A Green Building Wish List: Policies, Trends, and Products for 2011 and Beyond
Guaranteed energy performance of homes. Rapidly renewable materials that don't compete with food production. These are just a couple of the new developments we explore that would help the building industry clean up its act.
This issue marks the beginning of our 20th year of publishing Environmental Building News. For two decades we’ve been reporting on happenings, trends, technologies, and products in green building. With this issue, we’re doing something different: reporting on what we’d like to see—not what’s here, but what should be here.
Some of these ideas may not be practical, possible, or politically tenable, but our hope is that even the farthest-out ideas will be food for thought. We want to see the green building movement continue its forward trajectory, and doing so requires setting some targets and thinking differently.
We would love to hear your thoughts. Use the discussion forum in the online version of this article to share your thoughts on policies, trends, or products that you’d like to see—or share thoughts on why some of our ideas don’t make sense. What would you like to see us writing about down-the-road as success stories and lessons learned?
Policies and Trends to Increase Adoption of Green Building
What will it take to move the adoption of green building to a whole new level? Here are some possible answers.
The vast majority of scientists today accept the reality that human activities are causing global climate change, and they urge rapid action to shift away from carbon-dioxide-spewing fossil fuels. One of the best ways to do this, as a libertarian friend of mine regularly argues, is to tax carbon and then get out of the way and let market forces push the transition to renewable energy sources. Some of the same ends can probably be achieved with a cap-and-trade system, but a carbon tax of some sort would be simpler to implement and more direct in its effect.
We’d like to see two different carbon taxes instituted: the first tax would be added to fossil fuels sold to utility companies for power generation. This would influence decision-making by those companies as they plan future power plants; consumers don’t have much say over what electricity they buy, so this tax would be borne at the fuel supply side rather than electricity delivery. The second tax would be on liquid and gaseous fossil fuels used for heating and vehicles. This would be charged to end-users (consumers), because that’s who makes decisions about those purchases and potential alternatives.
In both cases, we would suggest instituting these taxes gradually over 5–10 years to lessen the impact on consumers and electricity ratepayers, but we believe the taxes should be high enough to bring about change in purchasing habits—both by individuals and companies. These taxes could be revenue-neutral (offset by corresponding rebates of some sort), they could be used to fund programs that will help ease the transition to higher efficiency and renewables (loan programs, rebates, tax credits, etc.), or they could be used to reduce the federal deficit. Rebates or investment in energy conservation programs could offset the impact of these taxes on lower-income individuals.
Tie mortgage inception fees to green building rating scores
Use the established mechanism of mortgage inception fees (points) to incentivize green building. Here’s how it might work: A standard 1% point would be added as a closing fee by federally backed mortgage companies. With no green building rating score, a borrower would pay the full point; if the building achieves the highest green building rating score—which would hopefully include a net-zero-energy requirement—the added fee would drop to zero. Intermediate levels of green performance would result in an inception fee between 0% and 1%. The money collected through the higher fee could either fund a loan program for deep-energy retrofits or go into the general fund—deficit reduction, anyone?
Base residential energy codes and energy incentives on total energy consumption rather than energy intensity
Here’s an idea out of left field. At least with single-family homes, what if energy codes and incentives were tied not to HERS Index (Home Energy Rating System) scores or metrics of energy intensity (energy consumption per square foot per year), but rather on the simpler metric of total predicted energy consumption? We would be concerned with Btus per year instead of Btus per square foot per year. Such a change would reward small houses. A residential energy code that established a maximum annual energy consumption (heating, cooling, lighting, plug loads) of 50 million Btus or 15,000 kWh would be far easier to achieve for a really small house than a big house.
This wouldn’t prevent you from building a huge house, but you’d have to jump through more hoops to dramatically reduce its energy consumption. Those wanting a really big house should be able to afford the additional costs to achieve the target energy use ceiling, while a lower-income family could meet the target easily in a smaller house with relatively modest energy features.
