Friday, April 19, 2013

Just over a month ago, I attended the New York State Green Building Conference in Syracuse, NY. The two day event was developed by SUNY's Environmental School of Forestry and the Upstate Chapter of the NYS Green Building Council. Day one took place at the Gateway Center, a new building recently completed by ESF that has achieved LEED Platinum certification. It is a really cool building! Because ESF is a forestry school, the design incorporates a lot of wood, all of which is FSC certified. It also features a green roof that provides a wonderful view of the city below, populated by an interesting assortment of native plant species. But the building's neatest feature has to be the power plant in the basement (with the exception of solar generation, most buildings have to bring their power in from off-site--and while campuses tend to have their own power plants, almost all have them in separate buildings). They have a bio-fuel (wood pellet) fired furnace that generates steam for power production along with three natural gas micro turbines that will provide the balance of electricity for heat and cooling. In addition, this power produced on-site will provide four other campus building with thermal and electric energy, and will reduce the College's carbon footprint by over 20%. They'll have interactive exhibits to view the system in the near future, and after that, you can go visit the new cafe and Roosevelt exhibits on the main floor. Here's a link to with more information about the building:

On day two, one of the more interesting talks at the conference was given by Alex Wilson on the topic of Resilient Design. Alex is the founder and President of the Resilient Design Institute, and he began his presentation with some pretty eye-opening statistics about the dramatic increase in summer temperatures, annual precipitation, the expanding periods of drought in some of the most vulnerable regions of the country, and the rising number, frequency, and intensity of high impact storms (Katrina, the Labor Day storm of 2011 that hit New England, and Superstorm Sandy were just some of the featured events). The costs associated with these storm events are just staggering (and still being amassed to date). So, what is Resilient Design? According to the Institute, 

"Resilience is the capacity to bounce back after a disturbance or interruption of some sort. At various levels —individuals, households, communities, and regions — through resilience we can maintain livable conditions in the event of natural disasters, loss of power, or other interruptions in normally available services.
Relative to climate change, resilience involves adaptation to the wide range of regional and localized impacts that are expected with a warming planet: more intense storms, greater precipitation, coastal and valley flooding, longer and more severe droughts in some areas, wildfires, melting permafrost, warmer temperatures, and power outages.

Resilient design is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in response to these vulnerabilities.”

The talk made me think about the design of our house and wonder how resilient it would be if challenged by the conditions mentioned above. Certainly the winds that come off of Onondaga Lake are significant, and the 90 degree days that spanned a good bit of July last summer created some uncomfortable temperatures, but the big question is how long would our house maintain a comfortable temperature if we lost power in January? I'm not sure. We don't have a wood stove to fire up and keep us warm, and the solar we have wouldn't even work to provide hot water without the on-demand system that it depends on for distribution.

I think the work that Alex is doing to get the building industry and the public at large to think about resilience is worth consideration, and I'll be interested to see what impact his ideas have on the building industry and standards in the coming years. For more information on the concept or the Institute's work, here's the link:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Hi: Sorry, somebody pointed out that it might be inspiring to include how much we spent on all of our energy for the year I mentioned in the previous post: $942 is the grand total. This is less than a quarter of what we spent to heat and light our old house that we'd renovated, insulated, and that was approximately the same square footage. One big difference is that here in central New York, natural gas is the dominant fuel source, and right now, it's cheap! We used a mixture of oil and electricity in the old house.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

It's been a long time without a post, but that's what happens when your subject becomes your habitat: life just takes over! I did want to share some information with anyone who happens upon this, about our current energy consumption. I used the Energy Star calculator to compare our energy use with other homes of similar size, occupancy, and climatic conditions. Not surprisingly, we fared much better than the average home. Here's a link to the site so you can go through this exercise too:

Blower Door Test #1

For the calculator, I entered our kWh and therm readings for a year. We have four full-time residents (I didn't count the dog), with many visitors who come for weekends and more. In case you have forgotten from earlier posts, we rely on natural gas for heating, our hot water when the solar thermal isn't producing enough (which was only fully operational half way through the year I used), and for our gas cooking stove. Everything else is electricity (remember too, that over 95% of our lights are LED or fluorescent and every appliance within the house has an energy star rating). All told, we used 458 therms, and 5,897 kWh. Based on the Energy Star metric, we rated a 9.7 on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the most energy efficient. I guess because we are a country addicted to our cars, Energy Star provided the following information to help us understand our impact, "Annual pollution resulting from energy use in this household is 4 MtCo2eq of greenhouse gas emissions--the equivalent of .78 car." So, we still need to plant some trees!

While the calculator is an imperfect tool, the results are still positive. However, a more realistic gauge of our efficiency would compare us to the segment of the housing stock that has been built or improved to higher energy standards. Perhaps the US Green Building Council has this information, at least for LEED Homes? Any ideas?

