Taxonomy Term en 8996 Asking the Right Questions About Sustainable Materials

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

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

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

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

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

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

The questions we brought to the table:

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

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

2011-10-12 n/a 8999 Top-10 Products for 2012: Our Picks for a Resilient Future

Our Top-10 Products for 2012 look ahead, offering forward-thinking solutions you can put in place now.

Greenbuild is one of the highlights of the year as we scout out new, innovative products for GreenSpec and Environmental Building News, and every year we present the Top-10 Building Products as selected by our editorial team. This year we are awarding the top 10 products of 2012. That is not a typo.

Though we discovered these products over the previous year, they are produced by forward-thinking manufacturers that are addressing fundamental building needs for 2012 and beyond. I met with Brent Ehrlich, our products editor to get the scoop on what's so exciting to him about each of these products. You can read more of the technical details of each one over in the news section of EBN.

InterfaceFLOR carpet tiles with PFC-free carpet fibers

A great example of looking toward the future is InterfaceFLOR. While Greenbuild mourns the passing of Ray Anderson, Interface founder and green building visionary, he leaves a legacy of sustainability behind. His company is now offering tile carpeting that does not contain any perflourinated compounds (PFCs).

PFCs are complex, man-made chemicals that do not break down in the environment and are found on virtually all other carpet products: they are a very effective coating that keeps spills from penetrating the fiber. The problem is, the carpet has to be washed, and these chemicals eventually wash away too and enter our soil and groundwater--where they remain virtually forever. But InterfaceFLOR tiles use fibers made to resist spills without PFCs, preventing unknown long-term health and environmental effects caused by most carpets.

Lifeline PVC-free resilient flooring

Many people don't realize that resilient vinyl flooring doesn't have a built-in wear layer. Its durability relies on a constant cycle of waxing, stripping, and re-waxing: this process, which occurs quite frequently in hospitals and schools, pollutes the indoor air with a variety of toxic chemicals. Vinyl flooring also contains PVC, which has long-term impacts due to persistent, carcinogenic chemicals used in its manufacture that also can leach out after disposal.

Lifeline does have a tough, built-in wear layer and does not require this constant waxing and stripping. It also contains no PVC, an added bonus. So it helps protect kids and hospital patients from one of the most prevalent sources of potent indoor VOCs while also avoiding the introduction of persistent organic pollutants like dioxins to the environment.

CI-Girt Rainscreen System

If there's one thing we need to be taking really seriously, it's the resilience of our buildings in the face of climate change. Rainscreens are great at keeping moisture away from commercial buildings, but a typical rainscreen system comes with an energy penalty.

That's because during installation the insulation must be hand-cut, an imperfect process that is quite expensive and also ends up allowing significant thermal bridging. The CI-Girt system is designed to allow continuous insulation, though, and they also contain an interchangeable cladding system that will allow a building to adapt to new owners and uses, without sacrificing performance.

EonCoat waterborne ceramic coating

All these years we've been using industrial and commercial coatings high in health-threatening and smog-producing VOCs when the ingredients we needed could have been found at any 1950s drug store? EonCoat sounds almost too good to be true, and I have to admit our editors were pretty skeptical at first.

This two-part, waterborne ceramic coating is made out of phosphoric acid and milk of magnesia. It's a fascinating and elegant solution to a problem that has plagued us for decades. And the performance really seems to be there: industrial facilities are starting to use it in highly corrosive environments and finding it amazingly durable.

Aqua2use Graywater System

While many regions are dealing with way more water than they can handle as "global weirding" really starts to hit home, in other places clean water is becoming an ever-scarcer resource. A really effective system that allows us to reuse water is going to be a crucial part of facing climate change.

The Aqua2use system is kind of like a rain barrel, but instead of collecting rain it collects the water that goes down the drain from your sinks and washing machine. The water goes through several (cleanable) filters and can then be safely used for outdoor irrigation. In places where drought and wildfires are a problem, people are actually sometimes ordered to water lawns to help keep the fires from spreading. A system like this makes it possible to water lawns or keep backyard food crops going during a drought without requiring precious potable water.

