Author Archives: Philip Proefrock

Home Ventilation Control

December 6th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Big buildings save energy by controlling which areas need to have heating or cooling, and not wasting energy on those [&hellip

Buy Locally, Build Locally

December 4th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Use of local materials can be a good way to help make a construction project greener. If the materials being [&hellip

Dealing with Wildfires and Drought

October 31st, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Wildfires aren't usually on my radar, because I don't live in a region that is much susceptible to them. But, in the past couple of weeks, everyone has become more aware of them. They have been widely across the news because of the number of serious wildfires in southern California recently. At the same time, recent news coverage has also looked at drought conditions which are being felt in Georgia and North Carolina. While these two are be peripherally linked in other ways, it makes some sense to look at these issues from the perspective of sustainable building.

Addressing the issue of preparation for these extreme conditions as part of a sustainable building strategy only makes sense. Water use and xeriscaping (drought tolerant landscaping) are issues that are included in the LEED rating system, and are well regarded as part of the overall sustainability of buildings. But addressing a building and it's site in terms of wildfires should be equally considered for regions where fire susceptibility is high. Keeping the building from burning down is also an issue of conservation of resources and should be part of a green building approach.

The Efficient Materials Trap

October 29th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Efficient materials can sometimes seem to be the ideal path for green building. If we can find a way to more efficiently produce the materials we need to build our buildings, it would seem that we would be well on our way to reducing our impact on the planet.

For example, rather than using lumber sawn from old growth forests, engineered lumber and I-joists make more efficient use of lumber resources and can take advantage of smaller trees. Instead of needing to find trees old enough and large enough to produce a piece of 2 x 12 lumber, an engineered I-joist can be made that uses chipped wood and glue manufactured wood board (like oriented strand board) and narrow, laminated strips of wood (again, made of smaller pieces of wood and glue). These engineered joists are lighter, straighter, and less prone to warping, cupping and twisting than even kiln dried sawn lumber is.

Engineered joists would seem to be an ideal solution. They are made from small, rapidly renewable trees, which can be farmed, rather than requiring the logging of large trees. Builders and carpenters like them because they are more regular, and they make for flatter floors, straighter walls, and truer roofs, with less variability when they are installed and less likelihood to move and twist over time.

But there are downsides to these more efficient materials.

Green Building Elements: Building Controls

October 24th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

<p> <img src="/files/111/613px-Honeywell_thermostat.jpg" alt="wikimedia" width="249" height="244" align="right" />For all our technological advances, our buildings remain incredibly dumb constructions. Automobiles have multiple onboard computers that help maximize their performance and improve efficiency and coordinate the various systems. But the average house has very little, if any, control to aid in its operation despite the wide range of conditions (from below freezing winter nights to scorching summer days) they are forced to deal with. Even large, complex buildings operate with fairly minimal control systems. Yet we expect them to provide a standard comfortable environment for us year round. </p> <p> We need some smarter building controls. </p> <p> Some building controls are already available. The oldest and best known is the simple thermostat. A thermometer control that turns on heating or cooling, depending on the temperature. It doesn't do much, but it does help to regulate furnaces and air conditioners to keep the temperature within a range of few degrees. But, temperature is not the only factor in comfort. Reducing the humidity can sometimes be all that is needed in warm weather. If the temperature is not too hot, the cooling effect of a breeze may be better than running an air conditioner. But a thermostat can't do that for you.</p>

Prohibited Green Technologies

October 22nd, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Green technologies make good sense to most of us, but incomplete or uncoordinated implementation can lead to circumstances where green technologies are not able to provide the full benefits that they can. In some instances, regulatory requirements can even lead to making green technologies counterproductive.

Waterless urinals present one striking example of how regulations and green technology are not yet working together. In some municipalities, waterless urinals have not been allowed by building inspectors because they do not meet code requirements. Or, in some cases, building inspectors have allowed waterless urinals to be installed, but have required the builder to provide plumbing supply lines to bring water to the waterless urinal locations (though capped off and hidden behind the finished wall). The rationale for this is that if the waterless urinals are later removed and replaced with conventional urinals, extensive renovation will not be necessary to bring water to the location.

This upsets many of the green benefits of using waterless urinals in the first place. While waterless urinals provide water savings, that is not the only green benefit to incorporating them into a green building. Waterless urinals, when installed without a water supply line, provide savings in materials by avoiding the installation of likely dozens of feet of water supply pipe. Given the material cost, the high embodied energy content, and the extensive mineral use in mining, refining, and creating even ten feet of copper pipe, much of the savings from installing a waterless urinal is wiped out. Because of this, it will take much longer to realize the savings that using a waterless urinal should provide.

Terra Preta for Carbon Reduction

October 17th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Terra preta (or agrichar, as it is also sometimes called) is not a new concept, but it is probably unfamiliar to most readers. The term terra preta refers to rich black soils found in the Amazon. These soils are not natural, but were human-made, produced by the civilizations living in the region before the arrival of Western settlers. The terra preta has a high level of nutrients, with three times the nitrogen and phosphorus and twenty times the carbon of normal soils. But producing fertilizer is not even the most interesting part of agrichar. The agrichar process also releases gasses which can be used as fuel for electrical generation or even for powering vehicles, and, most interestingly of all, more carbon goes back to the earth than was released in the process.