Establish tiered building permit fees based on energy performance or green building rating scores
Smaller municipalities often have very few leverage points to influence building practices; this could be one. Here’s how it could work: the baseline building permit fee would be increased as much as tenfold, and then that fee would be discounted based on the building’s projected energy performance or its rating through a green building certification program. For a net-zero-energy or Platinum-rated building, that permit fee could drop to zero or a level that just pays for paperwork. Portland, Oregon’s feebate system (see “Portland to Introduce Green Building Feebates,” EBN) was going to do this for buildings over 20,000 ft2, but it hasn’t taken effect. We’d like to see such programs, covering all building types, implemented widely.
Guarantee the performance and durability of homes
As our understanding of building science improves and we gain better tools for tracking energy and water consumption in ways that can influence homeowner behavior, we should be able to guarantee energy performance, water consumption, and durability of homes. While there are a few performance guarantees in place, such as that of Artistic Homes and Masco’s Environments for Living program, we’d like to see many more homebuilders step up to the plate and stand behind the products they are delivering.
Just as cell phones today include features that allow manufacturers to figure out whether you dropped your phone into a toilet before it “mysteriously” stopped working, we may need to incorporate diagnostic tools into homes under warranty so that builders can detect whether operational errors or extreme usage patterns—rather than defects in design or construction—led to unexpectedly high energy bills, very high water consumption, or other problems, such as decay in wall systems. Dashboard energy monitoring systems in such homes could be used as data acquisition systems, with data going to the homebuilder so that claims could be understood.
A durability guarantee would probably be implemented as a “maintenance guarantee.” In a sense, such a guarantee could be a paradigm shift in which homebuilders think of their homes not as final sales, but rather an ongoing stream of support and services—much as a car dealer tries to keep customers as ongoing users of their service departments.
The same sort of thing can be done with commercial buildings through energy performance contracts—remuneration of designers, builders, or energy service contractors based on actual measured energy performance. This approach is most common with energy retrofits to existing buildings.
Access to capital remains one of the biggest impediments to green building—particularly when it comes to remodeling of existing buildings. With Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, we thought a solution had been found, but that has (so far at least) run into a brick wall due to concerns by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which control the secondary mortgage market (see “Mortgage Policies Threaten PACE Programs,” EBN). There are other options, including on-bill financing that allows homeowners (and companies) to repay the cost of energy improvements through utility bills; this approach is being used successfully in California, Connecticut, Portland, Oregon, and other places. We’d like to see such programs—or other innovative financing options—become available everywhere and, thus, open up new opportunities to expand the penetration of energy retrofits.
Get resilience, adaptation to climate change, and passive survivability into the discussion
Even with the most optimistic scenarios of our response to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, the strong likelihood is that the Earth’s climate will change dramatically within the lifespan of the buildings we are designing and building today. Standard practice needs to change so that we’re creating buildings that will work well in the climate of the mid- and late-twenty-first century. We need to build in resilience, for example, creating buildings that will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages, interruptions in heating fuel, and shortages of water (see “Passive Survivability: A New Design Criterion for Buildings,” EBN).
We’d like to see building codes changed to specifically mandate this sort of resilience as a life-safety issue. And we’d like to see such issues become a part of the foundation of design that is taught in architecture schools.
Get the insurance industry engaged
For the past ten years the insurance industry has been tentatively dipping its collective toe into the green building world. Fireman’s Fund, among others, has adopted a number of programs to advance green building—based on the expectation that green, durable, low-energy buildings present a lower insurance risk. We’d like to see far greater involvement by the insurance industry in a wide range of green building initiatives and activities.
Insurance companies should be leading the charge for resilient design and passive survivability, for example, not only because resilient buildings will result in smaller payouts in the aftermath of natural disasters, but also because insurance companies often invest directly in real estate so they are affected by declines in property values that result from damage. Healthy, green buildings should result in fewer cases of asthma and other ailments, which should be attracting the attention of health insurance companies. Why aren’t these companies leading the charge?
We’d like to see more people doing green building, but within the movement, we need to do a better job of defining and delivering sustainable buildings.