Cypress Envirosystems' analog-to-digital wireless thermostat

This is one of the most exciting and innovative retrofit products we've seen in a long time. It pretty seamlessly replaces an analog pneumatic thermostat with wireless digital controls, allowing much more granular energy automation, management, and data tracking than you will ever get out of a manual system.

During a recession when hardly any new buildings are going up, people are instead looking for ways to upgrade older buildings to save money. This wireless retrofit can be set up in about 30 minutes without tearing out walls or replacing air-handling infrastructure. What better way to protect our future than by bringing our existing building stock into the 21st century?

Ritter XL solar thermal system

This solar thermal system is also offering a new twist on existing technologies, but in this case it's combining several of them to achieve unprecedented levels of solar thermal efficiency that can be used in really high-demand applications like district heating and multifamily housing.

By combining evacuated tubes, compound parabolic reflectors, and water--which is a more efficient heat-transfer fluid than the usual glycol--these sophisticated modules can produce very hot water even in very cold climates. The advanced controls keep the heat-transfer fluid from freezing. As we look beyond buildings to larger-scale energy solutions, projects like renewable district heating are going to be key.

Mitsubishi ductless heat pumps and variable-refrigerant-flow systems

Ground-source heat pumps (which use water or glycol) provide energy-efficient heating and cooling--but they require deep wells or a nearby water source, and they are expensive. Ideally, air-to-air heat pumps (also known as "split" systems) can lower the initial cost while providing similar performance, but these systems often don't operate well at very low temperatures.

The Mitsubishi ductless heat pumps are a leap forward in air-to-air efficiency, almost rivaling ground-source at a fraction of the cost. They can be used in multifamily and hotel applications, where custom setpoints and even submetering may be desirable, and they work well even at very low temperatures--a limitation on air-to-air heat pumps in the past.

AllSun Trackers

The AllSun Tracker is an innovative, climate-adaptive product with some really sophisticated controls that maximize efficiency while also protecting the equipment from severe weather.

The trackers use GPS to track the sun's path across the sky from dawn to dark. In high winds, the module folds itself flat on the ground to help prevent damage from a hurricane or tornado. And what better self-sufficiency feature for northern climates could you ask for than a daily snow-dump feature? A product like this one will help those of us with less plentiful solar resources to harvest every photon we can get.

Philips EnduraLEDs

I cannot think of a more outdated product than the incandescent light bulb. Nor of a better way to look forward than a high-efficiency (and mercury-free) bulb that can screw into an incandescent socket.

Philips has been a real pioneer in trimming down the wattage required to produce and scale 60-watt equivalent bulbs. The product we're recognizing is a 60-watt replacement that uses 12 watts--but next year another version of this bulb is the L-Prize-winning 10-watt version.

I actually went to see both of these bulbs in the Greenbuild exhibit hall, and I was surprised at how warm the light is. The bulbs have unusual-looking heat sinks that some people might find a little odd (I find them attractive, but it's not what people are used to with an incandescent). Once you turn them on, though, they are so bright you would never even notice the shape.

What about 2013?

As I write this, Brent is roaming the exhibit hall looking for candidates for next year's Top-10 Products. I can't wait to hear about what he's seeing today!

In the meantime, I'm posting Alex's Greenbuild presentation below for those who couldn't attend today. Please let us know what you think about our Top-10 picks in comments. Which are you most excited about?

2011-10-06 n/a 9000 What Is Microsoft Doing at Greenbuild?

Microsoft releases initial results from an energy management pilot project that uses the MS campus as a test bed.

The Microsoft campus is serving as a test-bed facility for a "smarter buildings" pilot project that analyzes and interprets energy data for building managers and occupants.

I had the privilege Tuesday night to attend a dinner hosted by Microsoft Corp. here in Toronto. When I told my colleagues where I was heading, they said, "What is Microsoft doing at Greenbuild?"

If you saw my earlier post about Panoptix or attended the Greenbuild closing plenary, it might be a little easier to make the connection. Information technology is becoming an ever more important part of green building, particularly when it comes to energy and water management. Of course, data has been a big part of green building from the beginning. It's finding ways to make it usable that we're still working on.

