Thursday, February 26, 2009

Finding your Contractor

I have frequently discussed how to find the "right" Contractor. And now with the downturn very talented and available Contractors are waiting for your call. That said the big ones are really waiting. Their overhead is probably high as they grew their business on you know that "forever" housing bubble that was well not very forever.

I liked this article in the NY Times today and it mentions one of our areas more prominent Contracting firm. They are the ones building the zero energy house and are very public company promoting their firm. And while their work is no doubt outstanding, and the company is run by a woman, I have to caution people that when they are "famous" they are also expensive. And if you are smart, hire and plan well you can have the same quality product and experience at much the less the cost. And when I saw that the savings to their customer was 35K off the "bid" (a term and practice I find aberrant), for some minor DIY demo and paint work I had to wonder what kind of Master bath was this. Maybe one John Thain of Merrill Lynch quite appropriate.

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For the Dream Home, a New Blueprint


By WILLIAM L. HAMILTON
Published: February 25, 2009

ONE of the odd monuments the masters of the universe left behind when they departed the planet late last year, eight-figure salaries burning cold behind them, was the obsessively home-improved home.

Trophy-kitchen construction, with nickel taps and granite tops, hardwood cabinetry, double-wide sinks, iceboxes and toasters, flat-screens and climate-controlled wine storage. Master bathroom spas with jetted tubs, marble showers, bidets and bespoke dressing closets, his and hers everything. Indoor pools, stone walls, baronial great-room additions. The list goes on.

With a booming housing market, a fix-and-flip mentality, money-in-the-pocket success stories and a restless, get-rich homeowner holding the keys, any house — with the right remodeling — could be a dream house. Or a nest egg, ready to crack and fry: nesting equaled investing.

Contractors were triple booked; good contractors were as hard to get as celebrated doctors.

Then the housing market crashed, and the remodeling industry fell with it. A quarterly benchmark of remodeling activity issued last month by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University indicated that spending on home improvement would continue to fall from its decade peak in 2006, reaching an annual 12.1 percent rate of decline by the third quarter of this year. Tighter credit, employment loss and cash-flow worries woke up dream-home dreamers and investment nesters, putting big plans out to pasture.

“Five jobs canceled in August, September and October of last year,” said Anthony De Rosa of D.A.S. Associates, a builder and remodeler in Bedford Hills, N.Y. “Quarter-of-a-million-dollar kitchen, and the husband works for Lehman Brothers.”

Mr. De Rosa is now operating with half his former staff, marketing for the first time, reducing his prices and willing to take a $5,000 job installing a refrigerator. Though he said he had $5 million worth of work on his desk, and operates in an affluent area less susceptible to downward trends, like many contractors, Mr. De Rosa is hungry for work.

For those with the cash, is now an excellent time to remodel? Professionals say yes, if you undertake the right projects for the right reasons and if you’re clever rather than cheap in taking advantage of the industry’s distress.

Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Harvard center, said he believed homeowners were taking a longer view of their homes than earlier in the decade when resale values seemed paramount. They are reminding themselves that they live in their houses, too — and given the current market, are likely to stay put.

“People are understanding in large measure the ‘use’ value, that the home is a place to raise children, a place to be,” Mr. Retsinas said. “What will increase the value of a home is a smaller part of the equation.”

That makes high-end vanity projects less of a priority. Instead, priority may go to basic improvements that make homeowners more comfortable or keep the house in good repair structurally or that will help save money through energy conservation.

A “cost versus value” report for 2008 and 2009 published by Remodeler, a trade publication, indicated that more mundane projects, like replacing siding or windows, returned more of their investment now than popular items like a major kitchen remodeling.

But what if you still want that wood-burning pizza oven you saw in Sonoma, the outdoor fireplace you admired in Bar Harbor or the concrete tub for two or three you coveted in TriBeCa? Or you want to refinish your basement, as a way of making your children disappear?

Here’s what to know, pro and con.

Yes, good contractors are more readily available to work — and right away — than they have been in a decade. They will take smaller jobs, with smaller budgets, and they will most likely cut their price or be willing to negotiate to cut the budget without cutting the size or quality of the job. Contractors are shopping harder to get products and services that cost less for clients, and certain products and services now cost less anyway because of businesses’ eagerness to survive.

Priscilla Cornell, an event planner and floral designer, and her husband, Charles, a surgeon, are working with Mr. De Rosa and D.A.S. Associates on a $400,000 kitchen renovation in Greenwich, Conn. Ms. Cornell, whose business was hit hard last year, said that costs were a consideration.

The Cornells bid the job to three companies. After negotiating, Mr. De Rosa, with whom they had worked before, came in with the low bid.

“I wanted them to do the job, but I didn’t want to pay an extra 50 or 60 thousand dollars to do it,” Ms. Cornell said. “I told them, ‘Guys, I want you to do it, but you have to come down.’ It was not a huge percentage, but enough that we could all be happy.”

