DJC Green Building Blog

With Finn Hill Junior High, team learned from past mistakes

Posted on December 23, 2010

In this week's DJC, I've got a story on the replacement of a school in Kirkland called Finn Hill Junior High that has a number of interesting elements to it.

First, the project will have a 400-kilowatt photovoltaic system that will produce almost half of the school's energy. Second, the school is "net zero energy ready," meaning it could produce all its own

Image courtesy Mahlum. Finn Hill from the air.
energy if the Lake Washington School District chooses to blanket the rest of its roof with solar panels. Third, and perhaps most interestingly, the school benefited from mistakes made at another school. Mistakes that might not have been discovered or identified without post occupancy surveys.

Oftentimes when little things go wrong on a project, nobody notices. The benefit of a post occupant study is that it looks at how a building performs once it is actually in use, allowing the team to go back and fix any problems that may have come up. Unfortunately, post occupancy studies are not always (or often in some cases) required on projects. Meaning something tiny - the wrong setting or a switch that was never flipped - can waste energy for years.  It can also be unclear who pays for post occupancy studies, though many firms in the Seattle area are using them more and more.

But most firms won't tell you when something's gone wrong. However Mahlum has spoken publicly about failures a previous project - Benjamin Franklin Elementary - had meeting its energy goals.  The failures were fixed but the really cool thing is that the firm is willing to talk about what it did wrong

The Finn Hill Junior High School entry, courtesy Mahlum
and then talk about what it has changed and is now doing right. Pretty much no one will tell you these things on the record. Anne Schopf, design partner at the firm, has advocated for more sharing of such information to let firms learn from other's mistakes.

Anjali Grant, project manager with Mahlum, said the school lost a lot of heat at Ben Franklin through its ventilation system. At Finn Hill, heat recovery units will capture heat in the ventilation system. There will be a mixed-mode system, allowing it to be naturally cooled when it is warm out and mechanically ventilated when it is cold to preserve heat.

It will do a post occupancy study of Finn Hill about a year after it has been occupied. “I think its really important to go back and check out the numbers after a project is done and occupied, otherwise you don't really know anything. It's really a good value for everybody,” Grant said.

For the new year, I wish other firms would tell you, easily and simply, what they've done wrong and what they've done right. A tough wish I know but like Grant says, it's a good value for everybody. Feel free to email me at katiez@djc.com or comment here if want to share your Seattle area experiences.

Happy holidays.

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Green Trends for 2010…. what’s going to be hot?

Posted on December 30, 2009
What does the future hold?
Generally, I'm not one for predictions. So I'm letting Parsons PR be psychic for me. Parsons, a local public relations group that only represents sustainable clients, recently issued this list of green trends for 2010. Here's what they think is going to be hot. What do you think? Do we agree?
According to Parsons, here's what we should be paying attention to:
  1. Green wallsGreen roofs were all the rage in 2009 and their numbers will continue to grow - but why stop there? Incorporating green walls into a building’s design creates additional opportunities to reap the benefits of vegetative surfaces: added insulation; reduced stormwater runoff; absorption of pollutants; natural habitat for birds, bees and butterflies; and reduced outside noise.
  2. Living Buildings – More comprehensive than LEED Platinum and beyond net zero, the Living Building Challenge is the highest standard of sustainability in the built environment. Functioning as complete, natural and self-sufficient systems, Living Buildings represent a radical step forward in green building when there is growing consensus that the time for baby steps is past. 2010 will be a big year for Living Buildings; four years after the launch of the Challenge, the first Living Buildings are finally expected to be certified.
  3. Green retrofitting – President Obama is planning a new federal economic stimulus plan that will train workers in home energy audits and green retrofits.  New and green is sexy, but the bulk of the opportunity to address energy efficiency lies with our existing inventory of buildings.
  4. Indoor Air Quality – With one in four Americans suffering from allergies and/or asthma and with Americans spending 90% of their time indoors, tighter and more energy-efficient homes demand more attention to IAQ.  The EPA has updated rules coming on line in 2010 with new requirements for remodeling work to reduce the harmful impacts on children and adults.
  5. Green neighborhoods – An individual green building is great, but again, why stop there? It’s time to make the whole neighborhood green too. Walkability, transit-oriented development, smart growth principles ? all elements of a green neighborhood.
  6. Green modular – Mostly factory-built and assembled onsite, modular housing poses several benefits - monetary savings, reduced material waste and less time onsite, for starters ? that will propel the green building movement forward in 2010.
  7. LED lights – Commercially and in homes, LED lights will become more mainstream in 2010. Previous problems in design and distribution are being corrected. And even though LED lights are still a little pricey, consumers are getting savvier about the life cycle assessment of the products they choose, as well as the long-term pay-off of using a more sustainable lighting alternative.
  8. Environmental labels – Like the nutrition labels on food, green building labels offer easy-to-digest data and performance metrics for building materials.
  9. Performance countsWe’ve seen the modeling for green buildings, now we want to see some results. In other words, prove it! In 2010, expect to see more and more studies from academia, non-profits and corporate America that document the rental premiums, cost savings, health benefits and long-term investment value of green.
  10. Updating community and homeowner association rules – Rules hindering environmentally-friendly behavior are being overturned: clotheslines are back, white roofs are okay, and compost bins and recycling containers are a point of pride, rather than hidden away.
P.S. If green trends is your thing, Sustainable Industries will be hosting a free Webinar on the topic Jan. 6. More info here.
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LEED vs. Green Globes – watch our state duke it out

