Friday, April 17, 2009
Sunday, March 15, 2009
Alright, this is the end of the Value Engineering series. For those who've been reading all along, I hope you've enjoyed the series. If you didn't, please let me know. This approach was an experiment on my part anyway, and in truth, I'm not 100 percent sure how it's worked either!
Anyway, to recap the past four posts, I've talked about paradigm shifts, easy buttons, LEED, sites & place, water and last week energy. Materials & Resources is the next category, followed by the last one in the Rating System, Envrionmental Quality. And then the "big" finish.
How many gallons of gas does it take to build a building?
With respect to materials, LEED is most focused on recycled content and local and regional availability. Little attention is paid to durability and overall longevity of a building. Yet how durable and maintainable a building -or even a material, is, is paramount when considering a building sustainable. It is also important to consider the impact raw material extraction has on our environment. Or how about materials which contain what are known as "Red List" materials and chemicals, because of health and toxicity concerns, materials such as poly-vinyl chloride –used in clothing, upholstery, membrane roofing, Chlorinated Polyethylene and Chlorosulfonated Polyethlene –used in rigid vinyl products, and Chloroprene which is Neoprene, and more; there are 13 Red List items.
Further, with respect to any toxic materials, the list is endless, and can cause both short and long term health issues. Wood products used for cabinetry containing urea formaldehyde in the resin products, often in schools where our children spend a good portion of their lives. Or flooring materials containing high levels of toxins or VOC’s or both. And more.
For the most part, we are not building for longevity nor are we mindful of the materials going into our buildings. With respect to longevity, at best, some of our "modern-day" and "technologically advanced" buildings have a life-span of 25 years before they just look old and tired. Granted, you can refurbish them, even completely gut and renovate them, but at a cost.
Each building also has an embodied energy factor, that being the total amount of energy embodied in any material in the building, from its point of extraction as a raw material, through its manufacturing process, through its shipment to and installation at the site, through its required maintenance/upkeep throughout its lifetime in a building (think carpet cleaning, VCT floor polishing, re-painting walls and etc), through to its end demise, if it is removed and disposed of at any point. To give you an idea of embodied energy in square foot terms, a new building’s embodied energy runs around 15 gallons of gas per square foot; an existing building anywhere from 5 to 15 gallons per square foot. Put in these terms, we waste a lot of gas on building.
What is the value in any of this?
You want VOC's with that? You sure? They're free.
Indoor environmental quality encompasses a lot of what is embedded in the other four categories. It is directly affected by how beautiful –or not beautiful, a site is –that is, the views you see out the windows, can you open the windows for fresh air. It is effected by air quality and thermal comfort –we feel better, are healthier and more energetic in buildings with adequate fresh air and thermal comfort, i.e.: we are not too hot or too cold, but just right (that is all of us, not just a certain portion of a building population). It is also affected by the material choices –color, how they hold up, the toxins they release or don’t release, which can cause us to feel just not right. And believe it or not, as comfort decreases, environmental impact often increases, as we find inefficient and wasteful solutions to improve our physical environment.
What is the value in any of this?
The next LEED category
Beauty, inspiration and spirit is not a LEED category -yet. But each is the culmination of what our built environment can be. Our built environment is us. It is our legacy, it is a direct reflection of who we are, a snapshot of us at any given moment. Unfortunately, we are more often than not right now surrounded by ugly and inhumane environments. Vast parking lots, strip malls, vacant lots in cities, billboards, huge freeway interchanges, sprawling suburbs with no place, and more. In reality, do we really find any of these aesthetically acceptable? And, if these things are needed in our modern society, is there a way to make them aesthetically pleasing? I believe there is.
Building sustainably has the power to inspire change, to effect well being, to strengthen values, to connect us locally and globally, to connect us to Earth, and to change how we live, work, play and feel.
Will the real Value Engineering please stand up!
LEED is a step towards integrated design. And integrated design does cost more in some respects, but the value is longer lasting. Beauty, inspiration and spirit cost more, but again, the value is longer lasting. We cannot continue to build as we have been. We must not continue to build as we have been.