Even in Manhattan, where the housing market has held its value more than it has nationally, top players in the construction and remodeling market are finding that clients are more aware of prices, said Christopher Clark of Clark Construction.

Mr. Clark, who works in blue-chip buildings on Park Avenue and Central Park West, said work was scarcer, he was charging less, his subcontractors were charging less and he was taking jobs with lower markups than several years ago.

“The marketplace is tight,” Mr. Clark said. But, he added, the perception that prices were lower by 20 or 30 percent, as they might be elsewhere, was not true in New York.

“Work is scarcer, but for high-end quality, the trend is down maybe 10, 12 percent for costs,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s a busy marketplace. The high-end market is a craft business — careful stonework, small companies with 8, 10 people. It doesn’t reflect the national trend. Owners are expecting larger discounts than are available.”

Contractors nationally suggested single-digit or low double-digit percentage reductions were a reasonable rule for what to expect for experienced, skilled work.

Prices are not in free fall, in part because not all product costs have come down. “Manufactured goods — plumbing fixtures, lighting fixtures — are still increasing in price,” said Bob Peterson of Associates in Building and Design, a remodeler in Fort Collins, Colo. “Lumber, drywall, concrete — commodity products — are pretty good right now.”

Several remodelers advised undertaking larger projects with simpler finishes, to cut costs, and adding more expensive finishes, like luxury faucets or more detailed moldings, later when the budget allowed.

But contractors noted that there were factors other than costs working in homeowners’ favor in the current economy.

“There’s a good quality work force out there, better than it’s ever been,” said John Mulhern, a builder in Chicago whose recent business is exclusively remodeling. “We’re doing a lot more of the work ourselves, rather than subcontracting.” Mr. Mulhern said the advantage to remodeling right now was not price cuts, but remodelers’ willingness to take more routine work.

Another advantage is that jobs are completed faster, because the labor is more skilled and contractors are not dividing their attention and crews among too many sites.

“The big keyword is ‘value’ and not selling price, how you’re doing it differently and better,” said Nathan Wingate, who owns and operates the Building Network (buildingnetwork.com), a Web site with chat rooms for building industry professionals. Because of intensifying competition, more remodelers are marketing, advertising and creating Web sites, widening the pool to choose from.

Melanie and Dennis Lin, in Shoreline, Wash., did not negotiate the price of a master bathroom renovation, now being completed, with their contractor, Donna Shirey.

“What we did negotiate was doing some of the work ourselves — the demolition and the painting,” Mr. Lin said. Taking work away from the contractors brought them within a budget of $130,000 to $165,000, down from Ms. Shirey’s bid of $165,000 to $190,000. The Lins are engineers in product development at Boeing. But you may want to think twice about a do-it-yourself approach to saving money. You may be poorer than you were, but you’re probably no handier.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Is Green Gold?

Having read and not finished Green is Gold and the Green Manifesto which are about the Green Sustainable movement in business, I wonder if Green is in fact gold or even a priority in the future.

Yes we have a system in collapse. A system that is in definitely need of new growth and stimulation. But in that does it mean that "sustainability" is the means of attaining that goal?

I am not a sustainable business advisor. In fact I am not sure I even know what that is. I believe this is someone who looks at the marketing and production strategies of a business and informs them that these are practices that will take them through this century and into another by pursuing courses of action to eliminate poor fiscal, physical and environmental practices. Well I am going to guess Citibank, WaMu and others avoided hiring these consultants or neglected to mention some things in the process. Sure we saw great reusable tote bags, recycling campaigns and pledges to build environmentally and energy efficient buildings and offices. What they failed to do was embrace legal, solvent banking policies and procedures that kept their companies alive into the next generations.

Ikea, mentioned in the Green Manifesto, is one corporation that he proudly touts as one with a strong green presence. Well if that presence means building poorly made, Chinese crafted, cheap product then green they are. I always love when someone says but there is no waste. Yes its prefab you get all the crappy pieces you need just like a jigsaw puzzle, you don't get extra just in case.

Each week I receive gleeful emails telling me that Wal-Mart is now becoming a member of the Sustainable Business circle, that Panasonic is pursuing further green energy product manufacturing and so on. There is no mention that they are laying people off at a rapid clip and shutting sides or elements of their businesses that are no longer profitable while their CEO's and varying consultants do little to mention their sacrifices in making their business green.

I have to wonder if significant wage discrepancies, inadequate health care, disintegration of 401K/Pension plans and basic commitment to finding ways to improve the quality of workers lives is not essential in making a company Sustainable? Maybe a Sustainable Advisor could "advise" me.

We spend a great deal of time blogging, as I do now, little time communicating and finding out ways on how to improve the quality of life for each other. Perhaps we need to become Sustainable Advisors in our own communities. From us business might learn from the ground up responsibility. But we have to model it for it to become part of the bigger picture. The time for Activism is now.