Incorporate science into green design through increased research and evidence-based design
The building industry devotes far less money to research than almost any other sector of the economy. We’d like to see the implementation of a robust research agenda that supports green building, and out of that we’d like to see greater attention paid to evidence-based design, in which data informs design. Evidence-based design is most widely used today in healthcare—evaluating the effects of design features on patient and staff well-being, speed of recovery from illness, and stress reduction, for example—but it can (and should) extend to other building types.
Federal, state, and provincial budgets relating to research on building energy use, building science, and building materials should be increased significantly, but we should also come up with incentives that will encourage companies to invest in research—through investment tax credits and other mechanisms. In the interest of expanding the reach of private-sector research, perhaps a two-tiered incentive structure could be developed in which incentives are greater when companies publicly share the results of that research.
We will most effectively improve what we carefully measure. We would like to see comprehensive performance measurement become standard practice with both commercial and residential buildings. Simple, easy-to-use data collection systems with convenient Web interfaces should be used to track both energy and water consumption. Reporting of actual, measured performance should become standard practice—and required—at the point of sale of any building (as is the case in California and Seattle), and annual reporting of performance should become standard practice for all public buildings, including schools and government buildings. Reporting of energy performance should be required for all green building certification programs; for new buildings this requirement should focus on providing data collection equipment to facilitate performance measurement, including submetering of both energy and water consumption.
Develop and rely on robust metrics for transportation energy intensity
Walk Score is a tremendous tool for gauging the walkability—and now transit access—of building locations. Those factors influence what we have called “transportation energy intensity”—a metric of building performance addressing the transportation energy people use in getting to and from a building (see “Driving to Green Buildings: The Transportation Energy Intensity of Buildings,” EBN). Walk Score mines data in Google Maps to create walkability scores for specific addresses.
We believe that Walk Score can be further strengthened—or another tool developed—to address not only walkability and access to public transit, but also convenience of public transit bicycle accessibility, and other factors that, in total, determine how easily people living or working in that area can reduce their dependence on private automobiles. We should use such a tool in LEED and other green building rating systems to achieve credits relating to location and transportation.
Develop a rigorous certification program for building science professionals
Buildings today are complex—and getting more complex all the time. Understanding all the interactions that occur with building systems and components, especially relating to moisture dynamics and durability, takes a great deal of knowledge and experience. We’d like to see a rigorous certification program developed for those in the building science field. Recipients of that certification would have a mix of building envelope and mechanical systems expertise; they would have an understanding both of building design and construction practices; they would have a working knowledge of materials science; they would understand building diagnostics.
This wouldn’t be the sort of certification that one could easily achieve by reading a study guide; it would require a mix of classroom learning, field work, and on-the-ground experience. The goal would be credentials that would convey the skill-set and experience needed to responsibly advise on issues related to building science—whether projects are in design, construction, or operation. A certified building scientist would become a key employee at larger residential construction companies and a key design team member for any commercial building project.
Federal food labeling laws mandate honest reporting of ingredients in foods we purchase. We’d like to see a similar law or an effective and widely adopted voluntary program for building products—and other manufactured goods—so that buyers can make more-informed purchasing decisions. This is a key component of environmental performance declarations (EPDs). SC Johnson, manufacturer of Pledge, Glade, Raid, and other consumer products, announced in a high-profile advertising campaign launched in late 2010 that it would divulge the complete ingredients of all of the company’s products. This proves that it can be done.
Beyond disclosure, we’d like to see chemical suppliers and product manufacturers start vouching that their ingredients are benign, with test data to back it up. What we’re looking for here is a way out of the cycle in which a known hazard is simply replaced by a less well-known related chemical that is ultimately found to be just as hazardous. Green chemistry and current efforts to reform the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act are an encouraging step in that direction.
Provide a product’s life-cycle and hazard-assessment data as standard accounting procedure
While this has been on our wish list for years without being realized, it is no less important today, and progress is being made. EPDs provide standardized environmental information, frequently in the form of brochures that include a product description, manufacturing data, performance characteristics, end-of-life data, and toxicity factors at different stages of the life cycle. We’d like to see this information finally standardized at a level of detail that allows for meaningful apples-to-apples product comparison and ultimately the aggregation of such data into assembly and building-level reporting on embodied impact. Yes, we know it sounds farfetched, given the lack of transparency, but there was a time when rigorous financial accounting seemed equally farfetched.
