Don’t Forget the End Users When Building for Energy Efficiency

While at Greenbuild 2012 I was asked “What do you think is the most critical factor in ensuring a healthy, sustainable built environment?” My answer was posted on our Blog but there is more I want to say about this so here we go!

Users or occupants of high efficiency buildings need to understand and be a partner in the process because  ultimately they influence the  success or failure of a building’s efficiency over time. For example, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes will give you credit for and requires Energy Star performance which means certain insulation levels, certain air tightness and certain efficiencies on the mechanical systems (among other issues). The energy efficiency of the building is based upon a combination of highly efficient equipment and permanent passive systems.

When the active system wears out, if the consumers don’t appreciate the importance of the efficiency of that system on the overall performance of the habitat they are unlikely to take that into consideration when they have to replace equipment.  They can go from a high efficiency piece of equipment that made their sustainable building sing beautifully and perform wonderfully and stick in something that is on sale or is perhaps promoted by their contractor but with a whole different efficiency rating.  Now the building goes from being a Prius to being a Hummer simply because the driver wasn’t told the difference between the two.

In sustainability circles we often talk about “the Prius effect”.  This comes from the engagement of the driver with the car.  Once the driver understands the savings due to the offset of the electrical to the fuel and you give them real-time feedback, they began to drive against the machine to improve the efficiency. The build community needs to develop dashboards or other tools for high efficiency buildings so that end users can see the benefits provided by the systems.  That buy-in is critical to sustaining efficiency over the life cycle of the building.

There is no point in doing a sustainable building for someone unless you teach and show them how to maintain it. That is one aspect I especially admire about the Living Building Challenge. The Beauty petal has components which include inspiration and education. Couldn’t we all use a little more of both?

Tips For Rebuilding Following Hurricane Sandy

Aerial view of New Jersey shoreline

Aerial view of New Jersey shoreline

Many of us in the Philadelphia area have been recuperating from Hurricane Sandy although we did not get hit as hard as our neighboring state, New Jersey. Some of our co-workers do have family members with shore homes so I have had a chance to look at the building codes and other guidelines for rebuilding in flood prone areas. I wanted to share some information about rebuilding and the things you need to keep in mind.

Many of the houses have damage to the first floor and what we are seeing it is not the ‘business as usual’ building codes that have previously been acceptable in New Jersey. There are new building codes that are in effect that follow more closely the FEMA guidelines. For example, the guideline requires that you:

  • Remove the drywall and insulation to two feet above the high water mark.
  • Dry out and treat the entire cavity.
  •  Following the gutting of the cavity – remove all the drywall and insulation exposing all the studs to the back side of wood sheathing or house-wrap – this area must be treated with a mold inhibitor.
  • When you reconstruct the wall you can only us certain insulations:  either closed spray foam insulation or extruded polystyrene foam boards foamed into placed.  While anyone can install the extruded foam panels (if they can find the right thickness- remember you need to be an R13 in New Jersey now so that will be an XPS board at least 2.6” thick).  Spray foams need to be installed by a certified contractor.
  • The wall needs to be finished with a paperless drywall – it can’t be the mold and moisture resistant drywall – and the drywall needs to be stopped with a ½ inch space between the new and old drywall to create a capillary break. The gap can then be finished off with a chair rail or other element to hide the wallboard gap. I think the reason they are requiring a gap is so that in the event that a flood happens again, the water can’t wick up the wall and affect the old wall structure.

When I saw this I thought ‘this is not normal.’  Because it isn’t normal – it is an exceptional code being applied to flood prone areas as designated by FEMA. These are what townships are putting into place to minimize the damage if another storm hits.

It is clearly not business as usual for East Coast communities affected by Hurricane Sandy.

 

 

 

Managing Your Expectations

Lucas Hamilton

When you are considering remodeling activities and the impact that those activities will have on the energy consumption of the home, a very good place to weigh the benefits of one activity over another is the Federal Energy Management Program.

Under this program there are a variety of things but the one I thought most interesting is the Technology Deployment.  This focuses on market-driven technologies and creating market pull for new and underutilized technologies.