Posted on February 19, 2009

In today's marketplace, so many things claim to be "green" that it can be really, really tough to decipher what's green and what's greenwashing. Sometimes, green measures even conflict with each other.

Apparently, that's the case with LEED and Green Globes, at least in Washington State. Green Globes,

Green certifications duke it out!
administered in the U.S. by the Green Building Initiative, is a green building certification that I have only come across a few times in my travels. LEED is by far and without question the more prominent certification of the two.

However, LEED's prominence is due in large part to its inclusion in state and city government incentives and requirements. For example, Washington State requires major buildings meet LEED silver or higher to receive public funding. Seattle requires developers meet at least LEED silver to receive a density bonus. Those requirements have gone a long way towards making Washington a leader in its number of LEED certified buildings, and LEED projects on the board.

Senate Bill 5384 would change the state mandated requirements by adding the Green Globes standard as an alternative to LEED silver.

Now, it might surprise some to learn that Cascadia, the region's go-to organization for green building, is lobbying hard against this. But then again Cascadia is part of the U.S. Green Building Council and the U.S. Green Building Council created LEED, so it stands to reason that it would support LEED certification. The bill is also opposed by the Washington Environmental Council and the Washington Conservation Voters, which represents many different environmental organization statewide.

An advocacy e-mail appeared in my in-box today asking readers to call state legislators to make sure

A truly green globe
Green Globes is not included in state law as an alternative to LEED. The e-mail says "Green Globes was created by the timber and chemical lobbies as a much weaker alternative to LEED," and that it is untested, funded by industry and requires no third party verification. 

I don't know enough about Green Globes to report on whether any of the above allegations are true. I know board members of GBI represent a number of different interests from universities to business. I know a number of industry organizations heavily support their initiatives (though to be fair, industry also supports USGBC).

I also know the actual bill, available here, has a piece in it stating all major projects receiving state funds that are four stories or under must use wood and wood products as building materials in them. Not sure how that fits into the point of the bill and it seems a little odd to me but make of it what you will.

If you're interested in this topic, Architect Online has an excellent rundown of the two systems by Christopher Swope here that I highly suggest reading. Swope points out that LEED could benefit from a bit of competition.

For still more information, visit GreenbuildingsNYC here.

What do you think? Is LEED too restrictive and is Green Globes the way to go? Is Green Globes a less strict certification? Weigh in by commenting below!

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How do we change the market, developers and lawyers ask

Posted on February 6, 2009

This week, I attended a conference hosted by The Seminar Group on sustainable development and green buildings. Among many interesting topics, one theme kept coming up over and over again: if we want green buildings and other parts of sustainability to catch on, we need to change the market.

