Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Are Your Real Fuel Costs?

I recently wrote and made a Rotary Club presentation about using compressed natural gas (CNG) in vehicles. I drove one of our freshly converted CNG powered Ford Escapes with me to demonstrate. Part of the process was to calculate fuel amounts and costs and to compare those costs with the cost of conversion to CNG. I’ve done exercises like this before but for some reason I seem to forget a startling fact: if you keep a vehicle until it is dead or mostly dead, to about 200,000 miles, you spend quite a bit more on fuel than you do on the purchase price. Imagine how it would influence car-buying decisions if that number was first and foremost on the minds of consumers; perhaps even posted along side the vehicles MPG information?

Our 4-cylinder Escapes average a respectable (but not great) 25 miles per gallon. At $3.90 per gallon (probably a low average for the next few years), we could spend $31,200 each in fuel alone on these vehicles. Our large service vans or our dump truck get about 16 MPG. We could spend $48,750 each in fuel over the lifetime of these vehicles. Because we will convert them to CNG, our actual costs will be less than half of that. The switch I made from a 19 MPG Dodge diesel pickup as my personal vehicle to a 40 MPG VW Jetta Sportwagon diesel is saving over $20,000. That is practically the cost of the car.

The initial cost of the Hybrids and plug in electric vehicles seem high. If you are in it for the long haul, though, they are a good deal
. The difference in fuel costs between the 28 MPG standard Toyota Camry and the 41 MPG Hybrid Camry is $8,832, considerably more than the difference in the purchase price. Still, the benefit drops the higher the MPG of the comparison vehicles. The difference in overall fuel cost between a 49 and 50 MPG vehicle is just $318 where the difference between 15 and 16 MPG vehicles is a whopping $3,250. This is why it is not difficult to understand the number of diesel Sprinter service vans in use by businesses (we have two). If you can average 21 MPG instead of 14 MPG for a comparable van, you’ll save $18,571.

So, the next time you look at buying a car or truck, think about the total cost of the vehicle, not just the purchase price. And please ask your favorite local elected officials to think about this as well. I’d like our taxpayer money to be spent effectively.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Paint 'Em White

That is one item on Bill Clinton’s list of 14 Ways to Create Jobs. He is talking about roofs on buildings. Our Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, has been talking up the clear benefits of white or reflective roofs. When making a roof material and color choice on a new building, this is a no-cost way to significantly reduce the energy needed to cool buildings. Zip. Zilch. A white roof does not cost more than a black one. And when in the process of replacing a roof on an old building, it does not cost more to install a white roof. Again, not a penny more.

In commercial buildings in the southeast, most of the conditioning load is to cool the building. Because of internal heat generation from lights, people, and machines, cooling systems are often running even whe
n it is cool outside. This is another reason why a reflective roof choice is so effective in our climate. It reduces the load of the primary mode of operation of the mechanical system.

We chose a white metal roof for our commercial building in Durham. We chose it because it looks good, because it is extremely durable, because it is a great surface for collecting rainwater that we will use for irrigation and for flushing our toilets, and because it has the highest Solar Reflectivity Index (85) of any roof that met the rest of our design criteria. Not only does this save on utility costs over time, it allowed us to install smaller systems to condition the building. Yup, the color of the roof saved us money before we received our first utility bill. Why isn’t this the primary color choice for roofs?


Pictured below: The low-sloped white roof of the ClearSense building at 502 Rigsbee Avenue overlooking Downtown Durham. The rails will support solar panels (soon to be installed).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Solar Panels: That Simple?

When installing solar panels, you stagger the rows so that one row of panels does not shade the next. And, of course, it makes sense to tilt them towards the sun. That simple? Nope. Throw in a few more factors like limited area for the array installation, the limitations of the rack systems, the relative cost of more and less efficient panels, and the surprisingly small reduction in efficiency if the panels are not at the optimal angle to the sun and another, better route emerges.

