If It Smells Bad It Is Bad

 September is Mold Awareness Month and I thought it would be a good time to provide some helpful tips about mold.  This was prompted by a discussion that came up the other day when I was conducting a webinar on “The Future of Building Materials and Their Impact on How we Build”.  Mold is not always visible but early detection of a mold problem is critical to the health of a building.

Mold-in-basement2Mold has a long history, in fact, references about mold can be found in the Bible (Leviticus 14: 33-53). When you are dealing with living things that have that much staying power, it is clear that you can’t or won’t get rid of them easily.  In a previous blog, I discussed the four things that mold needs to grow: the right temperature, sufficient water, oxygen and food.  But you can control the growth by eliminating one of the elements. If the problem is moisture in the wall cavity you need to remove all the wet insulation and drywall and thoroughly dry the assembly.

One of the best ways to identify a mold problem early is through smell. Often you can smell it before you see it. If you smell something that doesn’t smell right, trust your instincts and check it out.  This is your learned response to protect you from dangerous materials.

If you think you may have mold, get on your hands and knees and sniff around the outlets in your walls. If you have it – you will smell it.  Also, check areas that do not have adequate ventilation (closets or other spaces with no vents or registers).

If you smell it that means the mold spores are airborne and that is when they present the most health risk. When it’s dormant you are not going to smell it but if the spores go aerosol, you need take action.

 

Setting the “Green” Bar Very High

Hat’s off to Mayor Michael Bloomberg for throwing down the gauntlet and launching a Carbon Challenge to the most populated city in America. The Mayor’s goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over the next 10 years. In order to accomplish this, he created a task force charged with identifying large footprint tenants and their real estate representatives.  To date,10 commercial office partners, 17 universities and 11 hospital systems have joined the New York City Mayor’s Carbon Challenge.

 For some buildings, upgrading the windows and mechanical systems provided a great starting point in meeting the Challenge.  New York, like most east coast cities, has a great deal of old construction, some of which does not easily lend itself to energy upgrades because of the materials and construction techniques.

 Much of what the Mayor is going after is workplace tenant practices and behaviors and that’s a good place to start.  A great deal of energy can be saved simply by learning to operate the buildings we have more efficiently.  Adding sensors to turn lights on and off, for example, help to change people’s habits. This also helps to amend people’s habits when they go home as well. The combination of workplace and home energy saving habits will go a long way to curbing our thirst for energy.

Carbon Calculator

Carbon Calculator

 Here at our company we face the same hurdles and we have started to engage and challenge our employees in all our locations to identify ways to be more efficient with energy, water, recycling, and waste management– and it is paying off.  Are we net zero? Not yet but we have received the Energy Star Sustained Excellence Award for three years running. The key is getting everyone on the cart together and challenging each other to do better. 

Last year CertainTeed developed a Carbon Calculator that tracked the CO2 saved by our installed products. We equated those calculations to the number of trees that were saved or the number of cars taken off the road – things that the employee could relate to.  This has had a real impact on behaviors.  Now they can “see” the impact their work has on America. We are currently in a challenge pledge for GreenBuild 2013, which will be in Philadelphia, to reduce our employees’ carbon output by 10,000 gallons through carpooling and a work-from-home program. Like the old saying goes… when you see a turtle on a fence post you can be sure he didn’t get there alone… and you can be sure he isn’t getting off of there alone either.

 Are there great things that you are doing to encourage behavior changes at your businesses to improve energy efficiency?

 

 

Glass Bottle or Paper Bag?

If you wanted to keep something for 50 years would you keep it is a paper bag or a glass bottle?

This question came from a recent architect training I conducted in New York. I was engaged in a conversation about wall systems and sustainability with this group and the discussion moved to durability in relation to sustainability.

I posed that question and the response was a glass bottle. However, a case can be made for both.

Many of the passive energy saving measures we employ in our buildings can only be accomplished effectively during initial construction.  As an example; it is very difficult to add insulation to side walls over time because the cavity is designed, constructed and closed in.  If you want durability and longevity you better be building something upfront that will last at least 50 years.

To that end, do not employ difficult to replace materials that are not intended to last as long as the wall you are building. If you haven’t figured it out yet we were talking about different types of insulation.

If you can’t see it, inspect it, or fix it, you had better be sure it’s going to be around longer than you are.