The process of producing agrichar uses low-temperature burning (called pyrolization) to break down the plant materials and produce two products, syngas and char. Syngas is mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and can be used as a fuel for electrical production. (Wood gas, which is very similar to syngas, has widely used in the past for lighting, heating, and as a fuel for internal combustion engines.) The char turns out to be a good soil amendment that helps fertilize the soil. More importantly, the carbon that has been captured in the char breaks down very slowly so it remains sequestered for a long period of time.

"[B]urn biomass (preferably agricultural waste) in a special way that pyrolisizes it, breaking down long hydrocarbon chains like cellulose into shorter, simpler molecules. These simpler molecules are more easily broken down by microbes and plants as food, and bond more easily with key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. This is what makes terra preta such good fertilizer. Because terra preta locks so much carbon in the soil, it's also a form of carbon sequestration that doesn't involve bizarre heroics like pumping CO2 down old mine shafts."

Five Home Winterizing Myths

October 15th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

It is time to start thinking about getting our homes ready for winter. Maintenance and repair work done while the weather is still mild will pay off not just in the coming cold weather, but with year round benefits. Here are five common issues to think about when considering your winterization projects, and how to avoid making some common mistakes while improving your house.

Window film insulates windows. False.

A window film serves as a draft barrier to stop air leaks, rather than effective insulation. The plastic film itself will contribute very little. Having another air layer is more helpful, and keeping moisture sealed out can help reduce frost forming on old windows. But if you have big windows that are losing lots of heat, a quilted curtain can be more helpful. Windows are big thermal holes in your walls, and even very efficient windows lose heat much faster than the walls that support them. A window film adds only a slight increase, but it can be effective for stopping drafts.

Green Building Tour: IDeAs Z-Squared Zero Energy Building

October 10th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Z-Squared is an example of an office building whose net energy consumption is zero. In addition to being a zero energy building, it is also a zero carbon building. "It's one of the first commercial buildings in the United States to be designed to a 'Z2' energy efficiency goal; that is, net zero energy, zero carbon emissions."

The building owner, Integrated Design Associates, Inc. (IDeAs), is a San Jose CA based electrical engineering and lighting design firm, that is committed to walking the walk as well as talking the talk when it comes to sustainable building systems. This project is green not only from the numerous features that were included in the building, but starting at the outset by re-using an existing bank building instead of building new. The company makes no mention of attempting for LEED certification for the building, though it is clear that this building has many features that would earn a number of points in the LEED rating system.

Green and Super-Sized?

October 8th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Can a 10,000 square foot house really be green? Is a hybrid GMC Yukon SUV an oxymoron? At what point does the alleged greenness of something go from truly being green to mere greenwashing?

The environmental bandwagon is getting crowded as more and more people recognize the benefits and importance of going green. Sometimes it is out of a genuine sense of commitment to green principles. But sometimes it is just marketing.

Green houses are one area where this is becoming an issue. Houses which many people would consider oversized behemoths are being touted for their supposed greenness. In a recent article, Jetson Green pointed out the absurdity of a 9,800 square foot house in Larkspur, Colorado being called a "green" building. A couple of weeks ago, when I attended a GM-sponsored event (along with David Anderson), I test-drove a 2008 GMC Yukon Hybrid. How truly green are these?

Green Building Elements: Brick

October 3rd, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Brick may not be the first thing that springs to mind when we talk about green building. But there are qualities that bricks posess that make them worth considering as a green building material.

For starters, let's take a look at the materials that go into brick: clay and water. That's it. No complex chemicals, no exotic compounds, no imported components. At the end of its life, a brick is effectively just a manufactured clay stone with a special shape. It breaks down into earth since it comes from earth. Clay mining is comparatively benign, compared to ore mining for metals, which requires far more material to be extracted and processed to produce the finished product. Clay is not a resource that is in short supply, which makes it a more attractive material to use, as well.

The main reason brick isn't an even greener building material is that it takes a lot of energy to make a brick. However, the extra energy is relative. An Australian government website comparing wood siding to brick veneer shows that exterior walls with the same backing construction with brick have about three times as much embodied energy per unit of wall area. (A timber board clad wall takes 188 MJ per square meter; brick veneer requires 561 MJ per square meter.) The tradeoff is in durability and maintenance. Brick is much lower maintenance than other materials. Most brick will last for generations with only some minor tuckpointing to repair joints.

Greener Driving with Roundabouts

October 1st, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

Last week, I attended a driving event at the GM Proving Ground in Milford MI. Driving through the campus, there were several places where roads converged at roundabouts (sometimes also known as rotaries) rather than intersections with stop signs. (I'll have more to say about the content of that event later.) But even before I arrived, I had gone through a couple more roundabouts on the roads in Milford, MI, where GM's Proving Ground is located. That started me thinking about roundabouts, and how they are greener than standard intersections.