For the array that we are installing on our commercial building in Durham, we made choices that yield a cost-effective solution but that seem counter-intuitive. While slightly more complicated than this, our options boiled down to two alternatives that both exceeded our energy generating goals. Option one: expensive and highly efficient panels installed in consistent and optimally tilted rows. Option two: a larger quantity of considerably less expensive and somewhat less efficient panels installed mostly in consistent and optimally tilted rows but with two leading rows that are not tilted towards the sun. In fact, they are tilted slightly to the north. The lack of tilt allowed us to install the first rows more compactly without shading the next row. We picked option two. Option two delivers slightly more power. Option two saves over $40,000 in up-front costs. Not bad. Our only concern is hearing the comment: “Hey, Mr. Solar Intelligence, the sun is to the south.” To those folks, I’m happy to tell this story, enjoy the clean energy, and put the money in the bank.

For any energy geeks (this term used endearingly) reading this, the first rows of panels are on a separate inverter so the reduced output from these rows does not degrade the output from the optimally tilted rows. Option two schematic roof panel layout shown below.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Home Comfort and Performance: Myths, Expectations--Don’t Worry, We Can Help

Just because your home was, or may have been, built to code standards whenever it was built does not mean that those standards had your family’s best interest in mind. It's more than likely there is a room or a space in your home that you have no intention of ever going into by choice. Crawl space? Attic? Basement? “Bonus” room? No, thanks! You know there is something wrong, but you don’t really know, or don’t want to know, what may be causing it. It may be too hot, too cold, too musty, too stinky, too dark, or too something. To make matters worse, you actually pay to heat, cool and maintain this space. It's living space that’s not worth living in.

There are some others who like their homes, the colors, the layout, the location, but for some reason they aren’t sleeping well, or there are allergy or respiratory issues in the family, or they don’t understand why their energy bills are painfully high. They’ve never stopped to think that the house itself, or the way it’s built, could be part of the cause, and that a small change or two could transform it for the better.

It’s your home, folks. The place that you count on to be a place of rest and comfort, peace and security, a place to recover, rejuvenate, and renew. We’re finding out, more and more each day, that American homes sometimes do the quite opposite. You may be throwing money out the window, or into the yard, and suffering from pollutants building up, or poor ventilation. You let things go, blame yourself for not keeping up with cleaning, say you'll get around to it later. But, when you get around to it, who do you call? The window folks? The heating and air people? The electrician? The insulation installers? An interior designer? Where do you start? And, finally, you may be back to putting it off again.

The team at BuildSense has been building homes "right" for twelve years in the triangle area. Their team has well over 100 years of experience in environmentally responsible and energy efficient design and construction. They are Home Performance Specialists. They provide a single source of expertise in understanding building science, viewing the entire house as a system, and can put the pieces together. When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of replacing windows. The truth is that may not address their real concerns according to the actual problems in their home and their available budget. If a room or two are too hot or cold, do you call the heating and air contractor to see about replacing the unit? That may be jumping the gun. For most folks, when it comes right down to it, comfort is the number one priority in their home, and if energy savings comes along with it, that’s a bonus. The complexities can be overwhelming, and sometimes what we think we need turns out to be something with an entirely different solution.  How can you expect yourself to put the pieces of your home performance puzzle together when you have your own work and family life to keep in order?