Your thoughts are always welcome.

Life Cycle Assessments and Environmental Product Declarations – Green Labels for the Home

Product Life CycleJust about everyone who shops for groceries looks at the nutritional label on the product.  I believe that we have been conditional to do so and it’s probably a good thing.  We should want to know what ingredients are going into the prepared foods that we eat. We can control the amounts of fat, sugar, salt and preservatives that go into the food we eat but only if we can easily get the data.

In a similar way, the building industry is moving toward tools such as Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) to test and validate the “greenness” of their products. These are some of the best tools available to help consumers make the right choices when selecting products to purchase.  Would you think to ask your contactor for the Life Cycle Assessment for the siding you are putting on your home?  If you care about the space you create and the world you live in then maybe you should.

Manufacturers work with third-party certifiers to test and quantify the environmental impact of all the materials used to make the product.  Companies that are undertaking these assessments are ’walking the green talk’ because it is a long process to secure LCA’s and EPD’s.

Beware of GreenwashingAs the demand in the marketplace for environmentally friendly products increased, manufacturers created a form of spin in which green marketing was used to promote the perception that an organization’s products, aims and/or policies were environmentally friendly.  This “greenwashing” is still happening today.

That is why consumers need to be aware of the “nutrition” labels for products they are using to build or renovate their homes. The life and efficiency of your home is important.

Greenbuild 2013: Ready, Set, Schedule

greenbuild-nation-20x20Throughout the year, I crisscross the country for a wide array of meetings and events, and the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo is most definitely a highlight in my travels — even more so this year since it’s in my home town of Philadelphia.

The USGBC posted the full schedule for the conference, which features a healthy roster of thought-provoking, forward-thinking sessions. I know that sessions fill up fast, so I was quick to plan out my itinerary. Here’s a few sessions that caught my attention:

Philadelphia Eagles – Go Green Program Overview

Last year, I was fortunate to take part in a behind-the-scenes tour of Lincoln Financial Field and was wowed by their sustainable achievements — operating a nearly net zero waste facility and leveraging renewable energy sources. Regardless of your NFL team of choice, the story behind the facility will offer valuable insights and lessons in establishing an environmentally responsible business operation.

Biophilia: Moving from Theory to Reality

In my opinion, biophila is one of the most fascinating design trends in the green building industry. Based on the instinctive connection between humans and nature, biophila tends to excite at a philosophical level, but can be challenging to implement in the built environment. In this session, a team of esteemed architectural and building industry experts will outline specific project requirements, design guidelines and performance metrics for real-life biophilic applications.

Atriums: Challenge or Asset to High Performance?

As a building scientist, I enjoy digging in to the technical nuisances of even the most granular aspects of a structure. While daylighting, aesthetics and pathways for natural ventilation often drive the decision to incorporate atriums into building design, these spaces can also offer a passive solution for smoke control that is energy efficient and cost effective.

The Navy Yard as a Sustainable Business Campus

The Navy Yard in Philadelphia has become a hotbed of sustainable construction, research and development. Through a robust team of public and private sector entities, the campus features LEED-certified buildings, innovative stormwater management practices, and industry-leading design and research projects for smart-grid technologies. CertainTeed has been involved in the GridSTAR project, one of the components of the campus focused on net zero energy in residential construction and alternative energy training, and look forward to getting a more holistic view of the initiative.

Life Cycle Safety: How it Supports Social Equity Goals

As a building products manufacturer, “life cycle” is a part of our daily vernacular. However, the overall health of a building goes beyond its physical components and occupants. While fewer in number, employees who construct, operate, renovate, repair and eventually dismantle green buildings typically face disproportionately higher risks from building hazards. Led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, this session will demonstrate how these risks can be proactively minimized in the design phase.

Greenbuild is shaping up to be an incredibly hectic, but invigorating week. Headed to the show? Let us know what’s on your “must see” list.

 

Can We Make our Homes Energy Efficient without Radical Changes to Lending Practices? Part 2

homeeemortgagecoverIn the first blog on this topic, I gave an overview of the UNC Center for Capital Research Report – Home Energy Efficiency and Mortgage Risks.

This second blog addresses the Report’s findings regarding financing energy efficiency and the challenges that face consumers when seeking additional dollars to make energy upgrades in their homes.

