Category Archives: energy efficiency

Homes Matter

I wrote the following article for a local magazine, Business Monadnock. I’m republishing here.

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Tedd Benson in his Walpole, NH facility.

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”  Winston Churchill

Many years ago, when we pulled our company associates together to try to draft a collective mission statement for our homebuilding company, we came to an unexpected conclusion. As we kept asking questions about why we do what we do, and why clients engage us for what is usually the biggest investment of their lives, we came to understand there’s an important ideal beyond the simple execution of our craft for the straight-forward purpose of building good quality homes. We realized that everyone undertaking the effort and expense of building a new home is doing so to improve the quality of their lives, and so that bigger objective became the core principle of our mission: “Through process and products, to improve the quality of lives.”

Why else would people from all over the country find us in this quiet corner of New Hampshire? And isn’t a focus on making a difference in peoples’ lives more worthy of the total investment of our own life’s energy?

We’ve tried to remain on that higher path since, and that nobler focus has made an incalculable difference in how we think, act and what we build. It raises the stakes, and has raised us in the process, but it has also been humbling. There’s no clear pinnacle of achievement for such a mission. There’s only, “try harder, get better.” With peoples’ lives as our focus, there’s no such thing as “good enough;” there’s always something that we can improve.

Luckily, the physical aspects of every building are like  truth mirrors, and give us immediate feedback about how we did. The quality of the work is mostly an evident, objective reality, and its attributes (and of course the flaws) easily determined. When we can see it and touch it, we can measure our work in a variety of ways, and know with some certainty what to improve. In a sense, that’s the easy side of continual improvement.

But the “improving the quality of lives” objective is intangible, subjective, and offers no easy evaluation of success or failure. Building homes that are plumb, level, square, strong and energy-efficient is relatively easy, but making deeper impacts in the occupants’ lives is a high, elusive and difficult goal.

Is all that striving for lofty ideals and a life of “healthy discontent” worth it for the simple task of homebuilding? I think so, and here’s why. We all know that homes matter immensely. Along with food, shelter is elemental to the human condition. No society advances without a broad provision of healthy food and secure shelter. Food is an obvious daily requirement for life, and gets daily attention. But the importance of quality housing in our lives is more nuanced, yet anthropologists and historians have often pointed out that stable, durable dwellings that offer some respite from life’s struggles are practically the root and stalk of civilization. Societies seem to develop in direct relation to advancements in the general quality of domestic life.

For all of its obvious value, we can’t analyze the life-improving attributes of our homes by measuring the equivalent of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins in food, and so if it passes the basic shelter-against-the-elements test, most people accept housing as it is, decorate to taste, and get on with life. People today tend to know about cars, food and clothes rather intimately, and can even discern how the subtle distinctions—that added spice in the meal; the car’s suspension in turns; those perfectly fitted shoes—make them feel, but the fundamental qualities of homes are too often just a bland canvas for the amenities, paint and furniture. We literally live with homes as they are, and then their impacts live in us,  and subtly affect our character, as Churchill so famously suggested.

Most of the hours of our lives are spent at home. The environment we live in works on us and our closest relationships constantly, and we are better or worse for it. Without a safe and secure personal sanctuary, there’s no opportunity for dreams to flourish; there’s no place for the imagination to soar beyond the moment, and hope itself is dulled.

And that’s why it’s worth striving for homes to rise above their basic physical sheltering requirements and do more. We need to do our best to make housing worthy of its inhabitants’ lives, a therefore long-term asset for our society. I know from so many personal stories, including my own, that a home can become a sacred personal place, and a family’s special haven for the bonds of our most intimate relationships; a safe harbor in life’s storms. At best, housing and the functional act of dwelling it supports can provide its own kind of daily bread, and feed a higher sense of well being.

These high ideals for home have been the subject of builders, poets, philosophers and architects (not to mention common people with dreams) for hundreds or even thousands of years. It is also the theme of local author, Howard Mansfield’s important new book: Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter. To make his point that homes should do more for people than provide mere protection from the elements, he quotes the famed social architect, Samuel Mockbee: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”  Mansfield goes on to say:

We have shelter from the rain and snow and sun, but our houses aren’t sheltering our souls. They aren’t nourishing. We treat houses as investments or as social policy problems, as in the statistical Sahara of ‘the housing problem.’ The soul starves—we’re in our house, but not at home. Our dream houses lack room for us to dream.   … We build thousands of houses, but only a few homes. With the world’s population projected to double, we will have to build this world all over again. How can we do that and shelter the soul?

