Monthly Archives: May 2010

Time to Up the Ante

In my last post, I was trying to make the argument that all new buildings need to have deep heating and cooling reduction as a primary requirement. It is clearly time to recognize thatmaking buildings that have little or no energy demands is as important as structural integrity and good design. Now our company is making the commitment to walk that kind of talk.

The dream of a more energy independent future will require investments. It won’t come free; we have to create and deploy the means of achieving it. If we do nothing, we’ll keep paying with short term financial and environmental costs, and continue darkening our long term prospects. If we invest in the right things, we have the ability to dramatically reduce our monthly energy costs while simultaneously becoming a part of the solution to the long-term environmental problems.The nice thing about this kind of stark choice is the clarity of it:

–Do what we’ve always done = continuous financial cost and looming environmental tragedy.
–Do all that we already know how to do right now = real financial savings and hope.

As a builder, I’ve spent my entire professional life working with determination to stand on the right side of that line in the sand. We’ve always been dedicated to passive solar design, high levels of insulation and tight enclosures. Our company has built many hundreds of well-designed and nicely crafted energy-efficient homes. They are our history and our legacy and give us much to be proud of, and we are.

But we’re not satisfied.

Therefore, we have decided that it’s time to “up the ante” on our building insulation. Our new standard wall insulation will be R-35. Since it also has our Open-Built system built-in, we are calling it the OBPlusWall.

OBPlus WallAs you can see by the illustration, it’s a relatively uncomplicated build-up. We’re using I-studs with advancedframing details on 2 ft. centers. The cavities are filled with “dense pack” cellulose, which gives us an environmentally benign and very tight and effective system as Paul Fisette (Building technology expert and professor at UMass/Amherst) points out in his report, CelluloseInsulation–A Smart Choice:

“The common standard by which insulation is measured, R-value, is the level of resistance to heat flow. R-value measures conductive resistance – the ability of a material to impede the flow of heat along the continuous chain of matter that makes up a solid material. Most of a home’s heat is typically lost through conduction. Cellulose is not unusual in this regard. Like many insulation materials,it provides an R-value of approximately R-3.5 per inch of thickness. But, air leakage through cracks, voids, and gaps is important, responsible for approximately one-third of an average home’s heat loss. Cellulose is a superb air-blocker. Heat and comfort are also lost through convection; when drafty currents of air within the house, wall cavities or attics, move heat to other locations. This is technically different from air leakage where the heated air mass is actually expelled from the home. Tightly packed cellulose provides a thermally efficient, cost effective, and comfortable solution.”

Along with the wall system upgrade, we will be doing parallel thermal performance improvements to our roof insulation systems, and we’ll specify higher performing windows and doors. Using the advantages of the precision that comes from CNC cutting, the control achieved in off-site fabrication, and special gaskets to seal between elements during site assembly, we’ll be able to achieve extraordinary energy performance on EVERY project. Of course, we can dial the insulation levels downward or upward, depending on climate, building size and other factors, but the constant goal is our intention to reduce energy requirements to a bare trickle.

The total improvement we are now committed to should make most of our homes (especially those that are 2500 square feet or less) Net-Zero capable.The trickle of energy they will require for heating and cooling will make small air-sourceheat pumps— or even ductlessmini-split heat pumps–practical. We can leave oil and gas furnaces behind. To power the electric energy needed for the heat pumps, our clients will be able to use reasonably-sized PV arrays and net-metering to potentially eliminate heating and cooling costs altogether.

It is time to take our homes off the list of things that drain our energy resources. A home should be a special place where people find renewal, comfort, security, and the intimate interaction of their closest and most loving relationships. One of our most important tasks is to find ways to make that sacred place positive in all respects, including its energy resource and environmental impacts.

And so we are proud to announce our OBPlusWall, a new standard for building insulation. We hope the homebuilding industry will join us in the attempt to create energy independence for our homes.


I’m about to propose an additional principle to the ancient architectural “Triad” asserted by Vitruvius over 2000 years ago. It’s a little like adding to the Ten Commandments, so the audacious idea deserves at least a little introduction and explanation.

I mentioned the Vitruvian legacy in my last post. His philosophy and writing from just before the 1st century have had an overwhelming influence on architecture since the time of Christ. Vitruvius’s Ten Books of Architecture were the “original” (and only surviving) architectural treatises for a full 1500 years, when they were revised and updated by Alberti in the mid 1400’s. A hundred years after Alberti came theFour Books of Architecture by Palladio, whose own practices and designs were also indebted to Vitruvius. And now, 500 years after Palladio, there aren’t many architects who can even claim to be standing on the shoulders of Vitruvius, Palladio, and the ancient architects; instead, much of of modern architecture remains in their shadow, still struggling to achieve formulations, methods and patterns as enduring and effective.

Da Vinci's Vitruvian manBiomimicry in architecture sounds like an edgy new idea, but over two millenniums ago, Vitruvius saw it as a basic characteristic of any architectural practice. He said that building design should always be an imitation of nature, which is why his study of order and proportion led him to investigate the proportions of a human body and to develop an understanding of the geometric foundation of nature’s patterns. After all, our need for shelter doesn’t separate us from nature, but rather comes from the same requirements and instincts that are common to all species. In the most primal sense, our homes are our nests, according to Vitruvius, making us all the more integrated with birds and the bees and the natural world around us.