According to the Report, the U.S housing stock is valued at about $14.5 trillion. To even devote 2% to energy efficiency improvements would require an investment of nearly $300 billion.  While there are federal, state and local energy efficiency loan funds and other mechanisms in place to provide assistance, they can’t possible cover what is required.

The most widely used mechanism is direct borrowing in the form of consumer loans, home equity loans and traditional or specialized mortgages.  Most of these financing options require consumers to have either substantial equity in their existing home, the personal reserves to pay any added costs out-of-pocket or larger down payments for a home purchase. Many homeowners have seen the equity in their homes diminish over the last few years due to the struggling economy. 

For many first-time homebuyers or moderate-income borrowers who do not have these financial resources there are energy-efficient mortgages (EEM) which offer lenders flexibility in the debt-to-income and other underwriting considerations so borrowers can qualify for larger loans or lower interest rates. However, few lenders currently offer these.

If we are going to see significant improvement in the retrofitting of existing buildings for energy efficiency, owners need to be incentivized. This usually manifests itself as access to affordable capital.  While it is a good start, it is not enough to offer tax incentives especially for homeowners who do not have cash resources to make some of the more pricey upgrades to older homes.

This debate is going to Capitol Hill and groups like the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) are lobbying to encourage underwriting flexibility on energy efficient homes and to promote energy efficiency to consumers – particularly for moderate- and middle- income borrowers seeking financing for energy efficient upgrades.

It’s apparent that business as usual will not get us where we need to go.  This Report is a reminder of a prevailing situation that continues to be raised but not resolved.  Is there money available that we don’t see?  Are there resources somewhere that could be re-allocated to move the green needle and help moderate- and middle- income borrows obtain the financing needed to make necessary energy upgrades?

We, as consumers, cannot strive to be sustainable nor can cities strive to be the ‘greenest’ cities without resources to make this happen.  Are the gloves off?  Can we really move the needle this time?

Can We Make our Homes Energy Efficient without Radical Changes to Lending Practices? Part 1

homeeemortgagecoverA recent study by the University of North Carolina Center for Community Capital/Institute for Market Transformation puts forth some very interesting data regarding energy efficient home building, mortgage lending and the state of the lending industry. This report, Home Energy Efficiency and Mortgage Risks has some interesting findings that I plan to address in a few blogs.

The study includes:

  • National sample of 71,000 home loans from 38 states and the District of Columbia
  • Variables examined for the homes included age of the house, square footage, FICO (credit) scores, ZIP code average incomes and unemployment rates, typical time to default, sale price, heating/cooling degree days and electricity prices 
  • Average home price in sample was $220,000

The study finds that default risks are on average 32 percent lower in energy-efficient homes.  There is, perhaps, a mixed message in this premise.  We have seen over the last decade that the early adopters of energy efficiency are more educated, probably make more money and most likely live in more urban locations. People in more rural parts of the country may not have local resources for information or education about energy upgrades and may not have access to capital from lenders to make these upgrades.

The study says that the amount of money homeowners spend on energy annually equates to 15 percent of the cost of home ownership. While these costs vary around the country, rural households pay $400 more on average than urban household. There could be many reasons for this. Is it the nature of construction?  Is it utility costs?  

Are the resources to make energy improvements to these homes available?  We have blogged before about the fact that if you have a home built prior to 1980 you should consider energy upgrades and if you are refinancing include them as part of your lending conversation.

The heart of the problem lies in the valuation of homes and the lack of information regarding mortgage lending options.

Think about it. Is your home worth more or less than it was five years ago? Slim chance of any “magical” home equity showing up to be cashed in and spent on upgrades.

The only way we can move the needle to upgrade existing homes and buildings so they are more efficient is to rationalize the underwriting process and include energy upgrades as part of the mortgage.

Stay tuned. There is more to come on this study.  If you have any thoughts on this subject, I would love to hear them.

Green Leasing: A Collaborative Approach to Energy Efficiency

Brandywine Realty property outside Philadelphia

Brandywine Realty property outside Philadelphia

You’ve probably seen this stat before —buildings account for 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in the U.S.  We all know that reducing energy consumption is imperative for the future sustainability of our country, but when it comes to putting words into actions, we sometimes get stuck.

 Case in point: the potential for gridlock in traditional lease agreements— where the benefits of reduced energy usage or building upgrades do not “flow” to the person who pays for the transaction. For example, if a tenant is not responsible for monthly utility bills, then there is no financial incentive to reduce energy use.

