Posts Tagged ‘embodied energy; sustainability; LEED; preservation standards; Prairie School’

the greenest building is the one already built

September 2, 2009

Guess who is finally saying what I and others in preservation have been saying for a while – LEED certification is not a great measure of environmental impact? Actually, it is coming from the horse’s mouth – the certifiers themselves, who found – shockingly – that many of the new green designs did not PERFORM as they were designed. From the New York Times a few days ago:

“But in its own study last year of 121 new buildings certified through 2006, the Green Building Council found that more than half — 53 percent — did not qualify for the Energy Star label and 15 percent scored below 30 in that program, meaning they used more energy per square foot than at least 70 percent of comparable buildings in the existing national stock.”

One of the disadvantages of the LEED system compared to the other systems is that it is a voluntary program that – until now – had no certification process. If your architect or engineer said your system would use 50% less electricity, then you wrote that down and got credit for it. You got credit and you advertised it as a LEED certified building whether or not you ever remembered to turn out the lights. Or look at the electric bill.

There are other systems out there. Canada uses Green Globes, which is more focused on energy use, and both Green Globes and LEED are based on the earlier British BREEAM system. Dunno why, but like television, we get all our good ideas from the Brits. At any rate, LEED focused initially on materials and production, not operations. Which is of course where all the action – pollution and waste – is.

But there is a problem in the focus on use, too. I have often written about the irrationality of the replacement window. I first addressed this issue back in 2001 and have presented on it in numerous venues (Chicago, Joliet, Plainfield, Elgin, to name a few). My conclusion for the last eight years has been the same: window replacement is driven by marketing, not energy efficiency.

It is ironic that the “green” and “sustainable” concern of the last decade has been used primarily to sell tons and tons of mostly plastic products. Energy efficiency in individual products and buildings has improved dramatically, but buildings also got bigger and one is tempted to believe we got a whole lot of Jevon’s paradox – increased fuel efficiency at the micro level leads to increased use at the macro level. Like highways – more lanes means more use and congestion, not less. Jevon figured this out over a century and a half ago.

Plus the hegemony of green marketing has created a massive disconnect between data and interpretation. I was struck by the March issue of National Geographic, which featured a thermographic image of “an older house in Connecticut.” The roof and eaves were red and orange, indicating heat loss. The window panes were blue, indicating little heat loss, and the caption announced the installation of new double-paned windows. The walls were green, indicating some thermal loss, and they were yellow-orange just outside of the window panes – on the window frames.
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How was this data interpreted? The caption indicates that the new windows were blue and noted that heating could account for half the energy costs for a house. This is wrong on a whole bunch of levels. First, the thermographic image with the glowing red roof shows the obvious: HEAT RISES. It doesn’t travel sideways. 80% of it goes up, regardless of your windows. There is no way window replacement can save more than 20% of heating costs. What the image showed was that the owners of the house didn’t insulate the attic properly.

Second, the image actually illustrates the biggest fault of window replacement: poor installation. The window frames were glowing yellow and even RED in one portion. This meant that the new tight replacement windows were not preventing thermal loss but pushing it away from the pane and into the frame. Exactly what I said in 2001 and every year since – unless you address the window frame, a super tight window may simply push the thermal loss AROUND the window pane and through the frame. Did they caulk???

What would have been useful would have been a thermographic image of the same house BEFORE they changed the windows. Then we could understand the impact – and skill – of the installation. Why didn’t they address the big issue, the roof?? I’m not surprised that a big time mag like NG goofed this up, because the marketing of replacement windows has inoculated us against a lot of common sense facts we learned about thermodynamics back in grade school. But come on – how can you draw conclusions without a baseline?

The government noted that the peformance of its pre-1930 buildings exceeded the energy efficiency of their buildings built 1930-2000. And those older buildings can be made even more efficient with a little insulation and caulk.

I am glad that LEED is improving – it is coming up with a better list of criteria to account for the embodied energy of existing buildings and fabric. It is now starting to look at performance rather than design. But we all have a ways to go.

