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.