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March 5, 2012

Build Tight and Ventilate Right: The Most Effective Green Technique
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

Back in college, one of my wrestling buddies was doing lots of research on indoor air quality and energy conservation. Princeton was a leader in developing the blower door concept to test the actual infiltration (air leakiness) of houses and apartments. I hung out in the lab, doing some solar energy/ethanol research of my own and got to know Andy Persily. Andy was a PhD student, lots of fun, laid back and scary smart. I like hanging out with smart people, the contrast amuses me.

I knew that Andy did his post doc work at the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) and has been working there since. Recently, I heard Andy speak at an ASHRAE meeting, giving a technical talk on the importance of reducing infiltration in building design and construction, then ventilating in a controlled way. Controlled ventilation uses Energy Recovery Units to capture the heat or the cold from the air being exhausted and transfers it to the intake air.  Andy used the catchy phrase “Build tight and ventilate right”.

Most of us spend way too little effort in making sure our buildings are tight. We use the same old details we’ve used for years. In reality, the tightness of our buildings has more to do with a random tradesmen’s care (on details that aren’t clearly specified) than on anyone really focused on excellent insulation and infiltration construction details.

I challenge you and me and the entire industry to pay more attention to the biggest payback item in all of sustainable construction. If you want to be truly green, get this one right.

Our customers will soon be demanding improvements (i.e. punishing poor performance) with a cheap thermal flashlight that’s just been developed. The flashlight uses a thermal sensor and a multi-color LED to paint a heat map on the wall and find areas of poor insulation or drafty infiltration. A webcam can then capture the thermal map, per the photo below.

Take the time to study and improve the sheathing, flashing and infiltration details on your projects. Let your customers know that you strive for their best interest by paying attention to things that really matter.  Remember: Build it Tight and Insulate it Right.


February 18, 2012

Rain Water Capture: A Must Consider for Big Water Users
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

I just read Nadine Post’s blog post “Water Guzzlers Take Notice!” She describes the 52 acre Brooklyn Botanical Gardens that consumes 21M gallons of water each year. That’s over 50,000 gallons per day. You know how long it takes to fill a 55 gallon barrel with water? Think about filling 1,000 of them every day. So the botanical garden guzzles water.

They recently installed a rainwater capture system that should meet almost all their water needs. Their largest private donation ever of $7.5M US helped fund this work.

Scot Medbury, President of Brooklyn Botanic Garden, said, “Shelby White is a passionate champion of horticulture, conservation, and preservation of green spaces, and her gift to Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG) was inspired by the Garden’s commitment to conservation and environmental stewardship, in particular one of BBG’s most significant landscape design projects, focused on water conservation. Encompassing much of the Garden’s 52 acres, it includes rainfall capture and recirculation, a new Water Garden, and an integrated approach to reducing BBG’s overall ecological impact through lessened demand on the municipal water supply.”

I agree the rain water capture for big water users makes great economical and environmental sense. I’ve done it for some of my manufacturing and car wash customers. Finding used underground tanks really makes the return on investment numbers work. I found recycled tanks from breweries that were updating their facilities.

As I’ve written before, I’m not a fan of the LEED checklist process that often rewards poor energy design and adds substantial project cost without substantial benefits. Rain water capture, though, really makes sense. Every project you work on with a big water user should consider rain water capture.


October 26, 2011

How to Start a Construction Company with Limited Cash
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

As I’ve been writing lately, now’s the time to be planning your new construction venture. When the economy looks too good to be true and news articles are about everyone making money easily, it’s time to start looking for the fire exits. That time was a few years ago. Now, on the other hand, when every news story predicts gloom, opportunities are on the horizon.

I believe this winter will have more US contractors go out of business than I’ve ever seen in my life. As those firms die (often from overzealous new banking regulations), times will be tumultuous. Yet the time to plan for your new, efficient firm that does some thing better than anyone else is right now. If you’re already in that business, keep struggling through and building your niche.

Here’s a helpful video answering the question, “How can I start a construction company with no money?”