Each house is unique, and each family is as well. Preferences, budget, how they use the home, all play into decision-making. How these two—house and household—fit together is critical when trying to meaningfully solve problems. You really need somebody who knows how to listen to them both. We believe that’s what homeowners who are serious about making lasting changes really want.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Service Brings A Smile

A tornado rolled through downtown Raleigh this past Saturday, taking with it all the trees in my back yard, much of my fence, lots of my roof shingles and siding, my grill and yard furniture, as well as depositing more trees then I ever had growing. I wish my yard had played host to the forest that landed there on Saturday afternoon. In Sunday’s aftermath, I found no major roof problems, so grabbed the chain saw and the rake to take on some of the yard. I couldn’t tackle it all alone, but figured I would pull the big items to the rear of the yard where most of the other debris had gathered. It was shaping up to be a long day, as I knew the task was too great to complete by sundown. Lo and behold, along came the cavalry. A pack of NC State students on a volunteer prowl wandered into my neighborhood looking to give their sweat and muscle to those in need. Many hands make light work. Over the next four hours, my neighbor’s son and I kept the chainsaw rolling and the kids got everything to the street. Aside from missing the shade of the trees, the yard looks pristine, giving me some semblance of normalcy in an otherwise uncomfortable situation. Thanks Trevor, Will, Jesse, and the rest of your crew of too many names to remember.

Why do I take the time to recount this story? Why am I so pleased with the work these kids took upon themselves? Yes, I am glad to have been the benefactor of their efforts, but more importantly, I know the rush provided to the giver of those efforts. I know what those kids are starting now will persist in them forever and more people will benefit from their continued efforts in the future. Though I had performed occasional volunteer work through my youth, it was usually a school or association requirement. However, in 1999, as an intern architect fresh out of school, I started on a path that profoundly altered my perspective. Oddly enough, I didn’t exactly get involved for the right reasons. As a matter of fact, the reasons were plainly selfish. Habitat for Humanity of Wake County sponsored a competition to design an affordable house, which, if selected, would actually be built. I looked at it as an opportunity for me: an opportunity to design and build a house without yet having received my architectural license. The design was selected for construction and I decided to see the project through by volunteering every week on site. What started as a selfish endeavor of designing and building a house, turned out to be a valuable lesson in providing a great and deserving family with a home and hope for the future. Their lives were directly affected by the work I was doing. Each week became less about building a home and more about helping a family. When Stephanie, my homeowner, expressed to me that her children would get the opportunity to go to college because of the environment her new home had provided, I fought back tears. When her children smiled and thanked me at the neighborhood dedication, it was too tough to fight. And what I’ve found is the fighting of those tears or the tears themselves are like pure adrenaline. It’s a rush of it’s own. Some choose to skydive, some prefer motorcycles, the x-games are awesome, but work and sweat your ass off helping someone who really needs it and you’ll find it just as exhilarating.

In March, I took my second trip to Granada, Nicaragua with the Rotary Club of South Granville County, NC. They work in conjunction with the Granada Rotary Club and have constructed four school libraries, one medical clinic, and one school in the Granada area over the past twelve years. My business partner, president of BuildSense, and Rotarian, Randy Lanou has organized the last two trips, written the grants, procured the funds, laid out the budgets, and lead some great teams in the completion of a highly productive medical clinic and a great new elementary school. Nicaragua is the second poorest county next to Haiti in our hemisphere. The life conditions are horrendous. I’ve never seen anything worse, but the people are happy, spirited, and full of smiles. They take pride in what they have even if that means they sweep the dirt in front of their shack. It’s a good place to put in perspective how much we take for granted here in the USA. When our crew of 20-25 volunteers draws close to completing our full scope of work, a large gathering of local families join us and present us with some small token of appreciation, many smiles, and perhaps a song. I keep my sunglasses on because here come those tears again. I’ve got what I wanted. The rush is back and I know once again, that it is truly better to give than to receive.

To learn more about my experience of designing and building with Habitat for Humanity of Wake County, read Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism by Metropolis Press.

