Eco-Coach

Green your life at home, work & play

Passive Homes April 26, 2012

What is a passive home, and what does it have to do with environmental sustainability? A passive home or passivaus in German, is a house (any building can be passive with the correct planning) that is specifically made to be highly energy efficient, have a dramatically reduced carbon footprint, and a requirement of little to no extra energy for heating or cooling.

This idea began in the 90’s in Germany and quickly became more than just an idea. Two years after the two pioneers, Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, had the first conversation about this idea, they had already built a set of four row houses in Darmstadt, Germany with the help of Bott, Ridder and Westermeyer architectural firm. This first set of row houses surpassed any expectation at the time, with energy costs being 80% less than standard houses built the same year. This is also when the Passive House Institute was created, which has helped spread the concept.

Instead of relying on the energy grid for power, a passive house uses the sources of energy surrounding it, such as sunlight, body heat, wind-power, ground heat (geo-thermal) and even the energy released in everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning and using appliances to heat in the winter and cool in the summer. The defining equipment in any passive home is the mechanical ventilation system. Since these homes have to be airtight, they need to be able to let in fresh air for occupants and release old air containing noxious gases and CO2.

The building envelope in these structures is truly remarkable; the walls are filled with extra thick insulation to minimize any chance of thermal bridging (heat loss). The windows are infra-red reflecting, vacuum sealed, triple glazed, triple pained and finally pumped full of the noble (colorless) gas, argon. This gas is heavier than air and acts as a better insulation against heat from solar radiation. The awnings on these homes are built to take advantage of the lower sunlight in the winter, and the higher sunlight in the summer. In some cases, the homes are so energy efficient that they sell extra energy from solar panels to the city or county energy grid; in fact, they get paid to do this. One builder in Germany, Rolf Disch, has built a set of homes that earn, on average, $5,075 per year. Typical homes in this area of Germany spend $4,500 and up on energy. Such a saving can really make an impact on a homeowner’s annual income and yearly spending. The positive aspect of saving money is enough for most people but for the more environmental conscious, the reduction in their carbon footprint is almost indomitable.

In 2010, there were over 25,000 certified passive homes in Europe , but only 13 of these homes in the US. The vast majority of passive houses have been built in German-speaking countries and Scandinavia. However, in the last two years, the amount of passive homes in the US has nearly quadrupled, due to higher energy costs and the stimulus packages that have been made available for “green building” through the Obama administration. The International Passive House Institute also provides additional information, as the US branch of Passive House. We hope this trend continues, as the homes are more energy efficiency that Energy Star and LEED certified homes – though these, too, are a great step in the right direction.

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Washington, DC Truly LEEDs the Nation! January 26, 2012

Washington, DC has been announced as the leader in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)! In the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual list of the top 10 states with the most square feet per capita of LEED certified buildings (which actually has 11 entries since DC isn’t a state), the district came out on top with 31.5 square feet per person, bringing it to a total of almost 19 million square feet. That is an increase of 6.35 square feet per person from DC’s 2010 numbers, when it also led the nation. Colorado came in second with 2.74 ft2 and Virginia and Maryland also did well, coming in at 4th and 6th, with 2.42 and 2.07 square feet per person, respectively. Interestingly, neither Nevada nor New Mexico are on the 2011 list, even though they were 2nd and 3rd in 2010. It is important to note that some other states have a greater total number of square feet that is LEED certified, including Illinois (#3) with 34.5 million ft2, Texas (#8) with 50 million ft2, and New York (#10) with 36.5 million ft2.

DC has a large number of green buildings per capita due to efforts by the federal government (it owns or uses 30% of LEED certified buildings) and because many buildings host workers who do not live in the district, but rather commute from Virginia or Maryland. Since the Executive Order issued in 1999 on “Greening the Government through Efficient Energy Management”, many federal agencies have developed sustainability plans involving LEED for their buildings and facilities. The General Services Administration was the first government agency to adapt aim for LEED certification in their buildings (2003), and now aim for LEED Gold, and the U.S. Navy was the first government agency to certify a LEED building. 2006 was a big year for LEED, when the USDA, the EPA, NASA, and the Smithsonian all implemented policies that required LEED Silver or LEED certification for new construction and large renovations. Since then, other agencies like Department of Energy, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior, the Department of State, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Air Force and Army have all created policies requiring LEED Silver, certification or their equivalent as well.

