Building America Solution Center a Great New Resource for Consumers and Residential Builders

The U.S Department of Energy has launched the Building America Solutions Center website.  Building America is a program that is operated by the Department of Energy to investigate best practices for residential construction.  They have accumulated a great deal of information from the field and done several experiments that up until now have only generally been shared within the Building Science community. It is a wonderful resource for building professionals and consumers who want to make the best choices when improving the energy efficiency in residential construction.

The Solution Center website shares best practices and other project resources to help plan, implement and measure energy efficiency programs for residential buildings and homes. The site includes resources to answer questions regarding new energy efficient technologies, projecting savings, financing home improvement projects.

This is public / private partnership funded research and everyone should be aware that it exists so they can make the best choices as we all move toward improving the energy efficiency of our buildings.

Spread the word about this great resource!

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?

Greenbuild 2012 is a Wrap! Philadelphia Here we Come!

San Francisco is among the top sustainable cities in the U.S. so it was exciting to be out there for Greenbuild this year.  The expo portion of the conference was only two days this year but from the beginning of the first day the show floor was packed with attendees who were really engaged. In fact, it was the most engaged audience I have seen since the recession began.  Hopefully, that is an indicator that the building market is returning.

NOVA speed dating

NOVA speed dating

In my travels around the show, I was surprised that I really didn’t see too many new innovations. There was nothing that stood out as a bright, new product or very innovative with the exception of the Saint-Gobain NOVA Innovation Competition.  The NOVA External Venturing division of Saint-Gobain rewards start-ups offering the most innovative solutions in the field of habitat, energy and the environment.  This was the first time the competition has taken place in the U.S. Over the last several months Saint-Gobain reviewed and selected eight finalists who would come to Greenbuild for a final interview process during the show days.  From those eight, three entrepreneurs where awarded cash prizes, however, all the contestants will have the opportunity to partner with Saint-Gobain in exploring potential joint development, licensing and other collaboration.

It was amazing the buzz that was created on the show floor by the NOVA Competition.  The final eight entrepreneurs participated in what might be referred to as a “speed dating” round.  These innovators were pitching their ideas to some of the best business leaders in our industry. It was exciting during the speed dating and a large crowd gathered for the announcement of the winners.  The top winner was Heliotrope, a developer of energy-efficient electrochromic glass that that switches reversibly between three states:  solar transparent, heat blocking, and heat and light blocking or darkened.  The second place winner was PlanGrid, a complete collaborative platform for construction information and the fastest PDF viewer in the universe.  Third place went to SmarterShade, a unique approach to the emerging technology being called “smart windows.”

Greenbuild 2013 is coming to Philadelphia – CertainTeed’s neck of the woods.  But, for Philadelphia, following San Francisco is like having the Beatles as a warm-up band.  While many folks who are into urban sustainability are aware of the great progress made my our Mayor Nutter and his team, just how far and how quickly Philadelphia has transformed its sustainable future may come as a surprise to some of our visitors next year. I’m certain that none of this would be possible without the support and efforts of groups like the Delaware Valley Green Building Council who is hosting GreenBuild for 2013. There are some very exciting projects taking place in Philadelphia and we are eager to share them with the green world.

I hope to see you in Philadelphia for Greenbuild 2013!

 

 

GREEN BUILDING GURU: Lucas Hamilton, CertainTeed Building Science

Lucas Hamilton

What do you think is the most critical factor in ensuring a healthy, sustainable built environment?

In order to achieve and maintain a healthy, sustainable built environment we need to educate the end users of these buildings.  The people who use the buildings need to be a partner in the process and be educated because they figure strongly in the success of the sustainability of the building. Only if the end users understand that their behaviors contribute to the success or failure of highly efficient systems can we ensure a healthy, sustainable built environment. There isn’t a life cycle without that three-quarter part of it – the people using and maintaining it. The Living Building Challenge is doing it right because they include an education component to the process.

What is your business doing to support this goal?

What we are doing is to educate, educate, educate – through training, webinars, and providing information to all audiences. We need to help end users understand that they are a critical part of the process. 