And later he adds: “The housing we are building today is starving our imagination, and without a well-fed imagination, it may be impossible to build a better world….If the house is diminished, we are diminished.”

Homes are not commodities, even if housing tries to be. Life happens there, and peoples’ lives can’t be defined by the “widget” they inhabit. No matter what we homebuilders intend or achieve in building “the product,” people will do their best to make more of it. There’s no dull real estate for the occupants, who always want their home to be special and meaningful. Howard Mansfield quotes geographer/philosopher, J.B. Jackson: “The dwelling is the primary effort of man to create heaven on earth.”

Mansfield also profiles and quotes the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, whose book The Poetics of Space is one of the seminal writings about the higher values we can find in house and home: “They give us the shelter to enlarge ourselves. They are the vessel in which we go forth into the universe. A good house is a good daydreaming space. It is the universe.”

Over the years, we’ve had enough feedback from our clients to give us an indication that sometimes we succeed in our higher mission. So we know it’s possible, even if how and why add up to a simple, daunting notion: Everything Matters.

The belief in the idea that buildings can also serve higher emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of people is the first requirement of the commitment to try, as Howard Mansfield admits: “To build soulful places, first we need to believe that it is possible.”

And he answers that question with a quote from famed architect Christopher Alexander, whose book, The Pattern Language, is the basically an instructional manual for how we can design and build homes that also touch the human spirit. Alexander therefore deserves the last word: “But it is possible. If we try our best to make all the places in our contemporary world with a vivid depth of feeling, surely then something will happen that changes our lives.”

 

Oceans Rise, Energy Efficiency Falls

There were two headlines in the May 12th New York Times that seemed at odds. The big news story of the day was titled “Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt,” which reported on two new studies indicating that portions of the Antarctic ice sheet is in irreversible retreat, due greatly to the affects of global warming. If the scientists’ predictions are anywhere near correct, there will be no beach sand to stick your head in by the end of the century, with the oceans rising four feet, or even more.

Directly below that article was another one announcing that a potential milestone bipartisan bill was scuttled in the senate, which is hardly news these days, but given the headline story, its appearance on the same front page seemed a story in itself: “Amid Pipeline and Climate Debate, Energy-Efficiency Bill is Derailed.” The defeat of this mild energy efficiency proposal clearly refutes the urgency implied in the lead story, and shouts about our inability to do anything at all in the face of mounting climate change evidence.

I have been watching that bill because its focus is to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, which is a key element of our business. And though the scope of this bill isn’t big, it’s a start, and would bring attention to the idea that we can do a lot to limit CO² atmospheric increases simply by encouraging actions that would make buildings require less energy. I’ve also been cheering because I’m proud that this sensible bill is the work of our own senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who co-sponsored it with Republican Senator Rob Portman. With so much uncompromising posturing defining politics currently, it looked as if there just might be a glimmer of bipartisan sensibility around the simple notion that it would be good for homeowners, the economy and the environment if we conserved energy by reducing the need for it.

There’s a companion bill in the house that’s even united the very liberal Peter Welch, Democrat from Vermont, and very conservative Eric Cantor, the Republican House majority leader. The idea of that unlikely alliance would seem to be good news for us, suggesting that the core notion of our business crosses political boundaries.

But no such luck. What a shame. The famous Pogo quote applies: “Yep son, We have met the enemy and he is us.” We keep kicking the can down the road, as if time was an ally, not our enemy.

Whatever one’s politics or beliefs about climate change, we ought to be able to agree that buildings should use far less energy. They don’t travel down the highway at 70 mph, nor do they fly through the air, or manufacture stuff. Buildings just sit there on the earth, the very definition of sedentary, and are by far the lowest hanging fruit in our need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. There is some very tough work ahead in the worldwide need to conserve energy and clean up the atmosphere, but buildings are by far the easiest sector and one of the largest. It’s almost as if buildings are begging for those of us who build and renovate them to make them the energy conserving good guys.

Buildings account for nearly half of the energy demand, and are the easiest problem to solve.
Buildings account for nearly half of the energy demand, and are the easiest problem to solve.

If we can put men on the moon in a decade, there’s no reason we can’t meet the goal of the 2030 Challenge, and make buildings carbon neutral in 15 years. We know how to do it, but we do need our industry and all of its supply chain partners to be in alignment. The policies needed to encourage that will take some political will, and that seems to be in short supply.