In addition to the federal government guidelines, the district has a few policies of its own. Since 2006, all non-residential, public commercial buildings must be LEED Silver. Since 2007, all public schools and renovations on commercial buildings larger than 30,000 square feet must be LEED certified. All new or renovations of non-residential, private buildings over 50,000 square feet must develop and implement a green building checklist and next year all non-residential buildings and institutions of higher learning must receive LEED certification. Additionally, since 2008 all new and renovated metro (WMATA) facilities must be LEED certified.

LEED, pioneered by the U.S. Green Building Council headquartered in DC, has certified projects in all 50 states and 120 countries.

Photo courtesy of: The U.S. Green Building Council

 

Energy conservation or energy efficiency? Or both? January 20, 2012

Saatchi & Saatchi’s  Strategy for Sustainability winter 2012 newsletter featured a recent article featured from the Guardian  that highlighted the fact that we now use 15 times more energy than we did prior to the industrial revolution. That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that fossil fuels are involved in most activities – from growth and transportation of the food we eat, to the hot water for our shower, the fuel for our transportation (unless you walk or bike), and the power for our computers, phones, printers, etc… The article points out that although the majority of conversations are focused on finding alternative forms of energy supply, reducing energy demand is largely overlooked and should be something that is incentivized and regulated.

Speaking as someone who spends a lot of her time educating and encouraging organizations and individuals to reduce, reuse, repurpose and really, rethink, their energy, water, waste and product use, I agree that conservation is important. Regardless of whether you believe in Peak Oil or not, the fact remains that the earth’s population is increasing at an exponential pace – in the 1950’s, there were about 2.5 billion people on the planet, and now, a mere 60 years later, there are 7 billion. We are utilizing a finite resource and our needs are growing exponentially. Conservation is certainly important, as are finding alternative energy solutions.

Although it would be great for energy to be considered as a public good, as the article states, this will likely not happen in the near future, so energy conservation is one of the ways to stem the growth of energy use, at least for the short term.  Energy efficiency, of course, is a great first step in that discussion. Energy efficiency can reduce direct energy consumption by as much as 20-30%. Steps for this are more or less widely known – for commercial buildings, they range from switching to more energy efficient lighting, installing occupancy sensors and installing an energy management system, to looking at more holistic smart building solutions.

Once these measures are in place, it is time to look at energy conservation. This involves getting people on board – and this can be a tougher proposition, one that requires not only education but ongoing cheerleading, for lack of a better term. I have had CEOs and COOs tell me that their staff will ‘do as they are told’. Even if this is the case (which in most cases, it is not), obedience to mandated rules will be short-lived and will cause ill-will. I recently went to a Sustainable DC Energy Workgroup, one of nine workgroups convened with the end goal of providing an innovative plan to ‘make DC the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the nation’. The question was raised there as well –  ‘how can we get people to change their behavior – why is it so hard to do?’

That is a great question, and one that I find many organizations struggle with – once they realize the importance of it. Behavior change can add another 10-15% , if not more, in energy conservation, so it is certainly something that should not be ignored.  There are no easy solutions to successful behavior change.  Answers range from educating and incentivizing to recognizing to challenging individuals to conserve energy. It all depends on the organization’s culture –whether it is hierarchical or flat, its size, and its vision. These, among others, are all ingredients to the recipe that will, ideally, result in reduced energy consumption.

Another way to conserve energy, indirectly, is to look at the embodied energy from all the products that are used in a regular office environment or at home. This is a tougher one to measure, but, as a starting point, it can be addressed by following a couple of basic rules: simplify and buy ‘green’ products.

Simplifying means less stuff in your life – whether that is at your office or your home. It means thinking twice about whether something is really needed before you hit the ‘Buy’ button or put in a purchase order.  It means reusing items and again, rethinking.