To learn more about service through the South Granville Rotary Club and Rotary International, go to www.rotary7710.org or www.rotary.org.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

10,000 kWh

In same way that you notice when your car rolls past 100,000 miles, we noticed that our clean energy generation system hit the 10,000 kWh milestone this week. The system has been in operation for less than two years and has consistently performed beyond our expectations. We have a "buy all, sell all" system which means that we buy every watt that we use and we sell (back to the utility) all of the power that we generate. We get paid for that power two ways. One, our utility pays us wholesale rates for the power and two, a clean energy company pays a premium rate for the clean power.  In 22 months of operation, we have earned $3,250.00 from the clean energy company and another $450.00 from wholesale power sales. Without taking the value of the tax credits into account, we are making a 7.4% return on our investment. If I immediately offset our investment by the significant state and federal tax credits (which we realize, but not right away), the return on our investment goes up to a whopping 21.3%. If you are doing better than that in the market right now, will you please send me the name of your broker?

There are caveats, of course.  The clean energy company is very slow to pay (but they do). Our energy generation system is the first in our county and I had to work with our planning board to write a new ordinance that supports these systems. The federal tax credit is realized in the first year but the state tax credit is spread out over 5 years. A good spot with generous solar access is required (we designed and oriented a shop building specifically for this purpose). Lastly, our initial investment was a bit lower than most as my father and I installed the system and just hired a professional to set up the inverter and grid tie-in. Still, we find that our system is well worth the effort.

Another way to look at the financial value of a clean energy generation system is to check the time line on seeing your initial capital back. At that point, you still own the system and its capability to continue to produce energy and revenue for decades to come. Without tax credits, our system would pay us back in 13.4 years.  With tax credits, 4.7 years.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Educating Kids

We just renovated and expanded a school just outside of Granada, Nicaragua for 450 kids. When we started they had four severely storm-damaged classrooms and no bathrooms or clean water. The staff was teaching classes in neighboring makeshift buildings and the students were using the bathrooms, such as they are, in neighbor's houses. This week, they have seven safe, clean, wired, and dry classrooms (four renovated and three new), bathrooms for the boys and girls, a water system, and a safe waste treatment system. In a few more weeks, we'll have repaired existing furniture and acquired additional furniture, we'll stock the school with books and supplies, and we'll make and deliver hundreds of school uniforms.

Before We Started - June, 2010

Storm-Damaged Classroom

A diverse group of eighteen people participated in completion of the school: men and women; professionals, retirees, and students; Rotarians and non-Rotarians; with ages from 22 to 72. The common bonds amongst this diverse group are enthusiasm, commitment to service, and willingness to work. I was amazed by the team's completed work in our five day building blitz.

New Classrooms Under Construction

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (behind Haiti). The South Granville Rotary Club has completed six service projects here because the need is great and we have amazing partners at the Granada Rotary Club. We partnered to build four school libraries and a medical clinic prior to this school project and we plan to continue our service work in Granada in the future.

We found a broad base of support for this school. Six Rotary clubs, two congregations, two companies, the Rotary Foundation, Rotary District 7710, and 21 individuals all contributed to make up the total budget for the project. No single donation was more than 1/6th of the total budget. We are grateful for the generous support, in money and effort, of all the participants.

When we deconstructed the damaged roofs on the old classrooms, I saw some of the fastest and most direct re-purposing of materials ever. The cementious roof materials immediately - literally - became fences, roof ridge caps, siding, and (the smallest pieces) road gravel. A great example of frugality-based green building.

I find that I get completely immersed in planning, arranging supplies, paying vendors, working with local contractors, and doing the work that I sometimes do not see as much of the kids and community as I probably should.  This trip was no exception. Teachers come by the building site with the school children and sing us a song or read a poem or ask for the notebooks and colored pencils and school supplies that we bring. I noticed and smiled and focused right back on the work. On the last day, though, a group of elementary-school-age students walked to the site and presented a thank-you poster. Then they did the sweetest thing.  Four or five of the girls went went down the line and gave us a carefully practiced "thank-you" (in English) and a kiss on the cheek. Turned us into putty. What a gift.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I seem to be the center of a worm theme. My oldest, Aspen, started out as a wiggle worm graduated to bookworm and now we just call her "Worm". You know how family nicknames evolve.

