Monthly Archives: October 2010

Insulate My Home

It requires the twisted neural pathways of the human brain to overcome natural instincts, making us sometimes dumber than our primal ancestors. You don’t need instructions to turn toward the sun for warmth or to put on a coat when it’s cold outside. And yet millions of homes are built without regard for solar orientation, and insulation still doesn’t merit much importance with both homeowners and builders across the country.

I’ve always thought these kinds of oversights were born of builder greed and confusion among homeowners. Builders and developers assume they can’t make as much money if energy efficiency had to be the first priority, and homeowners assume that building codes are protecting them from buying bad buildings, which is hardly the case. Somehow, this kind of anthropomorphic avarice and ignorance have disconnected us from the common sense born even to a mouse.

But surely, somewhere buried in our deep memory, people must innately know better. Wouldn’t people intuitively make the right decisions if making an energy efficient shelter wasn’t a choice but a life-preserving necessity?

Maybe not, if the implications of a recent study are accurate.

Researchers at Columbia University, Ohio State University and Carnegie Mellon University recently published a report called “Public Perceptions of Energy Consumption and Savings” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The idea of the study was to see if people understand the most effective things they can do to conserve energy.

The study’s 505 survey respondents basically got it backwards. They didn’t understand that efficiency improvements are far more effective than curtailment efforts. Therefore, turning out lights was the most cited way to save energy, rating far above using more efficient light bulbs. In reality, turning off lights is insignificant compared to replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs or LEDs. Similarly, respondents thought shutting off appliances when not in use was more effective than having energy efficient appliances. The opposite is true in that case too.

Here’s the summary table from the PNAS study:

Energy efficiency misunderstandings

This apparent lack of public understanding led Kirsten Korosec of the Bnet website (CBS affiliate) to write a column titled Energy Efficiency Industry Dragged Down by Our Stupid Selves. Korosec seems as concerned about industry market implications as she is about the energy problems that need attention:

In short, Americans don’t know the first thing about how to save energy. Their misconceptions, if changed, could have a very real impact on bottom lines of appliance companies like GE, energy-efficient automakers and retrofit specialists.
The unfortunate theme for appliance and light bulb manufacturers, car makers and contractors is that Americans — at least based on this survey — equate savings with changing their behavior, such as turning off the lights, and not investing in new products. Which means companies like GE have to work harder to make their advertising and marketing into educational campaigns.

I agree with Korosec, but this isn’t the part of the study jumped out at me. I have sympathy for the survey participants who didn’t know that the most energy efficient lights and appliances are THAT effective. You’d have to see the math that compares less use with less energy consumption. The facts are convincing, to be sure, but they clearly are not as obvious as we wish. There’s education to do here.

What startled me is that “insulate my home” was basically dead last in possible energy efficiency actions. It was the lowest scoring action item, falling just above “there’s no way/don’t know.” By far the most effective category on the survey list almost didn’t make the list. As a builder of high performance homes, this caught me by surprise.

“Insulate my home” even fell below “sleep more/relax more,” suggesting that the respondents thought going into a catatonic state might be a more useful solution. I was briefly inclined to say something more irreverent about this one, but I do respect the notion that slowing down in our frenetic world may be a pretty useful way to save energy. Still, if we were less superficially active, most likely we’d be spending more time in our poorly insulated homes, which would only further raise the importance of the “insulate my home” category.

The facts are simple. Buildings consume more energy than any other sector, as shown on this Architecture 2030 graph:

Energy consumption chart

And in homes, as in most buildings, heating and cooling is where the lion’s share of the energy goes:

Home energy use

There’s no doubt that we need to reduce every slice of the energy pie. Not only should we be replacing incandescent lights with CFLs and LEDs, we should be turning them off more too. We can double-down on more efficient appliances by unplugging power to them when not in use. And there’s nothing more efficient than a uber-efficient car that isn’t going anywhere. So the survey’s participants were at least partially right on these issues, but on the biggest piece of the energy pie, respondents got it all wrong and stuck it between not doing anything and giving up.

Since the late 1970’s, we’ve been building homes that are so well insulated that they won’t freeze, even in sub-zero weather and no auxiliary heat source. This is called “passive survivability” and it’s really not that hard to achieve. It requires only better insulating and sealing details and careful, knowledgeable work. This level of insulation should have been the American standard for the past 30 years. The energy savings accrued over the years would have been the equivalent of discovering a vast new oil reserve beneath all of us, one that requires no drilling and yet constantly delivers security and comfort.

In fact, in the last ten years we have come to the realization that we now have the capability to cut the “heating and cooling” half of the household energy usage completely off. We can make a different pie. If we commit ourselves to the task, we can make the heating and cooling loads of our homes so small that renewable energy sources can make up the difference.

The mantra for the future of American homebuilders should therefore be “Reduce the load. Reduce the load. Reduce the load.” Not very sexy, but it’s the key to our energy independent future. No good solutions are possible until all our homes are “low-load” because of extremely good insulation. When the energy requirements are tiny, a whole new world of really cool technologies can come into play and can make every home its own power plant.

However, that probably won’t happen until American homeowners across the land are heard to be chanting: “Insulate my home. Insulate my home. Insulate my home.”