Cross-platform data analysis

And Microsoft is one of the companies working on it. In part this is financial: its cloud-based Azure database platform is used by JCI's new Panoptix tool, and Microsoft would obviously like more companies to use it as well. (Microsoft is not planning to directly enter the energy management software market.) But it's also part of meeting the company's own carbon commitments--one good reason they were doing a pilot project using their own campus as a test-bed facility in a project with Lawrence Berekely National Lab (LBNL) and Accenture (which does building management consulting).

Microsoft took the occasion of Greenbuild to release a paper (click for PDF) along with LBNL and Accenture about that pilot project, which is an attempt to take many different buildings of different ages and building management system sophistication levels and streamline all their data into one data set stored in the cloud. This is not a building management system: the original automation systems, of whatever vintage and brand, remain in place. These "smarter building" systems slice, dice, and present the data uploaded to them by the building management systems.

That data set also includes real-time weather data and building occupancy statistics. Now Microsoft is developing algorithms that take all this information and learn about how buildings respond to weather--not just climate--as well as occupancy on a really granular level. This is really cool stuff with a lot of potential for providing us with better predictive energy modeling as well as greater ability to get building occupants invested in controlling their own energy use.

Start making sense

The pilot project also focused on getting data to make more sense for facility managers. The systems can diagnose, prioritize, monetize, and alert the operations staff about problems before anyone complains--and about problems no one would notice to complain about. This "smart building" idea, according to the paper and a Microsoft blog post about it, can pay for itself in 18 to 24 months and offer energy savings of 10%–30%--without any capital improvements or retrofits.

Clearly, sealing and insulating your building is also important, but if you streamline your ability to manage your energy data before undertaking a big retrofit project, you might even be able to diagnose and prioritize the most cost-effective retrofits before you get started.

I'll be talking more about this pilot project in an article on occupant engagement in next month's Environmental Building News. Meanwhile, what do you think of Microsoft's idea of saving 10%–30% on energy without so much as picking up a pry bar?

2011-10-06 n/a 9001 Panoptix: Making Connections in Smart Buildings

A new Johnson Controls tool, called Panoptix, has tremendous promise. But will people see past the name?

Johnson Controls made a big announcement today about what many are viewing as a game-changer in the emerging "smart buildings" market. If I am understanding it correctly, their new tool, called Panoptix, is an cross-platform network that can work with any building management system. It also appears to streamline information from several different systems and make it all into one data set--a really important feature for existing buildings and building portfolios.

It goes beyond the data set, though, helping not only building managers but also tenant companies and even individuals to identify and prioritize problems within the building (or campus or portfolio...). The phrase of the day was "turning data into information."

I am going to post more about this as well as a related Microsoft pilot project later and also write about both in an upcoming Environmental Building News feature about occupant engagement, but for now I wanted to share a photo showing the giant screen that Johnson Controls has set up on the floor to help generate buzz about Panoptix. The new tool has two really exciting features, at least from my point of view.

First, it offers two forms of social media (one free for anyone who is interested and one that offers access to experts for customers); I think this could lead to some exciting and creative uses for facility managers, tenant companies, and even individual building users.

Second, it is cloud-based, and considering Johnson's intention to roll it out globally within the next year (it is already available in North America), there is the potential to have an unprecedented level of highly granular, climate-specific data about building performance at our fingertips that could ultimately replace CBECS as a benchmarking tool and even help improve energy modeling software. What a powerful tool that could be.

Less exciting to me is the name Panoptix, which I think may have been an unfortunate choice. While the webcast announcing the product emphasized the Greek origins of the word (seeing everything at once), considering all the paranoia about data security around the smart grid--and the kinds of conversations I've been hearing about tracking energy usage at the workstation level--I can see data collection of this kind becoming an issue for a lot of people.

Associating the product so strongly with the concept of a panopticon--a surveillance tower used in prisons and other institutions--might turn out to be a counterproductive choice. But who knows? I certainly hope it takes off and manages to improve performance not only in individual existing buildings but also across entire cities and eventually the whole grid.

These are exciting times to watch how information management is moving forward in the marketplace.

