Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Green Money

In the event that the economy is making us rethink how we save, spend and what our future is for our lives and homes it is interesting to look at how this all came to be.

Nothing is more green than money. When I was remodeling for myself I was very negligent when it came to my budgets. I knew that unlike earlier projects with the current market I would easily recover all my expenses, still generate a profit but ultimately still retain the original ambiance of the home and maintain a value in line with the neighborhood and prices of the neighboring homes. In other words I did consider that remodeling a 450K home to 950K was out of line and impossible given the location and the homes origin.

And as a result I was never making quite the money many competitors and others seemed to during the boon time. I also never took out any "alternative" mortgages as I lived on my job sites and treated the project as one I may remain in if we did not sell. So the quality, style and finances were always in the forefront (even if I did go over budget!)

The decline of my childhood bank WaMu really stands out as another example of greed and ambition overreaching both necessity and logic. This article in the NY Times from Sunday really brings to home the practices that skirt predatory and illegality.

The ramifications of their business decisions are now obvious and yet it does bring to mind the idea that "forever" seemed to be the most illogical of validations that generated WaMu among others behaviors at this time.

I also want to point out the comments about the behaviors and practices of the brokers and agents contracted to work with WaMu and why I am so insistent about full disclosure with regards to relationships and professional ethics when working or referring others.

Here is the article that highlights some of the reasons for the ultimate decline in what was the first bank I ever had an account and why over 10 years ago I discontinued using them. And this is also why I dislike many Real Estate Agents and Mortgage Brokers in general. They are middlemen that have been negligible in being honest and forthright with their customers. And in reality are often offering advice that they are not trained or educated to do and/or is often a conflict of interest. And why I generalize and am well aware that NOT ALL are like those in the article, I just prefer to work with people whose credentials I have verified and whose opinions are valued. I have no problem consulting directly and honestly with those who have a vested interest in my success and and keep those who do not out of my financial decision making process. And I find those people through channels other than "sales" offices. So if you are interested in talking about banking, talk to the banker directly. If you need Real Estate Advice, talk to a Real Estate Attorney or Financial Services Consultant that specializes in that area. These people are easily found through accredited organizations. Talk to CPA's who are also excellent references for any number of credible professionals.

Do I offer financial advice? No. Do I get asked, solicited or sent information from varying Real Estate Agents, Brokers, Financial Service professionals... all the time. Do I refer clients to them? No. Because in that area I am not an expert nor comfortable enough to ever refer anyone in the financial sector that I have no professional or personal history with. Just being a member of "Linked In" or wherever I am afraid is insufficient. My work is with clients interested in Green Build and the only information I can give is related to Tax Credits pertaining to the work anything outside of that I must pass. I focus on budget and have no problem discussing that but I leave the financial aspect to the client themselves.


Saying Yes, WaMu Built Empire on Shaky Loans
Published: December 27, 2008

“We hope to do to this industry what Wal-Mart did to theirs, Starbucks did to theirs, Costco did to theirs and Lowe’s-Home Depot did to their industry. And I think if we’ve done our job, five years from now you’re not going to call us a bank.”

“It was just disheartening,” said Sherri Zaback, a mortgage screener for Washington Mutual. “Just spit it out and get it done. That’s they wanted us to do. Garbage in, garbage out.”

PUSH TO GROW Former employees say that with Kerry Killinger in charge, WaMu became a loan factory, ignoring borrowers’ incomes.

SAN DIEGO — As a supervisor at a Washington Mutual mortgage processing center, John D. Parsons was accustomed to seeing baby sitters claiming salaries worthy of college presidents, and schoolteachers with incomes rivaling stockbrokers’. He rarely questioned them. A real estate frenzy was under way and WaMu, as his bank was known, was all about saying yes.

Yet even by WaMu’s relaxed standards, one mortgage four years ago raised eyebrows. The borrower was claiming a six-figure income and an unusual profession: mariachi singer.

Mr. Parsons could not verify the singer’s income, so he had him photographed in front of his home dressed in his mariachi outfit. The photo went into a WaMu file. Approved.

“I’d lie if I said every piece of documentation was properly signed and dated,” said Mr. Parsons, speaking through wire-reinforced glass at a California prison near here, where he is serving 16 months for theft after his fourth arrest — all involving drugs.

While Mr. Parsons, whose incarceration is not related to his work for WaMu, oversaw a team screening mortgage applications, he was snorting methamphetamine daily, he said.

“In our world, it was tolerated,” said Sherri Zaback, who worked for Mr. Parsons and recalls seeing drug paraphernalia on his desk. “Everybody said, ‘He gets the job done.’ ”

At WaMu, getting the job done meant lending money to nearly anyone who asked for it — the force behind the bank’s meteoric rise and its precipitous collapse this year in the biggest bank failure in American history.

On a financial landscape littered with wreckage, WaMu, a Seattle-based bank that opened branches at a clip worthy of a fast-food chain, stands out as a singularly brazen case of lax lending. By the first half of this year, the value of its bad loans had reached $11.5 billion, nearly tripling from $4.2 billion a year earlier.

Interviews with two dozen former employees, mortgage brokers, real estate agents and appraisers reveal the relentless pressure to churn out loans that produced such results. While that sample may not fully represent a bank with tens of thousands of people, it does reflect the views of employees in WaMu mortgage operations in California, Florida, Illinois and Texas.

Their accounts are consistent with those of 89 other former employees who are confidential witnesses in a class action filed against WaMu in federal court in Seattle by former shareholders.

According to these accounts, pressure to keep lending emanated from the top, where executives profited from the swift expansion — not least, Kerry K. Killinger, who was WaMu’s chief executive from 1990 until he was forced out in September.

Between 2001 and 2007, Mr. Killinger received compensation of $88 million, according to the Corporate Library, a research firm. He declined to respond to a list of questions, and his spokesman said he was unavailable for an interview.

During Mr. Killinger’s tenure, WaMu pressed sales agents to pump out loans while disregarding borrowers’ incomes and assets, according to former employees. The bank set up what insiders described as a system of dubious legality that enabled real estate agents to collect fees of more than $10,000 for bringing in borrowers, sometimes making the agents more beholden to WaMu than they were to their clients.

WaMu gave mortgage brokers handsome commissions for selling the riskiest loans, which carried higher fees, bolstering profits and ultimately the compensation of the bank’s executives. WaMu pressured appraisers to provide inflated property values that made loans appear less risky, enabling Wall Street to bundle them more easily for sale to investors.

“It was the Wild West,” said Steven M. Knobel, a founder of an appraisal company, Mitchell, Maxwell & Jackson, that did business with WaMu until 2007. “If you were alive, they would give you a loan. Actually, I think if you were dead, they would still give you a loan.”

JPMorgan Chase, which bought WaMu for $1.9 billion in September and received $25 billion a few weeks later as part of the taxpayer bailout of the financial services industry, declined to make former WaMu executives available for interviews.

JPMorgan also declined to comment on WaMu’s operations before it bought the company. “It is a different era for our customers and for the company,” a spokesman said.

For those who placed their faith and money in WaMu, the bank’s implosion came as a shock.

“I never had a clue about the amount of off-the-cliff activity that was going on at Washington Mutual, and I was in constant contact with the company,” said Vincent Au, president of Avalon Partners, an investment firm. “There were people at WaMu that orchestrated nothing more than a sham or charade. These people broke every fundamental rule of running a company.”

‘Like a Sweatshop’

Some WaMu employees who worked for the bank during the boom now have regrets.

“It was a disgrace,” said Dana Zweibel, a former financial representative at a WaMu branch in Tampa, Fla. “We were giving loans to people that never should have had loans.”

If Ms. Zweibel doubted whether customers could pay, supervisors directed her to keep selling, she said.

“We were told from up above that that’s not our concern,” she said. “Our concern is just to write the loan.”

The ultimate supervisor at WaMu was Mr. Killinger, who joined the company in 1983 and became chief executive in 1990. He inherited a bank that was founded in 1889 and had survived the Depression and the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s.

An investment analyst by training, he was attuned to Wall Street’s hunger for growth. Between late 1996 and early 2002, he transformed WaMu into the nation’s sixth-largest bank through a series of acquisitions.

A crucial deal came in 1999, with the purchase of Long Beach Financial, a California lender specializing in subprime mortgages, loans extended to borrowers with troubled credit.

WaMu underscored its eagerness to lend with an advertising campaign introduced during the 2003 Academy Awards: “The Power of Yes.” No mere advertising pitch, this was also the mantra inside the bank, underwriters said.

“WaMu came out with that slogan, and that was what we had to live by,” Ms. Zaback said. “We joked about it a lot.” A file would get marked problematic and then somehow get approved. “We’d say: ‘O.K.! The power of yes.’ ”

Revenue at WaMu’s home-lending unit swelled from $707 million in 2002 to almost $2 billion the following year, when the “The Power of Yes” campaign started.

Between 2000 and 2003, WaMu’s retail branches grew 70 percent, reaching 2,200 across 38 states, as the bank used an image of cheeky irreverence to attract new customers. In offbeat television ads, casually dressed WaMu employees ridiculed staid bankers in suits.