As for buying ‘green’, this means what I’m sure many of you have already guessed – purchasing items that are made of 100% recycled content, that are sustainably harvested and produced, and that can be reused or repurposed.  The energy required to recycle a product is less than the energy required to make a new one.

So, conserving starts with getting people on board and simplifying processes and your life. And, although it sounds simple, it is tougher to do than installing energy efficient mechanical equipment, but it is just as important – if not more.

 

Green Office Pioneers in the DC Metro Area: Part 2 November 28, 2011

The second installment in our series on green offices in the DC metro area is the new East Coast headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Fort Belvoir, VA. The building received a LEED Gold rating, the second highest LEED rating and the largest federal government building to receive such a high rating (2.2 million square-feet). The office focused on three areas: water, energy and transportation. By collecting 

rainwater and using low-flow fixtures, NGA saves about 3 million gallons of water a month. It also reduces energy use by 30% with efficient lighting w

ith motion sensors and transparent ETFE roofing to provide more natural daylight. Carbon dioxide emissions from cars are reduced by NGA encouraging their employees to use public transportation.

NGA also included healthier materials in their building, including ones with low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which contain chemicals that can cause headaches, nausea, and eye, nose and throat irritation, among other things. Chilled beams are also incorporated into the building to further reduce energy use associated with heating and air conditioning, since these reduce the power used by the fans.

Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense

 

Green Office Pioneers in the DC Metro Area: Part 1 November 21, 2011

When you are younger and trying to find your way in the world, it sometimes helps to have a role model. I think the same is true if you are trying to green your office and don’t know where to start or what options are available. To help you in this endeavor, we are going to have a multiple part series on green offices in the Washington DC metro area.

What better place to start than the headquarters of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the inventors of the leading green building certification: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Their office has the highest rating LEED offers: Platinum, in the Commercial Interiors category.
Energy and water efficiency are key in the corporate yet fashionable USGBC office. Water use is 40% less than in conventional offices and energy use is 50% less. In order to increase heating and cooling efficiency, the “eco-corridor” nearest the outside windows is slightly warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter than the inner cubicles.  Individualized temperature controls are available inside the cubicles, allowing for a more comfortable environment where workers are during most of the day, without having to make the less-used corridors just as comfortable. There are also plenty of indoor plants to increase indoor air quality.

Natural daylight is another important aspect in the USBGC’s headquarters. It significantly decreases the need to use electricity to power lights, but also helps improve employees’ moods with views of nature. The floor to ceiling windows provide plenty of light, while the automatic window shades decrease glare. An automated system also helps coordinate the need for lighting by sensing how much natural light is available and adjusting the artificial lights accordingly.

The USGBC also makes use of a lot of reclaimed materials. Much of the wood that adorns the walls were reclaimed from 500-year old gumwood trees that had fallen off of logging boats and were preserved in the Tennessee River. Trees that were cut down hundreds of years ago emit no additional carbon to the atmosphere and provide a great story for guests! There are many other great aspects to the USGBC headquarters that can be found in their press release or website that makes it a chic yet environmental office.

Photo Courtesy of McGraw Hill Construction Continuing Education Center

 

Moving Towards Zero Waste November 7, 2011

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This mantra has been publicized tirelessly in recent years, emblazoned on hemp tote bags, organic cotton t-shirts, and reusable water bottles. While it has been moderately successful in raising public awareness about the waste stream, this slogan mainly targets consumers, and most of those consumers are just recycling. In reality, the man-made waste stream is a much larger issue. Consider the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Bigger than the Great Wall of China, the Fresh Kills Landfill was the largest man-made object on Earth and could be seen from space with the naked eye until reclamation began in 2009. Humans are the only existing species that produce non-biodegradable waste. More importantly, this waste is not only created at the consumer, end-of-product-life level. Raw material extraction, product and packaging design, manufacturing practices, sales and distribution, and government policy are all contributing factors.

