Indictment of the Green Movement (The Sequel)

Several years ago I wrote a post called, “A Reasoned Indictment of the Green Movement.”
In that post I detailed a method of building super-insulated houses that did not cost any more than conventional 2×4 houses. A question that came up in comments on that article boiled down to, “That sounds great, but how are they doing now, some 30 to 40 years later.”

I had no adequate answer to the question, so I made it my mission to get back and check on some of them. Fortunately some of them were still occupied by, or at least owned by, the people I originally designed and built them for. I made the trip to the Oswego/Syracuse NY area this past summer and had a blast reconnecting with my clients and visiting the homes.

It is not without a certain amount of trepidation that one takes a step into the past like this.

The very first house I ever designed and built was this house in Oswego NY.  Being just before the Bi-Centennial Year, it even had the Armstrong flooring with the printed date on it.

The first, 1975, 2x6 construction

The first, 1975, 2×6 construction

It was the only house I built on a concrete foundation—concrete block actually. All the houses that would follow, were built on wood foundations.  It has some early passive solar ideas built into it but was a far cry from where the houses would be 10 years later.

Some of the angst over these homes revolved around them being built on wood foundations. While all the homes appeared to be doing fine, the least of their problems were the wood foundations.

Of all of the houses I designed and built, I think my favorite is the octagon house I originally designed for myself but built for my clients in 1983. But before I discuss that house, I will post some pictures of the houses that came before that. There were others besides these, but these are the ones I visited, or at least drove by to take some pictures.

The next two were done in 1976/77. I truly had no life back then as I would work on my client’s house from 4 in the morning until about noon and then go home and work on my own house until it was too dark to see.

1976/77, 2x8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.

1976/77, 2×8 construction with sliding interior insulated shutters.

 

1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

1976/77, 2×6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

 

1976/77, 2x6 construction, the deck came 20 years later by others.

1976/77, 2×6 construction

In 1978, came the duplex that was entered in the 1979 New York State Energy Research & Development Administration (NYSERDA) competition and was one of the winners published in 1979 NYSERDA Passive Solar Design Awards.

1978, Duplex, 2x8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.

1978, Duplex, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters.

 

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1980?, 2×8 construction, with interior sliding insulated shutters. (The addition with the inadequate overhang at the back of the house came later, as did the wrap around deck.)

And now the real stuff starts.

1983 begins the use of 2×10 truss type studs for wall framing. The first of these was in 1983, in Skaneateles, NY—the octagon house.

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1983, 2×10 truss studs, with interior insulating shutters

This made the walls R-42+, with R-50+ in the attic—all blown cellulose fiber insulation. There were insulated shutters for the windows.

Before visiting this home, I figured that for sure the shutters would be long gone. But nope, like most of the interior, it looked like the day I left it 33 years ago.

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The custom cabinets, built on site, also looked like the day I left.

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This house was constructed over a crawl space, and even though it has totally inadequate ventilation by today’s standards, moisture levels in woodwork throughout the space were well below 10%. A double 6 mil vapor barrier under 4 inches of concrete and a small dehumidifier can be credited with these moisture levels. Interestingly, this house is in a high radon area, and levels tested well below 4pCi/L. This result is consistent with all properly installed wood foundation systems that naturally resist radon infiltration to the home.

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At the time I built this house there was an idea that felt paper was not really necessary under shingles. All my building career I had the good fortune of having clients that were as big of risk takers as I was and were willing to try out new ideas. After 32 years the roof needed replacement (not bad for a standard 3-tab shingle roof) and the owners were kind enough to share pictures taken of the roof replacement. Here is a picture of one of the segments with just the roof sheathing showing.

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My immediate reaction was, “VERY nice job replacing the sheathing!” His reply was, “No—that is YOUR sheathing!” I couldn’t believe it. It looked like the day I installed it 32 years earlier. Note that even along the edge, there has clearly been no ice-damming or signs of moisture at all. As you can see in this next picture, there is ample opportunity for ice damns with the normal snow fall in the area.