No longer can we build with little disregard for the site, only building to required codes, and not considering how our site is part of a larger whole. No longer can we build with little regard for water use, depleting lakes, rivers, aquifers and reservoirs. No longer can we build inefficient buildings requiring far more energy to operate than necessary were climatic and other factors taken into consideration. No longer can we build without durability in mind, or without thought to where materials come from and the potential environmental destruction caused. No longer can we build without indoor environmental quality in mind –we are humans, we are soulful beings and we have an inherent connection to each other, to place, to light, to views. No longer can we use materials made from toxins which are harmful to those who make the material, to those who install the material, and to those who then live each day with the material, breathing in VOC’s, formaldehydes, and particulates. No longer can we sacrifice quality, longevity and legacy for first cost. No longer can we operate under the pretense that if it’s good for the environment, it’s bad for the bottom line. And no longer can building be primarily about making money. It must also be about making meaning.
What is the value in all of this? Priceless. This is true value engineering.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
Who needs energy efficiency when you've got AC?
For the most part, our buildings are not energy efficient. Granted, they are better then they used to be in some respects, but still, they are nowhere near where they could be. In spite of our knowledge of dwindling resources -we’ve reached peak oil, we only have about 300 years of coal left, if that, we still prefer to build only to code, versus increasing efficiency to various percentage points above code, as the LEED rating system requires. At minimum, LEED requires that a building be 15 percent better then code –ASHRAE 90.1-2004. But even reaching this level can be a stretch for many, as the cost seems prohibitive.
We also seem to have convinced ourselves that high tech is better than low tech. By that I mean our buildings have little relationship to climatic factors like sun, wind, and climatic regions –there are four distinct ones, cool, temperate, hot-arid, and hot-humid. Instead, we design with little to no regard for how these factors can help reduce energy use, and the building is an object in the field. After all, we can heat and cool the building with HVAC equipment.
High-tech does not an efficient envelope make
Take Philadelphia’s newest tower as an example. The Comcast Tower, the most recent pride of Philadelphia. It is a beautiful building, and is in fact, a LEED Core & Shell Certified building. But it’s all curtain wall –glass and aluminum frame. At best, the entire building is an R-value of R-6 to R-9 –if they used one of the highest quality aluminum curtain wall systems available today, which would of course be, very expensive. If not, the value would hover around R-4, at best. And how about its response to its orientation to N S E W. Is there any difference? None. The glass is the same, the shape is the same. The result of all of this? A heating and cooling nightmare. In fact, in any fully glazed building, the southern and western exposures often require a certain amount of air conditioning even on cold sunny days, to maintain a comfortable temperature.
Accept our repentance
In addition, buildings are also directly related to one of the most environmentally destructive mining operations today, mountaintop removal, which is most prevalent in the Appalachians. Now it is called mountaintop removal because literally, the tops of mountains are blown off to extract the veins of coal (you can read more about energy and mountaintop removal in this post). And a great majority of the coal used at our power generating stations comes from mountaintop removal, the power that generates our HVAC systems and provides lighting for our massive stock of inefficient buildings.
And where, where is the value in any of this? Where is the value in seemingly endlessly scarring the landscape for resource extraction because we can't seem to design more efficient buildings, even with LEED? Where is the value in blowing apart mountaintops, beautifully and lovingly (and yes, sometimes tumultuously), crafted over millions of years, to generate power for these inefficient buildings? What will we say after the last vein of coal is extracted, the last drop of oil and natural gas is extracted and we turn and look at our built environment, our legacy?
Accept our repentance, Lord.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Now you might think that 10 billion gallons a day over what we have isn’t really a lot. But that is based on the current population, estimated at around 304,000,000; predictions for 2050 hover around 402 million, with some predictions of US population topping 1 billion by 2100. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the water deficit will continue to rise. In fact we are already starting to see hints of water wars, a significant one occurring in late summer of 2007.
So how do we use water?
Landscaping. We love manicured, landscaped lawns, whether it be our house, a campus, or an office park. But often we have landscaped with non-native species, inappropriate grasses, trees, shrubs and flowers all which require more water for irrigation, because we like the look or wish to win an award for best landscaped office park.
But what if we value engineered the landscaping to be a more natural landscape, like grasses and wildflowers, native species only. It would require less water –if any at all beyond natural rainfall. It would also reduce the need for lawn maintenance, and support restoration of ecosystems on site.