Is consumerism the answer to a new society?

Is consumerism the answer to a new society?

Hmmm. How to do that.

Susan Drummond of Foster Pepper said it comes down to how we make our money. Many industries, she said, make money on the idea of more. As a lawyer, she bills by the hour to make more. Utilities make more the more power they make. A developer makes more with more projects, as does a contractor.

But the production of more, she said, itself depends on the supply of natural capital, or those natural aspects we make money off of... like oil, or trees or vegetables. She said that frontier of natural capital is closing. And if it is closing, businesses need to adapt and create new, sustainable models of working.

But there are different interests - from transportation to land use to renewable energy - that need to be addressed. Together, they resemble a herd of cats. And how do you herd cats, she asked? By moving their food. So business needs to look at strategies that move the food bowl. (This is what the entire conference was about. Moving the bowl in looking at new strategies for transportation, land use etc.)

Later in the conference the idea of a changing market came up again when, A-P Hurd, a vice president of local developer Touchstone, spoke. One problem with the local market, she said, is essentially that things are too cheap. Water is cheap. Energy is cheap. And if they are cheap, there's not much of an incentive to save it.

"We are going to have to, at the very least, reflect the cost of providing these things to the people, " she said. "If the market is going to find the ability to innovate, it is going to need to find a way to get a payback on that innovation."  

It sounds complex. But Drummond said it really comes down to one thing:

"Frankly, all we are doing is changing how we shop," she said. That applies to your home, your food, your car. Instead of asking what's in it for me, we need to expand our view and ask 'what's in it for humanity?'  

Is that really all it is? Changing how we shop? Can the market be transformed by thoughtful consumerism? And if so, how do you harness that change.....

What do you think?

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Did we learn anything from ‘snowpocalypse?’

Posted on December 29, 2008

Now that the very last remnants of 'snowpocalypse' are gone, I thought it would be a good time for the DJC Green Building Blog to ask "just what did we learn?"

(For those of you not in the Seattle area, a thick blanket of snow carpeted the Pacific Northwest for most of the past week and a half. In Seattle, this amounts to a once-every-15-years-event).

As a city there weren't many surprises: we learned Seattle doesn't really know how to deal with snow and local drivers understand how it works even less.

But as individuals did we connect to our immediate environments a little bit more? I did. I live in a very walkable neighborhood with a market, restaurants and a coffee shop all across the street. A little further away there's a retail district and a movie theatre. I walk to these places constantly and use them frequently.

But here's the thing: beind snowed in forced me to think about my local amenities differently. No longer did I have the choice to drive to the movie theatre. If I wanted to go, I had to walk. And if I wanted other entertainment not across the street, well I had to reconsider just how much I wanted that too. Was I willing to walk for it?

Cutting out the choices shifted my perspective. If city planners ever hope to make the car a defunct item, that's the kind of space they're going to need to create.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who was thinking differently: all of my local restaurants were packed whenever I passed by them (even sushi.) People I know who never take the bus were doing it. Or walking to places they had never considered walking to.

The Seattle Times  reported on local retailers seeing big foot trafffic. Looking back on the week and a half, it was annoying, yes. But having Mother Nature limit my choices for me was also kind of nice.

Green building is about creating a structure that gives back to its community a little bit more than the standard product. But a green building in the middle of nowhere only does so much good. Sustainable living, on the other hand, is about creating a community that doesn't just take but gives back. In a way, the snow made me give back more to my community because it forced me to interract even more with it.

There's a kind of momentum there, if a city could only capture it. But how is it possible to capture a forced locality, if you will, and turn it into better urban planning? It seems like there's a great opportunity there, if only someone would step up and find a way to take it.

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Are heated, unvented crawlspaces really a good idea?

Posted on October 6, 2008

This post is by Gary Nordeen of the Washington State University Extension Energy Program.