The first question in any business venture needs to be, “Who will be my customers? Who will pay me to do something for them?” You need some time to work through the understanding of the things at which you excel and how that can be packaged into something that will provide great value to your customers.

Think creatively, not just about how firms worked in the past, but about how they may work better in the future. Spend time on the concept now. It takes effort to drive the dream.


March 23, 2011

Understanding Radiation Risks
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

I love to see a well conceived chart that conveys complex information in an intuitive way. Having attended a one day seminar by Edward Tufte, Presenting Data and Information, I learned to see the beauty of complexity shown simply. I also learned to spot how many charts show information incorrectly, out of scale or just wrong. Prof Tufte still travels the country teaching those seminars and I encourage you to try to attend one.

My friend Neal Leininger sent me a note, “With all the news outlets scrambling to fan the flames of panic: Here are some FACTS.” The chart about radiation levels shown below was linked.

You can quickly consult this chart (click on it to enlarge or follow the link) and understand the relative danger levels of radiation. Having access to this kind of knowledge makes us more effective. I try to present construction knowledge in ways that are also clear and intuitive. Sometimes I succeed.


March 15, 2011

Fission Primer and the Japanese Crisis
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

The Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant experienced the earthquakes and flooding of the past few days. The nuclear reactors shut down automatically after the earthquake, but the subsequent flooding and loss of power via emergency generator flooding has caused loss of control of the reactors. The sketch below provides a bit of insight into the Fukushima reactors:

As I tried to understand the crisis, here are a few things I learned.

  1. Are the various explosions nuclear explosions? No, the exposed (due to lack of cooling water) metal fuel rods react with the steam to produce hydrogen. The reactors are designed for that hydrogen to burn off prior to explosive levels being reached, but the lack of electricity probably kept that system from functioning. Therefore, the hydrogen concentration increased then exploded (think Hindenburg).
  2. Did those explosions crack the containment vessels? It appears the containment vessels (prestressed concrete several feet thick with a steel core) has not been damaged by the hydrogen explosion. The upper building shell (mainly in place to keep weather off the reactor) was damaged.
  3. Why is Reactor #3 the most critical? There are 6 reactors, but only #3 uses plutonium as a fuel. The byproducts of the plutonium reactor are much more carcinogenic than from the other five.
  4. How much radiation has actually been released? The levels at the plant were around 751 microsieverts, a dosage similar to a stomach x-ray. A fatal dose of radiation would be more than 7 million microsieverts. The Japanese authorities are instructing nearby residents to stay indoors and are distributing potassium iodine pills to prevent radiation from building up in the thyroid (the most dangerous aspect of nuclear fallout). One resident commented, “My house was washed away by the tsunami, now the government tells me to stay indoors.”
  5. What is a meltdown? Actually, the term meltdown isn’t used in industry codes or documentation. The media uses that term, but it doesn’t have a precise industry definition. Generally, though, a meltdown would be the nuclear fuel rods creating some much heat as to melt through the steel and concrete core liner.
  6. Will the containment structures be breached (meltdown)? Each day seems to bring some good news and some bad news. As of today, it’s possible each of the 6 reactors will be adequately cooled with ocean water or their normal cooling water and prevent further damage. It’s also possible (though I think much less likely) that the cooling systems will fail and a meltdown will occur.

Update on March 19, 2011: It appears Reactors #1, 2 and 3 are currently stable (though with damaged cores), with sea water being pumped into them via fire hoses. The helicopters dropping water and water cannons spraying flumes were creative but unsuccessful efforts. Reactor #4 seems to be most at risk, with little data available about the current condition. The life threatening work performed by the plant workers inspires me. What great honor and courage!

I’ll update as seems appropriate.


February 19, 2011

LEED Doesn’t
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

The US Green Building Council (USGBC)developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) to certify that buildings are built Green. I’ve never been a fan of the LEED certification process and convince my customers it’s not worth the hassle and costs. Here’s why:

  1. LEED doesn’t save energy.
  2. LEED doesn’t “Just cost a few percent more” than conventional buildings.
  3. LEED doesn’t require long term utility cost reporting to verify actual energy use.
  4. LEED doesn’t provide superior buildings.