So when she started a worm bin we took it in stride. "What is a worm bin" you ask? So did we! A worm bin is a composting system that you can have inside your home. In fact it needs to be in your home so the worms don't freeze the winter and it will be very convenient to use.

You can buy worm bins online, but the daughter of a builder tends to lean toward "do it yourself". Aspen found and enjoyed a workshop at Durham’s Scrap Exchange on Foster.

Now, back to the worm part of our story for they are the heroes of this story. Aspen’s worm bin is made of a plastic storage bin with a tight fitting lid. She drilled holes in the top and sides to give the worms air and in the bottom to drain the worm "tea". To start the process she filled it with shredded newspaper to the top. Then you moisten the paper just so. Not to soggy but definitely moist. Then you add the worms. Two pounds of worms (roughly 2000) to one pound of food scraps expected a week seems to be one formula, but the supplier of Aspen's worms gave her two fists full and that seems to have worked. The worms self-adjust their population based on how much you feed them, so the amount of worms you start with isn't that important. The worms need a few hours to become adjusted to their new accommodations. Start them off easy with just a couple of cups of vegetable scraps. Let them munch on that for a week. In the meantime you can start placing your food scraps in another smaller plastic container in your fridge. That process will keep them from rotting quickly and adding an unwanted bouquet to your kitchen. Then once a week add that collection to your worm bin and they will happily (so Aspen tells me) compost them for you. Each week you add fresh moist newspaper to the top to control odor and bugs. When you feed the worms you should use a gardening claw to lift up an inch or two below the top of the soil the worms have made and place your food under that layer.

Every six months or so you harvest the compost and add more newspaper. Weekly you can harvest the "tea". Aspen mixes her tea with a ratio of one-third tea and two-thirds water. She uses for plant inside and out. Sort of a poor mans Miracle Grow.

Recently Aspen started pestering me to pimp her worm bin. She wanted an easier way to harvest the compost and tea and to roll it in and out from under the shelf in the pantry.

A quick trip the big blue box store netted wheels, a plastic paint tray and a couple of plumbing parts. A few minutes of assembly (with a teaspoon of father/Worm banter) and voila, the worms have a new ride!

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Different Outlook

Josef Mayr is a long-time friend, an Austrian, and one of the owners of BuildSense. I was set up on a blind date with Josef's sister, Christina, an au pair in Oak Park, Illinois, when I was 19.  Through Christina, I became fast friends with Josef. There is a lot more to this story but I'll save that for another time. I just wanted to introduce Josef. For now, jump forward a few decades…

When Josef and I toured housing component prefabricators and CNC wood cutting equipment makers in Bavaria and Austria a few years ago, the thing that I remembered most clearly is European's reaction to prefabricated housing.  Instead of the perception that you most often see in America, which is: "I don't want a poor quality tin-can trailer, " Europeans will say: "oh my, they are expensive but that is one nice house." Okay, it was actually some other variation of "oh, my," possibly not appropriate for a family-friendly blog. After visiting four different companies and several completed projects, I understood why. The houses delivered through this process are so well built, so carefully detailed, so comfortable and efficient, and so focused on the long term that they are completely unlike 98% of the best housing in the States.

The concept of flipping a house is fairly alien to Austrians and Germans as is the idea of a starter house, the next one, and the next one. The best translation of the "ownership" of Josef's family farm (in Mutters, outside Innsbruck) is that the farm and surrounding forest owns the family, rather than the other way around. Permanence, durability, and stewardship figure prominently into the equation.  Their family house is few hundred years old.  They store apples and farm supplies in the old house after they built an adjacent new home (in the 60's).  Multiple generations of the family live in the house.  Josef and his sister built their houses on family land. Josef's brother will have the family house. They all plan to stay.