This is where the concept of zero waste comes in. Zero waste practices seek to tackle our “throw away” attitude by emphasizing resource conservation, reduction in pollution, increased economic opportunity, and quality over quantity. Mimicking nature, zero waste initiatives promote a cyclical manner of resource use over a linear approach. Zero waste perspectives perceive waste as a resource going in the wrong direction. Many discarded materials or resources often viewed as “waste” can be used to make new products, effectively cutting infrastructure costs, creating new jobs and revenue opportunities, and encouraging innovation. Rather than targeting only consumers, zero waste efforts employ system wide principles, optimizing resource use and keeping producers, consumers, and policy makers accountable. The overall goal? To eliminate waste as much as possible. Below is a step-by-step breakdown of zero waste fundamentals and their existing counterparts:

  • Raw Material Supply: emphasize recycled material use, sustainable harvesting and non-toxic materials over exhaustion of virgin resources and piecemeal toxic material management
  • Product and Packaging Design: encourage waste minimization, durability, repairability, recyclability, and longer product lifespans over manufactured obsolescence in the interest of maximized sales
  • Manufacturing: reform operations to abate emissions, minimize resource use and account for end-of-life product management instead of skirting compliance costs
  • Sales and Distribution: instill an active sense of environmental responsibility in wholesalers and retailers and support regional distribution and sales rather than large-scale, mass distribution
  • Government Policy: promote and incentivize conservation industries, maintain accountability at the producer stage, and institutionalize efficient strategies to control environmental, economic and social impacts in place of subsidizing uneconomical virgin extraction industries and managing waste at the expense of taxpayers
  • Consumption: select products on basis of quality, price, and environmental impact and increase participation reuse/recycling programs instead of overconsumptive behaviors

Clearly, zero waste initiatives require a significant shift in societal awareness and dedication. Informing and educating the public is crucial to this process of surmounting existing barriers. In 2007, director Louis Fox, filmmaker Annie Leonard and Free Range Studios released a 20 minute documentary trying to do just that. Titled The Story of Stuff, the animated film takes a critical stance on excessive consumerism and the materials economy, explaining the impacts on environmental, economic and social health. Since its release, the documentary been translated into 15 languages and viewed in 228 different countries and territories.

Pick Up America is a more interactive, hands-on approach to raising awareness about reducing waste. In 2010, co-founders and University of Maryland alumni Davey Rogner and Jeff Chen and the rest of the PUA crew embarked on nation’s first coast-to-coast roadside litter pick up. From its starting point in Assateague Island, Maryland, PUA will span thirteen states in its journey to the San Francisco Bay area, picking up trash, coordinating volunteers, and educating communities about zero waste practices along the way. So far, the PUA team has collected 109,796 pounds of litter over 1,000 miles.

And what about implementation? Since the birth of the zero waste concept, numerous district councils and city divisions have adopted waste reduction and recycling strategies to enable a transition to a waste-free future. In 1998, the Opotiki District Council in New Zealand became the first local authority to endorse zero waste practices. Canada has also been a leader in blazing the zero waste trail, developing more sustainable methods of waste management and diversion in multiple municipalities spanning the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia.

To find out more about what “zero waste” really means, check out the following:

 

New Protocols for Product Carbon Footprinting October 24, 2011

When considering a company’s carbon footprint, we most often think about the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions tied to the company’s operational

energy use.  While company energy use is a definite concern, it is also important to consider the emissions tied to a business’s products as well.  The World Resources Institute (WRI) has recently released supplements to its Greenhouse Gas Protocol for measuring GHG emissions from corporate value chains as well as product lifecycles.

The Corporate Value Chain protocol will help companies evaluate the emissions of products that they produce, buy, and sell.  Identifying emissionsfrom value chains allows companies to dive deeper into their carbon footprint, identify the highest sources of company emissions, and establish the most efficient methods for reducing emissions.

The Product Life Cycle Standard enables companies to measure the carbon footprint of a given product from resource extraction, through production, to consumption and disposal.  With a better understanding of how all phases of a product’s life cycle contribute to GHG emissions, companies can be better equipped to design products with lighter environmental impacts.

Companies seeking to “green” their operations should consider carbon footprinting their products as well as their value chain.  GHG emissions are often tied to inefficient uses of energy; identifying areas where energy use can be reduced and emissions can be cut often leads to cost savings.  For more information regarding the new protocols, please visit the Greenhouse Gas Protocol website.

 

 
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