I appreciate the efforts of these Sustainable Consultants but I hope they look at the current climate and by that I don't mean the environmental one. We have serious problems that are more than supply chain dynamics.

Simple Affordable Energy Fixes

As a business owner my job is to help people find ways to improve their homes in the most Eco friendly energy efficient manners possible. Sometimes those goals are mutually exclusive. Yes you can have an energy efficient home but it does not need any "green" products in order to do so. So how to reconcile those two concepts is what I try to do while still keeping my eye on affordability as the ultimate goal. Its not easy.

But in effort to actually do something, I am going against what I advocate and that is free information. I have been of late used as a resource and I am sorry but I am not a library or non profit organization formed to educate the public on green issues. I spend a great deal of my own "energy" and "green" acquiring information and assembling data. And while I am aware my fees are low they are done so purposefully to not discourage people from hiring me to help them build their business or make their home projects more green.

And that is why I do not give away much information as I feel its a disservice to those who elect to pay versus those who feel they should not. But I did feel that I wanted to share some simple ways to "green" your home to make it energy efficient. These are things that home owners and renters can do. And this is without having an Energy Assessment or Test. Those should be done on any home where a complete program of upgrading and improvements are sought.

Examine the current tax credits and rebates available. There may be some both owners and landlords can do to upgrade the home to make it more energy efficient and ultimately add value to the home (which at this time can be beneficial).

The most expensive yet with amazing paybacks at present - Water Tanks. With current rebates and credits a Tankless Water Heater can be the most affordable upgrade you can do. This is especially a good fix for Apartment/Condo dwellers.

DIY Insulation. A small can of foam sealant around switches/outlets and those recessed lights. Remove them and insulate around the box. Check the windows and doors and if you cannot insulate around them or upgrade even the glazing get solar window treatments. They can be high ended Hunter Douglas shades or curtains with blackout panels. Another option is adding the temporary solar screens that lend U Value. These are particularly useful again for you Apartment or Condo dwellers where window upgrades not possible.

Storm Windows and Awnings. These can be put up or down seasonally and are truly affordable and effective ways to take advantage of protecting the house from cold air, high suns and are easy to do. If you cannot do it there are many handymen who could assist you for $45/hour or less.

Install a ceiling fan. Just remember to switch the rotation seasonally.

Upgrade your shower head to low flow and get the simple flow adjustor's/adaptors for your sinks. You man even be able to get one or two for free via the City or County. Ask and you may receive.

If you have a door that directly opens into the house. Try a bookcase or even fashion a dramatic curtain to shelter the entry way and provide a block to cold outdoor air. You will find dramatic improvements and less dirt. And on that note get a high quality walk off mat (Restaurant supply houses are good sources) and take off your shoes.

With Construction at a standstill this is a good time to find outstanding and qualified help for home improvements. And your handyman can come from yes, Craigslist or even your local coffee shop bulletin board. Don't be afraid to ask questions over the phone first, such as do you have a business license and what was your prior work history? Many are retired or again Construction employees on seasonal lay off. Use good instinct and judgment regardless. Even well advertised companies have bad reps when it comes to hiring practices and the BBB can assist with that. Yelp is another good source. You need not pay either up front (as in Angie's list) or in the back end (such as Service Magic) to find qualified help.


Add a few plants as a natural filter. Low watering ones especially to reduce water use and keeps humidity low. And don't be afraid to open windows briefly to allow for improved indoor air quality during these times when you have a tendency to keep sealed in.

These are all ways to improve the homes energy efficiency, indoor air quality and simply make a better environment be it a house, apartment or Condo.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Future of Green

I am afraid I don't have the answer, well Miss Cleo I am not, and for that be glad. Isn't she in jail for fraud and yet Bernie Madoff goes free? Go Figure.

I spent the day today at a corporate Green Fair. I think there were 6 vendors and possibly 50 mildly interested employees. Maybe they were busy trying to make sure they were busy keeping busy as to secure their jobs. I think they will be fine one of their competitors filed for bankruptcy today. And yet on that note, with cost cutting and people losing jobs, the service they provide is a luxury. That and the fact that the Internet is changing how people watch television, so who knows their future either.

I was really interested in my fellow attendees. I had put out notices and passed on information about the fair to my fellow "greenies." I was rather surprised that none, not one, elected to come.

As my business is directly linked to the declining housing market I could understand if I elected to not attend. However as I also am an Energy Star verifier I have knowledge about improving one's home's energy efficiency, as a MHE for the Lung Association, I have knowledge on Indoor Air quality, as former Contractor I understand ways to improve homes in affordable ways and as a Green Consultant I can offer green ideas on how to do so. All of which are still valuable skills and viable for those who will need to improve the value of their homes as they may well be staying in them for a lot longer in the future.