If you look at the Building Envelope section you will see what activities will give you a great impact on reducing your energy consumption.  Activities such as using a cool roof or a green roof, installing window films or replacing older windows with high R value windows are rated so that the end user can identify which remodeling activities will give the biggest bang for the buck. You can also look at the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning and see that commercial ground source heat pumps, for example, have a huge impact.

This in a wonderful way for consumers to get to the bottom line and be able to make smart choices when remodeling in order to reduce energy consumption especially in older homes.

It is also a great way to avoid being disappointed because you were told by some radio advertisement that installing new windows will cut your energy bill in half. You will be smarter than that!

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed

If You Suspect Mold in a Building – Remember the Hindenburg!

Lucas Hamilton

If you have had some moisture damage in your building and suspect or see that you have some mold, remember The Hindenburg

Before you cut into the wall, compartmentalize and put the space under a negative pressure.  The last thing you want to do in a building when you think you may have had a moisture issue and suspect that mold could be growing behind the wall is to disturb it and have the mold spores release into the air within the building. If you think you may have a problem and need to cut into the wall take these steps to create negative pressure in the room:

  • Close the door
  • Open a window
  • Put a fan in the window blowing out to create negative pressure in the room
  • Then you can safely cut into the wall to treat the mold

The lesson we learned from the Hindenburg relates to the smoking lounge.  The lounge was kept under positive pressure and the smoke leaked out into the rest of the dirigible so that if there was a gas leak in the envelope of the dirigible, the gas could not flow into the smoking lounge to get ignited by a pipe or a lighter.

You are doing the same thing here but in reverse.  You are putting the space into a negative pressure before you disturb the space so that contaminants could not possibly flow into the building.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

What if We Could Make Buildings Sweat?

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

Following up on the previous post “Can We Design Buildings for Heat and Cooling that Mimic the Human Body”, a similar question popped into my head regarding making buildings sweat.

The evaporation of water is an endothermic process that cools a surface. Evaporation of sweat from the skin surface has a cooling effect due to this phenomenon. Hence, in hot weather, or when the individual’s muscles heat up due to exertion, more sweat is produced in response to your rising internal thermostat. Why couldn’t this same process be applied to buildings?

What if there was a way to take the condensation that often occurs at sunrise, capture it and re-release it as needed.  Could we create materials, while not letting moisture intrude into the building, that could capture the moisture that naturally occurs and evaporate it off in the daytime when the sun hit the walls to cool it off?  

Obviously this would be a benefit in climates where we are using a great deal of cooling. We don’t want this occurring in cold climates for a variety of reasons. That’s a discussion for another day.

Are there any ideas out there?  When people get hot, they sweat and it cools them off.  Is it possible to apply this concept to buildings?

Can We Design Buildings for Heat and Cooling that Mimic the Human Body

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

I spend lots of time thinking about buildings. Sad; I know. Lately I have been wondering how we wound up in such a confusing state. It’s like looking under your car hood. Have you looked under your hood lately? It looks like a building design. Who in their right mind would have started out to design such a complicated mess? No wonder we need so many building scientists and we pay a hundred bucks an hour to get our cars fixed. Can we step back for a minute?

Thermal comfort in the built environment needn’t be so complicated. If we could start from scratch and try to make buildings comfortable based upon our own organic experience, what would we do? I live in Philadelphia.  If I go outside in the winter and try to passively stay comfortable – passively meaning to not use any outside energy sources – I would use lots of layers of clothing, would zip up tight and cover my skin.

Coincidentally that is what we require in our cold climate building codes.  Lots of layers of clothing means R-value. When you wear lots of layers of clothing you are trapping gas inside layers.  The gas is the insulation – gas gives you resistance to conductive energy heat flow – that’s R-value.  So when you are wearing lots of layers you are wearing R-value. When we say zip up – that’s getting air tight. We finally woke up and added that one to the cold and mixed climate codes as well.