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From the implementation perspective, there’s a lot of work to do, but there’s not a lot to invent. There’s been a fantastic amount of research and development throughout the world over the last 3 or 4 decades, but especially in the last 10 years. We now have the tools, methods, and science to transform buildings into benign servants instead of demanding masters. We therefore know how to keep the energy requirements of buildings mostly out of the CO² emission problem. Now we just need to make it normal and affordable for all.

Who knows how the climate problems will play out? I hold out hope because it’s all we have, but that hope needs to be tethered to action, and I’m among those who are committed to doing all we can to make the places where we live, and love and dream also places of energy self-sufficiency.

 

 

 

 

USDA Supports Sustainable Wood Building Materials for Environment and Jobs

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An award-winning “Timber in the City” design by Bensonwood designer Tim Olson using advanced wood building materials such as Cross Laminated Timbers and Glulam Beams.
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Interiors of the Courtyard Cathedral and its innovative use of wood products. Olson’s engineered wood Courtyard Cathedral was a winner in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture 2012-2013 competition.

Newsletter Home      Bensonwood Home

Wood—one of the world’s oldest building materials—is now emerging as one of the most advanced. Of course, Bensonwood treasures the natural wood we use in our timber frame homes, but its innovative use in engineered products is already beginning to change the nature of construction across the U.S. by offering alternatives to steel and other high embodied energy building products. By encouraging these advances in wood technology, the United States Department of Agriculture hopes to support President Obama’s Climate Action Plan by preserving the role of forests in mitigating climate change.

At a meeting hosted by the White House Rural Council in March, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new partnership to train architects, engineers and builders about the benefits of advanced wood building materials, and plans for a forthcoming prize competition to design and build high-rise wood demonstration projects. The latest engineered wood technologies can be utilized in the construction of tall buildings and skyscrapers as well as in housing projects, improving their energy efficiency and thereby reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling. According to some industry estimates, one 3-5 story building made from the new wood technologies has the same emissions control as taking up to 550 cars off the road for one year.

As an added benefit, stronger demand for innovative new wood products not only supports sustainable forestry practices and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also puts rural America at the vanguard of an emergent industry. This has the potential to support more than one million direct jobs, many in non-urban areas, expanding economic opportunities while moving toward greater domestic production and sustainability.

Can We Aim Higher?

Many years ago, in our mid-course correction (another story), we pulled our company associates together to write a mission statement that would reflect our collective values and goals. It turned out to be a much bigger and longer task than we expected, but worth the effort because the exercise forced us to aim higher.

At the time, we were heavily invested in timberframe homebuilding, and it was clearly how we understood ourselves and how we were known in the marketplace. But in the many hours of discussion in analysis of our beliefs and guiding principles, we realized that timberframing may be a part of the means to an ultimate objective, but it wasn’t  sufficient in itself. What we came to understand was this simple point: our clients—like everyone who makes the decision to build—want to create a place that will improve the quality of their lives, period. That’s what homes are for. So the core statement of our company mission is:

Through process and product, to improve people’s lives.

With that much bigger mission in focus, we realized that everything matters, and we’d need to become better designers, engineers, project managers, and master craftspeople with broader skills. It set us on a path that transformed us, and continues to transform us again and again. This path is just a steady climb with an endless series of false peaks, all exciting and rewarding, but never the end. Our mission to improve lives through our work is too big to ever be fully completed.

As I read blogs, discussion groups, and news stories about the slow acceptance of green and energy efficient homes in the marketplace, I’m reminded of our company conclusion, now several decades ago, that we needed to aim higher and put our capabilities in context with our clients’ needs and aspirations. Even a LEED Platinum, zero net energy home can completely fail to deliver on its most important purpose, and even a certified Passive House can be a lousy place to live.

I don’t think I’m bringing new news here, but I also think it’s a topic that’s getting short shrift, and it’s too often leading to a maximized emphasis on particular building attributes, while other critical aspects are being compromised. Surely, this is never intended, but it can be the outcome of designing and building from a tilted perspective. If we can acknowledge this potential “maximize/compromise” liability, and bring some deep internal reflection about all that’s important in our quest to make the world a better place, it could be an important pivotal change for the sustainable homebuilding movement. High performance homebuilding should be “and,” not “or.” There should be more adds than subtracts.

