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.

Adele Peters, writing for Fast Company:

At a construction site on Google’s new Bay View campus–a few miles from its headquarters in Mountain View, on NASA-owned land near the San Francisco Bay–cranes lift tubing high in the air and drop it into holes that descend 80 feet into the ground. It’s a step that will allow three new office buildings to heat and cool themselves without fossil fuels, setting apart from nearly all existing offices, which use enormous amounts of energy to manage the temperature in their spaces.

The system uses geothermal heat pumps, relying on the steady 65-degree temperature of the ground to absorb and reject heat. Excess heat from the buildings can also be sent into the ground to be stored until it’s needed.


It’s one piece of an overall design for the campus that aims for LEED Platinum certification, the highest level possible in the sustainability rating system for buildings. Outside, 20 acres of open space will be planted with native species. Stormwater will be collected and treated for reuse in on-site ponds. (Materials will be vetted through Google’s healthy materials requirements.) The windows–which fill the space with natural light–are treated with a pattern that helps birds avoid crashing into the glass. The windows can also automatically shade themselves and darken at night to reduce light pollution. Electricity use, as in other Google campuses, will be offset by renewable energy. By using heat pumps, the company will reduce its carbon footprint even further.

Kudos to Google for making sustainability, resilience and building performance such high priorities in their building program. By the numbers:

  • Heat pumps will provide 95% of cooling for the buildings, the other 5% will be made up by a cooling tower
  • Ground temperature at the site tends to stay around 65 degrees, but by concentrating heat from the pumps, the interior temperature can be raised
  • 2,500 of 4,500 of the piles supporting the foundation will serve a dual purpose as “energy piles”
  • To pull this feat off will require 69 miles of tubing, making it the largest heat pump system in North America

Once again, the incredibly brilliant minds at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zurich) have announced innovative processes and materials for a better built environment. Phys.org has the story:

Researchers from ETH Zurich have built a prototype of an ultra-thin, curved concrete roof using innovative digital design and fabrication methods. The tested novel formwork system will be used in an actual construction project for the first time next year.

A prototype for an ultra-thin, sinuous concrete roof using innovative design and fabrication methods has been designed and built by researchers from the ETH Zürich. The shell is part of a roof-top apartment unit called HiLo that is planned to be built next year on the NEST, the living lab building of Empa and Eawag in Dübendorf. The penthouse will provide living and work space for guest faculty of Empa. Researchers led by Philippe Block, Professor of Architecture and Structures, and Arno Schlüter, Professor of Architecture and Building Systems, want to put the new lightweight construction to the test and combine it with intelligent and adaptive building systems.

The self-supporting, doubly curved shell roof has multiple layers: the heating and cooling coils and the insulation are installed over the inner concrete layer. A second, exterior layer of the concrete sandwich structure encloses the roof, onto which thin-film photovoltaic cells are installed. Eventually, thanks to the technology and an adaptive solar façade, the residential unit is expected to generate more energy than it consumes.

Here is a video of the new ultra-thin concrete roof:

Previously, ETH Zurich was featured here on AECforensics.com for their innovative combination of robots and 3D printing. That project also involved some really advanced applications of specialized concrete.

[via ConstructionJunkie]

Lloyd Alter, writing for Treehugger:

According to Jacob Atalla of KB Home, “The best way to predict the future is to make it.” So he and others in the building industry often build model concept homes to test out ideas. Michele Lerner of the Washington Post talks to a few people in the industry to get a sense of what’s coming next.

“When we imagine the home of the future and look at innovations, it’s important to answer two questions,” said Matt Power, editor in chief of Green Builder media in South Portland, Maine. “Just like you ask yourself about relationships, you should ask, ‘Does this make your life better?’ And if the answer is yes, then ask yourself from an ethical point of view, ‘Does this reduce my impact on the Earth?’ ”

Alas, when you look at what they are actually proposing, it doesn’t have a lot to do with reducing impact on the earth. They pay lip service to energy consumption, but it is all about adding stuff.

As always, Alter has exposed the raw nerve of the building industry that ultimately holds progress up for the entirety of civilization: complacency.