This mindset translates seamlessly to the building choices that they make.  They pick for comfort, for efficiency, and for very long-term returns and value. Too often, Americans consider only initial cost.  If we go beyond initial cost, we might consider just a few years of operating costs. The impact of the choices that these different mindsets yield is astonishing. This is the crux of the argument for (and against) building a quality house (or a sustainable house, which I understand is the same thing). Do we make a higher investment in our houses now and enjoy the benefit of comfort, health, low (or non-existent) energy bills, low water bills, and a healthy environment? Or is the investment in our home so transient and short-term that we build a barely acceptable code-standard house and pay significantly more over time to energy companies and health care providers? Unfortunately, our banking, real estate, building code, and appraisal stakeholders all support and perpetuate the initial-cost-focused model.

Two places stood out on this tour.  One, the Hundegger factory. They make CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines that mill wood, engineered lumber, and SIPS (structural insulated panel systems).  These machines figure prominently in the construction of prefabricated house components. They crank out prefabricated components with speed, precision, and controlled repeatability that a master crafts person cannot touch. Two, the Baufritz house factory. The wall panels, roof panels, floor panels, and house components that they produce on their immaculate and fully automated production lines are crafted like fine cabinetry. The Baufritz factory uses Hundegger equipment (as well as other brands) to create their products.

Take, for example, a Baufritz house wall section. The studs are dovetailed into the siding. This is unbelievable. There is simply no way to tear this house apart short of a bulldozer. Water, necessary for life and pleasant as it may be, can destroy a building faster than almost anything else. Note the flashing and details around the windows.  These details and level of care is a fine defense against the war that water will wage against your home.

Builders often order precut studs for standard wall heights. This saves time and is an efficient use of materials (they are ready to go and there is little waste in cut-offs). A CNC process follows that same course but exploits the benefits to the nth degree. Imagine sill plates notched to squarely accept wall studs only one way and in one place. Imagine every opening for conduit, ducts, or pipes precisely drilled and cut in a place that optimizes system performance and structural strength.  Imagine a system where everything fits precisely, plumb, and dead level. With precision and fit comes strength. With strength comes efficiency and a reduction in bulk materials.  With a reduction in bulk materials comes resource efficiency and reduced cost.

I walked away from this experience with two primary ideas. One, buildings are a product of our mindset and culture.  Two, we have in hand better ways to build houses than the 140 year old unmodified stick frame.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pricey Poultry

Thanksgiving is a huge event at our farm and something we look forward to every year.  Last T-day, we had over 50 people in attendance.  As you might imagine, this crowd can plow through some turkey.  We had the quasi-brilliant idea that we would raise our own turkeys for the event (as well as a few chickens). While I have some distant experience with raising poultry, with my grandparents on their farm when I was a kid, I was surprised by the seriousness and difficulty of the enterprise. We started with 15 turkey chicks and ended up dining on 3 extremely tasty, free range, organic, and locally grown birds that I cooked on the grill.  Good thing they were tasty, because the cost per pound was ridiculous. Ignoring the time investment, we had over $20 per pound in the initial chick purchase, feed, brooder lights, bedding, material for the turkey tractors, and slaughter and dressing costs. If you add in the cost of the time, the number is silly. Turkeys are famously stupid and ours were no exception.  Three drowned in their water bowl. Many others fell prey to predators. All the while, the chickens got along with no problem.  When chickens, in comparison, seem smart and barnyard savvy, you know that there can only be 3 to 4 synapses actively firing in each minuscule turkey brain.

With this many people coming to Thanksgiving, we needed a fourth bird.  I found myself in Costco staring disgustedly at the $.99 per pound price tag on the turkeys, about 1/20th of my total costs (again, discounting four months of minimally successful poultry husbandry). I bought the bird. It was also tasty, this one fried.