Building your new house with a heated and unvented crawlspace seems to be the fashionable thing to do lately. Read any energy magazine, website or ask an energy expert and they will talk about the merits of this construction method. The question is, “Are conditioned crawlspaces better than vented crawlspaces in every climate zone including the Pacific Northwest?” I say no and here is why.
Do you really want this under your floor?
Do you really want this under your floor?
This issue has been discussed for as long as I have been in this business – over 20 years. The unvented crawlspace bandwagon really gained traction after an excellent study of a test house in the Southwest was published by Advanced Energy. To see it, click here and look under “Princeville Field Study Final Technical Report”.

Essentially what it documented is when you have a vented crawlspace in a warm, humid climate the floor framing is prone to rot. In this climate, your house is often being mechanically cooled (which also cools the crawl space), warm, humid air enters the crawlspace through the vents and condenses on the cold framing members. Eventually the house may develop rot and mold problems. I agree in this climate scenario that closed crawlspaces are a great idea to maintain structural integrity. Also, if there are ducts in the crawl space, any duct losses are now contained inside the building. Note the radon differences between the two crawlspaces and keep in mind that Princeville, NC is considered a low risk radon location by EPA.

Since this construction method is catching on nationally, WSU Energy Program received funding to test houses in our state to determine if this is the way to go in the Pacific Northwest. Here is a description of the results from David Hales, Lead Researcher on this project:

nbec-logo-sq-3color
“We've recently completed research on sealed and vented crawlspaces in the Pacific Northwest. The results are not yet published but based on our experience with four homes in Vancouver and four in Moses Lake that we monitored for about 18 months, the sealed crawlspaces (without supply air but power vented to the outside) maintained very stable temperatures through the entire heating season in the 55 to 60 degree range. The crawl should be kept negative to the house. Based on tracer gas studies we found that in the typical vented crawl, approximately 40% of the house air came from the crawlspace in the winter. By power venting a sealed crawl (50 cfm 24/7 in 1000ft2) less than 6 percent of the house air came from the crawl. Because of higher dilution rates and additional factors radon levels at both sites were less than 2 piC/l in the vented crawls but at the same sites radon levels were from 12-16 piC/l (EPA states radon mitigation should happen when a house has radon levels of 4 picocuries per liter or higher) in the sealed crawls. From an energy standpoint there is a small penalty overall for the sealed crawl that gets worse if you actually add supply air to the space. If a cold floor is your primary concern, I would insulate the floor and not provide heat to the crawl. Over the life of the building this would be the most cost effective way to maintain a warm floor.

Based on this research we are preparing to make a recommendation to the Building Code Council that would allow conditioned crawls under some circumstances. However, in most areas of the Northwest they incur an energy penalty and an added expense that I don't think is really justified. Some jurisdictions have been allowing them but a strict interpretation of the WA State Energy Code does not. I believe that if they are done they should be power vented to the exterior and should not have conditioned supply air directly introduced. I also think they should not use fiberglass batts for the perimeter wall insulation. Radon mitigation is a must.”

The power vented crawl may have an advantage from an IAQ perspective because as our testing showed, it is possible to substantially reverse the winter time stack effect and decouple the house from any contaminants that may be in the crawl. The problem with this is that it requires the continuous operation of an exhaust fan. If the fan fails and is not replaced, the IAQ may actually become worse because the air now entering the house does not benefit from the passive dilution that takes place in the vented crawl.

So it seems that from an energy efficiency and indoor air quality perspective unvented crawl spaces are not a benefit here but let’s not forget about the ducts. If you have ducts in a crawl space they leak - it’s just a matter of how much. Here’s a radical concept. Instead of moving your house around your ducts, why don’t you design your house with the ducts inside your house? Then duct leakage is not a problem. If you can’t get them inside your house make sure they are sealed well (with mastic, NOT duct tape) and test them with a DuctBlaster.
 
Finally, here is a statement we hear a lot: “I have a water problem in my crawl space so I’m going to seal it up and heat it.” 
 Fix the water problem or you will end up with a science project under your floor.

Readers, do you agree with Gary?