Branches were pushed to increase lending. “It was just disgusting,” said Ms. Zweibel, the Tampa representative. “They wanted you to spend time, while you’re running teller transactions and opening checking accounts, selling people loans.”

Employees in Tampa who fell short were ordered to drive to a WaMu office in Sarasota, an hour away. There, they sat in a phone bank with 20 other people, calling customers to push home equity loans.

“The regional manager would be over your shoulder, listening to every word,” Ms. Zweibel recalled. “They treated us like we were in a sweatshop.”

On the other end of the country, at WaMu’s San Diego processing office, Ms. Zaback’s job was to take loan applications from branches in Southern California and make sure they passed muster. Most of the loans she said she handled merely required borrowers to provide an address and Social Security number, and to state their income and assets.

She ran applications through WaMu’s computer system for approval. If she needed more information, she had to consult with a loan officer — which she described as an unpleasant experience. “They would be furious,” Ms. Zaback said. “They would put it on you, that they weren’t going to get paid if you stood in the way.”

On one loan application in 2005, a borrower identified himself as a gardener and listed his monthly income at $12,000, Ms. Zaback recalled. She could not verify his business license, so she took the file to her boss, Mr. Parsons.

He used the mariachi singer as inspiration: a photo of the borrower’s truck emblazoned with the name of his landscaping business went into the file. Approved.

Mr. Parsons, who worked for WaMu in San Diego from about 2002 through 2005, said his supervisors constantly praised his performance. “My numbers were through the roof,” he said.

On another occasion, Ms. Zaback asked a loan officer for verification of an applicant’s assets. The officer sent a letter from a bank showing a balance of about $150,000 in the borrower’s account, she recalled. But when Ms. Zaback called the bank to confirm, she was told the balance was only $5,000.

The loan officer yelled at her, Ms. Zaback recalled. “She said, ‘We don’t call the bank to verify.’ ” Ms. Zaback said she told Mr. Parsons that she no longer wanted to work with that loan officer, but he replied: “Too bad.”

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Parsons disappeared from the office. Ms. Zaback later learned of his arrest for burglary and drug possession.

The sheer workload at WaMu ensured that loan reviews were limited. Ms. Zaback’s office had 108 people, and several hundred new files a day. She was required to process at least 10 files daily.

“I’d typically spend a maximum of 35 minutes per file,” she said. “It was just disheartening. Just spit it out and get it done. That’s what they wanted us to do. Garbage in, and garbage out.”

Referral Fees for Loans

WaMu’s boiler room culture flourished in Southern California, where housing prices rose so rapidly during the bubble that creative financing was needed to attract buyers.

To that end, WaMu embraced so-called option ARMs, adjustable rate mortgages that enticed borrowers with a selection of low initial rates and allowed them to decide how much to pay each month. But people who opted for minimum payments were underpaying the interest due and adding to their principal, eventually causing loan payments to balloon.

Customers were often left with the impression that low payments would continue long term, according to former WaMu sales agents.

For WaMu, variable-rate loans — option ARMs, in particular — were especially attractive because they carried higher fees than other loans, and allowed WaMu to book profits on interest payments that borrowers deferred. Because WaMu was selling many of its loans to investors, it did not worry about defaults: by the time loans went bad, they were often in other hands.

WaMu’s adjustable-rate mortgages expanded from about one-fourth of new home loans in 2003 to 70 percent by 2006. In 2005 and 2006 — when WaMu pushed option ARMs most aggressively — Mr. Killinger received pay of $19 million and $24 million respectively.

The ARM Loan Niche

WaMu’s retail mortgage office in Downey, Calif., specialized in selling option ARMs to Latino customers who spoke little English and depended on advice from real estate brokers, according to a former sales agent who requested anonymity because he was still in the mortgage business.

According to that agent, WaMu turned real estate agents into a pipeline for loan applications by enabling them to collect “referral fees” for clients who became WaMu borrowers.

Buyers were typically oblivious to agents’ fees, the agent said, and agents rarely explained the loan terms.

“Their Realtor was their trusted friend,” the agent said. “The Realtors would sell them on a minimum payment, and that was an outright lie.”

According to the agent, the strategy was the brainchild of Thomas Ramirez, who oversaw a sales team of about 20 agents at the Downey branch during the first half of this decade, and now works for Wells Fargo.

Mr. Ramirez confirmed that he and his team enabled real estate agents to collect commissions, but he maintained that the fees were fully disclosed.

“I don’t think the bank would have let us do the program if it was bad,” Mr. Ramirez said.

Mr. Ramirez’s team sold nearly $1 billion worth of loans in 2004, he said. His performance made him a perennial member of WaMu’s President’s Club, which brought big bonuses and recognition at an awards ceremony typically hosted by Mr. Killinger in tropical venues like Hawaii.

Mr. Ramirez’s success prompted WaMu to populate a neighboring building in Downey with loan processors, underwriters and appraisers who worked for him. The fees proved so enticing that real estate agents arrived in Downey from all over Southern California, bearing six and seven loan applications at a time, the former agent said.

WaMu banned referral fees in 2006, fearing they could be construed as illegal payments from the bank to agents. But the bank allowed Mr. Ramirez’s team to continue using the referral fees, the agent said.

Forced Out With Millions

By 2005, the word was out that WaMu would accept applications with a mere statement of the borrower’s income and assets — often with no documentation required — so long as credit scores were adequate, according to Ms. Zaback and other underwriters.

“We had a flier that said, ‘A thin file is a good file,’ ” recalled Michele Culbertson, a wholesale sales agent with WaMu.

Martine Lado, an agent in the Irvine, Calif., office, said she coached brokers to leave parts of applications blank to avoid prompting verification if the borrower’s job or income was sketchy.

“We were looking for people who understood how to do loans at WaMu,” Ms. Lado said.

Top producers became heroes. Craig Clark, called the “king of the option ARM” by colleagues, closed loans totaling about $1 billion in 2005, according to four of his former coworkers, a tally he amassed in part by challenging anyone who doubted him.

“He was a bulldozer when it came to getting his stuff done,” said Lisa Alvarez, who worked in the Irvine office from 2003 to 2006.

Christine Crocker, who managed WaMu’s wholesale underwriting division in Irvine, recalled one mortgage to an elderly couple from a broker on Mr. Clark’s team.

With a fixed income of about $3,200 a month, the couple needed a fixed-rate loan. But their broker earned a commission of three percentage points by arranging an option ARM for them, and did so by listing their income as $7,000 a month. Soon, their payment jumped from roughly $1,000 a month to about $3,000, causing them to fall behind.

Mr. Clark, who now works for JPMorgan, referred calls to a company spokesman, who provided no further details.

In 2006, WaMu slowed option ARM lending. But earlier, ill-considered loans had already begun hurting its results. In 2007, it recorded a $67 million loss and shut down its subprime lending unit.

By the time shareholders joined WaMu for its annual meeting in Seattle last April, WaMu had posted a first-quarter loss of $1.14 billion and increased its loan loss reserve to $3.5 billion. Its stock had lost more than half its value in the previous two months. Anger was in the air.

Some shareholders were irate that Mr. Killinger and other executives were excluding mortgage losses from the computation of their bonuses. Others were enraged that WaMu turned down an $8-a-share takeover bid from JPMorgan.

“Calm down and have a little faith,” Mr. Killinger told the crowd. “We will get through this.”

WaMu asked shareholders to approve a $7 billion investment by Texas Pacific Group, a private equity firm, and other unnamed investors. David Bonderman, a founder of Texas Pacific and a former WaMu director, declined to comment.

Hostile shareholders argued that the deal would dilute their holdings, but Mr. Killinger forced it through, saying WaMu desperately needed new capital.

Weeks later, with WaMu in tatters, directors stripped Mr. Killinger of his board chairmanship. And the bank began including mortgage losses when calculating executive bonuses.

In September, Mr. Killinger was forced to retire. Later that month, with WaMu buckling under roughly $180 billion in mortgage-related loans, regulators seized the bank and sold it to JPMorgan for $1.9 billion, a fraction of the $40 billion valuation the stock market gave WaMu at its peak.

Billions that investors had plowed into WaMu were wiped out, as were prospects for many of the bank’s 50,000 employees. But Mr. Killinger still had his millions, rankling laid-off workers and shareholders alike.

“Kerry has made over $100 million over his tenure based on the aggressiveness that sunk the company,” said Mr. Au, the money manager. “How does he justify taking that money?”

In June, Mr. Au sent an e-mail message to the company asking executives to return some of their pay. He says he has not heard back.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Passive House

I loved this article on the Passive Houses that are quite common in Europe and of course Berkeley is leading the way with building one... would you expect it anywhere else?

That said, this is another great idea but will undoubtedly become over engineered or watered down as each city/county and handler tries to improve on what already works. Well we all what to make a contribution but I have always been a great advocate of if it "ain't broke don't fix it" but tell that to City Officials/Inspectors and any Builder who always knows that it may be broke but no one knew it except them.

It is always good to know that you can improve the wheel but let's see if we can get this wheel here first before we need to "fix" it.