Then there’s toilets, sinks, urinals. There are quality low-flow fixtures out there, yet so often I hear people complain that they don’t flush –that you need two or three flushes, waterless urinals smell or plumbers fight their installation because they’ll lose work. Often however, the toilets which don’t flush correctly are the cheaper low flush toilets –because believe me, there are good toilets and there are bad toilets. Or waterless urinals aren’t maintained properly –you need to pour very hot, almost boiling water down into the pipes to help melt the calcified stuff. Or the cheaper sensor operated toilet or faucet is installed, because again, there are quality sensors and well, really bad sensors.
So in all of this, you save money in first costs on installation, but you spend more money in maintenance and to boot your water bills are higher. And with our water supplies dwindling, the cost of water will only rise.
And where is the value in any of this?
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
When LEED® emerged in the late 1990’s, it filled a huge void. The building industry in this country was trying to understand how to effectively define ‘green building’ and measure it in a consistent way. To date, LEED has done more for the national green building movement than anything previously conceived, its main focus of to make green building mainstream and to move the bulk of buildings being built towards higher standards.
But there is still hesitation with green building in any form, that is LEED or not LEED. Some arguments you may be familiar with are “it costs too much money” or “the process is cumbersome” or “the payback isn’t viable.” There of course papers and responses to these arguments, showing that green does cost the same as conventional building and that it increases productivity, saves energy, but I feel we must go beyond these arguments; in my view, they are often too focused on the economic viability of changing the marketplace, that is, baby steps. And I agree that baby steps are needed. However, I also contend that bold strides are needed.
So let me jump in and look at Sustainable Sites. Generally when we start a project, we don’t think much about the site beyond it’s this sq footage or acreage, here are the utilities, these are the zoning issues, what environmental permits are needed, the buildable area, and so forth. We may go out and look at the site for a bit, take some pictures, but it is rare to really spend time there, walking the site, learning about the site, being with the site. So we view the site as an isolated entity, more an object in a field persay than something connected to a much larger whole.
But let’s look at a typical site for a minute. Any site is a part of a greater watershed, the watershed itself being a critical component of a healthy hydrologic cycle. Within any watershed there is infiltration of water back into the groundwater, which in turn replenishes underground streams and aquifers, runoff which replenishes above ground creeks, streams, lakes, rivers and so forth, and a healthy cycle of evapo-transpiration that occurs from grass and trees and other plant life.
There is also a flourishing ecosystem –or systems, above and below ground, water-based and non-water-based, consisting of plants, animals and micro-organisms and more. All of them work in concert to maintain a balance –both at night and during the day; nocturnal animals are just as important as non-nocturnal.
Each site is also a unique and distinct place, place not being a destination, as in “we are going to that place” but place as in each place having a spirit “symbolizing the living ecological relationship between a particular location and the persons who have derived from it and added to it the various aspects of their humanness over time” (the latter eloquently stated by René Dubos). Being a part of place though, is necessary to being human and indeed, we all have a place or places which we connect to.
But of all of these, the watershed or the ecosystems or the place, how much do we generally know? Usually nothing. And so for years and years we have been developing land, divorced from a connection with it. We have filled in streams, viewed wetlands as a nuisance, cut down mature trees and replaced them with saplings –a token measure almost in comparison, introduced non-native and invasive species, forced animals from their natural habitats, built unattractive, inaccessible and artificially aerated retention basins, lit up sites at night so that nocturnal environments are severely impacted, allowed water to run off sites into storm systems, instead of re-infiltrating it on site, thought little about who and what might have been on the site before, and so much more.
Now, some of you might say to me, these things must happen for progress to occur. Perhaps this is true in the conventional sense. But I also know that we have drastically changed watersheds, eroded and destroyed habitats, developed sites in inappropriate ways, created large heat islands with our cities and freeways, to list a few examples. We have also increased insurance rates, changed flood plain patterns, caused litigation and lawsuits, and more.
Where is the value in any of this?
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Instead, I’d like to talk about value engineering in relation to sustainable design, and the creation of our built environment.
But first, I’d like to talk a bit about paradigm shifts.
Where’s the Easy Button?
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift with respect to how we connect to Earth. For the past several decades, we have seen a rise in environmentalism and environmental responsibility. Indeed, whereas before an environmentalist might be labeled a tree hugger, today it is probably more un-cool to NOT be green, no matter what shade you are; today, green is everywhere. And more and more we are thinking beyond our current wants and needs to ever greater extents -or in some cases, at least starting to. But essentially, we are beginning to truly see that we are not separate from Earth, and are in fact part of Earth, and what we do effects it, just as what Earth does effects us. We are moving from a very linear way of thinking and being, one which is divorced from connection to Earth, to a much more grounded and holistic way of thinking and being.
How we design and build is in no way divorced from this paradigm shift. The thing about paradigm shifts though, is that they’re tough. And I have two examples for you, to help you understand just how tough a paradigm shift is.
The World is Flat. Dammit.
The first one is, flat world / round world. For a very long time, we thought the world was flat. If you sailed past the horizon, supposedly you were toast. But there were those who also thought, hmm, this doesn’t make sense. Let’s test this. So one day someone kept sailing past the horizon and discovered that in fact, it didn’t end, and that by following the stars, the sun, the moon, which are the same everywhere, just positioned differently depending on longitude and latitude, they could in fact arrive back in the place where they started.
Imagine the turmoil this caused. Everything that probably a majority of the population thought was true was no longer true. It changed all the rules.
The next one is humors (also called vapors) and germs. For a very long time, we thought that disease was caused by vapors -essentially, the air itself. But there were those who also thought, hmm, this doesn’t make sense. So they tested and researched and questioned until one day they discovered these dastardly microscopic things called germs.
Imagine the turmoil this caused. Everything that physicians of the time knew, from how they treated sickness, to what sickness was, to even training physicians, was no longer true. It changed all the rules.
It’s Not Easy Being Green
Now we are in the shift between conventional building and green building.
Our conventional way of designing and building is a very economically driven industry, one built primarily on first costs. Now, granted, what isn’t economically driven, but for the sake of this talk, we’ll focus on the design and construction industry. And, to boot, for all we know, perhaps building has been a very economically driven industry since we began building. Picture a Roman Emperor for example, building a building, one which probably still stands today, saying to his builder “yes, yes, I do want the Senate chambers to last and be reflective of our empire, but I don’t want to pay a lot for it; find the cheapest stone you can and build with that.”
Now, however, we are moving to a more holistic way of building, one which also considers the economic impacts of NOT building responsibly. This way of building is nicknamed green building. Believe it or not however, with respect to green building we still have a ways to go -like I said, paradigm shifts are tough and they take time. We are saying in some respects that everything we thought to be true about how we design and build may not be as true any longer. We are also still focused in large part on first costs, rather than long term costs, in spite of new evidence each day that thinking long term makes economic sense. Still though, and in spite of good intentions, the value of the dollar in hand today speaks volumes over the dollar in hand down the road.
Part of this is due in large part to a misunderstanding of what green design is. Green isn’t an add-on. It isn’t merely following the LEED Rating System either -although LEED is an excellent tool and a great place to start. It is also not a linear process, which is how we’ve designed and built for so long.
Turning the Tables
So this is where I want to begin looking at value engineering with respect to green building. But again, I am putting a different spin on the term. Instead of looking at value engineering in the standard light of getting a project within a set budget, which is for the most part, about first costs –which granted, strives to achieve the best possible building, I instead want to look at value engineering in terms of long-term impacts and costs to us, to our legacy, to Earth. Now, I am going to add a caveat to this. In spite of the rise of green building, there are also those who still argue that it is not economically viable. There are others who just aren’t ready to move in the green building direction. This however, is all in the spirit of a paradigm shift, just as someone like me, advancing and challenging our conventional ways of thinking is part of a paradigm shift.
End Part 1.
Next week, I'll start to look at value engineering through the lens of the LEED rating system
Image: Circa 1531 map of the world, from Google Images
Monday, February 9, 2009
Up until about 100 years ago, you could see the stars at night, even in the city, because back then, the lamps –which were gas-fired or simply candles, weren’t near as bright or as frequently placed as today, nor was there as much light escaping from buildings as there is today. Imagine what that must have been like, to stand in the streets of any major city, from New York, to London (the most populated city in 1800), to Moscow, to Hong Kong and still look up and see the stars, perhaps even the Milky Way. Now however, our communities are lit up in the name of security, and from interior light escaping from our buildings through windows. Then there’s decorative and accent lighting, to show off features of buildings and bridges. And more. And to boot, all this light is reflected, refracted and scattered above us, creating an even brighter halo over top the community.
Bright Lights. City Nights.
All this light is wonderful and beautiful in some respects –it’s quite something to fly over cities at night, the glowing network of roads and buildings below, but what is the cost to nocturnal environments? Because remember, even though we are diurnal creatures, the world doesn’t exist just for us, and just as much activity goes on at night as during the day. And indeed, migration, reproduction, and feeding patterns and habits of other creatures we share Earth with have been adversely affected. Birds get trapped and disoriented in our glowing cities, often colliding with buildings, killing up to 100 million birds each year, (click here to learn more about FLAP), turtles who’ve just laid eggs on the beach can sometimes be led off course, following the glow of a city beyond, instead of the natural glow of the horizon, and frogs and toads who live near brightly lit areas are thrown completely out of kilter, to name a scant few examples. Our built environment, our imprint and legacy, has drastically altered the natural environment, whether we want to admit it or not.
The first time I saw the number of stars in the sky was on the Big Island in Hawai’i. Over my head were millions of lights of various size and brightness. I had never seen such a sight and can still remember it today, as well as exactly that, the feeling of transcendence and awe. There is also a sense of deep humility that accompanies this experience. And I think humility is something we need right now.
We are also working towards reducing light pollution, and that’s a good thing, although admittedly we doubtfully will ever return our night skies to what they once were. Today, however, light fixtures have cutoff design, and the LEED rating system requires that specific requirements be met for both interior and exterior building lighting, so as to reduce light trespass and overall lighting power density. It's a start.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
If you didn't attend the United States Green Build Council's annual GreenBuild in Boston this past November 2008, you missed an amazing keynote address by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I also missed GreenBuild, but thankfully, the USGBC now has GreenBuild365, where you can watch webcasts of master speakers. Tutu's keynote was eloquent, witty, nutty, inspiring and necessary. Tutu never minces words -he tells it like it is, being the extremely important common sense, moral voice that he is. And in this talk, he speaks about God's most magnificent creation, Earth, and the responsibility we in the design and construction industry have towards caring for it.
This important keynote may not be accessible permanently
Even more importantly though, his keynote address I recently found out, may not remain a permanent part of GreenBuild365, as Tutu owns the rights to the webcast. So please take 30-40 minutes and listen now, while you can.Note: you need to create an account to login to the USGBC site to listen, but it is an easy registration process. USGBC does not sell or give your name/email away either.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Note: this post has nothing to do with green buildings directly…
We are 17 days away from inauguration day. Personally, I can’t wait. And I think polar bears –not to mention a host of other species, feel the same. Barack Obama has many challenges to tackle after he takes office of course, ranging from the Israel-Palestinian conflict, to Afghanistan, to our economic “crisis” (in quotes because I think we are all learning a great deal about ourselves and money because of this, so maybe not so much a crisis as a much needed whack upside the head from a much wiser elder), to our changing climate. On the latter, Barack Obama has spoken often of a “planet in peril,” and seems ready, willing and able to face the challenges ahead of him on this front; he gets it.
Dear Barack and Michelle…
Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who woke us up to our changing climate, wrote an open letter about just that to the Obama’s just before the new year, a cover letter to a document he authored titled “Tell Barack the Truth – The Whole Truth.” As I read Hansen’s letter and the document, I thought about all the good intentions, and also, all the politicking that is bound to go on. Believe me, I am extremely hopeful and am watching in excitement as I see the tide shifting. But I also recognize that we are more often than not, a reactive society. We tend to talk and talk and talk… and talk some more, and then when something happens, we react. When it comes to Earth, we don’t have time to talk anymore. We’ve talked enough.
The Field Trip
This is when I got my idea for a mandatory field trip for the Obama’s, his entire cabinet, all of Congress, executives from the coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear sectors, climate scientists (from both the climate change proponent and non-proponent camps), and some key environmentalists (like NRDC as an example). I’ll stop there –you get the idea. It would be a 40 day field trip –the government can be run remotely and at most, Obama is 12 hours by plane from DC. They would all travel the United States together, and see first-hand, the impacts of our actions and how we are affecting our climate, our land, our water, our wildlife, and more, in a myriad of ways. They would talk to people of all ages and backgrounds. They would also be required to come to table, together, each evening (in smaller groups of course, with mediators perhaps), to discuss what they saw, how they feel, what can be done, and how we start.
Christ went into the desert for 40 days after being baptized. He returned, further transformed by what he saw and experienced, ready to undertake the enormous task which lay before Him. I can only see the same happening for all participants during the course of this 40 day field trip across the US.