2011-10-04 n/a 9002 Traveling to Greenbuild: Syracuse Center of Excellence

Car trip! The BuildingGreen team drove to Toronto for Greenbuild, making a quick stop along the way to tour a new test bed facility in Syracuse.

The Syracuse Center of Excellence is a unique test bed for indoor environmental quality. Photo: Alex Wilson

Greenbuild is still a little quiet, but BuildingGreen staff are already super busy.

Knowing what we were in for, we took things a little slow on our way to Toronto. In particular, we couldn't resist a field trip to the very cool Syracuse Center of Excellence (SCOE) building. Designed by Toshiko Mori, the building serves in part as a test bed for indoor air quality and its effect on health and productivity.

Students, faculty, government agencies, and manufacturers can all use this space to learn all sorts of things about how humans react to changes in air temperature, daylight, and many other factors. What a great idea.

The SCOE also includes:

  • A weather tower that will help study the impact of buildings on outdoor air quality
  • A biofuel R&D lab
  • A green roof whose runoff and other impacts will be studied to determine its effect on the ecosystem.

For me personally, one of the really exciting things about the tour was the building manager's obvious commitment to his building. Tim Benson seemed really excited about all the cool technology--such as the automatic blinds that are sealed within the insulated glazing unit--but also readily admitted that, as with any building, some of the features didn't function as intended at first.

While the automated blinds seem a little twitchy, Tim is very pleased and proud of the building overall. Note the very comfy low-emitting furniture and the ceramic fritting on the glass for shading with a filtered view. Photo: Alex Wilson

Little modifications here and there are ongoing--like some tape marking the water level in the rainwater catchment tank that ensures it will pump adequately to the toilets but not overflow--but he didn't seem burdened by them. In fact, he seemed pretty darn thrilled to have such a cool building to take care of.

Another story that intrigued me involved some lights that glow green or red when it's a good or bad time to open the windows. There were a couple issues with these lights: first, when conditions were borderline, they kept chiming. Tim ended up disabling the auditory alerts just to keep everyone in the building sane. Second, people kept ignoring the red light and opening the windows anyway--which required a little intervention and training.

Since I am writing an article about the emerging interest in occupant engagement and its relationship to design, I found these stories quite fascinating. (Watch for that in Environmental Building News next month! I'm getting a lot of great info from the people who are blazing this trail.)

Our founder and executive editor, Alex Wilson, has taken a break from his sabbatical to be at Greenbuild this week, and he took some great photos during the tour. I'll just use the rest of the space to share his shots with you, along with my own explanations (as best I can remember). Enjoy!

Next time you go through Syracuse, I highly recommend a visit.

In these booths (which can include privacy curtains if needed), test subjects undergo medical screening to establish a baseline for comparison in differing indoor environments. Photo: Alex Wilson
Workstation test beds can be fully individualized with sophisticated controls. The fixture on a stalk behind the computer monitor is not a light but a ventilation fan delivering conditioned air. Photo: Alex Wilson
In the mechanical room beneath the workstation test bed you can see the individual air filtration devices. Photo: Alex Wilson
The green roof runoff will be tested to help determine impacts from the materials. Photo: Alex Wilson
The biofuel lab includes windows that will blow outward in case of an explosion. Photo: Alex Wilson
2011-10-04 n/a 9003 Greenbuild Toronto: We're There Yet!
We were worried about finding the convention center, given a distinct lack of street signs, but it turns out you really can't miss it.

Well, it was a long drive--with a special stop at a test bed facility in Syracuse that I'm going to share with you in a few minutes--but the BuildingGreen team all made it to Toronto last night. We're awfully excited and already quite busy. If you're not here yet or won't make it this year, please post a comment to let us know what you want to hear about. We're all keeping our ears to the ground to help keep you up to date on the latest and greatest green building news. Meanwhile, please follow our BuildingGreen Twitter feed and Facebook page for more frequent updates on the goings-on here. You can also sign up just to the right of this post to receive emails alerts whenever we update our blogs. If you are here or on your way, please do come see us at the Expo floor opening tonight. We're at booth 434 North. Check out our expo floor maps--which highlight all the GreenSpec-vetted and Pharos-approved manufacturers who are at the show--before you arrive. Hope to see you there!

2011-10-04 n/a