So why would not those like myself,, small business owners promoting green, elect not to attend? I can not answer that question but I have come to realize that we are not fully comprehending that we need to actually work harder and smarter if we are to succeed in the future.

I am constantly amazed how rarely phone calls are returned, e-mails acknowledged or follow ups made on requests for information. I am amazed at how they can afford not to and if they can why simple professional courtesy's are not afforded. Is that being very green?

I think the epitome of green is having values that embrace those of transparency, courtesy, consideration and future/forward thinking. When you do not embrace those qualities I have to wonder, regardless of your "color" if you are very professional. In this time of great economic distress we should look to the community, whatever community we embrace and remember that we need each other more than ever if we are to come out of this in the future.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

California Dreaming

In my quest to see more States and Utility companies lead the way in the building renewable energy for mass consumption, California is always on the forefront of environmental policy. And yes even Republican Governor, Schwarzenegger is a strong advocate of making his state "green", a state so lacking in green it had suspended payments from the Government. Well sign of the times.

But as I said in a earlier post the delays to completing these projects are not just Municipal and bureaucratic but of individuals (and sometimes Companies) who see government expansion and/or change threatening.

I look forward to reviewing the Economic Stimulus package, I know they have already eliminated or diluted essential programs and the broadband package but the green jobs and energy efficiency programs I hope are restored or not totally reduced to have no impact.

Here is an article in today's New York Times about California's move to renewable energy.

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California Utility Looks to Mojave Desert Project for Solar Power
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Published: February 11, 2009

The largest utility in California, squeezed by rising demand for electricity and looming state deadlines to curb fossil fuels, has signed a deal to buy solar power from seven immense arrays of mirrors, towers and turbines to be installed in the Mojave Desert.

The contracts amount to the world’s largest single deal for new solar energy capacity, said officials from the utility, Southern California Edison, and BrightSource Energy, the company that would build and run the plants. When fully built, the solar arrays on a sunny day would supply 1,300 megawatts of electricity, somewhat more than a modern nuclear power plant.

That is enough electricity to power about 845,000 homes.

The companies acknowledged that several hurdles would have to be surmounted before the first surge of electricity flows from the desert — in theory around 2013 — toward power-hungry cities more than 200 miles away.

First is approval by the state Public Utilities Commission. But more challenging, they said, is a series of permits for improving transmission lines. That process in the past has taken seven to 10 years per project, said Stuart R. Hemphill, vice president for renewable and alternative power for the utility.

“The reality is that renewable projects are very far away from where customers are,” Mr. Hemphill said. “The key is to have transmission built.”

He said he was confident the solar project would succeed, and emphasized that it was part of the company’s accelerating shift toward new energy sources, including recent large contracts for wind turbines, photovoltaic rooftop panels and geothermal power. “What we’re doing is changing the shape of the way the electric system is going to operate in California,” he said.

BrightSource, with investors as varied as Google and the VantagePoint venture capital firm — and with advisers that include the environmental campaigner and lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — has refined a decades-old technology. Thousands of small mirrors focus intense desert sunlight on a central tower, where it generates steam to drive a turbine.

Officials from the utility and plant builder said the cost of the plants and the electricity they will produce could not be disclosed under California law.

The deal is one of many signs that concentrated solar power, after decades of ups and downs, is finding an important place around the world, said Severin Borenstein, a specialist in energy policy at the Haas School of Business of the University of California, Berkeley.

But the technology remains substantially more expensive than coal as an electricity source, Mr. Borenstein said, and further expansion will depend on whether the public continues to support renewable mandates or a rising price on emissions from coal burning. “Everybody’s for reducing greenhouse gases until you start having to pay for it,” he said.

California is imposing one of the country’s most aggressive renewable-power mandates on its utilities. Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric and other providers are racing to meet a deadline of having at least 20 percent of electricity flowing from renewable sources by the end of 2010.

Vanessa McGrady, a spokeswoman for Southern California Edison, said the utility now gets 16 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

Even with the new plants and other nonpolluting energy options, the state still faces big energy and emissions challenges, given relentless growth in demand for electricity at peak times.

In 2008, Pacific Gas and Electric, in Northern California, entered agreements to buy nearly 900 megawatts of power from BrightSource of Oakland, Calif. BrightSource has installed a pilot plant in the Negev Desert of Israel.

Other designs for plants that concentrate sunlight to generate power are in operation or under development in Spain, the Middle East, north Africa, and elsewhere in the Southwest.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Bring on the Sun

While I am a strong advocate of Governments doing the most to seek renewable energy and doing what we can in an affordable accessible manner to encourage using less resources, I have been of late looking into what we can do in the interim to reduce our energy consumption.