Most listings of green building products, those in our own GreenSpec Directory included, consider the environmental and health attributes of products but not the broader corporate practices of the companies that make those products. We’d like to see that change, with corporate responsibility taken into account as a component of product evaluations. Does the company pay a living wage? Are employees treated fairly? Is the company frequently fined for pollution regulation infractions? Is it tracking its own environmental performance and that of its suppliers—and working to improve that performance? Third-party certifications of corporate responsibility that are now appearing will greatly aid such an effort (see “New Company-Wide Certifications for Manufacturers,” EBN).
Products We’d Like to See
With the amount of attention we pay to new green building products entering the market, sometimes we can’t help but think about products we’re not seeing but want to.
We’d like to see a lightweight, 100% inorganic, expanded insulating bead that could be formed into rigid boardstock insulation. Such a product would look much like expanded polystyrene, but its composition and properties would be far different—perhaps a foamed silica or foamed ceramic. It would be nonflammable without toxic flame retardants, zero-VOC, decay-resistant (offering no source of nutrition for decay organisms), UV-resistant, impervious or at least resistant to termites and carpenter ants, and impervious to moisture. Oh, and we’d like this material to insulate to R-4 per inch and offer compressive strength comparable to that of extruded polystyrene.
Inorganic insulated concrete form (ICF)
There is at least one inorganic ICF on the market (Faswall), but that doesn’t offer nearly as high an R-value as standard expanded polystyrene ICFs. We’d like to see an ICF made from something like Foamglas (R-3.4 per inch), high-density rigid mineral wool (R-4 per inch), or perhaps that foamed-ceramic boardstock insulation described above. Such a product would be fireproof without flame retardants, termite-resistant, impervious to UV radiation, strong with a reasonably high compressive strength, compatible with concrete and cementitious stuccos, and moisture-resistant or impervious to moisture. And don’t forget, affordable!
A lot of people have looked toward lime-based products as alternatives to portland cement. But the calcining process, which emits carbon dioxide chemically in the conversion of limestone into lime, is pretty similar whether lime or portland cement are being made (though it takes more energy to produce portland cement). Substituting fly ash for a portion of the portland cement in concrete mixes is a common—and often good—strategy for reducing the embodied carbon of concrete. But mercury and other heavy metals are found in the fly ash produced at some coal-fired power plants, and those metals in the resultant concrete are a concern to some (see “Reducing Environmental Impacts of Cement and Concrete,” EBN).
We’d like to see standardized testing of fly ash and limits established for heavy metals and other hazardous constituents. And we’d like to see continued research into alternative concrete binders that result in reduced CO2 emissions and are free of heavy metals. Magnesium oxide cement binders are one promising approach, but we suspect that there are others, perhaps well-matched with industrial waste streams in the U.S.
Cementitious materials that sequester carbon dioxide in their production
Twenty years ago I heard a fascinating presentation by architect and professor Wolf Hilbertz about his vision of manufacturing structural building materials in the ocean, using photovoltaic (PV) power and sequestering carbon dioxide in the process. Here’s how Hilbertz’s system would work: floating PV arrays generate electric current, which flows through steel frameworks of re-bar and mesh that are submerged in seawater. The electrically charged metal would pull calcium and magnesium ions along with dissolved CO2 out of the seawater in a mineral accretion process to create an artificial limestone that is not too different from corals that are created by living organisms. The structures produced in this way could be pulled out of the water and used as foundations or other structural building elements.
The work of Prof. Hilbertz, who died in 2007, has been continued by his colleague Thomas Goreau, Ph.D., the president of Biorock (), which is working on commercialization of this process for creating artificial coral reefs in Bali. We’d like to see this sort of biomimicry used to create building materials, as Hilbertz originally envisioned.