We are unsure whether we might try again. Try or not, I've developed a very personal respect for folks who can raise and sell organic beef and poultry. We recently got together with friends and family and bought a side of beef from Chad and Jodi Ray (outstanding green builders as well as farmers) that was grass fed and pasture raised and is free from drugs and antibiotics.  Some of the best beef I've ever had. I've also purchased and enjoyed organic chicken from folks at the Durham Farmers Market.  I no longer think that buying meat from these folks is expensive.  Instead, it is good food at a good value.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Hot Water Fast

For comfort, for saving water, and for saving energy, the best possible solution is to minimize the amount of water between your fixtures and water heater.  Simple as that. The lower the volume of water between the heater and fixture, the sooner you get hot water when you turn on the tap (comfort), the less water that flows down the drain while waiting (saving water), and the less water that sits and cools in the line after you turn off the tap (saving energy). To this end, locating the water heater centrally in the house and as close as possible to the fixtures is critical. Parallel piping manifold systems reduce the water volume as well. Parallel piping systems have home run lines from a manifold to each fixture and use much smaller lines (for sinks, 3/8" lines for sinks instead of a combination of 3/4" and 1/2" lines). There are 11.00 cups of water per 30' of 3/4" ID line, 4.89 cups per 30' of 1/2" ID line, and 2.75 cups per 30' of 3/8" ID line, a significant difference. In other words, you can see hot water 2 to 4 times as fast with a parallel piping system versus a conventional branch system.

There are a few other benefits as well. One, no pressure balance issues.  You can flush the toilet while the love of your life is in the shower and they will not see the slightest temperature dip or spike.  Two, there are few if any fittings on the home runs so the system is more durable and the flow is smoother and faster (less turbulence) in the pipes. Lastly, you can turn off any line at the manifold so maintenance and repair just got easier.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Old Houses and Five Sided Boxes

In the winter, air comes in through the bottom of your house and exits through the top. If you put a top hat on the house, that effectively stops most of the air flow without capping the bottom.  If you just cap the bottom, that also effectively stops the air flow. This is the five sided box idea. Five sided boxes (one side left unsealed) work nearly as well as six sided boxes (all sides sealed). What this means for your home, in practice, is that closing and insulating your crawl space has significant impact even if you have a very leaky attic.  Conversely, if you air seal and insulate your attic but you have a very leaky crawl space or basement, you will still see significant energy efficiency and comfort benefits.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Boys and Their Toys...

Since I bought my first truck when I was 15 years old, I’ve been fascinated by anything with wheels. I sat down and made a silly list this morning – all the cars and trucks and trailers and tractors and motorcycles that I’ve had in my 45 years and the total is well over 60. Yes, 60. As you might imagine, there are a number of favorites. Ford pick-ups, Volkswagen diesels, BMW motorcycles, and Airstream trailers top the repeat offender list. T
here are also some strange notables, including a Subaru Van with a 360CC 2 cylinder engine, a beautifully restored 1953 Willy’s pickup, an un-restored vintage Studebaker Lark VI Wagon (never got as far as installing new windows in this car so we had to drive it with goggles), and my beloved but cranky and ancient Farmall tractors, as well as our current biodiesel-powered Sprinter vans and Volkswagens.

Many of these vehicles were (unfortunately) used well past their expected life. Years ago, my grandfather gave us a canary yellow Datsun pickup that underwent his special form of renovation. He did not want to be seen in a foreign made vehicle so he applied Bondo, like frosting a cake, over the “Datsun” insignias and then spray painted the frosted areas with a sort-of corresponding shade of yellow spray paint. The passenger door latch failed and we used a rope between the door pulls to keep it closed. The issues with this set-up are myriad and serious, possibly none as much so as driving this truck on a first date. You figure how well that went.

