Once again, some thought provoking writing from longtime sustainable architect and Treehugger columnist Lloyd Alter:

The best way to have our buildings use less energy is to insulate them really well. But for a long time, I have also been writing about the problems of insulating with plastic foam, even writing that Polystyrene insulation doesn’t belong in green building.

There were a number of reasons, including the fact that they are full of dangerous fire retardants, that the blowing agents were serious greenhouse gases, and that they were made from fossil fuels. That’s why I have often written that it is better to build foam free.

Green building is a series of tradeoffs and compromises. Remember, the greenest building is one that already exists.

Sustainability ultimately becomes a value engineering exercise — it’s just that not all of the “values” being engineered necessarily have to do with money or profit.

EPS foam can be a wonderful insulating material that can reduce the energy usage requirements for a building substantially. In the same way, phthalates and bitumen can make for some pretty impervious and resilient waterproofing materials. The dominance of vinyl over aluminum framed windows in the residential markets for the past couple decades have virtually eliminated claims of defective manufacturing, plus they tend to perform much better.

So in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, we need to rely on byproducts of the production of fossil fuels. No easy answers, to be sure.

Apple’s success as a company under Steve Jobs’ leadership was rarely about being first to market. Rather, Apple’s most successful products so far (Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch) were challengers in existing product categories (personal computing, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets, wearables).

Apple’s entry into established categories was disruptive and ultimately successful due to superior design, quality, and empathy for the end user.

Tesla’s dramatic move to develop solar PV roof tiles as part of a complete system has clearly caught the attention of the building industry. However, one of Tesla’s market advantages may prove to be one of its biggest challenges: As the single-source provider for the product, many well-established potential distribution channels — through remodeling contractors, retailers, and others — are eliminated.

Which makes the following news from Scott Gibson at Green Building Advisor so very interesting:

The Forward Labs product, called Solar Roofing, looks like a direct competitor to Tesla’s Solar Roof, in which solar cells are embedded in glass-topped shingles. Tesla started taking orders for its roofing several weeks ago.

Forward Labs says that all wiring connections for the roof are made inside the attic. A roof can be composed of solar and non-solar panels, with the mix depending on the amount of electricity the homeowner wants to produce. Solar and non-solar panels look the same, with roofing available in eight colors.

Non-solar roofing — galvanized standing-seam panels — cost $8.50 per square foot. Solar portions of the roof produce 19 watts per square foot; at Forward’s list price of $3.25 per watt, that’s an installed cost of $61.75 per square foot for the solar collectors. By contrast, the estimated cost of Tesla’s active PVPhotovoltaics. Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic (PV) cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. roofing is about $42 per square foot. (Tesla’s non-solar tiles are about $11 per square foot.) Tesla, however, has not disclosed the output of an individual tile. An analysis by PowerScout estimates that the price of energy generated by the Tesla roof is about $4.75 per watt.

What’s more? The CEO of Forward Labs claims that their product can be installed in about half the time of a conventional solar panel array.

Britain has a problem. Chances are, the problem that Britain is facing also affects many jurisdictions in the US. What is this problem?

Energy modeling — the process of using sophisticated software to predict future building performance — isn’t as accurate as some industry professionals would like to believe. In other words, the supposed energy efficiency gains that should be realized by implementing specific strategies are not matching real world performance results. And since energy modeling is often tied to various financial and other incentives, as well as driving major design decisions affecting thousands of recently constructed buildings, this is causing quite the controversy, and should be a real cause for concern here in the US.

The Telegraph has more on a study by researchers at the University of Bath:

The researchers found that the building modelling professionals could not agree on which aspects were important and which were not, or how much difference to the energy bill changes to them would make. A quarter of those interviewed were judged to be no better than if a member of the public had responded at random.

[…]

Co-investigator and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Dr Ian Walker added: “Given our findings about how the level of relevant education and experience don’t separate the good modellers from the bad, we are calling on the government for educational and policy change to work with industry and universities to increase efforts in improving building physics education.

The UK Green Building Council, the British counterpart to the USGBC, added the following:

John Alker, Director of Policy & Campaigns at the UK Green Building Council said: “ “There is no doubt that the majority of buildings do not perform as they were designed to do. This is widely known in the construction sector, and it is something that the industry needs to get to grips with.

“The so-called ‘performance gap’ occurs for a variety of complex reasons, and needs action by all those involved in the property life cycle – such as architects, engineers, contractors and facilities managers – not just building modelling professionals.

Life Cycle Assessments, also known as Life Cycle Impact Assessments (abbreviated as LCA and LCIA, respectively), provide objective measurements of the environmental impact of a given product from the procurement of its constituent raw materials, through production and manufacturing, all the way through to decommissioning and end of life (recycling or disposal).

In my mind, an LCA or LCIA is similar to looking at Total Cost of Ownership or TCO. Whereas TCO helps stakeholders understand the complete financial impact of a purchase decision, an LCA/LCIA helps stakeholders understand the total ecological impact of a purchase decision.

Writing for Triple Pundit, Harnoor Dhaliwal and Pete Dunn put together a fairly detailed look at what goes into a proper life cycle impact assessment study and why it matters. Here is an excerpt:

In LCIA, impacts are modeled in three distinct phases: fate, exposure and effect, as shown in Exhibit 1 below.

  • Fate modeling accounts for the characteristics of an emission and the environmental concentration it forms once released. This tells us where in the environment the emission ends up and its final concentration.
  • Exposure modelling looks at the intake level of the emission by considering various routes and modes of intake. In other words, how much of the emission gets eaten, drunk, inhaled, absorbed, etc. For ecosystems, exposure models consider the amount of the emission that becomes bioavailable (i.e., able to be taken up by organisms).
  • Once exposure is assessed, effect models link this information to known toxicity data at those intake levels. This allows us to assess the relative danger of exposure.