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By modern standards the attic space would be considered “under-ventilated” yet the attic looked as pristine as the day I left it. This is a testament to 14 inches of blown cellulose fiber insulation, vapor barriers painted on walls and ceilings, raised heel trusses, and adequate air sealing.

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The attic as pristine as the day I left it

The next house was done somewhere around 1985, and I was only able to do a drive-by of this house.

1985 or so, 2x10 truss studs

1985 or so, 2×10 truss studs

The last house I built in the area was 1988.  I was fortunate enough to be able to spend the night with my good friends and clients on this visit.

1988, 2x10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.

1988, 2×10 truss studs, R-60 in roof.

With this house I learned that even I am capable of inadequate installation of cellulose fiber, as some settlement was noted with infrared camera.

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The purple area at the ceiling to the right of the stove pipe is an area of settlement.

While I still am sure it is possible to install cellulose fiber so it does not settle, I am now equally sure it can be installed such that it does settle. When you have walls that essentially have no boundaries—as with truss type studs, it is difficult to get the necessary compaction consistently throughout the wall cavity.

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The anatomy of a truss stud wall

Newer high density installation processes would eliminate this concern and of course these spaces can easily be re-packed with minimal invasiveness. My estimate for this house was that settlement amounted to about one good sized window—and of course the wall would still have a higher R-value than any double pane window.

So while most of these houses seemed to be behaving themselves remarkably well, they still had a lot to teach me. Like any home, some need maintenance more than others. All could benefit from more modern standards and certainly could benefit from what I know now as opposed to what I knew then.

But I guess this is how progress is made. This last house, now 28 years old, had a recent blower door test of under 1 ACH50 (air changes per hour at 50 Pascals). Not too bad when compared to the cost of homes today that meet that level of tightness.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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The “fuzzy math” of Net Zero Energy

Politics, ego, stubbornness and selfishness all play roles that sometimes blur the more altruistic desire to do what is right for the planet, the country, and our families.

Like herding cats

Like herding cats

In the widest of contexts, most people involved in the Green Movement are well meaning, well intentioned, thoughtful and serious folks.  But that does not prevent it from being a bit like herding cats.

Most cats, including myself, have LOTS of ideas about where we think the green movement should be going.  We are all hampered to one degree or another by what we bring to the table.  Some bring vested interests (they either have something to sell or have personal issues) that further muddies the waters.  All of this can prevent us from seeing the other cats in the room.  When cats join forces it can result in the exclusion of more singular cats with equally valid ideas.

In a sense this is why the government is the way that it is in terms of getting nothing done–it is merely a reflection of the rest of us–it is us.

I have been involved in this discussion since the early 70’s, so there are not too many cats I have not come across.  Most initial wounds have long since healed and I only occasionally get scratched nowadays. However there is always some snake-oil salesperson willing to pull the insulation over my eyes.

I think it is totally amazing that so many of the conversations, arguments and discussions common in the 70’s, still seemingly have no clear answers nearly 45 years later (it is more likely accurate that we either refuse to see the solutions, or vested interests make so much noise the solutions can’t be heard).

Here is a partial list of what is causing the rub–you can probably think of others:

  1. People want to maintain a “perceived” standard of living.
  2. People want to keep the toys they are used to playing with.
  3. People want houses to look like what they are used to living in.
  4. People want to use the planet’s resources as they see fit.
  5. People want to drive wherever and whenever they want, in whatever they want. (should we even be discussing whether an Hummer can be made more “efficient?”)
  6. People want cheap fuel.
  7. People expect technology and government to guarantee the things listed above.
  8. People think they have a God given “right” to the things above.

These can all be pretty much summed up with:

People want to piss upstream!

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It is my opinion that as long as the things on the list above have some amount of truth, we will continue to not resolve the conversations, arguments and discussions surrounding what it means to be “Green” in a meaningful time frame.

As long as people continue to be “green with envy” for what someone else has, we will not likely come together as a planet to tackle the difficult questions that lie ahead.

So what are the big problems?