 The good news? Companies such as Brandywine Realty Trust are bringing a fresh perspective to energy efficiency through green leases, which help align the financial and energy incentives of building owners and tenants.

 Specifically, property owners can charge tenants for measures that result in operational savings, such as energy-efficient lighting or chiller retrofits, as long as the savings are greater than the cost of the measure. The tenant benefits from reduced monthly utility costs and the building owner is able to increase the value of the building. Most importantly, the lease agreement instills a spirit of collaboration and mutually beneficial financial incentives to reduce energy consumption.

 Best of all, green releases are generating formidable results. Brandywine Realty Trust and its tenants have reduced energy costs by roughly 46 percent in a 93,000 square foot, 1980s era, building in suburban Philadelphia. And, the building’s energy cost per square footage is approximately 38 percent lower than the area average. With such a great return on investment, it truly begs the question — why aren’t more real estate companies getting on board with green leases?

Microsoft Net Zero Carbon Center – A Literal Case of Garbage in Garbage Out

In a previous blog, I talked about the Facebook data storage center in Lapland using a naturally cold area to minimize the energy costs of the facility. I speculated about how we could use the heat coming off such facilities for other uses. Well, here is another article I came across with a creative way to offset carbon.

This article talks about Microsoft building the first zero carbon data center powered by a fuel cell burning 100 percent renewable biogas from a wastewater treatment plant. The new, small prototype 300 kW “Data Plant” is being built outside of Cheyenne, Wyo. at the city’s Dry Creek Water Reclamation Facility and will run on methane produced by the facility.

Microsoft reported the $8 million modular data center pilot, which will begin operating next spring, is just a fraction of the size of its other data centers and does not contain any production computing applications. However, if successful, it could be implemented on a megawatt scale at larger data centers in the future.

Buckminster Fuller in Spaceship Earth noted that trash and pollution were just the little bits and pieces we haven’t figured out how to use yet.  Well, looks like someone figured out how to use methane. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activity. This is exciting news since we have so many landfills in addition to water treatment plants that produce methane. This could be a first step is using a gas that is virtually going to waste.

Fuel cells – non-carbon based fuel cells – a perfect solution.  In fact, Saint-Gobain is working on this technology so we do have some skin in the game on this technology.

This is a great example of a company that is using emerging technology to utilize an otherwise squandered resource.  Hats off to Microsoft!

A Tip for New Home Buyers – Consider What is Behind the Walls

Hybrid insulation installDuring the 2013 International Builders’ Show I had the chance to speak with a regional manager for a national builder about the challenge of helping consumers understand the features, benefits and return on investment (ROI) on the hidden features in a home. 

When a potential homeowners speaks to a builder they are usually more focused on considering upgrades that are visible to the eye than considering what’s underneath the walls of the home. What they don’t consider is how upgrading the R-value in their walls will save them money on heating and cooling over the life of the home or if they plan on selling the home in the future, how this improved performance may help them compete against homes that will be built between now and then.

The challenge that is faced by a builder as well as a solution provider is to create ways to have that very conversation with the consumer in a clear and relatively quick manner. The reality is that a builder only has so much time with a prospective buyer of a new construction and they do have a great deal of ground to cover.  It is usually easier to focus on what is visible than what is not.

During our chat, we discussed creating scenarios of building a house three different ways to maximize the efficiency of the home and how to show that to a prospective buyer.  You could have partially finished walls in the garage of a model home which show building and insulating a wall to code vs. improved materials and techniques.  You could then show various types of wallboard – yes there are varieties of wallboard that address noise reduction, mold and moisture control and volatile organic compound removal.  This could be a chance for people to actually see and understand what is usually hidden behind the finishes they have been focused on.

Truth is, potential homeowners seem more interested in talking about the aesthetics of countertop materials than increasing the efficiency of their wall systems. Why are we so comfortable being ignorant about one the most important investments of our life? I would bet that more people have researched the features and benefits of their next car in terms of gas mileage, horsepower, etc.  than researching the type of insulation and wallboard to use in their home for optimum comfort and health.

Does anybody have any ideas of how we can engage homeowners in the conversation about the energy efficiency options in homes that will lower their operating costs over the life of a home? If you are a realtor, what do you do?