A recently filed lawsuit against the USGBC stipulates that LEED doesn’t save energy. Here’s an excerpt from that lawsuit found at Best Practices Construction Law:

3. USGBC claims that buildings certified as LEED buildings are more energy efficient than non-LEED buildings: USGBC advertises that buildings “certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s [LEED] certification system are, on average, performing 25-30% better than non-[LEED] certified buildings in terms of energy-use.”  Similarly, USGBC’s advertisements claim that LEED “provid[es] third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance across all the metrics that matter most: energy savings…”

4. Both claims are false. First, LEED-certified buildings are no more energy-efficient than non-LEED certified buildings. USGBC’s own study data on the subject indicate that, on average, LEED buildings use 41% more energy than non-LEED buildings. There is no objective empirical support for the claim that LEED buildings consume less energy. LEED buildings are less efficient because the criteria that USGBC purportedly uses to certify buildings do not correlate with energy efficiency.

The LEED certification points go in so many directions, energy savings can easily get lost to indoor air quality and other more subjective concepts. The lack of a standard for actual energy use over time illustrates the failing of the LEED method. USGBC requires lots of documentation, prepared by USGBC certified professionals, to certify a building is green. This costly documentation misses the most important element. How does the facility actually perform?

As we tackle the recession and higher energy costs, I hope the construction industry sees the opportunity in designing and managing buildings for energy efficiency. ASHRAE seems much more likely to lead this charge effectively than USGBC.


February 1, 2011

Better Building Design: Coming Soon to America?
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

Building Information Modeling (BIM), Green Building Design (LEED) and lots of other specific design practices like LED lighting or daylighting design all promise to improve building design. Of course, we’ve been hearing those promises for many years, why should now be the time when change escalates?

Energy prices have bounced up and down for years. When I was in college, I won a grant to do alternative energy research from the US Dept of Energy. It was 1980 and I thought energy prices would rise at a rate well above inflation for most of my lifetime. The experts were predicting all the oil supplies would be exhausted by 2000. This thinking of coming oil scarcity was widely accepted at that time. It was wrong.

The ethanol biofuel that I was working on never made economic sense with the continuation of low energy costs. I think we are in a new time when energy costs will rise above the cost of inflation. The discovery of the Marcellus shale gas at many locations around the world will probably keep prices from hitting crisis levels, but cheap energy has finally died.

Many state governments (and much of Europe) have furthered that energy price escalation by requiring reasonably large chunks of their electricity to be produced from alternate (particularly solar) energy. Once these laws are passed and 30 year capital investments made, the laws become challenging to repeal. Think lots of bankruptcies of major firms vs everyone paying a bit more for their electricity. The politicians won’t struggle too long on that choice.

So energy prices will go up, how does that affect building design? Don’t expect too much innovation from design professionals. All but the top, marquis firms get so squeezed on fee pricing that they won’t be investing heavily in new ways to get things done. With the Design-Bid model, the design professional just don’t have a big enough piece of the pie to really force the major changes. Few owners want to pay 30% higher design fees for the promise that life cycle building costs should be lower.

The big changes will come through the design/build or other similar collaborative approaches. The construction industry probably has too many firms for the work available for the next few years. The firms that thrive will have to be offering more than just low first costs. So the construction firms need to innovate to survive. We haven’t had that scenario before.

Hospitals will likely be leading the way, since their many departments each have so many processes that can be maximized and integrated. Consider all the construction (and later energy) inefficiency and waste that typically occurs in emergency rooms, radiology suites, operating rooms, etc. Office buildings, schools, churches, etc will follow.

If you want to stay in the game, you’d better be thinking about how to improve the process (which includes saving energy) in the projects you build. Begin by putting the issue on the table. Now.


November 11, 2010

Microsofting Construction
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

This week’s Economist has a special report on smart systems. They consider how the exponential increase of cameras, sensors and smart phones will change the world. Though lots of the ideas were interesting, one particular section about the future of construction caught my attention.

