot of, you know, big Winnebagos. If civilization cracks, it's gonna be because something really cracks it, not because it's really scary to talk about terror and loss.
Serious-minded people everywhere do know they have to deal with the resource crisis and the climate crisis. Because the world-machine's backfiring and puffing smoke. Joe and Jane Sixpack are looking at four-dollar milk and five-dollar gas. It's hurting and it's scary and there's no way out of it but through it. Everybody's reluctant to budge because they sense, probably correctly, that they have to wade through a torrent of mud, blood, sweat, and tears. Maybe, then, they emerge into the relatively sunlit uplands of something closer to sustainability. So: I don't expect too much to happen in 2008: except for that intensified smell of burning as people's feet are held to the fire.

2008-01-07 n/a 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 11469 Who's Gonna Change the World? The answer to this question is... MIT might, but only if it wants to. I went to a "lecture" at MIT a few days ago — part of the "Critical Issues" series put on by, of all groups, the MIT Women's League. (Kira Gould, author of Women In Green would have a field day with this!) The idea for the evening was to present ways in which MIT might think about greening the campus, in the context of making a much wider impact on the world. Lofty goals indeed. The interesting points from the afternoon were that first, a little elementary school in the woods of New Jersey has had a disproportionate impact on its community by following its regenerative design ideals; and second, that MIT could easily perform a similar duty in a much larger community and have pretty far-reaching effect. The folks presenting ideas were:
  • Rebecca Henderson, the George Eastman Kodak Professor of Management at MIT's Sloan School of Management. (I'm sure we could toss a few more words in there... but why?) Rebecca is the classic big thinking, big consulting client strategy professor at MIT who is scared to death about climate change and other environmental issues.
  • Mark Beidron, co-founder of the Willow School, a kindergarten through 8th grade private school in New Jersey focused on environmental literacy for its students. An interesting choice for a conversation about MIT... but hang with me here.
  • Bill Reed, one of the leading voices in green design issues. But that just scratches the surface of Bill's vision of regenerative design and community building. Bill is exactly the right person for this discussion.
  • Steven Lanou, the Deputy Director for the Environmental programs Office at MIT. Steve's job is to manage the Energy Initiative at MIT and help green the campus.
Professor Henderson did a great job of channeling Ed Mazria in presenting the need to radically reduce energy consumption. The question that Ms. Henderson left the audience with was this: Why bother with greening MIT? it's just a tiny part of the problem. Why not reach outward? This is where Mark Beidron teed up the answer that Bill Reed knocked out of the park (to mix my sports metaphors). Mr. Beldron described his small private school in Gladstone, New Jersey as a resource for the whole county around how to use built environments to restore damaged landscapes. Of course, they also do a nice job with bringing kids into this process, thereby spreading the ideas into the future. Mr. Reed took the opportunity to get the small crowd excited with his description of regenerative design, forcefully making the point that the seemingly small but focused actions of a single campus in a larger community can amplify the results of those actions. One of Bill's examples of such effect was a local town's opportunity to change how it deals with stormwater and how that would affect the whole watershed, as well as a host of activities in the town itself, costing the town about half of what it was expecting to spend for a more technological solution. Mr. Reed's point was simple: change the game, even on a small scale, and other will start to play by your new rules. Turn MIT into an oasis of regenerative thinking and action, and you have changed the game for the whole city. Unfortunately, Steve Lanou was somewhat mired in his current vision of how MIT works to jump into a new mindset. He did present some interesting information about the energy demands of MIT into the future, showing a 5% to 10% increase in demand for energy onward into the foreseeable future. Steve's question was about how MIT can meet this demand with renewable energy. Steve was not really ready to jump into the idea of transforming that energy demand. Steve mentioned a 2004 study of MIT employee commuting habits that indicate that an effort by MIT to reduce driving by employees has been pretty successful, cutting the transportation energy intensity (see the EBN feature, Driving to Green Buildings) of the campus. It looks to me that the MIT campus could use a similar effort to change the overall approach to energy and water use and conservation. Hopefully, this symposium continues the push.
2007-12-11 n/a 11470 Notes from Sweden #1: How They Get Around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Alex Wilson, Lund Sweden, 9 December 2007

2007-12-09 n/a 11471 The Story of Stuff From
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2007-12-05 n/a 11422 IPCC to Building Industry: Tag, You're It So, this is it. The shoe has dropped. The Fourth (and final) Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is out, and people seem to be paying attention. It got prominant coverage in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and a zillion other places—would have had even more impact if it were not on a Saturday, but what can you do? Apparently emboldened by their shared Nobel Prize, the scientists on the Panel reportedly stood their ground against attacks from the big polluters (that's us, and China) and from Saudi Arabia. They released a final Synthesis Report and a Summary for Policy Makers that doesn't mince words in laying out the likely consequences of various levels of warming. It's scary stuff. The warming has already started. Some more is inevitable. How much is hard to say. At low levels the impacts are severe, especially on those populations (both human and other) who can least afford to adapt. At higher levels predictions get fuzzy, because unforeseen secondary and tertiary effects of the phenomena that can be predicted could prove overwhelming. If the ice shelves in Greenland and Western Antarctica melt, all bets are off—the Panel won't even hazard a guess as to how much sea levels might rise. Hopefully that part got the politicians' attention. They meet in Bali next month to figure out what act follows the bag of hot air that was the Kyoto accords. More hot air is not what we need. But thanks to a press release that came today from the energy modeling tools company IES, I was drawn to another part of the report. Working group III, on mitigation strategies, has gone through and explored the options throughout the global economy, sector by sector. Guess which one counts the most: That's right, buildings (see chart, stolen from page 11 of Working Group III Report's Summary for Policymakers). Buildings account for the largest share of CO2 emissions. The good news is that in buildings resides the biggest opportunity for cost-effective carbon reductions. Much of those reductions can be achieved with a net gain in economic value. Amory Lovins has been telling us that for years. It's nice that the Panel of scientists noticed. So, the future is in our hands. Sitting on our hands is not an option—if we in the buildings industry don't do our part, the rest won't be enough to make a difference. Of course, the other sectors still have to do their parts (and, as we've seen in Alex's work on the transportation intensity of buildings, the sectors are not really all that isolated). But in buildings, we still have a chance to reduce carbon emissions and save money in the process. Money that can be spent on better things than importing more oil or digging more coal. 2007-11-20 n/a