No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’

Published: December 26, 2008

DARMSTADT, Germany — From the outside, there is nothing unusual about the stylish new gray and orange row houses in the Kranichstein District, with wreaths on the doors and Christmas lights twinkling through a freezing drizzle. But these houses are part of a revolution in building design: There are no drafts, no cold tile floors, no snuggling under blankets until the furnace kicks in. There is, in fact, no furnace.

In Berthold Kaufmann’s home, there is, to be fair, one radiator for emergency backup in the living room — but it is not in use. Even on the coldest nights in central Germany, Mr. Kaufmann’s new “passive house” and others of this design get all the heat and hot water they need from the amount of energy that would be needed to run a hair dryer.

“You don’t think about temperature — the house just adjusts,” said Mr. Kaufmann, watching his 2-year-old daughter, dressed in a T-shirt, tuck into her sausage in the spacious living room, whose glass doors open to a patio. His new home uses about one-twentieth the heating energy of his parents’ home of roughly the same size, he said.

Architects in many countries, in attempts to meet new energy efficiency standards like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard in the United States, are designing homes with better insulation and high-efficiency appliances, as well as tapping into alternative sources of power, like solar panels and wind turbines.

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.

Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.

“The myth before was that to be warm you had to have heating. Our goal is to create a warm house without energy demand,” said Wolfgang Hasper, an engineer at the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt. “This is not about wearing thick pullovers, turning the thermostat down and putting up with drafts. It’s about being comfortable with less energy input, and we do this by recycling heating.”

There are now an estimated 15,000 passive houses around the world, the vast majority built in the past few years in German-speaking countries or Scandinavia.

The first passive home was built here in 1991 by Wolfgang Feist, a local physicist, but diffusion of the idea was slowed by language. The courses and literature were mostly in German, and even now the components are mass-produced only in this part of the world.

The industry is thriving in Germany, however — for example, schools in Frankfurt are built with the technique.

Moreover, its popularity is spreading. The European Commission is promoting passive-house building, and the European Parliament has proposed that new buildings meet passive-house standards by 2011.

The United States Army, long a presence in this part of Germany, is considering passive-house barracks.

“Awareness is skyrocketing; it’s hard for us to keep up with requests,” Mr. Hasper said.

Nabih Tahan, a California architect who worked in Austria for 11 years, is completing one of the first passive houses in the United States for his family in Berkeley. He heads a group of 70 Bay Area architects and engineers working to encourage wider acceptance of the standards. “This is a recipe for energy that makes sense to people,” Mr. Tahan said. “Why not reuse this heat you get for free?”

Ironically, however, when California inspectors were examining the Berkeley home to determine whether it met “green” building codes (it did), he could not get credit for the heat exchanger, a device that is still uncommon in the United States. “When you think about passive-house standards, you start looking at buildings in a different way,” he said.

Buildings that are certified hermetically sealed may sound suffocating. (To meet the standard, a building must pass a “blow test” showing that it loses minimal air under pressure.) In fact, passive houses have plenty of windows — though far more face south than north — and all can be opened.

Inside, a passive home does have a slightly different gestalt from conventional houses, just as an electric car drives differently from its gas-using cousin. There is a kind of spaceship-like uniformity of air and temperature. The air from outside all goes through HEPA filters before entering the rooms. The cement floor of the basement isn’t cold. The walls and the air are basically the same temperature.

Look closer and there are technical differences: When the windows are swung open, you see their layers of glass and gas, as well as the elaborate seals around the edges. A small, grated duct near the ceiling in the living room brings in clean air. In the basement there is no furnace, but instead what looks like a giant Styrofoam cooler, containing the heat exchanger.

Passive houses need no human tinkering, but most architects put in a switch with three settings, which can be turned down for vacations, or up to circulate air for a party (though you can also just open the windows). “We’ve found it’s very important to people that they feel they can influence the system,” Mr. Hasper said.

The houses may be too radical for those who treasure an experience like drinking hot chocolate in a cold kitchen. But not for others. “I grew up in a great old house that was always 10 degrees too cold, so I knew I wanted to make something different,” said Georg W. Zielke, who built his first passive house here, for his family, in 2003 and now designs no other kinds of buildings.

In Germany the added construction costs of passive houses are modest and, because of their growing popularity and an ever larger array of attractive off-the-shelf components, are shrinking.

But the sophisticated windows and heat-exchange ventilation systems needed to make passive houses work properly are not readily available in the United States. So the construction of passive houses in the United States, at least initially, is likely to entail a higher price differential.

Moreover, the kinds of home construction popular in the United States are more difficult to adapt to the standard: residential buildings tend not to have built-in ventilation systems of any kind, and sliding windows are hard to seal.

Dr. Feist’s original passive house — a boxy white building with four apartments — looks like the science project that it was intended to be. But new passive houses come in many shapes and styles. The Passivhaus Institut, which he founded a decade ago, continues to conduct research, teaches architects, and tests homes to make sure they meet standards. It now has affiliates in Britain and the United States.

Still, there are challenges to broader adoption even in Europe.

Because a successful passive house requires the interplay of the building, the sun and the climate, architects need to be careful about site selection. Passive-house heating might not work in a shady valley in Switzerland, or on an urban street with no south-facing wall. Researchers are looking into whether the concept will work in warmer climates — where a heat exchanger could be used in reverse, to keep cool air in and warm air out.

And those who want passive-house mansions may be disappointed. Compact shapes are simpler to seal, while sprawling homes are difficult to insulate and heat.

Most passive houses allow about 500 square feet per person, a comfortable though not expansive living space. Mr. Hasper said people who wanted thousands of square feet per person should look for another design.

“Anyone who feels they need that much space to live,” he said, “well, that’s a different discussion.”

Energy Efficiency

I wanted to reprint this article from today's, Dec 30, New York Times regarding weatherization of Homes as the most affordable way to upgrade a homes function and operation.

With that note, I have read of late people upgrading insulation and replacing windows and doors and sealing their homes so tightly that their energy use has declined but with in their indoor air quality. Once again seeking appropriate and more importantly experienced and knowledgeable HVAC individuals/companies are essential to making this work. With older homes not having appropriate indoor air circulation and/or ventilation systems it makes all that work and expense moot if your home becomes a wasteland of toxic indoor air.

Setting appropriate budgets, working with MORE THAN ONE, professional (meaning seeking consultants, contractors, architects and other trade professionals) is really the best idea before taking on any project.. Commercial building uses the collaborative eco-charette process and there is no reason to not borrow that from them in encouraging diverse and knowledgeable experience that will inevitably bring many ideas and options to the table which will save both time and money in the long run.

And here is the article from the paper which I think makes a great point and something that is within reach of many homes and budgets.....


Focus on Weatherization Is Shift on Energy Costs


MARRIOTTSVILLE, Md. — In the basement of Phyllis Fick’s ordinary-looking suburban house, Tim Kenny of C&O Conservation, a nonprofit weatherization company, found black streaks of dirt on the yellow fiberglass insulation, evidence of air infiltration from the window beneath, a sure sign of an energy leak.

Nearby on the basement ceiling, a drainpipe from the bathroom above had spider webs around it, another bad sign. Spiders build near air currents to draw insects to their webs, Mr. Kenny, C&O’s manager, said, and the current probably ran from the basement to the attic, taking heated air with it.

But the “aha!” moment for the C&O team belonged to Brian Kinzer, who put a ladder on the front porch and pulled down the vinyl covering of the underside of the roof overhang. Instead of plywood, he was staring at the bright metal of a heating duct that curved up to the second-floor bedroom of Mrs. Fick’s 18-year-old daughter. The duct had been unprotected from the outdoor temperature since the house was built about 30 years ago.

“Look at this!” Mr. Kinzer said in triumph.

Call it CSI: Thermal Police — energy experts armed with mostly low-tech tools but strong sleuthing skills, finding flaws that let the air inside a house go through a full exchange with the outdoors twice an hour, instead of once every two or three hours.

Correct those flaws, and heating and cooling costs are typically cut by 20 percent to 30 percent, a saving of more than $1,000 annually in some households. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions and the strain on the national electric and gas systems are reduced.

About 140,000 houses will be weatherized with public help this year, a total that President-elect Barack Obama has promised to raise to one million, to reduce energy consumption and cut energy costs for households and taxpayers, who often absorb those costs for the poor. This would represent a historic shift in emphasis for the federal and state governments, reducing poor people’s energy bills instead of helping to pay them.

Weatherizing a million homes annually would also create about 78,000 jobs for a year, according to the federal Energy Department’s weatherization project director, Gil Sperling.

The current 140,000 annual total creates about 8,000 jobs, Mr. Sperling said.

Although that is a tiny fraction of the five million green-collar jobs that Mr. Obama promised in the campaign, “it’s a decent number of jobs per dollar spent,” said Harry J. Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University and at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington. “The work is productive, and the jobs are at a mix of skill levels.”

Congress added $250 million to the weatherization budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Energy experts say that money could be effectively spent in low-income households and in households that have no need of public assistance.

In the forgotten corners of tens of millions of American attics and basements, near the old Trivial Pursuit games and out-of-season clothes, are flaws that waste vast amounts of energy. Buildings often resemble colanders. Leaking ducts bleed heated air into areas outside living space. Cold-air returns suck in dust and mold from attics, or gas and oil fumes from garden equipment stored in basements. Long-neglected air filters clog, forcing furnaces or air-conditioners to work harder.