Passive House Heroes

Over a week ago the New York Times ran a feature article in their Sunday edition entitled Can We Build in a Brighter Shade of Green? about the Passive House project we’ve been involved with. I discussed that same project in my last post on this blog. The NYTimes story (and video) hit a good nerve and was widely read, frequently emailed, and subsequently discussed on several green building blogs. Even though it brought up some of the obstacles to achieving the Passive House standard, there’s no doubt the article was a boost to the movement.

I was introduced to the Passive House idea in 1997 during one of my trips to Europe. A friend took me to see a house under construction that was going to be insulated so well that it wouldn’t require a heating system! It was exciting, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Twenty years earlier I had written about my dream of houses of the future with “energy-autonomous environments that consume no fossil fuels.”**

Even at the beginning of my career, I knew it would be eventually possible to unplug the fuel lines by maximizing the insulation, air tightness and passive solar contributions. I just didn’t know exactly how to do it. Leave it to the Germans to figure out how an idealistic notion could be a reality by solving the science, doing the math and therefore making Passive House an objective and achievable standard.

Over the years, I watched in frustration as the numbers of Passive Houses built in Europe kept rising by magnitudes while few people in the U.S. had even heard of the concept. By 2006, Passive House was reaching maturity in Europe and becoming commonplace. On one memorable Alps-crossing mountain biking trip, a builder-friend from Austria, a Professor from the University of Innsbruck and a carpenter from Germany talked over a lunch break about half a dozen PH projects they were separately involved with. I only listened and hoped to someday be “in” the conversation.

Finally, our company has built one. What took so long? I’ve believed in the idea since my early professional days and I’ve known about Passive House since its early days in Europe. More than most builders, I have no good excuse. I do have an explanation, though.

Until recently, I didn’t know Steve and Barbara Landau.

I can dream all I want, but I had no way of making our clients want one. We had nothing to show and no experience or costs to reference. The first of anything is always difficult. It’s hard to promote what you haven’t done.

So when the Landaus asked about our interest, the answer from myself and our team was immediate. We also offered to cut our costs, knowing there would be some learning-curve inefficiencies. As our work on the Landau house is done, I can say it’s been a rewarding experience, even without profit.

But is Passive House worth the cost in general? It depends on the calculation you use. If you use a cost-benefit analysis based on 2010 U.S. fuel costs, the answer might be no. If you think, as I do, that we should be building and calculating for multiple generations, then the answer is yes, many times over.

We can build homes that last centuries, not decades. My career has been dedicated to that proposition. We can also build homes that use NO fossil fuels during all those long years of service, for allthose generations of inhabitants, yielding a home that provides a rare brand of security and comfort. Tens of thousands of Passive Houses prove that. Put those two ideas–uncommon durability + uncommon energy efficiency–together and you will have a model for a sustainable future.

We need these model buildings to prove the possible. But more importantly, to prove the possible, we need model clients.

We need more Landaus.

These are people who are willing to put unselfish numbers into the denominator of their cost/benefit equation. Some calculations should be about OUR earth, not just MY bank account. If the equation is stretched out to 25 or 30 years, PH and Zero Net homes will almost always show a return. Do they need to make it back in ten? Why not 50? 100? 200? Is that too absurd? How about just the duration of the three generations most people know in their immediate family? If our time frame of consideration can’t stretch backward and forward to include the people we know and love, what hope is there?

That’s why the Landaus are my heroes. When the project started, their calculations were about maximizing energy efficiency, not demonstrating their own return on the cost investment.

Still, the Landaus struggled with the basic calculation of how to afford the kind of building that has no fuel lines. The substantial walls and roof cost more. Better windows cost more. Thick blankets of insulation under and around the foundation cost more. It’s a better building and itought to cost more. (It bothers me when PH proponents try to deny the added costs, as if it’s an embarrassment.)

To deal with the costs, the instinctual wisdom of the Landaus was to cut amenities and save costs on the finishes. What they understood was that they had one shot at building a good structure with the very best thermal characteristics, while the amenities and finishes could be added or upgraded at any time. They didn’t compromise the long-term layers of the building, while they willingly cut back on the short term layers.

Brilliant? Yes, but it should be obvious. When building homes, most builders and homeowners do the complete opposite. Typically, the structural and thermal performance of new homes is severely compromised to make room in the budget for better carpets, fancy light fixtures, all-around shower heads and the-mother-of-all-new necessities: the home theater. People seem convinced that the only things that matter in a home is what they can see and get entertained with, when what really matters most is mostly not visible.

How did the Landaus afford a Passive House? A simple approach; their own kind of math: they added to the envelope until they subtracted fossil fuels, then they subtracted the superficial until the substantial was affordable.

That is how good homes are built. Good builders need good clients and in that regard, we’ve been very fortunate. Over many years, we have been built many wonderful buildings. They are ALL tributes more to our clients than to us. We are in service to their aspirations. We are just grateful when they take us in new and better directions. Right now, I’m grateful for the Landaus.

I don’t think all our homes will be Passive Houses. That’s not necessarily my hope or expectation. On the other hand, I do think our entire country could learn from the Landaus about what is important and what is not; and therefore how to add and subtract, and about the number in the denominator that makes the cost/benefit consideration about building a better future; the one beyond ourselves.

**from Building the Timber Frame House: The Revival of a Forgotten Craft