On Saturday I attended a workshop on Solar Hot Water Heaters and Sunday the Pasive Haus lecture. And these are the two things that I perhaps can see as two of the most realistic approaches in saving energy expenses.

At present the installation of Solar Hot Water Heaters run about 10,000. They also need a backup system, usually in this situation a tankless water heater. Those thankfully are much cheaper now and one can be had for $400 dollars. Which does put a water system at about 11,000 when all said and done. And that is not a cheap investment. But when you look at your overall use it is one of the most affordable options with the best payback. With current tax credits it can reduce the time of the payback and there are also local credits that may be available to add to that, and hopefully banks (and some do at present) may look to these kind of improvements as a way of encouraging responsible lending in the future.

And on that note I will reprint an article from today's New York Times on the matter of installing a Solar Water Heater. And again, while I encourage this in my effort to always be fully transparent, I do not have the system and until I renovate a house from the ground up I will retain my current tank. I don't like that I have a convention water heater as until late I have had tankless units so I have done what I can to reduce my use and accommodate this feature. And as I am a single individual with little day to day use that is easy and any upgrade has to be considered to your needs, your use and more importantly the budget and the long term paybacks.

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Here Comes the Sun Shower


By LARRY HUNTER
Published: February 9, 2009

THE Obama administration is poised to start a huge program to develop renewable energy sources — and at the same time, it hopes, create jobs, limit pollution and narrow our trade imbalance. The program is likely to include incentives for conservation — to encourage people to insulate houses and buildings properly, drive cars that need less gas and use low-flow shower heads and high-efficiency lighting. Reducing energy use, after all, is the cheapest way to reduce our carbon footprint.

But after conservation, one of the most effective and efficient steps the government can take is to encourage the use of solar hot-water systems — a well-developed and relatively low-tech method for using the sun’s energy.

Solar hot water systems are not as well known as the electricity-generating solar panels that use photovoltaic cells to gather energy. But hot water systems are more efficient than photovoltaic systems and can create the same amount of useful energy with fewer panels. Water heating accounts for a large share of a home’s energy use — typically the largest share after heating and cooling.

Three 4-foot-by-8-foot panels (covering a total area of 96 square feet) can, in full sunlight, deliver about 4.5 kilowatts of heat — enough to heat about 50 percent to 80 percent of the water used by a family of four. The cost to install such a system, including the panels, a water storage tank, piping, a pump and control electronics is usually less than $10,000.

In comparison, a photovoltaic system that can produce 4.5 kilowatts in full sun requires 11 like-sized panels and costs about $40,000. Here in New England, where our annual average illumination is equivalent to only about three hours of direct sunlight per day and relatively high electricity rates (about 16 cents per kilowatt hour), either system can replace about 5,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year. A conventional coal-fired power plant delivering the same amount of energy would emit about five tons of carbon dioxide. But the hot water system pays for itself in 13 years, while the photovoltaic system takes about 50. In places with more sunlight like the Southwest, much more energy can be produced.

Solar hot water systems also work better than many photovoltaic systems in partial shade. And they are simpler and easier for most contractors to install.

Ramped-up production of solar hot water systems would create jobs. Construction workers, many of whom are out of work, possess skills needed to install the systems. Several manufacturers of solar hot water panels and storage tanks are based in the United States. Increased production would also shore up demand for aluminum, which has declined as the American auto industry has shrunk.

Since Jan. 1, a federal solar tax credit has been available to homeowners for up to 30 percent of the installed system cost, with a cap of $2,000 on solar hot water and $5,000 on photovoltaics. If Congress and the Obama administration were to raise the individual tax credits to 40 percent or 50 percent, and the cap to $5,000 on both systems, it would reduce the payback time on a solar hot water system to only six to eight years. At the same time, we would be taking a step toward a sustainable energy future.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Passive Haus

This kind of house is anything but passive. Its very much a living home. One that I think transcends this whole notion of "zero energy" homes that I have issues with. I went today to see a German Architect who is encouraging the development of more Passive Houses here in the United States.

As a lover of many European appliances, cars and other material items, I think they make a better product and while it costs more you get more. I have had Miele appliances for years and still drive a 10 year old BMW. I find myself looking always to Europe as a leader in what makes things sustainable and "green."

The Passive House is not new and certainly here in the United States we made strides in this department in the 70s only to find ourselves back on the crack wagon of fossil fuels and not much else thereafter.

Passive House in Germany has tripled in number since it began in earnest 10 years ago and is growing rapidly. I reprinted in a December blog an article in the NY Times regarding Passive Haus but after today's lecture I really believe this may be the way for true energy efficiency.

I was glad to listen to exactly what they are trying to achieve and the facts that they use tangible numbers to measure energy savings and are focused on the affordable aspects of home design and use. In addition, the focus is on the long term goal of reducing CO2 emissions and long term environmental benefit. Which even in the zeal for green building has often been overlooked, such as a love of SIPs, spray foam insulation and PVC piping all which rely on fossil fuels for production.