Mr. Obama’s choice for energy secretary, Steven Chu, told a group in Washington in June that an extra $1,000 could make a new house energy efficient “but the American consumer would rather have a granite countertop.”

For the Fick family, the issue was not new countertops. Mrs. Fick and her three children live mostly on disability payments because her husband, Edmund, has multiple sclerosis. For months, she has been paying just enough to avoid having her electricity cut off. Because she is eligible for government aid to help pay her bills, her house, in a subdivision set amid the rolling farm country west of Baltimore, is also eligible for a state weatherization program.

Because most of the houses in the subdivision were built by the same developer and probably the same workers, they are likely to have many of the same energy deficiencies, Mr. Kenny, the manager of C&O Conservation, said.

C&O, which Maryland has designated as the publicly financed weatherization company for half the state’s 24 counties, will work on about 300 of the 2,400 houses that are eligible.

Typical repairs require expertise but generally cost $2,000 or less. The most significant improvement for the Ficks’ house was an inch-thick piece of foam board, which Mr. Kinzer shaped with a utility knife and applied to the exposed heating duct.

The repair cost less than $100, including $10 for materials, but it will cut the Ficks’ heating bill by several hundred dollars per heating season, said Tim Kenny’s father, Tom, a veteran weatherizer.

The larger problem, Tom Kenny said, is selling the concept of weatherization.

“I provide something that’s invisible,” Mr. Kenny said, explaining why there was limited private-sector demand for sealing air leaks, say, compared with the appeal of new windows. But new windows, widely marketed as an energy-saving investment, are not the place to start, experts say.

“We have found weatherization to be a more cost-effective option in decreasing energy bills,” said Mr. Sperling, of the Energy Department.

The four-member team at the Fick home wrapped additional insulation around the water heater, installed compact fluorescent light bulbs, and sealed air ducts with an adhesive compound scooped from a big tub. (Duct tape, Tim Kenny said, has lots of uses, but sealing ducts is not among them.) The work cost about $4,000 and the rate of air infiltration was cut by at least half, he said.

Government aid for weatherization has been modest.

Energy technology research competes for federal aid, said a spokeswoman for the Energy Department. Some states contribute their own money or divert federal money intended to help the poor pay their energy bills.

But utilities that furnish electricity, natural gas and home heating oil have lobbied strongly for programs that provide money to help pay bills.

Although Congress added $250 million to the original $227 million budget for weatherization in the current fiscal year, the number of people receiving weatherization aid is dwarfed by those receiving assistance in paying their energy bills.

“You have six million families a year getting energy assistance, possibly eight million this year, and 150,000 getting weatherization,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, an organization of state officials.

Achieving residential energy efficiency nationwide is a far bigger job than industrial or commercial efficiency because the number of houses dwarfs the number of factories, offices and shopping centers, Mr. Wolfe said. So little has been done in the last few years that “when you start to look at the infrastructure that’s there to do residential energy efficiency in a cost-effective way, it’s very thin,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of talk over the years,” he said, “but there’s not a lot to point to.”

To weatherize a million houses for low-income families every year, Mr. Wolfe said, would require more workers at every level. While it is possible, he said, weatherization companies would have to commit to expanding, and that would happen only if they were persuaded that they would have more work over the long term.

“A lot of the companies that do this work are fairly small,” Mr. Wolfe said. “They need some certainty it’s not a one-year deal, because for them to buy a second truck for $100,000, it’s not a minor decision.”

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Healthy Homes

I think more and more as we hunker down for winter we neglect to keep a window open or use ventilation as a fear of reducing energy savings. Well if you don't have an in home ventilation system and most older homes do not nor do apartments, you need to run the ventilation you do have as in the kitchen or bath. If you don't, open a window just for a few minutes everyday. Allow fresh air to get in but more importantly to get old air out. We have done such a good job sealing ourselves in that we don't realize we are really sealing ourselves in. I have read many blogs with people who are upgrading their homes insulation, changing windows and improving their heating and cooling needs only to find a new myriad of problems as a result.

In that vein it is important to understand as you upgrade or remodel to take into consideration how you remove old products. A great deal of old insulation contains asbestos. It is imperative to understand that while it is okay for you the homeowner to remove it without special precautions you may be causing more problems than you are saving.

I was recently contacted by Jesse Herman, of the Mesothelioma Cancer Center who sent me this article. I print here for you to read. I think it addresses all the issues you should know about asbestos. I made the "mistake" for years of doing this myself removing asbestos insulation and tiles as well and my immune system is now compromised myself as a result. Read the article and send questions to the author at, should you have any. Upgrading your home needs to be done appropriately, affordably but most of all safely.


Asbestos Removal and Greener Alternatives

There are many things to consider when remodeling or purchasing an older home, which is common in the real estate industry. Homes built before 1980 have the strong likelihood of containing asbestos. Due to a steady progression of technology and green sustainable methods, there are many ways to ensure your home or property is asbestos free. If you are interested in saving money, remodeling and improving your carbon footprint, here is some information to get you on the right track.

Used in millions of homes throughout the last quarter of the 20th century, asbestos insulation can become a real dilemma for homeowners due to causing a variety of health problems, including malignant mesothelioma and a variety of other lung ailments. Mesothelioma takes the lives of thousands of people each year and has lead to a variety of mesothelioma lawyers throughout the nation. Manufacturers of asbestos products knew about the harmful effects of asbestos and continued manufacturing the products anyways.

Non-regulated asbestos material can be legally performed by homeowners, regular contractors, or licensed asbestos abatement contractors as long as the" National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) are not violated. Asbestos removal in public facilities, homes and workplaces must be undertaken by a licensed asbestos abatement contractor. Once the removal is complete, green insulation options should be given serious consideration, such as: Cellulose, Cotton Fiber and Lcynene.

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC), in a study conducted in 2003, estimated a savings of $50-$65 per square foot for well-constructed green buildings in the U.S. (see table below) during that year. The numbers continue to improve as more eco-friendly options become available, and those kinds of figures have finally begun to attract those who thought eco-friendly construction was just a bunch of hogwash.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


What makes a home green? I get asked that a lot.. and that most people think they have to buy a new house or spend a great deal of money to have a "green" house.

Well if you own your current home and it wasn't built green well fear not.. it is there, the damage to the soil, the carbon footprint and the waste of resources has long been done. Most off gassing is over with regards to the interior products unless things such as cabinetry, furniture and carpets/rugs are new and made with materials that we know can be harmful to your health.. those things with synthetics, formaldehyde, certain resins and substances that can have long term affects on your indoor air quality and health. If you do ventilate well, take care to not contribute to more long term problems, such as cleaning with toxic chemicals, smoking indoors and live near well say a cement plant (as I do) then you can alleviate some problems easily without spending a great deal of money.

But the most important thing a green house is is Energy Efficient. Understanding how you are using your resources, such as water, electricity, gas or any other energy in your home is probably the most important thing you can do to make your home "green". Have an energy audit.. you may qualify for one through your local utility provider for low or even free.. some things you can do yourself. Contact Energy Star and find a Performance Test auditor to come and do a blower door test to see if and where you are losing heat. Have a qualified Contractor familiar with home repair inspect your insulation needs in the crawl spaces and attic.. simply blowing in cellulose, insulating duct work, sealing it with mastic, installing vapor barriers, covering old water heaters (if you cannot replace) looking at insulating around windows, doors and more importantly any canned lights in ceilings or around outlets. That cost may be easily offset by the money you save on utility bills.

Next is to look at windows and doors. If they really are insufficient look to how you can replace them affordably. On weather walls where either sun or wind hit those may need to be replaced others can simply be covered with insulating window treatments. Doors may just need weatherstripping but again where the door is in relation to the home it may have an affect on your energy use.

Look at your heating and water use. It may be necessary to look at what you can do to reduce consumption without going to renewable means. Radiant heat with a gas boiler, tankless or on demand water heater to replace your standard water heater. Look at combining more than one energy source.. using both gas and electric. Renewable energy sources are ideal but everything in time.

Add a rain barrel outside and more importantly use that opportunity to make sure your home is not getting water damaged. That is by checking drainage, roofing and siding for flashing issues and eliminate water from coming between walls and getting into or below foundation. Over time water regardless of how green a home is needs to be reviewed for that kind of issue especially here in the Northwest. Using a rain barrel also helps for landscaping and is an easy green addition. So keep the water outside and draining appropriately away from the home and in storm outlets/

Going green on the inside. Bigger commitment and bigger payback? Maybe but sometimes compromising on that can be enough. Looking to rid yourself of carpet and finding cheaper and greener options that will work for you and your needs. And if you like carpet then find Eco friendly ones that will last longer than synthetic and use less chemicals for install.

Look to replace shower heads and faucets to use less water. You don't need to replace the whole sink just use water wisely.

Getting energy efficient appliances and that is often the most expensive commitment but the savings payback is within a few years and you will notice it however immediately.