A modern roundabout ... is a circle “designed for very low traffic speeds, about 15 mph.” Entrances and exits are curved so that motorists must travel slowly — far different from the rotaries of decades ago, which typically allowed drivers to enter at 35 mph or faster. The Institute says a modern roundabout typically needs to be about 100 feet across so that it can be properly designed to slow the entering traffic. (New Urban News)

Because the traffic only needs to slow down rather than stopping, all the cars traveling through a roundabout avoid the stop-and-go of a stop sign or a red light. Collectively, this adds up to thousands of gallons of fuel saved for each intersection. Avoiding a full stop also allows each driver to get through the intersection faster, which helps make overall travel times shorter.

Weekend Review: Vegetarian Wednesdays Blog

September 29th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

This local blog first came to my attention via an article in the local paper about a University of Michigan medical student and his daughter who are operating a blog together that is encouraging people to eat vegetarian meals one day a week (on Wednesdays). The Vegetarian Wednesday blog began just this past summer. Originally founded by Josh Mugele and his daughter Eleanor, there are now a few other writers (relatives and med school classmates) who contribute to the blog as well.

"Vegetarian Wednesday started when my daughter wanted to become a vegetarian but couldn't do it all at once (she loves her chicken nuggets). I told her I'd help her by doing it with her, and we'd start by becoming vegetarians one day a week. Thus was born Vegetarian Wednesday. She wants to become a vegetarian because she loves animals. I want to do it because it's good for me and good for the planet. Did you know that the meat industry is one of the leading contributors to global warming in the world? Did you know that eating less meat lowers your weight and total cholesterol? Think of what we could do if we all stopped eating meat for just one day a week.
"The purpose of this blog is to encourage meat-eaters like me to make a difference in their health and in the health of the planet by trying to eat no meat one day each week. On this blog we can share recipes, stories about Vegetarian Wednesdays, and most of all spread the word."

Reasonable Rules for Eating Locally

September 26th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

A local friend of mine recently tried out the Consumer Consequences game from American Public Media. (Shirley Siluk Gregory offered a review of the game here last week, as well.) It is essentially another version of a set of questions that help model the now familiar question, "How many Earths would we need so that everyone could live the way you do?" My friend was a bit shocked to find that her lifestyle would require almost 3 Earths.

When she wrote about this in her own blog, she wrote, in part, "The eye-opening part is that our biggest contributor to non-sustainability is our family's food habits. More reason to work on 1) eating more fruits and vegetables, and 2) eating locally." That triggered a discussion about local food and food miles, and this is an expansion on my thoughts in that discussion.

There are many variables in food production and transportation, so there may be some foods that ship effectively. But when Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, points out that there are 10 calories of energy going into the production and transportation of every calorie of food we eat, it's clear that the system is pretty inefficient. (There, too, it's an average figure.)

There was an article in TreeHugger several months ago that was looking at whether it was better to get your bottled water shipped from the South Pacific or trucked from France (to the UK... it was a UK article). In terms of fuel consumed per pound of material delivered, the more local option was less efficient, because sea freight is an efficient method of transportation. (The absurdity of bottled water is its own issue, but that was the example the article was using.)

But when you are eating California produce in Michigan, you aren't getting that brought here by ship; it's being trucked. Even McDonalds' beef from South American ranches may be shipped to American shores, but if you're eating it in Michigan, it rode several hundred miles, in addition to those thousands of sea miles, to get to you

Architecture 2030

September 24th, 2007 | by Philip Proefrock

<p> <img src="/files/111/US-Energy-Consumption.gif" alt="" width="248" height="204" align="right" />The city of the future is not going to be a <em>Jetson</em>-esque collection of bubbles in the air, or towers connected by monorails, or any other radical vision. The city of the future will be more like that in<em> <a href=";;tag=greeopti-20&amp;linkCode=ur2&amp;camp=1789&amp;creative=9325">Blade Runner</a><img src=";l=ur2&amp;o=1" border="0" alt="" width="1" height="1" /></em>, mostly recognizably familiar older buildings. Most of the city of the future has already been built and is standing. Certainly new buildings will be built. But they need to be made much more efficient than existing buildings. And Architecture 2030 is pressing for architects and the building industry to radically alter their methods of designing and building buildings to address environmental issues. </p> <p> (The interspersed quotes in this article are taken from the Architecture 2030 &quot;<a href="">Think You're Making a Difference?</a>&quot; page.) </p> <p> <a href="">Architecture 2030</a> is a foundation established by architect Ed Mazria in 2002. Mazria famously created the pie chart graph (see illustration) showing that buildings represent 48% of the total energy used in this country. As the largest single segment of energy use, responsible for nearly half of all energy use in the country, buildings need to have more attention paid to them. Architecture 2030 is dedicated to reducing all fossil-fuel, greenhouse-gas-emitting energy use for buildings by 2030, with an immediate 50% reduction (as compared to the typical energy use for particular building types), and phased increases in the reduction percentage until the 100% target is reached in 2030.</p>

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