Aa a result she was did not fully embrace the varying green build programs that permeate the market. And while I agree on some level, I realize that without them we would have little progression on the front of green build and their adherence to the "checklist" allows for a learning curve and ideal that allows us to push forward the concept. If we did not have them with tangible awards/stars and levels I wonder how many builders would do them. Until it becomes part of the code and norm, we have to encourage green building practices however we can in ways that we can.

She also discusses the Architect, Tangen, mentioned in the article and how he in fact has made many changes to the original design that his home may not be quite the passive house he so endorses. But as many can attest sometimes architects and their designs often deviate from the real purpose the design was intended to be. A word of caution for anyone working with Architects, they are often the "divas" of the building industry. And while I mean that with love I have had many issues with them as with contractors when trying to maintain concept, idea and budget. That is why I appreciate being the third party there to protect the integrity of the client, project and the budget, things often lost in the process.

But it also shows that Passive House is a fluid process and one that allows for some flexibility in design. It is the energy use/savings that is the ultimate goal so for some pushing the boundaries may be a necessary learning curve.

And with this process, the design can still be unique but its not complicated.

Design and construction of these houses naturally follows a much more rigorous methodology than that used in traditional buildings but are documented to be no more costly than traditional houses of the same size. Designers are provided a “Passive House Planning Package” and use specially designed computer simulation software to predict the behavior of the building. Some of the design and construction strategies used in these houses are:

1. Passive Solar Design - leverage the sun’s energy by strategically lighting or shading the interior space
2. Superinsulation - high R-values for walls, floors and ceilings that are thermally broken whenever possible
3. Advanced Window Technology - usually employing triple glazed argon filled double low-e units with super insulated and thermally broken frames
4. Airtightness - minimize the amount of heat or coolth that escapes the envelope
5. Ventilation - including heat recovery ventilator systems and earth warming tubes
6. Space Heating - minimizes the size of heating components and maximizes internal heat gain from other heat sources in the building
7. Efficient lighting and electrical appliances

For more information on the Passive House standard please visit: The Passive House Institute.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why we are in the "Dark Ages"

I have frequently commented that I have real concerns about individual home owners feeling compelled and/or required to upgrade their own energy sources, when in reality that is the provenance of the Federal/State and Local Government agencies. Utilities should have been and certainly need to be upgraded for a number of reasons. Moving into cleaner and more renewable sources, security and safety and simply efficiency are the most obvious.

Today's New York Times article discusses why that is seemingly been such a difficult endeavor. Bureaucracy continues to put more and more responsibility, burden of cost and frustration onto the citizens, while still remaining laden down with policy and pork that dictate who gets what of the pie. That and the ability of Americans willing to compromise and collaborate in finding appropriate solutions to improve quality of life for all are additional factors impeding growth. I have to think the reason behind this is the continual failure of government to find truly clear and coherent solutions well communicated and managed in ways that enable and encourage our support as opposed to our suspicion and distrust. (This could easily be applied to TARP and any number of ideas and concepts passed on these past 20 years)

The U.S Government is that - the Government of the UNITED STATES and should serve all the citizens not just constituents, lobbyists or those with access to the office. It is time to put aside partisan politics, it is time perhaps to find new voices and new attitudes in our Government who are willing to see the whole picture and resolve how to make the country great for ALL and not just a few.

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Hurdles (Not Financial Ones) Await Electric Grid Update


By MATTHEW L. WALD
Published: February 6, 2009

WASHINGTON — Environmentalists dream of a bigger and “smarter” electric grid that could move vast amounts of clean electricity from windswept plains and sunny deserts to distant cities.

Such a grid, they argue, could help utilities match demand with supply on the hottest afternoons, allow customers to decide when to run their appliances and decrease the risk of blackouts, like the one that paralyzed much of the East in 2003.

The Obama administration has vowed to make the grid smarter and tougher, allocating $11 billion in grants and loan guarantees to the task in the economic stimulus package passed by the House last week.

But it will take a lot more than money to transform the grid from a form that served well in the last century, when electricity was produced mostly near the point of consumption, and when the imperative was meeting demand, no matter how high it grew.

Opposition to power lines from landowners and neighbors, local officials or environmental groups, especially in rural areas, makes expansion difficult — even when the money for it is available. And some experts argue that in the absence of a broader national effort to encourage cleaner fuels, even the smartest grid will do little to reduce consumption of fuels that contribute to climate change.

In fact, energy experts say that simply building a better grid is not enough, because that would make the cheap electricity that comes from burning coal available in more parts of the country. That could squeeze out generators that are more expensive but cleaner, like those running on natural gas. The solution is to put a price on emissions from dirtier fuels and incorporate that into the price of electricity, or find some other way to limit power generation from coal, these experts say.