Putting “green and energy efficient” in the larger context of improving people’s lives doesn’t mitigate the urgency to make low-load and zero net energy homes the industry standard. If anything, we absolutely must find ways to scale up sooner for the benefit of the planet and generations of homeowners. I made this point in a speech at the Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in September, pointing out the huge gap between what we as an industry know and what we actually do. You can see my frustration there, if you’re not reading it here.

We’ve spent the last 20 years developing the know-how and proof that we can build much better performing homes without adding much short-term cost and always subtracting long-term cost, yet most of the industry carries on like it’s 1985. It’s not that different from the medical profession saying, “Sure, we know how to cure that cancer, but it costs a little extra and you’re not asking for it, so we’re not deploying it.”

As our work and our message could become fully focused on the bigger goal of improving homeowners’ lives, it’s very possible we’d also find the key to broader, quicker acceptance. We would automatically be expanding the meaning of sustainable and high performance to include myriad of “soft” health, safety, and security attributes along with the hard calculations of building science.

“Payback” is only an energy savings vs. return on investment calculation. There’s no working formula for the benefit of healthier indoor air quality, or the security of a home built to tolerate extreme storms, and there’s no denying the savings of time and money when homes are built with few or no defects and requiring minimum maintenance. Therefore, if the quality of people’s lives matters most, we should strive equally hard to build homes that are the healthiest and safest places they can be and that don’t eat up the precious days of their lives requiring upkeep and repairs. It would be a lot less hard to market homes that are stronger, healthier, safer and by the way, also extremely energy efficient.

Department of Energy’s Challenge Home program includes most of the added attributes and begins to get to the notion that there should be many facets to the definition of high performance. In addition, recently the U.S. Green Building Council announced that they want to put health “in the front seat,” which is both admirable and somewhat overdue.

But even all of that doesn’t go far enough. It just gets harder to talk about and impossible to measure. It’s where the numbers stop and art and intuition steps in, and it’s work our industry needs to do much, much better. That objective is well expressed by the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of Alabama’s Rural Studio: “Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.”

Homes that improve people’s lives are also “shelters for the soul,” not just bare shelter against the elements, and they do not rise up to that standard with a low Energy Star rating, or net zero performance alone. The bigger purpose of home is to fuel hopes and dreams, become that place where people know they can find moments of quiet beauty and serenity, where the routine of ordinary and intimate is the essence of one’s personal sanctuary. It’s what is meant by Winston Churchill’s statement that, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The quality of home matters deeply to people and even to civilization. Homes that do nothing for the human spirit have an immeasurable and unaccounted negative cost. Homes that do achieve this higher standard help to inspire the very best from people and make the world a better place

“We build thousands of houses, but only few homes. With the world’s population projected to double, we will have to build this world all over again. How can we do that and shelter the soul?”       Howard Mansfield, Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter

Can the sustainable building movement also strive for the ineffable, the unmeasurable? Can we aim higher?

A New Guide to the “Sexy” Energy Solution

A few weeks ago, Alex Wilson asked me to write a foreword for his new book, which is simply titled Insulation: The GreenBuilding Guide.  Writing the short foreword was a harder task than I imagined. The stakes felt high, both because it’s such an important topic, and also because it would affect a good friend’s book. It paralyzed me for a bit before I finally got some words to stick. As it turned out, I haven’t done any other writing for the past few weeks because of an intense work schedule for our company these days. Therefore, I’m posting this little foreword to get something up here, but also because Alex’s book will be a must-read and I’ll be promoting it in every way I can.  Here’s a start.

We instinctively know that insulation is the obvious solution to a very common problem, but low energy costs have allowed us for too long to give it short shrift. We are certain to grab a good coat when we go outside on a cold day, yet most of the buildings we inhabit are themselves poorly dressed for the weather they inevitably encounter. Despite having readily available and effective insulation materials for over a century, we’ve failed to address the insufficient thermal coverings of our buildings, having opted instead to hook them up with all sorts of high-tech mechanical devices to manufacture artificially tempered living environments no matter the necessity. And no matter the energy costs.

Frank Lloyd Wright probably best summed up the oblivious rationale for under-utilizing insulation when he said that insulation might be worthwhile for roofs, “…whereas the insulation of the walls and the airspace within the walls become less and less important. With modern systems of air conditioning and heating, you can manage almost any condition.” Armed with that unfortunate logic, we spent decades equipping our buildings with the necessary equipment to “manage almost any condition” instead of pursuing better insulation. Wright’s opinion and the long-prevailing paradigm it represents is the major reason the energy consumption of buildings rises well above that of both the transportation and industry sectors as our nation’s number one fuel guzzling, polymorphous beast.