Life Cycle Impact Assessment is more and more factoring into sustainable design and construction, but as we continue to understand more about the health and other impacts of various products in the built environment, it is safe to assume that LCAs and LCIAs will only continue to influence our industry.

For some, green building and sustainability are aspirational goals. For those of us that have been working in sustainability on a professional level, we are always on the lookout for the next evolution in third party standards and certification to take our projects to the next level.

Beyond “net zero” energy and water — in which a project produces as much, if not more, energy and or water than it will use — the next step in sustainability is a concept known as regenerative design. Described as a process-based approach to design, the goal is to “restore, renew or revitalize their own sources of energy and materials, creating sustainable systems that integrate the needs of society with the integrity of nature.”

To that end, Martin Brown has authored a book called FutuREstorative, Working Towards a New Sustainability. In an excerpt from the book, published at GreenBiz, Brown advocates for the establishment of a new third party standard for regenerative design:

While challenging traditional sustainability standards is now urgent and vital, it is important to remember that new regenerative standards start from different perspectives. The established certification standards (BREEAM, LEED, Green Star) emerged from an energy-environment-economics paradigm whose key driver was, and remains, energy performance and prevention of damage to the environment, within economic boundaries.

New restorative standards such as the Living Building Challenge and WELL Building Standard are, foremost, philosophies based on a set of ecological or health values. Secondly, they are advocacy tools for promoting a better way of addressing the design, construction and operation of buildings. Thirdly, they are a building certification or recognition-of-achievement scheme…

But it is a disruption that is necessary. And in many ways the scene is set, with the digitalization of design, construction and operation through Building Information Management approaches, the increase in smart, Internet of Things technologies in buildings, the popularity of the LEED Dynamic Plaque and other real-time sustainability monitors. All of which have the potential, individually or more rapidly through converging, to disrupt sustainability standards.

Well worth a read, if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of where sustainability in the built environment is headed to next.

Water efficiency is the next major issue impacting the built environment after energy efficiency. (Not that we’ve necessarily solved the issue of energy efficiency…) Despite the fact that our planet’s surface is 2/3 water, protecting this natural resource is of utmost importance to human survival.

The best way to reduce water usage is to reuse water through reclamation. One obstacle to further implementation (including mandatory requirements) of water reclamation systems is a lack of peer-reviewed research including life cycle assessments (LCAs) of such systems.

Until now, that is. Phys.org reports on a new study based on the decentralized water system implemented by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens’ Center for Sustainable Landscapes:

“Evaluating the Life Cycle Environmental Benefits and Trade-Offs of Water Reuse Systems for Net-Zero Buildings,” published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.6b03879), is the first-of-its-kind research utilizing life-cycle assessment (LCA). Co-authored by Melissa M. Bilec, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt and deputy director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation (MCSI), collaborators at Phipps included Richard Piacentini, executive director; and Jason Wirick, director of facilities and sustainability management. Pitt PhD graduate student, Vaclav Hasik, and Pitt undergraduate, Naomi Anderson, were first and second authors, respectively…

Dr. Bilec noted that while the research found that a decentralized water system operates well for a facility like the CSL, the environmental benefits or trade-offs for such systems are dependent upon their lifetime of use, and may not necessarily be practical or environmentally preferable. For example, a similar system might be more environmentally and economically efficient for a development of multiple homes or buildings, rather than one structure.

Conversely, the relative impact of a decentralized system built in a water-scarce region may be more beneficial than its environmental footprint. The decision of what water system to build and its scale, she says, should be evaluated within the context of the entire life of the structure or site it supports.

(Via Construction Dive)

Apparently, the Hartford, CT Mark Twain House & Museum contains an amazing collection of artifacts collected by Samuel Clemens throughout his life. Sadly, however, much of that collection has been threatened by mold growth caused by a faulty HVAC system.

According to Susan Dunne of the Hartford Courant:

In November 2015, mold was found in the storage facilities of the historic home’s museum center, tainting at least 5,000 of the museum’s 16,000 artifacts. The vulnerable pieces are varied: 19th-century furniture, upholstery, metal, glass and leather items, as well as books, including some Twain first editions and translations, whose fabric and leather bindings are conducive to mold growth. The spread of the mold has been halted for the time being — the HVAC system has been repaired and the archive’s relative humidity is being carefully monitored — but the task remains to remove the mold that already is there…

More specifically, the cause was related to a rather sophisticated geothermal heat pump system designed to use substantially less energy than more traditional HVAC systems.

“The motors in the geothermal wells that moderate the temperature in the building would break down regularly,” Lamarre said. “One of the wells malfunctioned, causing enormous pressure to build up in the system. The pipes in the mechanical room burst in multiple places, causing water to flood down the back hall of the museum center. The auditorium was flooded with a foot and a half of water.”

“The explosion of the geothermal well led to an increase in the humidity problem in the building at large because the decision was made to cap the wells instead of repairing them,” he said.

This isn’t the first time the historic home and museum has faced operational issues, however. From 2002 through 2010, a former employee of the organization embezzled more than $1-million. In 2008, the organization laid off 33 of its 50 employees following a financial restructuring.

Without a doubt, the biggest rising trend in the architecture, engineering and construction industry is health and wellness. In the mid-80s, the World Health Organization released a report on the impact of indoor air quality on building occupants. Perhaps the most damning portion of the report was the finding that “energy-efficient but sick buildings often cost society far more than it gains by energy savings.”

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