A New Perspective on Environmental Impact

From a product standpoint, conducting life cycle assessments has become a fairly standard practice. Building industry professionals as well as end users expect this kind of transparency and want to be equipped with information on how products are manufactured, the raw materials that are used, and their ultimate fate at the end of their useful life. This is all good (actually it’s great), but what if we also look at the environmental impact of an installed product from a broader, collective perspective? For example, there’s a whole range of products that can save — and even generate — energy for homes and buildings. This energy savings and generation can equate to significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Working in conjunction with Sustainable Solutions, we set out on a mission to further explore this idea. Using Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed products —  such as fiberglass insulation, solar window film and photovoltaic roofing systems — we created a model based on data from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. What we learned is that the carbon reductions of installed Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed products on an annual basis equates to the carbon dioxide emissions produced by more than 300,000 passenger vehicles or the amount of electricity needed to power more than 189,000 homes. Ultimately, these types of products have a long-lasting impact on the built environment and we take great pride in that…

Interested in learning more? Stop by the Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed exhibit #4359 at Greenbuild 2012.

Net Zero Test House a Great Experiment for Energy Efficiency

Lucas Hamilton

October is Energy Awareness month and what better way to start it off than to talk about a great project underway in Virginia. CNN recently ran a story about the Net Zero house that was built by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as a test facility to experiment with alternative energy high-efficiency systems. 

The 2,700 square foot home on NIST’s property in Gaithersburg, Virginia is home to a “virtual” family – Father, Mother and two children. The house is powered by solar panels and geothermal systems while hundreds of devices that actually simulate the family’s energy use.

While the home looks like a standard middle class home that you might find in any suburban neighborhood the home cost about $2.5 million to build.  That is mostly due to the elaborate systems being utilized and tested.  The appliances, plumbing and heating systems are programmed to turn on and off based on the time of day.  For example at 6:15 am, a computer that is housed in the garage which is ‘control central’ triggers the valves in the basement to turn on the water flow to the showers. Of course, it doesn’t take into account Johnny leaving the lights and TV on his bedroom all day.

One very cool aspect of this project is that everything in the home, except one small devise, is manufactured in the U. S. and is able to be purchased and used in a typical residence.

Other facts about the construction of the house such as geothermal loops that extract heat from earth as opposed to the air and walls constructed to reduce energy loss and keep the home at a comfortable temperature will provide great data that can be used in future construction.

There are net-zero homes that are being built in parts of the U.S. but this home will provide incredible research that can be applied to construction standards going forward.  Watch the video for a full review of the project:

http://youtu.be/xSzu83fyQaQ

I think we will learn a great deal from this project and it will help us in the quest for net-zero homes but… how do you feel about using a virtual family? I think we’re going to miss out on learning about behavior and this is an area which we may understand the least.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed

How Can We Harness the Heat from Server Farms or Can We?

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

I was recently reading about the new Facebook server farm being built in Luleå, on the coast of Swedish Lapland.  This facility will service Europe. These server buildings are giant heat sources because of electrical inefficiencies that cause servers to give off a great deal of it. I applaud them for designing a building and placing it in the Arctic north where they can use the ambient air temperature outside to cool the building rather than having to pay for electricity to cool the building. It’s great news for Facebook since these server buildings are about the length of 11 football fields.

But while that is great – what a waste of heat?

Facebook is just one of several companies building and maintaining server buildings around the globe. This poses an interesting question. Isn’t there something we can do with these server buildings as an energy source?

Wouldn’t it be cool (some pun intended) if the heat generated from the running of the servers could be captured, stored in a fluid, transported and used as an energy source in a location that needs it? As we know, putting energy into fluids can be very efficient. Why not build such projects closer to population? Maybe put the servers under an urban farm and use the heat to make growing of vegetables inside a cold climate city even more efficient. What if the project were located closer to hydroelectric sources to reduce additional losses to “the super grid” (a whole other rant there)? How cool will that be; the virtual community powered by falling water and built close to those who use it the most- warm climate peoples have nice weather and don’t seem to visit as often.

We have been using cogeneration for a long time and with great success. Cogeneration is a thermodynamically efficient use of fuel. In separate production of electricity, some energy must be rejected as waste heat, but in cogeneration this thermal energy is put to good use. A pretty good lesson there: at what point does it stop being a system? Uh, never? Then how creative can we get? How many other ways can we come up with to capture and re-use energy? A good example is Philadelphia’s plan to capture power from subway trains and reuse it to launch trains back out of the stations, saving an estimated 40 percent on their electric bill.