  1. Lack of conservation.  As long as we think that there is an unlimited supply of anything, besides love, we are likely to fail in saving the planet (actually it is our species that needs saving–the planet would be fine without us).
  2. Planned obsolescence.  As long as profit is the driving force behind the way things are constructed, we will likely be unable to save the planet.
  3. The combustion engine & incandescent light bulb.  As long as we cling to technology that has outlived its usefulness (the two examples are representative, symbolic), we will likely be unable to save the planet.
  4. Politics and Religion.  As long as we cling to the idea that the groups we belong to are “more special” than someone else’s group, there will always be conflict; and, the choices necessary to benefit the many, over the few, will not be made (implicit in this aspect is the problem of economic disparity).
  5. (and perhaps most important)    The focus on residential construction.  In terms of the creation of greenhouse gases, both residential and commerical structures only represent about 10% of the pie.  Why not focus more on the big pigs of the pie—transportation (20%), industry (28%) and the making of electricity (32%)?

Ultimately, I think conservation holds the key, no matter where we are placing our focus.

I can best answer why I think this is so, with a question.  But first what is the problem?  Isn’t the goal to consume less fossil fuel and reduce greenhouse gases what the green movement is all about?  There are also a myriad of other concerns that get gunny-sacked with the notion of clean air, water and simply not running out of natural resources.

Things like indoor air quality (wasn’t such a big concern prior to tightening up our houses).  Some even say, “well lets open them up again.”  Unfortunately there is no going back—or at least not back in any way that most people would find acceptable.  If we want to consider The Road as a viable reality—then yes, opening our houses would probably work. I think that would come with its own set of challenges however.

There are also conversations about what materials to use in our homes.  Thus there is the war between “natural materials” and “unnatural materials” that gets all bogged down in the all too “natural bickering.”  There are the arguments over what is “sustainable” and what is “not sustainable.”  These are but distractions really.

One only has to drive through any city in the world and  see all the ticky-tacky houses with the ticky-tacky cars buzzing from house to house and lining the streets to come to the conclusion that we are already at “unsustainable.”

The next time you are driving about or looking out an airplane window and seeing the gazillion houses decorating the landscape, think about how many rolls of toilet paper that represents and how many trees cut down just for that one item. Or consider how many batteries that represents–and where they end up when they die.

There are actually people that would legislate that certain materials not be allowed in homes because of purported allergic responses etc. These same people would not for a moment consider that it is perhaps the inadequate ventilation of their homes, the pets in their homes, the VOC’s in their world, their diets of highly refined foods, or the overuse of antibiotics that is, or are, or could be the real problem. (Just to mention a very few.)

While it may be true, that the planet cannot afford 7+ billion people consuming its resources, who among us is willing to leave?  For all our sake’s we better hope it is not true. Like it or not, we are in this mess together and we either have to figure out a way to solve the issues together or we will be much less successful as a species than any of the species of dinosaur were. Most people seem to spend there lives consumed by issues that do not matter as if they do matter.  All around the planet there is strife.  If politics, ego, religion, stubbornness and selfishness were removed from the equation, the strife would evaporate from the artificial containers that confines it.  All that energy could then be redirected to sorting out the real issues of our times.

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I truly think that the degree to which we think this is not so, is a measure of just how difficult a road we do have to go down.

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Without getting into a discussion of whether single family homes (regardless of efficiency) are themselves a type of dinosaur, let’s assume for a moment that they are not.  A huge portion of our energy consumption around the world goes to heat, cool and provide lighting etc to our homes.  A big part of the problem is that once a house is built, real meaningful conservation becomes VERY difficult in making a perceptible dent in energy resource usage.  If we get everyone that lives in dinosaur-homes to conserve what they can (improve the efficiency of everything they can) it can make a difference.

Stop building more dinosaurs

Stop building more dinosaurs

In residential construction, the biggest impact can be made by simply not make any more dinosaurs!

Most people would argue that the building codes and energy codes now require homes to be very energy efficient.  I can argue that, with rare exception (where individuals have done more from their own initiative), this is simply not true.  Modern homes are likely to be no more than 25 to 35 percent better—depending on what years of housing stock we are comparing.

It is quite simple to make houses as much as 80 percent better, in terms of heating and cooling at virtually no extra cost in the worst of climates.  This should mean that in some more favorable climates these costs should be able to be reduced to close to nothing.