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How big is your “ecological footprint” – and what is it anyway?

Posted on August 25, 2008

Sometimes, I get really cool things in my in-box. The Earth Day Network Ecological Footprint Calculator is one of those things.

The calculator, created by the Global Footprint Network and launched today, measures how many planets it would smallcow.jpgtake to sustain your lifestyle. Like most calculators, you go through a series of questions, pick the answers that fit your lifestyle and watch the results come in. But there are two things that set this calculator apart from the pack: the interactivity and the measurement of an ecological footprint.

First the interactivity. Maybe it's because I grew up in a world of video games but if a tool like this is fun as opposed to bland, I'm a lot more likely to pay attention. And this tool is fun. First, you get to design an avatar (mine had blue spiky hair), and then you get to watch the avatar's world change as you enter choices that correspond to your life. Fun, no?

Second, and more importantly, the ecological footprint. Most calculators out there measure a person's carbon footprint. But how much carbon you generate is only part of your impact as a human being. A carbon measurement doesn't count more esoteric things like how much meat you eat, where you get it and how that affects your impact on the world. 

The ecological footprint, on the other hand, creates a full picture and represents the overall human demand on nature; it compares human consumption with what it takes to regenerate natural resources.

Using this idea, the calculator measures how many planets it would take if the rest of the world lived like you. It's a really visual way of seeing how much you impact the world... versus seeing a large number that you don't really understand. For example, even though I recycle everything, almost always carpool, live in an urban environment etc. etc., if all the world lived like me it would apparently take 3.8 planets. And the majority of that (46 percent) is in services. That surprised me. 

bedzed.jpgThe idea of measuring your impact by planets, then decreasing it, is the push behind One Planet Communities and BioRegional, the groups that brought the world BedZed (at left), one of England's poster children for sustainable living. I wrote about BedZed and One Planet Living in December here in the DJC. According to their numbers, it would take 5.3 planets if the rest of the world lived like the United States does.

There are plans in the works to create One Planet Communities across the world, for more visit www.bioregional.com.

The calculator also offers suggestions after you're done on what you can do to decrease your result, and lets you change your choices so you can see what exactly affected the final total.  

Though it's fun, I don't know how they calculate their numbers and can't comment on whether the amounts are accurate or not. If you have a favorite calculator that you like better than this one, or can comment on the accuracy of the numbers used, please share your information below. New resources are always appreciated.

More info on the calculator at Plime here.

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Looking for energy incentives and rebates? This may be your answer

Posted on August 20, 2008

This is a monthly post by different representatives of the Northwest Building Efficiency Center. This post was written by Margaret Thomas. 

As a librarian for several years at a library specializing in the area of nbec-logo-sq-3colorsmall.jpgenergy, I responded to questions about energy-efficiency from homeowners, and those responsible for building, renovating or maintaining commercial buildings.

Often, what they wanted to know is: are there any rebates or other financial incentives to help me pay for energy-efficiency improvements? Of course there are, but they are as scattered and unpredictable as mercury on a marble floor.

A variety of utility, local, state and federal organizations offer help. But their programs are buffeted by budget cycles and political whims—they come and go with the seasons. Who keeps up? The Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

The Web site comes with a dangerous URL: dsireusa.org. Get it wrong and you may be in for a shock. Get it right and you are connected to the single most useful and up-to-date source I know of for information about financial incentives.

DSIRE has been around for more than a decade and established itself as a central clearinghouse for information about financial incentives from every source. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the database is managed by the North Carolina Solar Center and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. They contact program managers regularly and update the database daily.

Posted on the front page is a clickable map of the United States. Choose any state and you get a menu including applicable grants, rebates, tax exemptions, and loan programs. The site also keeps track of relevant rules, regulations and policies.

If you don’t have time to clip coupons or shop around for energy incentives, bookmark DSIREUSA. It’s sites like this that can make a librarian feel as useless as the Maytag Repairman.

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Green event produces 44 tons of trash. Is it still green?