Rapidly renewable building materials derived from non-food crops
Too many of our “rapidly renewable” materials—for example, products made from polylactic acid (PLA) plastic, spray polyurethane foam with a soy component, and corn-based ethanol—are derived from genetically modified soybeans, corn, and other food crops that rely on extensive use of herbicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation, and whose production results in soil erosion. We’d like to see building products derived from waste agricultural products, sustainably grown and harvested perennials, and other biobased materials that do not compete with food crops. We believe that there is tremendous potential for innovation in this area, and we may see some remarkable products emerge. One example of this potential is Greensulate insulation, a fungus-based rigid insulation material being developed by Ecovative Design (). We think there could be many others, along with far more sustainable liquid fuels than corn-based ethanol.
Insulated, low-e storm windows
We’ve long kept our eyes out for a durable, high-performance, double-glazed storm window. There are tens of millions of existing homes in northern climates that could benefit from window replacement. With double-glazed, low-e storm windows added on the outside of existing single-glazed or non-low-e double-glazed prime windows, one could get comparable performance to triple-glazed, low-e windows without removing existing windows or modifying interior trim. Such storm windows would protect the prime windows from the elements, which can be particularly important with historic windows.
Our wish list for these storm windows includes highly durable fiberglass frames. We believe that double-track windows with a fixed upper sash and an operable screen—rather than triple-track—make the most sense because of the weight and air-tightness benefits. Good weatherstripping is very important. Overall thickness of double-glazed storm windows could be minimized by using krypton gas-fill instead of argon or air (the optimal glass spacing with krypton gas-fill is about ¼", vs. ½" to 5/8" with argon or air), though that would push the cost up. Thicker-than-normal storm windows wouldn’t work with all situations, but if the exterior trim is being modified as part of a deep-energy retrofit, accommodation could easily be made for such storm windows. Did we mention that we’d like these storm windows to be mass-produced and relatively affordable?
It has taken a long time for the building industry to recognize that building assemblies need to work as systems—to properly manage moisture, control heat flow, etc.—and that the climate is a factor in the optimal building envelope configuration. This has occurred to some extent with commercial wall systems (for example, Centria’s Invelope insulation and rainscreen system) but not as much in the residential sector. We would like to see manufacturers introduce high-performance building assembly product packages that work together as integrated systems. These systems should probably vary by climate, but they should all provide superb moisture management, durability, and energy performance, allowing manufacturers or builders to provide warranties on both operating energy use and durability.
Commercial building controls have become increasingly complex and difficult to manage, even as technology improvements have expanded capabilities many-fold. Some suggest that these controls have become too smart. Perhaps they should become simpler, but how about going the other direction and making them smart enough to “commission themselves”? Can a next generation of lighting and HVAC controls troubleshoot themselves, perhaps built on a “fuzzy logic” platform? Worth a try!
Efforts to create PVC-free or halogen-free buildings for health and environmental reasons almost always fail—usually because PVC or fluoropolymer insulation and sheathing on wire and cable is ubiquitous and cheap. We know of only a few halogen-free electric wiring alternatives—including Electec’s EZ-Wiring, which we recognized as a—and this is a metal-sheathed system (quite different from standard Romex-type cable). A non-metal-sheathed, halogen-free product may be a tall order, given the fire-resistance properties required of wiring and cabling. We may need some fundamental research into non-halogen flame retardants—and new products will have to go through extensive testing. But we can still wish!
A better packaged graywater system
Using wastewater from showers, laundry, and lavatory sinks to irrigate outdoor plantings makes a great deal of sense. We’d like to see a simple, low-maintenance, affordable, durable system that makes this practical for homes and businesses alike. Such a system would probably include a tank, easy-to-clean filters of some sort (one of the big challenges with graywater is the cleaning and maintenance of filters), dosing pump controlled by float switch and timer (graywater should not sit in a tank too long), and passive bypass if the pump stops working or the filters get clogged. We’d like to see this produced by a company that will be around for a long time and has the capacity to support such a product.
Wishing for innovation is easy. The challenge is making it happen. BuildingGreen will return to many of these ideas—and lots of others—in the months and years ahead to report on efforts to achieve this sort of innovation. We believe that there are many creative solutions to the challenges we are facing, and we believe that the green building industry is uniquely positioned to deliver.
Published December 30, 2010