The stimulus bill passed by the House includes $6.5 billion in credit to federal agencies for building power lines, presumably in remote areas where renewable energy sources are best placed, and $2 billion in loan guarantees to companies for power lines and renewable energy projects. The bill also includes $4.4 billion for the installation of smart meters — which, administration officials say, in combination with other investments in a smart grid, would cut energy use by 2 percent to 4 percent — and $100 million to train workers to maintain the grid.

About 527,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines stretch across the United States, most installed many decades ago.

Everyone agrees that more lines are needed. But some industry experts argue that the problem of making the grid greener goes well beyond upgrading and expanding the existing power lines. The grid, they say, was set up primarily to draw energy from nearby plants and to provide a steady flow of electricity to customers. It was not intended to incorporate power from remote sources like solar panels and windmills, whose output fluctuates with weather conditions — variability that demands a far more flexible operation.

The experts say that the grid must therefore be designed to moderate demand at times when there is less wind or sun available — for example, by allowing businesses or residential customers to volunteer to let the local utility turn down air-conditioners in office buildings or houses, when hourly prices rise.

An even more significant problem is that utilities increasingly face opposition to expansion and must fight for years for permits.

José M. Delgado, president and chief executive of the American Transmission Company, which operates in four Midwestern states, said his firm’s last major project, a line of about 220 miles from Duluth, Minn., to Wausau, Wis., took two years to build but eight years before that to win the permits. The federal Interior Department took a year to approve the line crossing a wild river and required a $5 million contribution to a national park, but the one-year delay raised costs by an additional $12 million, for a total of $440 million, Mr. Delgado said.

Loan guarantees will not help this problem, he said. “We have had wonderful access to the private bond market,” he added.

The International Transmission Company, a Michigan company, is trying to build a 26-mile line that, had it been in place, would have prevented the great Eastern blackout of 2003, said Joseph L. Welch, president and chief executive. The State of Michigan has approved it, but a homeowner is challenging it in court, Mr. Welch said.

“We burn up three years on a line that will take two months to build,” he said.

But, he added, “We absolutely have no problem — underscore, no problem — financing our transmission grid.”

Other companies said the same, although a few said the loan guarantees in the House bill would be helpful.

As power lines lengthen, the number of approvals they require increases, the complications of dividing the costs become greater and the difference among national interests and local interests becomes starker, said Dan W. Reicher, a former assistant secretary of energy who was a member of President Obama’s transition team.

Policy makers have looked at various models to resolve the conflicting interests in power-line disputes. In the 1930s, the federal government assumed sole responsibility for approving natural gas pipelines, and as a result, gas moves freely from wells in the Gulf Coast states to other areas of the country, with much of it used to make electricity. Gas pipelines are somewhat less objectionable, though, because they are buried.

Another model is the one used to build the Interstate Highway System, with the states using their powers of eminent domain in a system that was centrally planned with state input. But highways were more attractive to many states than power lines would be, electricity officials say, especially if the lines are simply crossing a state without adding much local benefit. A third possibility is a national commission that would present a master plan for thousands of miles of new transmission lines that Congress could approve for the whole country in spite of local objections for individual pieces.

Congress tried to solve the problem in 2005 with a law that gave the Energy Department authority to intervene if states did not approve new lines deemed to be in the national interest, but that has not worked well, said Representative Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Energy Committee. It was criticized as an assault on the traditional control by the states of land-use decisions.

The electric industry is at least planning to better integrate different parts of the grid so that if power is needed in Baltimore it can be imported from Chicago. A group of technical experts, mostly from the Midwest, have been meeting for months to map out new lines, in an effort that industry veterans say is unprecedented in its breadth. But the group’s aim is simply a map of what such a system would look like; it will not seek permission for such lines, or try to finance them or actually build them. The group is scheduled to make an announcement next week.

“We’ve got a real political confrontation that’s going to take place,” said Glenn L. English Jr., chief executive of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, who had served as a congressman from Oklahoma for 20 years. “It basically comes down to the question of prioritization. What’s more important to you? Do you truly want to maximize the use of renewable energy?”

Energy Policy

Two articles in this mornings New York Times discuss the problems currently facing our Energy upgrades and the problems with Energy Star certifications.

As someone who became an Energy Star Verifier this year and one who embraces the idea of the program, I had issues with it on some counts. I advocate all homes to energy efficient, who doesn't. That should not be thought of as an "exception" or "alternative" but just a matter of course. So while I appreciated the course, I have elect to not offer my services as a third party verifier for Energy Star or any other Green Build program. One: For liability issues; Two: On the idea that again why are we adhering to a checklist when we need to look at the whole picture - needs, budgets, wants and realities. Good on concept not always applicable in real life residential situations.