Posted on July 14, 2008

How much trash does a "green" event produce? Evidently, a lot if you're the U.S. Green Building Council's GreenBuild 2007. The annual conference, held in Chicago last year, created 44 tons of waste.

small-waste.jpgGranted, 91 percent of it - or 40 tons -  did not end up in the landfill, according to Dan Bulley, chair of the Volunteer Committee for Greenbuild in 2007. Instead 300 college students sorted through the waste.

Of the 40 tons of waste diverted, Bulley said seven tons were food scrap, and six tons were wood from expo displays in the exhibit hall.

What's 40 tons of waste? For people around Seattle, it's all the dog droppings left in Snohomish County over two days. For out of towners, it's 260,000 items that washed up on New Jersey's beaches over a year. For the U.S., it's on the low end of the total waste a person produces in a year.

When you rationalize the numbers out, the mass waste makes some sense.... it was a week long conference and expo with an exhibit hall and 25,000 participants, so Bulley says it works out to about 3.5 pounds of waste per person (nevermind most people only stayed three days but we'll go with it....).

But does mass waste ever make sense? The diversion fact is commendable. And the image of college students rifling through my waste (yes, I was at GreenBuild) is something to ponder. But did that 44 tons of waste need to be created in the first place?

Think about it... thousands of people gathering together to figure out how to save the environment and how to build green. And yet they still can't not use things. 44 tons of things. Thrown away. Isn't green building all about the idea that the little things - like 44 tons of waste - matter?

No wonder right wing talk show hosts call greenies hypocrites.

Remembering back, the hefty 187-page program could have been .... digital! Or it could have been easier to compost food scraps, or recycle nametags.  Those participating in the expos could have used less literature or cards that pointed attendees to a Web site.

Or, as a green building consultant said to me the other day, the entire conference could have been virtual. If 44 tons of trash sounds like a lot, imagine the carbon emissions from the millions of miles of air travel. (I for one met people from the U.K, Japan, Canada....)

This is by no means an isolated event, just a high profile one. But it seems to me an example of the kinks, shall we say, in the green building movement. Do I have something here or is it too much to think that people promoting green ... could change the way they do things? It's like not seeing the forest for the trees (that were at least, diverted).

For more, Building Design + C0ntruction runs the full press release here. FrontBurner asks if green trash is still green here. Or in another scenario from Wired Magazine here, Brandon Keim explores a Japanese city that just stopped waste collection. Now there's an idea. 

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Study says green = a better value, quicker sale. Do you agree?

Posted on July 2, 2008

Yesterday I wrote a story about how GreenWorks Realty  of Seattle crunched some numbers, did a little addition... and discovered that even in the not the best (to say the least) housing market over the last year, green homes in King County have sold quicker and for a higher value than their non-green counterparts.

GreenWorks looked at homes sold on the Northwest Multiple Listing Service small-gb.jpgbetween September 2007 and May 2008 that were "environmentally certified" - here that means LEED homes, Energy Star, or the Master Builders of King and Snohomish Counties' Built Green Program.

On average, single family homes sold for four percent more, 18 percent quicker, and were 37 percent more valuable per square foot.

To see more or learn how condos measured up, visit GreenWorks to look at the numbers yourself here. (By the way, this is some of the first analysis of its kind).

Now, recently a pretty high level developer in the Seattle area told me there was no point in developing office space that wasn't LEED certified anymore, because it is going to lose its value quicker.

Combine that with this research saying green homes sell quicker and for more, and logically, building green seems to make sense.

But there are a lot of challenges to building green, not to mention building green well. I could go off about the issues forever: some green systems are so new they are untested or people don't know how to install them, it's difficult to know if something is really green, green is "more expensive...." But I would rather hear from you.

If you can take a moment out of your holiday weekend, answer me this: What stops you from building green? If you work on residential projects, could these numbers convince you to try something new? Do these numbers matter at all and why? Do they matter in your neck of the woods, or is the information too Seattle-area specific?

And is it better for someone to do bad green design or do nothing green at all?

Or heck, you can just answer the poll at right!

I'm all ears. To read the story, press here.

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