Cramming more gadgets and features into the home only results in planned obsolescence, and yet more crap to eventually make its way to a landfill.

We can, and should do better as an industry.


Concrete is a really amazing building product that provides strength and protection, particularly when reinforced with steel, or when combined with various admixtures. Unfortunately, concrete is extremely costly to produce in terms of its environmental impact.

By some accounts, concrete production results in the release of a ton of carbon, for every ton of concrete. For that reason, researchers are constantly looking at ways to improve concrete’s sustainability while still benefitting from its contribution to more resilient structures and assemblies.

To that end, researchers at the University of British Colombia have developed a novel new cementitious concrete-like product that has some amazing properties. ArchDaily’s Patrick Lynch has more:

Called EDCC (eco-friendly ductile cementitious composite), the material is engineered at the molecular level to react similarly to steel – with high strength, ductility and malleability. When sprayed onto the surface of traditionally poured interior concrete walls, it reinforces against seismic intensities as high as the magnitude 9.0-9.1 earthquake that hit Tohoku, Japan in 2011.

“We sprayed a number of walls with a 10 millimetre-thick layer of EDCC, which is sufficient to reinforce most interior walls against seismic shocks,” says Salman Soleimani-Dashtaki, a PhD candidate in the department of civil engineering at UBC. “Then we subjected them to Tohoku-level quakes and other types and intensities of earthquakes—and we couldn’t break them.”

Combining cement, polymer-based fibers, fly ash and other industrial additives, EDCC is also surprisingly environmentally-sustainable – nearly 70 percent of the cement required in traditional formulas is replaced with fly ash, a prevalent industrial waste product.

Here’s a video:

Massive earth moving equipment ranks among some of the heaviest and most costly machinery in the world, outside of experimental particle physics, of course…

Not surprisingly, the mostly diesel-powered mammoth vehicles typically employed for major infrastructure projects require a great deal of that diesel fuel to get the job done. Considering that in many such projects, vehicles and crews are run around the clock, the environmental impact of the operations are huge. But the situation may shift fairly dramatically.

According to Jonathan Gitlin, writing for Ars Technica, a Komatsu quarry truck has been outfitted by Kuhn Schweiz and Lithium Storage to use a 700 kWh battery to replace the diesel plant. And the results are astonishing:

The e-Dumper has been in the works for a couple of years now, during which time its battery capacity has grown from the original 600kWh to what is now the equivalent of seven top-of-the-line Teslas. The cells in question are nickel-manganese-cobalt, 1,440 of them in total, weighing almost 10,000lbs (4.5 tonnes). And once the team has found space in the chassis for all of that energy storage, the idea is for the e-Dumper to spend the next decade trundling between a Swiss cement quarry and the Ciments Vigier works near Biel.

Here’s the really cool part: each round trip actually generates electricity. Because the e-Dumper goes up the mountain empty and descends carrying 71 tons (65 tonnes) of rock, it captures 40kWh on the way to the cement works via regenerative braking. But climbing back up to the quarry only requires 30kWh, so every trip will feed an extra 10kWh into the local electricity grid. Not bad when you then consider that the e-Dumper will be doing that trip 20 times a day.

Of course the true environmental impact of massive machines like the e-Dumper (sounds like the name of a potty-training app for kids…) isn’t limited to the use of fossil fuels. But at least this seems like a step in the right direction.

San Diego’s Building Industry Association played host to an outstanding and dynamic presentation earlier this morning on the topic of energy and the 2016 California building codes that went into effect at the beginning of this year.

The panelists included a great mix of building professionals and thought leaders that don’t merely speculate on the impact of green building — they live it:


Kevin Nute, writing for the Washington Post:

A building’s primary purpose may be to keep the weather out, but most of them do such an effective job of this that they also inadvertently deprive us of contact with two key requirements for our well-being and effectiveness: nature and change.

In the 1950s, Donald Hebb’s “arousal theory” established that people need a degree of changing sensory stimulation to remain fully attentive. And 30 years later, landmark research by health-care designer Roger Ulrich showed that hospital patients in rooms with views of nature had lower stress levels and recovered more quickly than patients whose rooms looked out at a brick wall.