You do not need to throw out it all or even move to have a great green home. Its why I founded Vida Verde so I can help you find those green friendly options, make the right choices and ultimately have a home that is lasting and healthy for the long run without feeling you need to spend a lot to get a lot.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Green Road Ahead

In February there is a Green Jobs conference in DC and I hope to attend. I suppose I already have a "green" job although it certainly doesn't feel like it. A series of events, the downturn in the economy seems to prevent me from spending much time on my green job and simply getting other jobs that provide green rather than encourage it.

In fact I have spent more time trying to explain to people why I do what I do than doing what I do.... and yet I still sense people are still uneasy when it comes to talking about money.. and this is something at which is the one last elephant in the room that needs to be addressed.

I have to think that out of this we have entered a new era of change for the better and that is especially true when it comes to disclosure and honesty about a company's earnings, its expenses/debts and more importantly its salaries.

I don't think income transparency will come easy but its absolutely essential for a company to truly be publicly held and I think more workers will demand it. It will stop some of the insane salaries of CEO's and Executives, bring about gender parity and lead to a more equitable wage spread and suitable increases with regards to positions within a company. I hope to see more Boards and Stockholders encouraging this sense of openness and disclosure as a measure of a company's long term viability and success.

I don't see Americans jumping right away onto that bandwagon but I see more and more an open discussion with regards to finances as we move into acknowledging our role in this debacle of an economic meltdown.

Part of this is our own fault.. our need to keep up with the Joneses, the denial of our own net worth and the belief that we all deserve and can have everything we want.. be it Gucci or the knock off version at Target. We were addicted to goods and shopping as any addict is to crack and it appears just as lethal.

We also as businesses be more accountable to the company, to the bank and more importantly to our customers. As I have said Contractors are notoriously bad at business so there is often a robbing of Paul to pay peter, confusing markups and bad bidding and estimating practices designed less to get the job and more to stop someone else from getting it and in the long run its the Contractor and the Customer who suffer.

Learning to read the books, leave them open and share that information to those who need to know allows for better decision making, better work ethics and better relationships those we are working with. It is not easy in a society that has always put talking about money on the same level as discussing politics and religion but those lines have long since blurred so let's put money on that table too so we can become a better more productive society focused less on the mine me mine and more on the bottom line.

Monday, November 24, 2008

What's Your Carbon Footprint?

I think Carbon Footprint may have jumped the proverbial shark when I saw an ad for a local Car Dealer advertises itself as "working towards carbon neutral" I am not sure what that means and even if I did I am not sure that it is possible.

To be carbon zero or even neutral would that not mean using any fossil or expendable fuels of any kind? And if that is the case will they cease selling gas powered vehicles and move to say "horse power" of another kind. Even an electric car uses energy and there are "batteries" but maybe they know something I don't.

Take the MANY carbon footprint tests available over the Internet.. and all I can say its good thing my carbon footprint doesn't measure my shoe size or I may have a hard time getting fit!

I went to a dinner recently and the guest speaker was the CEO of an outdoor firm that advocates sustainability and environmental friendliness, which makes sense as they are an "outdoor" firm. Actually, my pessimism was immediately replaced in response to his humor but more importantly his honesty and practicality with regards to business. He preferred the term "Eco Footprint" to describe how they approach their business.

I was then at another "green" function a couple of weeks later and a person touted how he was passionate about reducing his "carbon footprint" by traveling less. Well after listening to the speaker earlier reaffirm that being respectful about the environment, treating the planet, people and more importantly treating how you manufacture and maintain your business is by far more a response to the environment than having the appropriate label to designate your business.

And he is right.. if you have to travel at least being part of a full plane as opposed to sitting on a private jet or nearly empty one traveling anyway is one that is more about the business and not the individual. No one goes into life saying I plan on using everything possible and available that is both wasteful and useless. And yes there are those who buy big cars, spend more than they earn, throw out more food than they eat but they don't do so deliberately.. they do so ignorantly. Their carbon footprint I am not sure is any "bigger" than mine.. but their eco one definitely.

Carbon footprints need to be evaluated by their largess.. its something the auto makers needed to evaluate from their responsibility in developing autos that are less reliant on fossil fuels and then flying to Congress on private jets while asking for money.

In the meantime, everyone uses cell phones, laptops, etc. The immense amount of energy needed to power our ever increasing dependency on technology has made that industry rival the airline industry for energy use and will likely exceed it in the years ahead. So when bragging about how you are reducing your carbon footprint by flying less.. well in reality try texting or calling less if that is in fact your goal.

There was a book "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" and this is more true than ever. Its not the small shit that affects the big picture when it comes to the environment its your big picture.. Look at it all.. be reasonable, be practical and measure your eco footprint to find the right size for you.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Adventures in Sustainability Land

The last couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to attend a Sustainable Industry Breakfast and another group's Sustainable Dinners. Here the intent is to have like minded individuals "network" and share information over some "sustainable" food (which in most cases, I hope all food is sustainable) and hear a speaker or two speak on "issues" of sustainability.

I am thinking much like the word "green" "sustainable" may also become one of the most overused words in the future lexicon of our new Obama-society. And while I like all the ideas and concepts I see that some just are once again joining the ranks from either trend or sadly out of necessity.

At these events I met several people new to the field of "sustainability" and many of them seem well vague as to exactly what they do or just trying to figure it out.

I have met a "green building" consultant. With no background in building, architecture or even design... yet by simply completing a course is ready to help people build green. Well great but I would sort of hope that those drawn to the field had some previous experience in what building of any kind was/is to feel in order provide expertise and advise others.. but that may be wishful thinking. That is why LEED and others organizations do by providing checklists so for us "experts" to follow and let others figure out the construction.. those who can do and those who can't teach.. but at some point I would like those who are teaching to have had some further knowledge and experience in a related field other than simply passing the numerous Sustainable courses and Green Degree programs that seem to be arriving faster than the jobs needed to sustain the graduates.

The next was my arch nemesis the Real Estate Agent. I have not yet found anyone of this profession who should be considered redeemed sufficiently to yet garner my respect. Perhaps the agent who refunds some of his/her commission to those homeowners whose homes are now worth less than they overpaid for may be my hero. But for now I find them to be less than the maligned used car salesman...salespeople whose arrogance, lack of true knowledge and their greed contributed greatly toward the crisis in housing today.

From there I met a "Professor" of Sustainability whose smugness was only matched by his arrogance. I am glad professing to be an expert on the subject has allowed one to be above good manners. It makes me think I will pass on getting my "Green" MBA.

Only one or two faces of color are present at these events and this concerns me but also empowers me to know that Van Jones is someone out there being the voice for this largely overlooked population in the green movement.

I have never professed to be an expert. I still am learning.. and I am glad, to stop learning is to stop growing. I like asking questions and seeking alternatives and hopefully solutions that will be ones that everyone can afford and approach. My hero of late is Van Jones one of the few true voices of green for the poor.

I think there is no such thing as too much information. It was the lack of information that led us I believe to where we are today. We allowed ourselves to be led down the path by others.. willingly... asking no questions such as "why are their interests mine?" I think we realized they were not.

Information is power. Information leads to innovation to revitalization and mostly it leads to more information and ultimately knowledge. And when has anyone said knowledge is a bad thing?

The real issue in Sustainability is opening the door.. I want to see some more faces of color, wider backgrounds and diverse opinions. We cannot risk making this another fad where drinking the kool-aid is all one needs to be a member. We all know how that turned out... not very "sustainable"

Sunday, October 26, 2008


So you are in the process of building or remodeling your home and you hear Energy Star, LEED, NAHB Build Green or Built Green, Green Advantage, Healthy Home and all the other accreditation programs that verify the "greeness" of a home. Which one is the BEST? Well I am not a great advocate of anything being the BEST when its about your home and your money. Its about realistic approaches that are both affordable and approachable when it comes to greening your home.

LEED is the Grandfather in the green build industry. They started the idea of labeling and classifying the levels of commercial builds green qualities by establishing standards marked "certified" "silver" "gold" and "platinum". The level being how much of a commitment the contractor and client were willing to make in creating the building when it comes to "greeness". The idea being the higher the standard, the more energy efficient, less wasteful and more in line with the environment and the community the building had on the landscape and its surroundings. In all its a a great concept and it pushed forward building science and the idea that buildings can be resourceful and beautiful while still be practical and useful. It encourages companies and communities to look at building in a holistic approach.

LEED has only in the past few years moved into home building and there are developers and clients eagerly pushing the envelope to make residences Platinum worthy. That said, LEED has decided to remain firmly involved in new build and not remodeling homes. And in that respect building a single family LEED home at the present is I believe not for the average home.

The NAHB (National Association of Home Builders) has launched their Green Build program with the idea of both new and remodeled homes reaching certification levels with the idea of promoting energy efficiency, environmental support and using smart and resource conservation in building. They advocate the idea by having a uniform and easily obtained levels of certification it will encourage further green building but more importantly affordability in the field.

Built Green is our regions local Green Build program affiliated with the Master Builders Association it takes it cues from LEED, the NAHB and of course builders on making Green Build certification a norm for them and again focusing on all the same bells and whistles.