My issue began when I saw the myriad of what constitutes an Energy Star home. One home is highly efficient, almost luxurious, as in the case of the upcoming "Zero Energy Home", some as the Eco Village, utilitarian but definitely energy conscious and green build as well. And the final Energy Star home, one with vinyl siding, close proximity to the neighbors, vinyl windows, floors, standard cabinetry, carpets and simple Microwave Oven ventilation in an even smaller living/eating area. The Indoor Air quality alone was enough to make me wonder if being that "energy efficient" was all that significant given the size of the house and its building envelope. How much was really being saved? And at what cost of health?

And that is why I developed Vida Verde to provide a third voice, an advocate and educator. To research available options, make conscious decisions that look at the practicality and affordability of what it means to be "green".

Here are the reprints of the first article on Energy Star. And again while I applaud the program and am an advocate, I also believe the time has come to upgrade their grid, have quality research and tangible numbers to make sure we have all the information available to make good decisions. Embracing the concept of "Transparency" that the Obama Administration has endorsed.

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Why Obama’s Energy Savings Estimate May Be Skewed

By BERNIE BECKER
Published: February 6, 2009

WASHINGTON — When he ordered the Energy Department on Thursday to set new, mandatory efficiency standards for a variety of household appliances, President Obama projected how much electricity would be saved.

“We’ll save through these simple steps over the next 30 years the amount of energy produced over a two-year period by all the coal-fired power plants in America,” Mr. Obama said.

But two audits of a prominent 17-year-old program to conserve electricity used in consumer goods, a voluntary effort called Energy Star, have found that such estimates, however rosy, are not completely reliable.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Department, which run the program as a way of encouraging more energy efficiency in furnaces, refrigerators, television sets, computers and so on, have said that Energy Star, whose distinctive logo appears on the labels of qualifying products, saved consumers more than $16 billion on utility bills in 2007 and $14 billion in 2006.

But according to the E.P.A.’s office of inspector general, which has released two reports on the program in the last 18 months, those estimates may be misleading, and safeguards to protect the integrity of Energy Star labels could be stronger.

In December, the inspector general issued a report that said Energy Star’s savings claims were “not accurate or verifiable.” The report found that shipment data for Energy Star products were not being adequately reviewed and in some cases were based on estimates instead of actual shipping totals.

In the other report, in August 2007, the inspector general addressed the integrity of the Energy Star label, noting that “E.P.A. does not have reasonable assurance” that the process allowing manufacturers to self-certify their products is effective.

Energy Star labels, which show comparative efficiency ratings, can be found on more than 50 kinds of products, and the program’s supporters argue that it achieves real and significant conservation, even if exact numbers cannot be nailed down.

“I would challenge people to revisit any product category and say Energy Star hasn’t moved the market toward higher efficiency,” said Noah D. Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Still, the question is whether the savings estimates are based on solid data, and the issues that inspire that question are not limited to those raised by the inspector general’s reports.

For example, the current estimate of hot water use per household — 64.3 gallons a day — was set more than two decades ago, when the composition of households was in many cases much different from today’s.

“There’s a very large uncertainty there,” said Harvey M. Sachs, a senior fellow at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, said savings claims would be more reliable if Energy Star did its own testing. But that would be expensive.

Congress is considering adding hundreds of millions of dollars for Energy Star and related programs in the economic stimulus package.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Green Stimulus

As we enter a time in history that will be studied by future generations, I wonder what decisions are being made that will be looked upon as one's made with those generations in mind versus those one's made for the now?

I have watched the economy slowly cede into the abyss and wonder if like many storms, such as Katrina, where it was not the storm that caused the major problems but the after affect.

I applaud many of the ideas presented in the stimulus, rebuilding our aging and dilapidated infrastructure is an idea that is desperately needed. Our roads are junk, mass transport insufficient, energy companies have lagged with finding renewable sources or even modernized (such as buried connections which would eliminate many power outages), modern technology is not accessible everywhere to everyone and at reasonable rates. This great country has not been great for everyone for quite some time.

One of the stimulus package items is the weatherization of low income homes. This is a great idea and something we did during our Green Jobs Now day in September. But this seems to be such a small item and almost a nod to what really needs to be done when it comes to energy conservation and renovation. I wonder why its individuals who feel the need to install solar panels or cisterns for water when in fact the states often own the actual water/energy rights and are obligated to provide the basic utilities we need to function. Yet those who can afford these luxuries can do so and be supposedly free of government/local fees/taxes and costs. I cannot see that being something in this time to last. Governments running on empty will come up with new ways to fill the coffers so that "zero energy" home of the future may be subject to higher permit fees and taxes as a means to offset the costs lost from being part of the grid. And as a result further pushing back the idea of being green to an elite few who can afford the cost.

I like the idea of people working to conserve energy and take on action where our government has been unable but I wonder when the government will not find ways to make sure that our savings becomes part of their bottom line. With Governments running on red they may find green from those going green.