My interest in things that roll has morphed from just having a cool ride when I was in high school to fuel economy, limited emissions, and alternative fuels in the last decade. We’ve been using a biodiesel blend for many years to power our diesel vehicles for reduced emissions, because it is renewable, for better lubricity, and because it is harvested in America. Biodiesel stations are becoming more plentiful, Piedmont Biofuels just set up a station in Saxapahaw for example, but years ago when we started to use biodiesel we had to install our own tank to supply our vehicles. Our latest fleet fueling interest and option is compressed natural gas (CNG). Like biodiesel, CNG is a classic cart before the horse story. For example, the Honda Civic NGV (natural gas vehicle) is nearly zero emissions, arguably the greenest car in America, made in America, and powered by inexpensive and plentiful fuel harvested in America. But the fueling stations are not widespread enough to be comfortable driving one. In fact, no public station exists in Durham, our home base. So, to make a CNG fleet a possibility, we have to build a fueling station to supply our small fleet. While not insurmountable, this is a significant barrier. We intend to figure this out for a cleaner fleet that aligns our operations with our products. We’ll keep you posted.





Sustainability Is Not a New Idea

My grandfather would pick up a bent nail, walk it over to his dusty and scarred workbench in the farm garage, and, using a ball peen hammer and his ancient anvil, he would straighten the nail for re-use in the next project. Nothing on the Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania farm was wasted. Table and cooking scraps were fed to the hogs, as were loose shell eggs and dead chickens. Wood scraps from building projects were used for heating fuel. Animal waste was used as fertilizer. I was the low man on the totem pole, so I had the questionable privilege of pulling the chicken manure spreader, a horrendous machine that flung the manure on to the fields with rotating chains that dip and throw, dip and throw. I still use tractors today just like the Farmall that pulled that spreader, more than 50 years old and still going strong. These machines are solid, durable and sustainable well beyond the typical meaning of these words.

Sustainability is not a new idea. In fact, it is a very old idea rooted in frugality, necessity, and utility. Diligently selecting quality durable goods, carefully maintaining those products or materials, and reaping a long return from those choices is original sustainability. Directly recycling or re-using waste or materials is original sustainability. Turning down the winter thermostat and wearing a sweater is original sustainability. Doing without what you do not need is original sustainability. Conservation is original sustainability.

A long-term affordable and sustainable house fits comfortably with the original idea of sustainability. Choose a smaller house that uses fewer materials. Require a strong and durable house. Select a better house now and reap the benefits over time. Ask for a home that uses half the energy of a typical house. Choose a healthy and comfortable house. Learn how to operate and maintain your home for optimal performance. Know the things that you can do right now like changing furnace filters regularly for positive impact on your health and wallet. Select a climate appropriate house. Ask for a home oriented and designed for passive heating and passive cooling. Use daylight instead of artificial light. Choose a house where the interior is connected to the exterior. Select substance in lieu of false decoration, better insulation instead of plastic shutters or fake gables.

Every sustainable choice has its pros and cons. My incredibly durable Farmall tractors have terrible fuel economy. Bamboo is a rapidly renewable material but it typically ships from Asia. Foam insulation helps create a very energy efficient house but is difficult to deconstruct, separate, and recycle at the end of its useful life. Each decision must be made in the context of the total green building system and based on your parameters and current building science information.

An affordable and sustainable house is a house that would make sense to my Grandfather. A home where he would nod and notice that it is a substantive home, well-built, and solid. A home without a lot of flash or glitter but that is warm, conservation-minded, and comfortable. A house that really is the American dream.

Granite Scraps

In a cobbler’s shoes story, my wife Lori and I are finally getting serious about building our own small and highly sustainable house and moving out of our old home. To that end and among other planning activities, we have been looking at cabinets, counters, and finishes. We just visited Common Ground yesterday and Paul Toma showed us Earth Stone Products. These folks developed a machine that punches out specific tile and paver shapes from the sink cut-outs and scraps generated by custom stone countertop makers. My first thought was: is there enough scrap to be able to deliver this recycled product? Apparently, the answer is yes, we make lots of stone counters in America and that generates an astonishing amount of stone “waste.” The results are genuine (smooth or rough) stone pavers and tile with depth and character that are a clever product of our waste stream. What an idea.