Embracing the Passive House

Stan Gatland

Stan Gatland

If there is any reliable source to confirm that the building community in the United States is beginning to embrace the passive house concept, it was the 4th Annual North American Passive House Conference held in October at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  In 2008, there were only 15 certified passive house consultants in the United States but by the end of this year there will be over 200.  More than 300 architects and building professionals attended the conference this year.

 The passive house concept has been incorporated into building design practice for over 10 years throughout the world.  While many countries, including the U.S, have increased energy efficiency requirements for building through regulation, a relatively small percentage of industry partners have embraced the passive house concept on a large scale. 

The primary goal of passive house technology is to reduce your heating and cooling load so that very little energy is needed to maintain comfort.  It is critical that we control energy consumption and identify ways to improve our structures to improve their efficiency. It is understood that it will take time but programs like passive house build the awareness necessary to drive lasting change in energy conservation.

The ways to achieve passive house energy levels include increasing insulation in the walls and roof, providing pre-heated and pre-cooled air by coupling it with the ground through ducts buried into the earth (more practical on new construction), orientation of the building for maximum use of sunlight along with passive shading techniques, and installing high performance windows. But with the heightened focus on air tightness in passive house construction, more attention needs to be paid to indoor air quality and ventilation.

The other critical need to achieve any of these goals is the education of building occupants.  People need to maintain the systems in order to attain the maximum benefit.

Saint-Gobain, the parent company of CertainTeed, collaborated with the Passive House Institute in Germany and developed an educational marketing program called the ISOVER Multi-Comfort House.  

At the conference, I introduced CertainTeed’s Multi-Comfort House Educational Program which is a program CertainTeed will launch in 2010 to help train architects, building professionals and design students in passive house technologies.  The key components of the CertainTeed program are comfort (thermal, indoor air quality, acoustical and visual), safety and environmental protection benefits with design recommendations for all climate zones.

Understanding how products work together in the building envelope, especially in different climate zones, is critical to achieving passive house efficiencies.  Some valuable resources regarding passive house and net-zero building include the US Passive House Institute, the US Department of Energy – Net-Zero Building Technologies Program, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the US Department of Energy Building America Program.

Stan Gatland is Manager, Building Science Technologies for CertainTeed Corporation.

Alternative Energy Sources Part 2: Technology vs. Humanity

 

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

Albert Einstein once said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”  It is hard to believe he could have said that in the early 1920s.  What would he say today? I think human beings gamble that we can always figure out how to solve our problems because we are so smart and creative.  We have an inordinate faith in science, technology, creativity and ingenuity to find solutions for any problems we create. 

For example, we could not have developed to where we are without transportation.  But the global nature of business requires that products and people be available quickly.  Look at freight; according to CSX moving freight by rail is three times more fuel-efficient than moving freight on the highway. Trains can move a ton of freight more than 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), freight railroads account for just two percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources.  But if you need it there overnight it will have to go by air.  However, air travel greatly increases our carbon footprint.

When I was growing up traveling on an airplane was a major event.  But within, say, the last 30 years, air travel has become a way of life as opposed to a major life event.

As I said in Part 1 of this discussion on alternative energy sources, we need to diversify and have several, more efficient ways to produce energy.  For example:

  •  Solar has potential because of the amount of energy that enters our atmosphere every day in solar radiation. With deeper understanding, perhaps we can improve our efficiencies and make up for the fact that the Pacific Northwest, upper Midwest and Great Lakes region do not see sun for large periods of time.
  •  Nuclear - we haven’t issued a new permit for a nuclear power plant in the United States since Three Mile Island (TMI), which is a big mistake. We haven’t had a significant nuclear accident since TMI and although that event in 1979 had the potential to be tragic, it wasn’t.  One of the obstacles that day was the fact that there were only two telephone lines into the facility.  The people who knew how to address the problem could not reach the plant.  For nuclear power to be more palatable to the general public however we will need to find a more eloquent solution to handling radioactive waste than simply storing on-site.
  •  Wind – There is definite potential for wind energy but this is a newer focus and is not yet reaching the thresholds needed to support our ever-increasing needs for electricity.

Since cooling buildings is one of the biggest electricity hogs, we need to continue to produce products that can work with alternative energy sources to cut down on electricity consumption.  Products such as solar reflective and photovoltaic roofs, especially on commercial buildings, can help us take advantage of these big spaces and have them work for us, not against us. 

In a previous blog we touched on the fact that we need to improve our existing building stock as well as build smarter from now on. Because we reroof every 30-40 years, it’s a great opportunity to go back to existing spaces and apply products that work with the sun’s energy.  In order to succeed, we have to challenge people to use alternative products without mandating it.  The goal is to find the economic incentive for people to do the “right thing.”  One way to do this is to rephrase our outlook from upfront cost to life cycle analysis. Consumers have to take the long view on energy savings.  We have to change the way we value these things if we are ever going to fund economic incentives to meet the global warming goals of business backed initiatives like the Copenhagen Communiqué.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications, for CertainTeed Corporation

Alternative Energy Sources Part 1: Carbon Footprints -The Amish Have It Right

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

 Energy Awareness Month is the perfect time to talk about identifying alternative energy sources and our need to step up progress on developing these, so I will be discussing it over the next few blog posts.  If you want a role model for reducing carbon footprints and energy consumption, look at the Amish who have traditionally created energy with windmills and still use horses and buggies instead of cars.  I’m not suggesting that we should all turn back the clock, but we’ve got to be wiser in our energy consumption.