Unfortunately, many buildings — especially in cities — are not blessed with green surroundings. I am part of a group of architects and psychologists at the University of Oregon that has been examining ways to overcome this problem using an aspect of nature available anywhere: the weather. Think of rippling sunlight reflecting from water onto the underside of a boat, or the dappled shadows from foliage swaying in a breeze. Other examples can be seen at vitalarchitecture.org.

How a building’s design, use of materials, the amount of natural air and light allowed, and — perhaps most importantly — how it is operated, all have measurable and well-established impacts on building occupants.

As Megan Fowler point out at ArchDaily in response, these concepts shouldn’t be reserved solely for new buildings, but in fact, we desperately need to apply them to the existing buildings that make up the vast majority of our building stock.

The dilemma of course, is how do you allow more weather in, while simultaneously protecting occupants (and sensitive building components) from that weather in order to comply with basic building code requirements? Besides integrating advanced technologies into the design and construction process, I predict this challenge will become critical to the future of our industry in coming years.

Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen reports:

Alphabet Inc.’s secretive X skunk works has another idea that could save the world. This one, code named Malta, involves vats of salt and antifreeze.

The research lab, which hatched Google’s driverless car almost a decade ago, is developing a system for storing renewable energy that would otherwise be wasted. It can be located almost anywhere, has the potential to last longer than lithium-ion batteries and compete on price with new hydroelectric plants and other existing clean energy storage methods, according to X executives and researchers.

Where does the salt and antifreeze come in?

Two tanks are filled with salt, and two are filled with antifreeze or a hydrocarbon liquid. The system takes in energy in the form of electricity and turns it into separate streams of hot and cold air. The hot air heats up the salt, while the cold air cools the antifreeze, a bit like a refrigerator. The jet engine part: Flip a switch and the process reverses. Hot and cold air rush toward each other, creating powerful gusts that spin a turbine and spit out electricity when the grid needs it. Salt maintains its temperature well, so the system can store energy for many hours, and even days, depending on how much you insulate the tanks.

Molten salt is the medium used for several high capacity solar energy production facilities, so it is a somewhat proven technology. Should be interesting to see what the real-world data shows as far as efficiency goes once this system goes online.

One very interesting tidbit from the article states that California discarded more than 300,000 megawatt hours of solar energy due to a lack of viable storage options.

Solar panels leveraging photovoltaic (PV) technology to convert sunlight into electricity are notoriously inefficient. According to research by the International Energy Agency, one way to improve PV efficiency is through the implementation of Statistical Performance Monitoring combined with some advanced machine-learning.

In their report, the researchers identified 4 different methodologies for improving solar panel efficiency, all of which depend on constant monitoring:

The first system for residential solar analytics was developed in Australia, where solar irradiation data is made available free of charge by the government. This system comprises a simple energy meter installed on the PV system feed into the electrical power‐distribution box that collects data. Using statistical analysis, the data on generated electricity is compared to an expected generation profile from the irradiation data and system configuration. The system owner has access to real‐ time electricity generation data and fault diagnosis that identifies issues and what to check if performance was not as expected.

The second system uses machine learning to predict next day’s hourly production by small residential systems for aggregation into virtual neighborhood power plants for the benefit of grid managers. This system requires only inverter data feed to the system server. The algorithms work on the inverter feed and meteorological prediction extracted from commercially available meteorological servers. No irradiation data or system configuration data is required. Applying these algorithms on yesterday’s weather history, as opposed to weather predictions, produces an immediate indication of system health. Tracking daily system health, which is simplified to qualitative ratings from A to F, enables even the smallest system to positively ascertain that the system is performing as expected or that a service call should be made.

Fault prediction is the topic of the third system described in this report, which is also based on machine‐learning algorithms. Clustering statistical methods are used to predict future faults that will affect power production. This system requires only an inverter data feed and access to historical meteorological data extracted from commercially available meteorological servers. No irradiation data or system configuration data is required. This system has proven so far to predict future 9 loss due to faults, though work continues to classify the specific fault that will occur in order to enable the owner to undertake appropriate preemptive corrective action.

The fourth method is only theoretical it seems, and involves “application of artificial neural networks.” That’s a topic for another time…