Energy Star focuses solely on Energy use and resources. They no longer concern themselves with build technique only on the actual way heat and energy is conducted throughout the dwelling. Primarily focused on new builds they are working on launching a program focusing on remodeling homes but that is still in it nascent stages. There are other certifying programs.. the Healthy Home is another focusing on indoor air quality. So when building or remodeling it brings us back as to which one is the BEST one?

What the real question is: Is this Necessary when you are deciding to build or remodel your home?

The answer is yes and no. Its one of the reasons I went from Contracting to Consulting. My first thought "are there any significant differences here?" to "you really cannot do this without a third party consultant/verifier" and I thought the latter was something I was better suited. One: Because I could sort through the data and information rather quickly and decide which was which and Two: My ethics and ability to professional segregate myself from the business was easy. I had no real professional relationships or obligations that would prevent me from being unbiased and fair.

The next thing I realized is that these were primarily designed by builders for builders and once again when it comes to Construction customers ignorance or understanding falls to the wayside. I could think of no better place for me than as an advocate of the consumer since I had been both at one time.

So back to the important question: Are any of these necessary for the Home Owner? Yes and No. Yes if you want to certify the project for potential resale value (although eventually green will be the norm and at the present it may be critical but selling at the present seems to be more an issue than certifying anything) and if you want it. And Yes if you want to make sure the Contractor and you are on the same page about the procedure and products you want. But No if that is not essential and if the Contractor is ethical and honest and simply wants to do the work to meet the customer's needs. Then the criteria are just that criteria and guidelines that you can use to formulate the project but deviate and alternate from when costs or products are unavailable or out of the budget specifications.

The nice thing is that is why I created Vida Verde to find the appropriate and effective trade offs without sacrificing quality or level of greeness. Allowing flexibility on the project gives both the Home Owner and the Contractor opportunities to make the project feasible, workable and more importantly affordable.

Stars and Levels are great if that is what you need to feel secure about the legitimacy of the project. But in ANY project, quality record keeping, information and disclosure should be mandatory in any home building or remodeling project as its necessary for warranties, maintenance and resale disclosure. So go green and don't worry about what kind of Green unless its what you want and need to do. Being green is being independent of any mandate.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I liked this article so much I am reprinting it here as it addresses many of the issues I frequently assess when I review the exact necessity and practicality of the elements of Green Build. It also offers the most essential element often avoided in the discussion REAL COST ANALYSIS.

I would like to add that another alternative to affordable insulation was something brought to me during my recent Energy Star Certification/Verification course and that was the use of blown in or even green batt insulation with a layer of foam on top.. securing the R Factor but without the additional cost of a entire commitment to foam or a sacrifice of the quality insulation foam offers.


Preventing energy waste has become a household preoccupation in the era of nearly $4-a-gallon gas and rising prices for everything from airline tickets to milk. Whether motivated by environmental impulses or a desire to reduce utility bills, many Americans are researching ways to create a more energy-efficient home.

Statistics from a range of sources provide plenty of motivation. The U.S. Department of Energy's office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) estimates that draft reduction within a home can lower energy costs anywhere from 5% to 30% annually. Meanwhile, according to Department of Energy data provided by the U.S. Green Building Council, homes account for 21% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. And claiming a green home remodel makes for great neighborhood bragging rights.

Eager to lessen our carbon footprint and plan a responsible remodel, we undertook four so-called "energy audits" on our 1966 Seattle home, which has a finished 1,100-square-foot main floor and a partially finished 1,100-square-foot basement. We wanted to learn both how to improve the finished portion of our home and how best to add insulation and factor energy efficiency into an eventual basement remodel.
[A Quest for Energy] Marcellus Hall

Energy audits -- assessments of your home's energy efficiency -- run the gamut from free do-it-yourself audits offered online to paid inspections in which professionals with varying credentials spend up to three hours scrutinizing the home and determining what gestures will improve its energy efficiency and which fixes will reduce energy expenses. More sophisticated professional audits employ high-tech devices, including "blower door" fans, which lower indoor air pressure and enable technicians to measure draft levels, and infrared (thermographic) scanning, which can measure surface temperature variations and thus spot air leaks and poor insulation.

We started with two do-it-yourself energy audits offered free online, including the Home Energy Yardstick offered by Energy Star, the organization that promotes energy efficiency and endorses energy-efficient products, and Home Energy Saver, a free online audit from the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab operated by the University of California.

The free Home Energy Yardstick was disappointingly basic -- especially given how much data we had to provide from 12 months' worth of utility bills. However, it's not a bad starting point. The Yardstick calculated that we have a 1.7 efficiency score on a scale of 1 to 10 (oops). Tips for making changes were basic, such as using a programmable thermostat (already in use), energy-efficient bulbs (check), and Energy Star-endorsed appliances. Nice tips, but rather generic.

Next up, Home Energy Saver put us through more paces, asking us to answer 20 categories of questions ranging from insulation levels in attic walls to our furnace type. We had to guess at some answers, but, assuming we guessed right, the data provided were detailed: The program spat out nine pages worth of information on possible improvements, including the cost to implement each, and how much we would save in energy costs. For instance, insulating our basement to R-11 (insulation-speak for thickness levels -- the higher the better) would cost only $480 but could save us $115 per year in reduced bills. These were estimates, to be sure, but they helped us shape priorities.

The professional inspectors drilled deeper, looking more at the "building envelope" of our home and making more concrete recommendations. The Home Detective, a home-inspection company that also performs energy audits, sent an inspector who checked our exterior, climbed in our attic and perused our basement, but didn't bring out some of the higher-tech gear. The upshot? It suggested that we increase the "R" value of attic insulation to R-30 or more, insulate interior walls surrounding our non-insulated garage, and insulate the perimeter of the basement's ceiling -- an area known as the house's "rim joists." Minor fixes would include sealing ducts and any spot where pipes intersect with a floor or ceiling. The cost: $169.

Pinnacle Inspections used both a blower door test and infrared scanning to investigate how airtight our home is. The blower door test, which the technician ran twice to make sure results were solid, revealed that our home is relatively airtight for its age -- possibly due to our new windows. The technician seconded Home Detective's recommendation to insulate rim joists and walls adjacent to our garage, but also was able to use infrared scans to point out non-obvious sources of drafts on our main floor, all needing only minor fixes. These areas included the front door (which needs weather-stripping), switch plates (which need fireproof electrical insulation), window trim (which needs insulation), the attic trap door (which could use weather-stripping or other insulation), and a bathroom fan that is vented into the attic (and could be better insulated).

In the end, we felt that Pinnacle's high-tech energy audit was worth the $550 price tag, since it gave us short-term and low-cost repairs we could make now as well as guidance for future insulation projects. Now, we're ready to tackle that basement.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Green, Greener, Greenest

Which are the "greenest" or "best" choices one makes when deciding to go green?

Is it in Energy Efficiency? Getting one's home better insulated, using less resources, finding alternative sources of energy? Are those being green enough?

Is having your entire home greenovated the best idea? Where you throw out any and all products, items and goods that are potentially harmful to you or the environment out. Getting rid of any "off gassing" furniture, carpets, wood products or items that have in your home but have the potential of contributing to toxic indoor air?

Remodeling so that your home can take advantages of the latest in green building science?

Making those decisions are serious enough without adding the "green" equation.

Throwing out furniture that is older, mattresses that have not contributed to any sickness, replacing windows and doors, looking at your appliances are all important if they are contributing to depleting your most significant resource - finances. Nothing should be done that does not consider the long term impact to your immediate resources and the long vs short term paybacks of each.

Mattresses can be covered with dust mite protection and that may be enough. Doors and Windows may simply need to be examined for insulation around them and check for leakage and flashing issues... the appliances you have may be inefficient but if you cannot replace them think of ways to use them more wisely.. washing dishes late at night or doing laundry later to reduce your kilowatt usage. Taking your shoes off and have carpets dry or steam rather than shampooed can do wonders to clean the air and quality of life in the home.

As for heating and cooling needs.. well without proper insulation and ventilation it is all for naught. Getting a energy reading and deciding where the problems may be and they may be small enough to warrant slight repairs and upgrades vs complete overhauls could be enough. Opening windows and using those fans just above the stove or in the bathroom to circulate air may also be sufficient.

These are simple easy fixes to making your home green without taxing the budget or adding to the budget. The Green, Greener or Greenest choices can be simple affordable and easily done without the stress of remodeling or refurbishing your home entirely.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sustainabilty... Big Word Big Definition

I have been debating whether to use the term "sustainability" consultant instead of green consultant in my marketing materials. I have not yet taken the sustainable advisory program and while I think of myself as advocate of that concept I want to finish the course so that I will understand exactly what that means both personally and professionally.

Much of late has been made about companies advocating sustainability.. well that in some definitions means longevity. Certainly a bank like Washington Mutual had that in mind when it began and yet it took only a few years to destroy what has once been a "sustainable" business. Does any business willingly wish to cease in existence?

And then I realized yes... thanks to the dot coms of the 90s we learned that actually creating and building a business did not need the concepts of sustainability, longevity or even profit to merit millions of dollars in its sale. It seems that in fact the longer you were in business the less likely you were to actually sustainable.. Remember Friendster.. the precursor to Facebook? Does it still exist? What about Alta Vista? Netscape? They were sold but were they sold to be absorbed into the competitors pockets and disappear or were they sold to become viable members of the Internet/technology community? It seems so long ago that I can no longer recall.