For example, the codes do not require that “orientation” of the home be considered.  In fact modern codes require types of window that prevent solar gain.  Solar gain could be used to heat the house in the winter.

Modern codes do not require proper overhangs to protect the glass from solar gain in the summer to help keep homes cooler in the summer.  Without both of these simple things that can be done at virtually no extra cost, the cost of operating the home goes up whether it is an Energy Star certified, or a Leeds certified home or not.

We typically install thermo-pane windows that fail before they pay for themselves in terms of energy savings and the cost of replacement is not reflected in the original calculations that support the necessity for them.  Might it not be better to be “slightly” less efficient and require windows with removable panels like we used to see in old storm windows or with the Pella Designer Series windows (Anderson used to make one–not sure if they still do or not)?

And what is the solution to this short fall?  Gadgets.  I wish I had a better word for it, but historically we have always attempted to use gadgets to fix things.  For example we can heat water with expensive solar panels (that still have a relatively short life span before they have to be replaced–think planned obsolescence again) to lower our water heating costs.  In fact it is not hard to get >75% of one’s hot water heating done by solar panels; and as long as this is done through tubes as opposed to photo-voltaics, it probably makes economic sense over the long haul.  Baring a tree limb going through a panel cover, tube-type solar panels can be made to last almost indefinitely.  The same cannot be said for expensive photo-voltaic panels (without even getting into the whole discussion about how environmentally “dirty” it is to make them or how long they last).

What if electric water heaters were required to come from the factory with 6” to 8” of foam insulation instead of 2?”  The payback on any kind of panel would likely just plain never happen except possibly with tube-type panels (not glass type tubes) that are designed to last the life of the home.  Payback is too often only relative to inefficient homes.  In terms of improving heating and cooling efficiency, the more inefficient your home is the quicker the payback on your “investment” with any kind of gadget that you install.  That is why installing inexpensive things that have an unlimited life expectancy, like good quality insulation or improving air-sealing of the home, makes more sense than installing complicated HVAC systems that have to be replaced by, or before, their payback time-frame.  When you do what conserves the most first, the latter becomes less necessary, or results in downsized versions—and quite possibly become unnecessary all together.

Saving the planet is not really about any of  what I have just written however.

All of this stuff is easy compared to the real job of getting people to change themselves.

After nearly 45 years of involvement, I can only conclude that most human beings pretty much don’t give a damn.

The power companies and industry certainly don’t give a damn.

I am quite sure it is time (way past the time) to start picking on them to accomplish their fair share.  Imagine if the 80% part of the pie conserved 25%!

 

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

 

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The “Dark” Green Side of Green!

A while back I read an article about the First ever “triple-certified” green residence, called Aqua Liana.  It really struck a nerve with me.

The Dark Green Side

The Dark Green Side

I still find that I cannot wrap my brain around the concept of this house.  The project is meant to provide evidence that the American Dream is not dead, but looks more like the nightmare is still alive.  Please take a look at the website and especially the video clip of the tour of the home and then ask yourself if this $23,000,000 “home” is part of the solution or symptomatic of the problem.

In the sense that, as long as there are people in the world that have more money than they know what to do with, I guess it is better that they build houses that are triple-certified green.  However, to me it would seem that “Green,” when it is just a final number on a spreadsheet that can be arrived at regardless of the cost, seems a little “Dark-green” to me.

Can it not be arGreen Froggued that in terms of utilization of the world’s resources, it would be nice if there were a relationship between the square footage of the home and the number of occupants?  Take my home for example—-which is easily suitable for 5 people—-Aqua Liana would need to be home for at least 50 people—-perhaps even more due to efficiencies of scale.

I will likely never REALLY know what I would do with this kind of money, but I would like to think—at least intellectually—-that I would not choose to spend it this way.  I would like to think that my “American Dream” was in some ways bigger than this—-more philosophically “opulent” than materialistically opulent.

What say you?

A bit closer to the approach I think works for a larger number of people is discussed in my previous article called, “A Reasoned Indictment of the Green Movement.”

 

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Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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