Americans are heavy consumers of electricity and that is probably not going to change which is why we need to invest in alternative sources for energy.

I think we can all agree that the US is too dependent on oil. One area in which we can cut back that dependence is in making electricity.  Using oil to make electricity is foolish, when we have others methods to make electricity.

On October 7, 2009 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart featured William Kamkwamba, a young African, who built a windmill to produce power for his home by looking at pictures in a book and using scraps that he found lying around.

Here is a young man in a third world country with limited resources who figures out how to create something to produce energy. Here we are with all types of resources at our disposal but we think that energy is cheap so we just pay for it without considering the environment. 

We are currently building new coal power plants in the US to meet our electricity needs, not for the future, but for today’s needs. Coal power plants are the bane of our carbon existence because they are responsible for high levels of greenhouse gases and increase our carbon footprint.

On the other hand, manufacturing has found a safe way to incorporate fly ash, a by-product of coal power plants, into concrete that actually saves us tons of carbon dioxide.  So, if we can offset the creation of carbon dioxide by 35 percent of the Portland cement by incorporating fly ash from coal power plants, what isn’t green about that?  It’s a tremendous green application of material—taking a byproduct and creating a “beneficial use” as opposed to landfilling the material. For example, CertainTeed includes fly ash in it’s formulation for fiber cement siding which accounts for its 50% recycled content.

I created a carbon calculator to monitor my carbon footprint.  What I found was that I am greener than the average European until I go to work.  My carbon footprint at work is three times my footprint in other parts of my life because of the amount of air travel I do in my job. We need to find ways to travel more efficiently in terms of energy consumption. 

The solution is never one size fits all, that’s just not the way nature works.  It’s a hundred different solutions and it’s what works best in your area and what you can afford to do.

There is a place for nuclear, solar, wind, natural gas, oil and other sources of energy. The trick is to make energy in more efficient ways, with less environmental impact from the mining and collection of the raw materials to the disposal of the waste.  Can we learn from the simple lifestyle of the Amish?  Perhaps, but even if we choose not to, we all need to take responsibility for our own carbon footprint.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications, for CertainTeed Corporation

Energy Awareness: A Life Long Pursuit

yhtp_cm_eam09_lgThe U.S Department of Energy has declared October as Energy Awareness Month to call attention to the need for all of us to adopt new habits to help lower our carbon footprint. The theme for 2009 is A Sustainable Energy Future: We’re Putting all the Pieces Together.

Energy awareness was first observed in the U.S. in 1981 as American Energy Week but was expanded to a month-long observance by the Department of Energy in 1986.  On September 13, 1991, President Bush officially proclaimed October Energy Awareness Month. It’s hard to believe that, in more than 25 years since the initiative began, we haven’t made more headway in energy conservation.  That is why I believe, as I mentioned in my previous Blog Stars Align for Energy Efficiency, that now is, indeed, the time to change our energy consumption habits.

Building Science Engineering has come a long way in understanding and communicating the physical, chemical and biological reactions among a building’s components.  These advances also help to drive the development of products to improve the energy efficiency of new and existing buildings.  Of course, the older the building the less energy efficient it probably is, but many structures can benefit from a mild energy efficiency makeover. 

Here are some tips to determine and improve energy efficiency:

  • Conduct an energy audit.  Locate obvious air leaks by examining gaps along the baseboard or edge of the flooring, at junctures of the walls and ceilings, and at electrical box openings and plumbing penetrations. If cracks are present, caulk and weather strip.
  • Understanding the R-value of fiberglass insulation is important. R-value means resistance to heat flow – the greater the R-value, the greater the insulation power. Visit www.energystar.gov for a map of the recommended R-value insulation levels needed in your region.
  •  Properly controlling moisture will improve the effectiveness of air sealing and insulation efforts. Some insulation systems can provide the added benefit of moisture management in addition to traditional insulation performance. Any insulation that is exposed to significant levels of moisture can decrease R-value performance.
  •  Insulated siding helps improve R-value, up to 30 percent.  Insulated siding can help reduce the heating and cooling costs of a home.
  • Solar reflective roofs can provide long-term protection as well as savings. Cool roofing technology is another simple way to lower energy consumption. This means less work for the air conditioning system, and minimizing the absorption of solar heat through the roof. Solar reflective coatings and solar reflective shingles should be considered for a roofing project.

 The Federal Energy Tax Credit creates a great opportunity for all of us to improve the energy efficiency of our homes.  Let’s not let Energy Awareness Month pass by without taking advantage of savings and efficiency all year long.Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation.