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?