Will no one remember Washington Mutual in the next decade except as the largest bank seized in history? Will no one remember its legacy of the school savings accounts or Christmas club funds? I remember my dad banking at a Savings and Loan.. where they gave gifts for deposits and to favorite clients.. the silver plated tray that still sits in my home long after that bank dissolved in the S&L debacle of the 80s.

How can anyone advise anyone on sustainable practices? Well one its good accounting, honest accounting and a system of fairness and legitimacy not just for those it serves but for whom those work. Would it be right to conclude that not paying a fair and marketable wage, offering health care and quality benefits for ALL who work there a reasonable assessment of a businesses sustainability? I am guessing one should not need an advisor for that.

Is an advisor one who just helps the company look at its global image, its local image and defines how it can make a better contribution to the greater community. Well that would be tough given this world and how we have no idea what is really going on in manufacturing or industry in countries whose measure of sustainability may well be "different" than ours. We are already struggling with what it means to be a "giant" and the repercussions of that, perhaps telling others how they should also run their businesses while our own collapse is not a good nor practical idea.

I keep going back to the question I was asked last week, "they pay you for that?" Well I would hope so and that I do have some insight, some perspective, some voice of options and hopes for anyone who would like to hear another idea on how to make our world, our businesses, and our homes more sustainable in the years to come.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Where is the Green

These past few weeks have been me scrambling to answer this question. I wonder how a small business person, sole provider and part time teacher can make it in this economy?

I started my business at first as a Contractor and realized that education was by far more needed to make green build the standard. And I do believe that that education is for the consumer first and the professional second. Change rises best from the ground up... the top down as we have seen the past few weeks has proven to be the wrong source to seek change.

So what does it mean for me and my company, Vida Verde? Well I still continue to educate myself. Just this week I completed Energy Star Verification Training to add to my National Association of Home Builders Green Cert. My final goal is to get a LEED AP, hopefully in Homes over the standard NC as that is more in line with my goals to make every home green in the future.

At the Energy Star training the belief that conservation of energy is not just a green thing its a practical thing.. again very much in line with my thought that Green is Affordable and Accessible.

I am still undergoing training for the Master Home Evaluator for the Lung Association and they do advocate simple change for better living.

It seems we are all on the same page... of course I was asked this week if people actually PAY for my advice... and yes they do... I think of what I do is bring information to people who have other and better things to do with their time and their businesses to research and find all the green options that will work. Not everyone has that luxury or inclination to do it themselves and frankly my job is no different than anyone providing any service.. mine just happens to be regarding green.

Of course my fellow former Builders are still either resistant or know-it-alls so they are too busy criticizing anyone who may threaten their profits or challenge their perspective.

The same builder with the "they PAY you?" wanted to know what my thoughts were with regards to many green build strategies.. was I pro LEED? Pro SIPS? and Did I provide cost analysis and data to my clients? I realized that this interrogation was less about me defending myself and more providing him an overview of what I do or don't.

I don't recommend or suggest.. I advise and with that I have limits.. I don't advise on construction, site analysis or building. The insurance and liability is too much for me to take that on. Instead I am a coach, advisor and researcher. I look at all the options in Green Build and try to find the best one and more importantly the most affordable one that will work. I am the person who finds what you need and tries to make it work for your home or business. What you do with the information is yours and that ultimately I cannot make you do it if it doesn't work... I just hopefully gave you some ideas or options that will work in the future.

My builder friend I believe was not satisfied with my response. But then again he shut his doors and was a LEED Pilot Home Builder so why he would worry about what I a sole provider would do seems interesting at best irrelevant at worst.

And in that I realized he is like everyone in this economy just trying to find his green.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Much like Greenwashing where a company takes on the mantle of being "green" as a way of capitalizing on a trend (such as IKEA) I think of individuals who do so as "Greentaggers." You know them, they tote the latest in Green wear, their cars are hybrids, their homes "green", every word out of their mouths has something to do with being "green" or "organic" and "sustainable". They are currently employed in some "green" profession or they somehow manage to convert their occupation into being green. They are members of every green group and organization and they are up on all what it means to be green. They email every individual, they have links on all the appropriate networks to everyone and everything green and they are the PERFECT GREENIES.

Except when it comes to actually seeing them or hearing from them in anything remotely associated outside of a "social" network where they are labeled green you wonder just how green they are.

Part of being green is practicing what you preach. Yes that means participating in recycling, composting, energy efficiency or whatever you do to make the world and your life sustainable. But it also means community. It is stressed over and over again in almost all the green guides (and yes there are those) about building community and embracing the whole picture. Part of the movement includes corporations and businesses actively involved in larger community or volunteer activities. So in that respect I would expect to see my Greentagger friends at every event or at least volunteering at something even remotely connected to being "green"

For me that is becoming a Healthy Home Evaluator or Master Home Evaluator with the Lung Association. I also am participating in Green Jobs Now the Green Day on 9/27 encouraging those in less advantaged neighborhoods to participate in energy efficient lifestyles both for affordability and sustainability. Both of these are in line with my passion for education (I was a former teacher and still substitute to make ends meet - that may also double qualify me for further community activism) and for the goals of advocating green as affordable.

I do go to almost all my local society meet and greets, participate in the green social events on a monthly basis and try to make efforts to network and take courses in varying green educational programs. I have yet to see any Greentaggers there. How do I know they aren't.. believe me its a small community and you do see familiar faces over time and when someone is linking to you on varying sites you know them even when you don't so you would expect to see them.. but alas you don't.

Ah the life of a Greentagger is a busy one... responding to blogs, linking to networks and signing up for societies and groups takes time.. too much time to actually do or go to anything green.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Jolly Green Giant

I often find myself at odds with my fellow "greenies" as their is always a slight competitive edge of who is more "green." I have commented on this numerous times to the point even I get sick of it but again of all things this should be the least competitive of ideals, professions and concepts. But again in this world everything is at some level a competition.

Being an "expert" in any field is actually a tough challenge. I sure as hell have NO desire to be an expert in Green Build.. I will leave that to those who are passionate and committed. I would like to be an expert in my field of finding the appropriate trade offs and compromises in the Green Build arena that allows for accessibility, approachability and more importantly AFFORDABILITY for ALL... business or consumer.

I may have bitten a great deal of green with that mission or pledge but a girl has got to dream big to do big.

I had a "discussion" with another green consultant who felt I was slamming him for his elitism. That had not occurred to me but what I was saying that while having facts and figures and mandates are great it often puts the accessibility and affordability out of reach of the everyman... again the small business or individual who has an interest or inclination but then sees such things as ISO 3378 or LEED v2.2 and go "HUH?" And then they just give up or don't see the forest for the trees. My goal is take that and condense to reality. Those books for "Dummies" and "Idiots" exist for a reason but I would like to think no one is really a dummy or idiot when it comes to embracing a more sustainable and healthier life and world.

But if we don't bring the language to the people be it the top down or bottom up the message will become the possession of those who either have the money, the inclination or the understanding exclusively. As I have said before nothing I know is hidden or secret.. I just spend a great deal of time digesting it, looking at as much as I can and asking questions. That is my job and I do it with the idea to help those who simply cannot. Not because they are incapable but they have better things to do such as work on their lives or businesses making it difficult to keep apprised of all what is going on in the green community.

Do I think my colleague was an elitist.. no just someone overly sensitive to someone who doesn't drink the green kool aid in the same way and as a result like many of the committed cannot always see the green forest for the trees.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Green Eyed Lady Passions Lady

I thought a lot about this old song today when I was discussing with someone my plans for my "green" business. And in this case Green is the operative word. Going from a Partnership and different business model altogether was oddly freeing and yet the most scary thing one could do. Talk about being green.

I realized that having someone share your passion and enthusiasm is well a little hard to find. There are those who gravitate to you and others who are as repelled.

Passion for green build for me is not something I went into from either a monetary or in fact necessary hippie embrace inconvenient truth stage either. It just made sense. Some of it doesn't but that is why I am passionate about it. I see the trade offs and I have legitimate questions and concerns none of which daunt me. I keep searching for further knowledge with the belief that no one has ALL the answers but the hope that the questions will generate further knowledge and interest.

Green build is exciting and new and not new.. some of it is rooted in innovations over 30 years old.. not very "green" but definitely in the spirit of resource and energy conservation. And I would hope in that spirit we remain passionate about Green Build and its growth to the point all build is green build and that label becomes moot.

Being passionate is a good thing it brings about a thirst and quest for knowledge, innovation and more importantly change that benefits the greater good.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Making Green in the Economy off Green

I started Vida Verde initially as a Construction Company focusing on providing affordable and GREEN options for home remodeling. Well a few months in and not one client who even cared for or wanted green I changed my focus. I realized that no one was really helping and educating the Home Owner about Green products and what it means to go green. And while I found a lot of contractors who were excited and impassioned and about green build I also see some who used it to thwart competition and had no interest in sharing their knowledge only capitalizing on it.