Steve Lewis, a former wheel at Microsoft, co-founded Living Planit which focuses, in part, on changing how we design and construct buildings and infrastructure. He developed a great name, Xtreme Construction, which he defined as:

1. Modular Construction
2. Model and design-centric Implementation
3. Leveraging Sensor Technology throughout the assembly process (and beyond)
4. Design for maintenance and revision
5. Establishing the agile, optimized supply chain

He saw construction as an excellent place for huge changes because designs are often used only one time, few buildings are energy efficient, and the waste produced during construction is not well managed. In fact, the Harvard Business School did a case study finding that these factors amount to about 30% of the cost of construction.

That 30% seems too high to me, but I’ve long known the huge amount of inefficiency and waste in our normal construction processes. The folks that steer this ship in the best direction will be well rewarded for their efforts. In other words, “Hey Bozo, here’s an opportunity knocking on your noggin.”


August 25, 2010

What’s an “Energy Innovation Hub”?
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

I’m not sure, but the US Federal Government just awarded $129M to Penn State and a mixed group of Mid-Atlantic universities and organizations to develop one at the old Philadelphia Navy Yards. The consortium applying for the grant with Penn State included Princeton, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and other institutions. Apparently Gov Rendell helped win the grant by promising $30M of PA state money to the project.

Henry Foley, who leads the Penn State research team said the project will focus on creating more energy efficient buildings and training workers to both retrofit and do new construction in the efficient ways, as noted in a recent ENR article.

The US Department of Energy sent out the following news release. “The Energy Innovation Hubs are a key part of our effort to harness the power of American ingenuity to achieve transformative energy breakthroughs,” said Secretary Chu. “By bringing together some of our brightest minds, we can develop cutting-edge building energy efficiency technologies that will reduce energy bills, cut carbon pollution, and create jobs. This important investment will help Philadelphia become a leader in the global clean energy economy.”

The location is local for us and it’s nice to win, but I’ve got concerns about the effectiveness of this spending. All of us involved in the design and construction of buildings know how to create more energy efficient buildings. The problem isn’t the knowledge but the demand for the product. Owners don’t normally want to pay for extra building costs that have a payback beyond three or four years. Energy remains relatively cheap, so most of the things we could do, we don’t due because Owners don’t want to waste their money.

Any Owner that wants to save building energy beyond the normal will find willing and talented engineers and contractors to help him spend his money. Grants like this are like pushing a rope.

Let me tell you a story about my friend Bob Navitski and the Philadelphia Navy Yards. Bob was a young engineer, working in the field as an inspector at the Navy Yard with a contractor’s pipe crew. He told the crew there was a sanitary line crossing their proposed storm sewer run and the crew dug all day trying to find that elusive sanitary line. Eventually Bob realized that he was working from an old set of prints and what he thought was a sanitary line was actually a crinkle on the drawing sheet. Bob laughingly remembers that the pipe crew wasted an entire day searching for a crinkle. We all make mistakes like that when we’re young (and, I’m finding, when we’re old too.)

I just hope this $129M federal grant doesn’t produce the same kind of result.


March 16, 2010

Draft ICC Green Building Code Available Now
Filed under: Energy — Tags: — nedpelger

Yesterday the International Code Council published the first draft of the International Green Construction Code. I think this is an important step to make sustainable building practices the norm rather than something only rich owners specify.  The LEED certification process was a good way to start the process and move the industry toward consensus, but lacks the clarity of code language.

Similarly, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) moved us toward accessible design, but was terrible to work under until the ANSI/ICC A117.1 Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities was produced. As an example, the ADA required the toilet center-line be 18″ from the wall. We had inspectors conclude they weren’t authorized to allow 17 7/8″. When A117 came out with that requirement clarified to be 16″ to 18″, we all knew we were working with a tolerance that was achievable.

So, if you are interested in sustainable building design and construction, download the public comment version of the International Green Construction Code and study through it. You will make yourself a more valuable industry asset and learn a few things in the process. If you have some extra time available due to the economy, use it to learn. Celebrate your interest and aptitude for learning…it’s one of life’s great joys.

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