But the building construction piece of the energy sector pie has been decidedly sedentary, an unproductive sloth in comparison to its unending appetite for fuel. Unlike the transportation sector, which must both transport us and condition our indoor environment, buildings need only be designed and constructed to serve us while steadfastly stuck in one spot. They can simply sit there, securing their space on the earth, serving best by being stalwart immovable objects. They don’t take us places by land, sea or air; nor do they do any industrial tasks or produce things for our benefit. As such, buildings haven’t been designed to provide that sort of tangible return for the spent fuels. Instead, the largest proportion of that energy is delivered for the sole purpose of creating habitable (i.e. “comfortable”) environments.

Finding ways to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is a mighty problem; one that now pulls at us with ever increasing urgency. Some facets of that predicament appear to be overwhelmingly difficult to solve. Ocean freighters and airplanes burn fantastic quantities of fuel to perform their tasks, as do steel mills and chemical plants. It’s hard to imagine how these things ever lose their energy-hogging ways.

Buildings, on the other hand, are easy. Nearly half of their energy demands come from heating and cooling, and most of that usage could be cut dramatically–even eliminated–by making the building envelope tight and adding lots of insulation. So there IS some good news: our biggest energy consuming sector also has the lowest hanging fruit, and lots of it.

We can literally insulate our way to a much brighter energy future while insulating ourselves from the ever-higher cost of energy. Every highly insulated building is an energy miser forever. Every building weaned from fossil fuels is weaned forever. We can keep warm and cool without resorting to the energy-sucking equipment Frank Lloyd Wright wanted to rely on. The new paradigm shift recognizes that if we DON’T insulate sufficiently, we’ll probably be saddled with big, thirsty equipment running constantly at exorbitant financial and ecological cost.

This is one of those world-changing awakenings that doesn’t stem from any kind of brilliance, but instead comes from stupidity having a little less dominance. But it’s important change nevertheless, and it’s at least beginning to overwhelm the reign of ignorance. Builders, architects and homeowners across the country are proving that with enough insulation (including air-tightness) we can use smaller and simpler equipment and eschew fossil fuels entirely.

Insulation is, therefore, the obvious and simple answer to a big problem. Understanding insulation and using it effectively are key to achieving passive comfort and energy independence. There are no technological barriers to insulating our buildings more effectively and thereby lowering our national energy usage dramatically. You’d think that would be the end of it. We’d employ it, solve that problem, and move on to the next one. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, nor that simple.

First, it’s not that easy because the general public still has little interest in insulation. It’s invisible and boring. Like reinforcement in concrete, it’s often seen as kind of a cost nuisance rather than something you’d want to consider improving. Similarly, “out of sight, out of mind,” aptly explains why people don’t give much consideration to insulation. Knowing too little about the subject, people are often proud to announce that their home meets code requirements, as if that was like acing a test, instead of what it is: the lowest possible passing grade. Where “minimum” sounds like “maximum,”  “better” sounds like overdoing it. So we’ve been stuck insulating most of our buildings at the C- level or less for a long time.

Knowing that, consumer awareness is critical to implementing the massive energy reductions we can achieve with our buildings. President Obama tried to encourage people to have a little more respect for insulation when he jovially declared that it is “sexy stuff,” and “I get really excited about it.” Of course, that was fodder for many days of derision by the critics and comedians. But it’s no joke. We have a ways to go before people will commonly trade their noticeable A+ features for hidden A+ insulation.

Second, it’s not that simple because insulation is a deceptively complicated subject. And that’s the reason for this book. As Alex Wilson points out, “No other building element offers such a diverse range of materials, and complexity of considerations–environmental, human health, performance, and building science.” There are myriad materials, old and new, promising to be the better way to insulate—even as newer “innovative” products are coming out all the time. Attempting to understand the benefits and potential in all these options can easily get confusing and overwhelming.

Like the canoe adventurer (and canoeing author) that he is, Alex is our perfect guide. He’s been exploring both the quiet and turbulent waters of this subject, and delivers here an accessible guidebook that clarifies the issues in his typical objective, authoritative way. With the information packed into this small volume and Alex’s reassuring guidance, we’ll all feel just a bit more comfortable as we continue to chart our own routes toward a steady current of true sustainability in building performance.

Look for Alex Wilson’s important new book from BuildingGreen soon.