Well as I have written many times I find it unethical to hold information that is beneficial for the greater good and I find that if anything the green movement is encouraging collaboration and cooperation as a means of furthering innovation and ultimately growing the use and ideals and in turn reducing costs. So I do not see myself benefiting from hoarding and withholding information I also see that my efforts of time and financial commitment should be of course compensated as there is nothing wrong with that.

I get a lot of people excited about my business but they seem to think of it as more a resource than a business. I think the idea of paying me to help them further their knowledge seems in contradiction to what I preach. Well attaining all this knowledge, building my skills takes immense amount of time and resources. Someone has to do it and if I can condense it down, bring it to an approachable level and help others grasp onto the ideas then I see nothing wrong in charging a service fee. And I try to keep those fees and charges in line with my mission to make Green affordable.

My fees are reasonable and posted on my website I have no reason to not disclose them as I have no agenda in hiding or charging different rates for different clients. I have one for Home Owners which is in line with what I charged hourly as a Contractor and another for Trade Professionals as my work with them is a little more specialized and tailored to their business needs. But certainly well within reach of one another.

And so when I am "networking" with other like minded professionals I would hope they would refer my services in the same manner as I do theirs... I am always careful when I have not personally utilized a service but if I find the individual representing the company to be a capable and qualified professional I have no hesitation to recommending them with the qualifier that I may not have used them but I think they are worthy of a look. I do not take monies or anything in exchange for that and if I was sent a bottle of wine I would not refuse it.. I am not a politician but it has no bearing on that professional recommendation. Their work is what interests me and if the feedback is good I will continue to refer those to them but I also have no problem in giving other names with similar services as that is also fair.

I truly question again the ethics of anyone who pays or accepts payment for referrals. It seems questionable and is not truly fair and level for those not willing to make the payment. I have seen our government officials being questioned for this similar behavior with regards to lobbyists and that should be no different in any field.

And it that vein while I am all about getting a good value, remember there is no such thing as a free lunch and you get what you pay for.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Interesting Read on LEED

As we go into the decade where LEED has had significant input on the design and construction of commercial builds it is still in the nascent stages of home building. But there are issues and trade offs that relate to both types of construction and should be considered when you are pursuing that challenging and potentially expensive certification.

I found an article from an heating and engineering specialist who has issues with LEED, the link I will put at the bottom for those interested but I think he makes some good points that regardless of what type of build there is much testing, trade offs and issues to be resolved. Nothing is perfect and should be considered a work in progress.

Some points he makes..

A Better Way to Rate Green Buildings By Henry Gifford

LEED sets the standard for green buildings, but do green buildings actually save any energy?

However, exactly what is meant by “green” is not easily defined. The promotional materials for green buildings might list features such as recycled and or less toxic materials, water saving systems, and planted roofs. Energy saving technologies are usually included, which can include energy efficient appliances, lighting, and heating and cooling equipment. As the lists of features have gotten longer, and harder for consumers to sort out, rating systems have been developed.

Many green building rating systems exist in the US, and more are being created all the time, but the green building rating system that has come to dominate is the US Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED program, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED has probably contributed more to the current popularity of green buildings in the public’s eye than anything else. It is such a valuable selling point that it is featured prominently in advertisements for buildings that achieve it. LEED certified buildings make headlines, attract tenants1, and command higher prices.

..........For many years, the USGBC claimed that green buildings saved energy. But,
incredibly, the LEED certification process for new buildings does not require energy
use to be reported, or even kept track of So nobody knew until recently how much
energy LEED buildings used.

He goes on to say the study that finally measured LEED performance was not all encompassing and that the final results were not all perfect.

This shocking failure raises the question of what could go so wrong in buildings to produce results opposite to what so many people are trying to achieve.

Even the study commissioned by the USGBC admits that predictions are problematic when it says that “In other words, the accuracy of individual energy use predictions is very inconsistent.

He believes that measuring and holding buildings accountable long after the award is essential to maintaining integrity and earning their ratings.

There is only one realistic way to rate the energy efficiency of a building: by how much energy it actually uses after it is occupied. For any green building rating system to be truly effective it must require public scrutiny of utility bills for all rated buildings, not just a few selected examples. Any building or rating system that does not make all energy use data public, and show substantial savings relative to comparable buildings, does not deserve to be called environmentally friendly, regardless of how many supposed “green” features are included.

It was already noted here in the local paper about our current city office using more energy than the previous building so it has to be of some concern that if this program is to encourage energy efficiency than monitoring it and upholding that commitment should be done and if not lose the rating.

Perhaps I am being extreme and while I think Henry Gifford makes valid arguments and points I do not want the spirit lost by those who think that this is folly and is not a valid construction process worthy of pursuing.

But as in anything we have much to learn and if we are going to grow we must put in systems,checks, balances and adequate testing to make sure we are doing things that work as well as they should.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Green is Better than your Green

One of the increasing concerns I have over going Green in residential projects is the competitive nature of Contractors over which Certifying and Verification bodies are better than the other.

Construction and Architecture is already competitive and at times mutually exclusive. The process of Green Build is essentially a process created to eliminate that and go even further to involve everyone from the beginning..

In Green Build the process is integrative from client, designer, builder, sub contractors, engineers, landscapers, verifiers.. all have an equal and significant role in the process. But if it becomes a pissing contest of who is more important in the process, the process is lost. And whichever process, whichever credential is selected to follow there is a risk that costs, accessibility, innovation and information will get lost to the notion of competition.

LEED, NAHB, Regional Built Green programs, Energy Star, Healthy Home and others are fundamentally all the same ideal. Quality green projects that take into effect the site, its long term affects on both the environment and home owner, the long term goals of the community, its landscape and the hopeful addition of safe, energy efficient and AFFORDABLE homes for EVERYONE.

I have reviewed all the processes and am working on completing LEED AP, am pending the NAHB test and am working on being a healthy home evaluator for the Lung Association as well as hopefully becoming an Energy Star verifier.. so I have had the opportunity to review all the materials available. I am a member of both my local non profit Green Build guilds and have seen their plans and levels and I cannot see any significant distinctions or qualifications that make one superior over the other.

And while I will admit I do not have the "longevity" in the green field as some of my counterparts, I possess the commitment, passion and energy to learn and grow. My main goal is to take all that data and find ways to make it accessible to those who want information without complication. And when I see that the goals and ideals are parallel I would hope those directly doing the work see the spirit in information and an exchange of ideas and experiences to move the ideals forward. Knowledge is to be shared not hoarded.

LEED has many more bells and whistles but it has the ultimate same base and foundation as the regional and national plans I have reviewed. And all of them would greatly agree that ultimately they all have the same goals, aspirations and concepts that are integrated throughout.. that all homes meet a standard of safety and energy efficiency for its residents. I don't see any representative of any of them saying "pick me I am the best" for the point would be redundant. They All are there to serve the consumer and provide the same information to the builder, etc.

And while I am not privy to the backroom discussion with the USBGC or NAHB professionals, I would hope they are not seeing this as a competition but a collaboration.

And in that vein once again sitting in my local green build community I would hope to see that occur as well. While many builders here are breaking ground literally and figuratively, they seem well too busy trying to out green each other with who is better at it than the other. And while that is not everyone as in all these types of environments he who speaks loudly carries a significant hammer.. and those hammers seem to dominate the discussion to the point little often seems accomplished.

I would very much like to see more information shared and exchanged. I would welcome local builders and contractors who are out there doing this being active in also bringing to the table their daily experiences and frustrations and successes so that green building will become more absorbed. My fear is that they still cling to that antiquated uncooperative old style of keeping that information to themselves as a way of crushing the competitor. This thinking seems in direct contradiction to the spirit of Green build. I still go back to the Green Contractor who informed me that despite the fact he was my competitor he could still talk to me... we really do still have a long way to go...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Green Job Day..

One of the things that was important to me both as a Contractor and again as a Consultant was the notion that GREEN be AFFORDABLE and ACCESSIBLE to anyone.

So it was to my great relief I found a site devoted to the belief that this is not a foreign concept and that Green is the wave of the future. Green For All is a national organization dedicated to building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

If there is one thing I have continued to see is that at the present I see way too many white male faces predominantly leading the discussion. Ironically I read that Women are more "Green" than their male counterparts and I see a great many women present at the Green Build meets their role does seem to be in Architecture and not Contracting. Although we do have women owned Green focused Contractor/Builders in the area I would love to see them mentor and be more active participants in the Green Community.

We also desperately need more faces and people of color in the trades. I have yet to remodel a property without a minority and certainly when I lived in the Bay Area that would have been impossible. It is why I named my company Vida Verde to honor and respect the Latinos who have been most generous with their efforts and labor on my behalf and others in the Construction community.

So in that vein I encourage anyone willing to take Saturday, Sept 27th as a a day to bring Green to those who most need it... The website is

More than ever on this eve of a most significant election and in a time when our economy is at ever increasing need of stimulation and growth it becomes essential to open the idea that Green is the way to make our Country and our lives a better and more improved place. Green is for EVERYONE. It must be and it can be.

Please participate and go to GREEN FOR ALL to learn more. I look forward to seeing you there.