If we can’t find a way to stop generating heat when we turn something on, them how can we put our ignorance to use?

Buildings Can’t Go to Weather.com

 
 

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications 

 Buildings have no idea what the air temperature is outside. To our buildings and their components, the outer world is their outer surface. Surface temperature is influenced by many things in addition to air temperature. One of the most dramatic influences on surface temperature is radiation and this swings wildly in the course of a day.

In the past, we’ve talked about how for the most part windows are energy pigs. Well, they are energy pigs because windows have really poor R values (resistance to conductivity), often leak too much air after a few years of use, and transmit too much infrared radiation when we don’t want them to. When you talk about energy flow with regard to conductivity, the rate at which energy flows is basically the difference in surface temperature across the assembly – not air to air temperature across the assembly – multiplied by its conductivity. If it’s really cold outside and you want to have less energy flowing through your R4 windows in terms of conductivity make the outside surface of the window hot. That will decrease the delta -T and slow down the conductivity.

There are a variety of ways that would help to make windows hot in the winter and cool in the summer. Some are passive solar technologies that we re-learned in the 1970’s and re-forgot in the 1980’s. When the sun is high in the sky it is summer and you want the shade to cool off the surface of the window and the shade devise to insulate it from incident infrared. In the winter, the sun is low on the horizon and you want to capture that infrared and heat up the surface of the window. That will slow down the conductivity through it by decreasing the delta -T. If we can’t make R15 windows – which we cannot practically or affordably with our current technologies – then we have to find a way to trick the windows into thinking that it is warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Again, it’s all about surface temperature. A building doesn’t know what the air temperature is – it only knows what its surface temperature is. We need to use that knowledge to be a little bit smarter and to stop fighting nature and instead work with it.

Ideas?

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?

Simple Changes Could Help Consumers Save on HVAC

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

California has again pushed their energy bar higher.  One of the things that I love about California’s energy program is that they are now requiring an independent evaluation and commissioning beyond the air conditioning contractor of the sizing and installation of air conditioning systems. 

Recently, I participated in a workshop with a Philadelphia-based builder. He is a very professional, conscientious builder who stays in touch with building science and education. He brought his mechanical contractor to the workshop and we had a chance to talk about the way homes are built and particularly the mechanical systems. 

Here is the situation:

  • There are still ‘rules of thumb’ being applied to the sizing of mechanical systems in our homes. 
  • Manufacturers make changes to equipment to help those ‘rules of thumb’ meet the requirements, especially regarding motors and equipment that can tune itself to the needs of the house. 

What we really need are systems that are designed and installed to the actual house. 

We can’t expect equipment to be continuously updated or modified to make up for our lack of willingness to do a simple calculation as to what the house really needs. It’s not just about the tonnage of air conditioning and the size of the heating units.  It is mostly about the delivery – the physics of the delivery – of that comfort.

When someone tells me something regarding heating or cooling that just isn’t sitting well and I need a gut check, my gut actually lives out in Missouri and his name is Eric Kjelshus. He is a Missouri Mechanical Contractor with his own company, Eric Kjelshus Energy. He is a smart, thorough, well studied mechanical contractor who cares about this stuff far beyond anyone else I have come across.

It seems like many of the builders I have spoken with have been spending a lot of effort (effort = $$) after the sale trying to make the homes they have constructed meet the comfort expectations of the owners. This leads me to wonder if there are things we consistently get wrong with regard to how we deliver comfort. Time for another gut check!

Here is what Eric taught me:

We under return air in our homes.  Very few people consistently measure static pressures in the HVAC system to find out if it is balanced. If they did they would see that the system is not returning the same volume of air it is supplying. When we under return, we force the system to pull make-up air from outside the home.  Air conditioning is more efficient when the air is dry. For most of us residing east of the Rocky Mountains, the return air in our homes is both cooler and dryer than the air outside during our cooling periods. Pulling unconditioned and uncontrolled air from outside the home into the system is a big efficiency penalty and it’s one we pay for over and over again. Why not simply return the correct volume of conditioned air back to the unit? Not only is this an elegant, passive solution to the problem –  it comes with a much lower up front cost than high tech solutions.

So hats off to California for requiring that trained professionals check these systems to ensure they are properly sized and installed. We as consumers can get much better value out of systems that are less sophisticated but are sized and built right.