The problem comes in the summertime. To stay cool, you would take off those layers, wear light colors and try to get air flow around you.  You would wear airy fabrics to release as much heat from your body as possible and light colors which don’t get hot in the sun. If you were stuck wearing lots of layers and were zipped up tight, you would have to blow cold fresh air into that outfit to stay comfortable. Our goal should be not to do that. Remember, passive technologies rule and active technologies cost $$$.

We need to find ways to help a building be warm in the winter and stay cool to begin with in the summer. I am looking for changes to our practices that will enable us to do to buildings what we do to ourselves. How would you build your building differently?

If you can’t strip off all the layers of clothing the very least you will do is unzip so can we figure out a way to unzip our buildings? I know we want to be air tight in the winter but can we figure out a way to use air to remove surface heat in the summer? I think ventilated claddings may be one answer.

Can you think of some others? To go back to the car analogy, let’s stop bolting more stuff onto the internal combustion engine to make it more efficient and drop in an electric motor. It needn’t be so complicated.

Off-Site Manufacturing Could Play a Larger Part in the Building Renaissance

Danny Small

Danny Small

Danny Small is Manager, Building Science Development for CertainTeed Corporation

Lately I’ve been revisiting the benefits of modular or prefabricated home construction, otherwise known as off-site manufacturing (“OSM”). There are several advantages to this method of construction that could be attractive to consumers looking to build a custom home.

This isn’t your daddy’s mobile home we’re talking about here.  The traditional manufactured (“mobile “) home is built to special Housing and Urban Development (HUD) building codes.  These homes are extremely simple, lower-end homes constructed in one or two pieces on a steel frame.

Today’s modular home can be beautiful, complex, exquisitely detailed and of the highest quality.  It’s built in modules or panels, in a clean, climate-controlled facility to meet (and often exceed) standard building codes for the area where the home will be finished.   The modules or panels are then shipped to the construction site, where they are permanently assembled on a full foundation, and the final details are finished.  Once completed, these homes are indistinguishable from site-built homes.  For some examples, check out Haven Custom Homes’ gallery.

While off-site construction has been around for decades, most of the earlier homes fell into that category of mobile (HUD-code) homes.  However, the move toward more sustainable, energy-efficient, healthy homes creates compelling reasons to look at modular as a truly viable method for all construction.

Some of the advantages of offsite construction are:

  • Construction can begin while foundation work is done, reducing the overall build time by several weeks.
  • Because building is done indoors in a climate-controlled facility, there are no weather delays.  Crews can work year round with no problem.
  • The home is built dry and clean because the wood is not subjected to dampness or dirt.  This could make for a healthier house.
  • Greater accuracy in cutting is possible because precision equipment can be utilized.
  • Lower costs because of consistency with crews and minimal lost time.  An off-site built home can cost up to 15-20 percent less than the same home built on-site. (Source: NAHB)  Savings for commercial construction can be much higher.
  • Very low waste.  Just about all remnants can be re-used for other projects.  This enables contractors to purchase more wisely.
  • Off-site manufacturers can ship up to 500 miles from their factory.
  • The building envelope is fully customizable, enabling increased energy efficiency in the wall and ceiling systems, as well as design features that meet the needs of the occupants.
  • Modular building, especially in commercial, enables easy expansion to buildings when needed.

Although off-site construction currently accounts for only two percent of construction in the U.S., the industry is gaining popularity.  In Europe, especially countries like Sweden, this type of construction is on the rise and accounts for up to 40 percent of new construction. 

If you are considering building a new home, a vacation home or a small office, do a cost comparison for on-site versus off-site construction.  You may be surprised by what you find.

Sustainability Gaining Momentum for Government Managed Buildings

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

I recently had the pleasure of doing a presentation to the General Services Administration (GSA) region 3 office in Philadelphia.  I was invited by a GSA architect who had participated in a previous seminar I had conducted for the American Institute of Architects (AIA).  The presentation was also simulcast to other GSA offices as well as employees who were telecommuting.

What I was not aware of prior to my visit is that GSA in responsible for public buildings that are non-military, non-postal service or other organizations that control their own real estate around the county. Not only do they have continuing education requirements within their organization they have a strong emphasis on sustainability. That’s exactly what you want to hear from government.