HISTORICAL NOTE: I am now in the 4th year of this blog. 248 posts. Read them all here.

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Sustainability, LEED, and Preservation

March 20, 2009

I am at the Preservation and Sustainability conference at Goucher College today, where I presented a paper on the Greening of the Prairie School, which I joked was like saying “Gilding the Lily” since my biggest point was that much of the 100-year old Prairie School included design features we would now consider green, such as local sourcing, unfinished materials, climate-sensitive siting, overhanging eaves, natural ventilation systems, and compact design. I also talked about ways in which the Prairie School was not sustainable, including the sprawling anti-urban bias of Frank Lloyd Wright himself, and I concluded with the example of the former River Forest Women’s Club, which went from the 2005 Illinois’ 10 Most Endangered List to the 2008 Illinois Preservation Project of the Year, thanks to Ellen and Paul Coffey, who rehabbed the building using the latest in green technology.
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I presented the project as an example of using contemporary geothermal and solar technology while meeting all of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, but much of the discussion here has been about the conflicts between preservation and LEED, which has become the standard – through marketing of a trade association, USGBC – for sustainability. A recurring theme has been the need to create an independent rating system for green design. We also learned about impending improvements to LEED which will allot more points for rehabilitating historic buildings – in the original you got the same point for NOT demolishing a building as you did for putting in a bike rack.
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Bruce Judd, FAIA of San Francisco has done lots of LEED certified rehabilitations of historic buildings and argued that the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards do not need to be changed and are working well. Another speaker, archaeologist Tom King, got us going by suggesting an abolition of the National Register. I countered with the point that preservation is in fact a site of negotiation between various communities and various experts and not the purview of one or the other. Moreover, while LEED is prescriptive – you get points for specific things you do – in contrast, the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which “govern” preservation, are interpretive, and have been interpreted differently over time. The importance as far as I am concerned is not lists or surveys or standards but a PROCESS whereby various values are considered. We will get back to values soon.
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One of the problems with both LEED and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards is that they tend to focus on the time architects are involved: design and construction. If you are concerned about global warming, you have to look at building operations over time. The costs of operating a building for 30 years are 3 times the design and construction phase. Most people ignore the embodied energy of a building whose carbon footprint predates television; they also ignore the lifespan of materials. I blog a lot about my 110-year old windows because they are already there: no replacement can’t out-environment that and few can outperform them in terms of operation. Audrey Tepper did a nice job of making the window argument, which EVERYONE in this crowd understood all to well.
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Tom Liebel, AIA of Baltimore has a wonderful motto: Long Life; Loose Fit. This is true of buildings as a construction and it is useful for thinking about the operation of buildings, which is a larger contributor to greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation. You might balk at spending $1000 on a door, but that door might be CHEAPER over the life of the product and operate MORE EFFICIENTLY. There was discussion of some laboratory spaces that could be retrofitted with German compressors that used a lot less energy and lasted longer, even though they were more expensive. Most people also focus only on design and construction, not operations. Most corporations and institutions also separate these functions, so someone makes a budget decision about installation or rehabilitation based only on the design and construction cost, not the operation cost. That is wrong.

Almost every speaker used a Venn diagram with three bubbles: Economic, Environmental and Social/Cultural. LEED was designed only for Environmental. The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and other preservation practices were initially designed only for Social/Cultural. A generation ago preservation started getting heavily involved in the Economic. Now is the time to solve all three, because ONLY the intersection of Economic, Environmental and Social/Cultural values is TRUE sustainability.
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Cindy Steinhauser from Dubuque also made an excellent economic point which I have aluded to in my recent posts on the Obama stimulus package: preservation – which is green building – creates more jobs. And Green jobs CAN’T BE EXPORTED. She talked about revitalizing a mill district in Dubuque which thrived for generations on manufacturing. That changed and the jobs went elsewhere. But rehabilitating our environment; our buildings and our communities is a job that CAN NOT go anywhere else.