When Vitruvius said that building architecture should strive toward the three goals of his Triad, he was also trying to describe what should arise from our natural instincts. To repeat them again here, they are (in Latin) Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas, or strong, functional and beautiful. It’s hard to argue with the simplicity and the obvious benefit of those three equally important objectives, but it also suggests an ideal that makes perfection elusive. Something could always be little better. It’s the pursuit and balance of the Triad’s imperatives that’s important. There isn’t a summit on that path.

While the Triad is as true and useful today as it was then, I’ll submit that it’s harder now to comply with the principles when each of the issues have been complicated, ironically, by our increased comforts, technology and knowledge.

Strong is now an entire science and a whole professional practice unto itself. Structural engineering makes what is and isn’t strong both very finitely definable, but also more easily undermined by mistakes or poorly executed details. Vitruvian strong might have been a bigger rock;strong today might be a series of weld joints or rafter ties with critically placed screws or nails. Strong today is also constantly being redefined as our bigger and more complex buildings have to ward off the most challenging slings and arrows of nature. Building engineering requirements are always catching up with the lessons from the last horrific hurricane or earthquake. The good news is we can calculate with some accuracy exactly how strong buildings are, but the bad news is that there’s usually a worst-case scenario for which even the best buildings aren’t prepared. In any event, engineers are in charge of firmatas.It isn’t overlooked.

Beautiful has never been an objective evaluation, but it’s always been easier to understand when the vernacular variation of individual buildings is intended to assimilate into–rather than disrupt–the local architectural character. On the other hand, we now have whole sections of the country in which some architectural disruption is warranted. Vitruvius and Palladio could never have imagined the repetition of banal design that would come to so dominate a country’s landscape. Beauty is a tough dictum when ugly is so dominant in the psyche of designers and consumers alike. To sort it all out, we now have “Design Review Boards” to dictate what is acceptably beautiful. But most of us think we know venustaswhen we see it. We long for it, and know we’re struggling to raise that standard.

Functional is a relative consideration at best, because at the extreme excessive end of the spectrum, it’s hardly rational. Must we design to accommodate 20 seat home theaters, an extra steam shower and a place to put fifty pairs of shoes? The obvious answer is that what functional means is defined by the owners and occupants, but sometimes one wishes there were limits, especially when these “requirements” compromise the quality of the building itself, with less consideration given to venustasand firmatas. Needs, desires, culture and economics all wrangle over what is meant by utilitas.

The passage of time is always kind to what is true and right, and has therefore confirmed the usefulness of the simple principles in the Triad. Despite our advancements and excesses, attention to those rules still makes buildings better. But to address the issues arising from our contemporary lifestyles, it seems that the Triad is now incomplete. Were they here, I think Vitruvius and the ancients would be quick to agree.

For all of the centuries that preceded the industrial era, nearly every building would have been LEED Platinum and Net-Zero. They were inherently recyclable, biodegradable and sustainable. The construction materials were natural and mostly came from the local area. There weren’t a lot of other options. In the winters, the buildings were expected to be cold; in the summers they were often hot; sometimes the temperature was “just right,” but no one expected their buildings to stay at consistent temperature year round. That kind of comfort hadn’t yet been invented.

It took the revolution of our industrialized civilization to create the technology and the lifestyle that caused buildings to be not energy efficient and not sustainable. We created the means and the demand for full-time, year-round, constant living environment temperature control. The cost of that kind of comfort, however, is too high. It has required too much consumption of a finite energy source and too much fouling of our planet. For the sake of comfort, we spend too much money, use too much energy and ruin the place where we live.

There’s an alternative. We can design and build homes and buildings of all types in which the heating and cooling loads are tiny enough to eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels. By making the demands small, we can use very simple and small electric heating and cooling systems and then offset the small amount consumption with relatively small PV arrays. Energy independence is really that simple and is practical now. It only requires that our buildings have more and better insulation, and a tighter, more diligently sealed envelope. The necessary building materials are off-the-shelf and mostly low-tech. The building science involved is well-researched and the information is widely available. All that’s left to make zero-energy buildings the new normal is to make it a top priority in all building design and construction.

Therefore, I humbly suggest that we add Parsus to Firmatas, Venustas and Utilitas. Our word parsimony is formed in part from parsus.It means thrift, frugality and extreme economy, and when applied to energy efficiency instead of money, the stinginess connotations are only virtues. Parsus deserves to be elevated to the Vitruvian platform. The Triad should become a Quatern.

We really don’t have a choice. Our lifestyle is unsustainable unless we reset our priorities and make radical energy reduction an inviolate objective for every building. We have to do what we cando. We can make buildings that don’t guzzle energy and trash our planet. An equal commitment to Parsus would make Vitruvius proud.

The Quatern: Firmatas, Venustas, Utilitas and Parsus.