GSA serves as the property managers for many of the buildings around us every day. Given that at least 90 percent of our building inventory needs to be upgraded for energy efficiency, it was reassuring to see that the folks who are responsible for government controlled public buildings are on board with sustainability and are staying on the leading edge of knowledge. I was especially pleased to learn that the emphasis of sustainability doesn’t simply stop at how a building is designed and constructed but goes all the way through the way the GSA operates and procures for these buildings.

It was great to see that the culture of GSA is entrenched in sustainability.  That, for me, sends a message that we are on the right track of a very long road toward significant improvements in reducing the carbon footprint of our building inventory.

Building Hope for the Future with Habitat for Humanity

We all know that homeownership is considered the cornerstone of the American dream.  But many of us take that dream for granted.  I was reminded of this when I attended the dedication and blessing of a home with Habitat for Humanity in Chester, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia.

As a corporate sponsor of what we have come to refer to as the “CertainTeed House” because of the many CertainTeed products incorporated into the building envelop of this two-family house, I participated in the dedication and blessing of the house.  The family, a single mother with two daughters who will occupy half of the house, seemed simultaneously overwhelmed and excited.

The group of family, friends, sponsors and supporters clustered into what would soon be the family’s living room as the Reverend began the dedication and blessing.  The group traveled from room to room with the family carrying a candle as each area was given a special blessing – from the kitchen where nourishment is prepared to the dining room where bread is broken and shared to the bedrooms where sleeping safe and secure is desired.  Once the blessing was completed, the keys were presented to the family marking the final transformation of this building from simply a house into a home.

It was beautiful!

But there was an added sense of pride that I felt standing in this completed house that would be the dream home for this family. Over ten weeks during the building of this house approximately 80 of my co-workers volunteered time on the site to help with the build.  The opportunity to gain hands-on experience with CertainTeed roofing shingles, housewrap, vinyl siding and railing, insulation and gypsum products was as valuable as the satisfaction of giving back to the community in this very special way.  In some cases it brought employees together whose paths would not cross at work and in other cases departmental teams used this as a teambuilding exercise.

In the end, it was a learning experience for all and a lesson in community that has no equal.

That New Car Smell Could Be Killing You Thanks to VOCs

 

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

If you follow organizations and companies dedicated to sustainable solutions such U.S. Green Building CouncilLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or even this Blog you have probably seen an increased discussion about VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds.  But I am not sure that people, in general, are aware of how pervasive VOC’s are in our lives.

 By definition a Volatile Organic Compound is an organic material with a growing point less than 250° Fahrenheit. For most of us this means that these organic compounds tend to exist as gases.  They are in many products that we buy and they also can occur naturally.  They have a wide range of adverse health effects including eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment in other words, they are not good for you!  Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Health Canada have clearly spelled out the effects of long-term exposure to elevated concentrations of VOCs.

Most people recognize the presence of VOCs by their smell.  They have a distinctively unnatural smell.  I always tell people if it smells bad it is bad.  We all have a genetic memory in our bodies that identify bad smells.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog about tightening the building envelop, VOCs are all around us. They are found in cleaning products we use, carpeting, paint, lacquers, printing products – there is an exhaustive list. 

When VOCs are part of interior air you only have three methods of reducing them: capture them, kill them off, or ventilate them away. In terms of capture ordinary particle filters do not work. Filters made of activated charcoal are good at capture but these filters don’t work at the high air speeds which occur within our HVAC systems. Emerging technologies, such as AirRenew® which we’ve spoken of before, provide a new means of sequestration which HVAC filters do not. To “kill them off” requires ultraviolet light (UV). Formaldehyde, for example, has a 14 day half life in the presence of UV but we don’t have much UV inside our buildings. This leaves ventilation as a functional option. Providing fresh air ventilation rates in accordance with ASHRAE 62.1 for commercial buildings and 62.2 for residential buildings is a good place to start.

Trust your olfactory system – if it doesn’t smell right you may have a build-up of volatile organic compounds!