And yes, I'm still working on the paperwork for certification.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hi: I'm responding to Michael's question about the windows. Since my last post, we had two of the fixed triples develop cracks. They are located in our entry, on the south side, and there's no sign of structural problems in the drywall, floor, or anywhere around the windows. Our one thought is that the tightness of our entry room, combined with some freakishly high winds that we had in January, might have caused them to crack under stress. I called PVC, and the rep was out within days. He said no problem, they'll get us new windows. Now, that was three months ago, and I'm still waiting. But the reply from service is "they'll be there before the end of the month." Their initial turnaround time for our builder (and all 52 windows) was incredible: 2 weeks I think!

So, like you Mike, while I would rather have had the fiberglass windows, and some of the glazing specs offered by the Canadian companies, the real hurdle was price. We just couldn't pay, in our case, nearly three times more for our windows. It made more sense for us to increase our wall R-values, air seal the ducts, and put in solar hot water to help improve our efficiencies. Someday, some company might come up with replacements that have more ideal performance characteristics for our house. But at present, I'm pretty satisfied with the casement/awning and fixed window performance. The hardware seems decent, they shut tightly, and while the triple fixed seem to flex a little, you won't feel anything cold or hot coming through.

Make sure you talk to PVC about the VT for your windows. They can improve their standard VT on the glazing a bit, without compromising your U. Depending on where you live, it could be important for you to have some more visible light. Our builder used the standard Earthwise triples down the street, and because of that home's orientation and window configuration, it seems SO dark inside. So, try to view some units if you can so that you're not surprised when you get them.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Just a quick report: the triple glazed windows really do make a difference! We have doubles on the south side, and while they do let in the heat during the day as planned, they also feel cooler when the sun goes down. By comparison, the triples are noticeably more consistent in their temperature. They don't get warmer with the sun, nor do they really cool when it is chilly out.

We are still waiting for the solar thermal to be hooked up, and should have something to report by the end of the month.

We are also waiting to hear back from the civil engineer who is calculating the irrigation efficiency for our landscape plan which was finalized last month. So far, the fifteen trees that we planted prior to Thanksgiving have endured abnormally high winds, and the rest of the low shrubs and perennials should weather this unusually warm winter just fine.

A review of the LEED Homes rating system is to come, as we are finalizing the documentation to submit for our LEED Homes certification. It takes time!

Solar thermal panels go up with the help of a crane. 
A red 4" red maple in the foreground, with two conifers behind, are some of the new plantings on the south side.

A River Birch will do well downslope of the house in an area that receives runoff from the slope.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


After a few too many weeks hiatus....!

General Principles

In retrospect, selecting windows was my biggest headache. They have to perform well, both in keeping the cold/hot out and in visibility. Plus, they will impact the aesthetic of a home tremendously. We have a lot of them in our house--52 counting the unconditioned garage and entrance breezeway--with the goal of maximizing daylight and winter solar gain on our south side. In our rental, a good chunk of our electric bill was spent on illuminating dark spaces, and it did nothing for my mood over the long winter months in CNY. But what you save in lighting, you obviously loose in wall performance, since windows can't compare to good insulation.

We have “eyebrows” over the first and second floor windows on the south side because the double pane windows do less well in keeping the heat out during the summer months. During the winter, the angle of the sun will be lower, and the gain will be maximized. The kids rooms, also on this side, will have insulated shades to do the same (and to allow them to sleep until noon as teenagers). A pagoda on the west side should help us mitigate high summer sun gain through these windows, but these are also the triple glazed units, and they allow less solar heat through. We actually experienced this first-hand, during a 90-degree day this August when you could feel how much cooler the window was than it's double pane counterpart. We have very few on north and east side, both to improve R-value of total wall and because we don’t need them there for more than light.

How to Choose 
Martin Holladay, a Green Building Associate Advisor, is probably one of my favorite bloggers on building materials and principles, and is privy to all sorts of green building cutting edge trends. Here are two links that might be useful, with the second one being most informative re: what to look for in windows when designing an energy efficient house.

Here's a link to a new window manufacturer that Martin writes about--manufactured in Maine and comparable to the European Passivhaus windows:

He also posted a complete review of high performance windows on his blog in 2010:

Some window lingo, before I continue (courtesy of the Efficient Windows Collaborative):
U-factor: the rate of heat loss is indicated in terms of a U-factor for windows. The lower the U-factor, the greater the window's resistance to heat flow and the better its insulating properties. Many manufacturer's now convert U values to R values because the general public is more familiar with the latter.
Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC): The SHGC is the fraction of incident solar radiation admitted through a window, both directly transmitted and absorbed and subsequently released inward. It is expressed in a number between 0 and 1. The lower the SHGC, the less heat transmitted. Energy Star provides guidelines for selecting the best SHG numbers for different regions of the country.
Visible Transmittance (VT): An optical property that indicates the amount of visible light transmitted. A VT of .40 is considered clear glass, with lower numbers representative to glass that may appear colored or tinted due to various films applied to the glass. Most windows fall between .30 and .70: the higher the VT the more light and clearer the view! Other things that can lower VT: divided "lights" of any kind and screens!
Air Leakage: Heat loss or gain that can occur through cracks or gaps in the window assembly. Obviously, the tighter the window assembly the better, as any air leakage will allow for loss of heat. Air leakage accounts for the different performance values between a fixed (non-operable) window and casement/awnings. The National Fenestration Rating Council reviews window assemblies and these attributes, and is a good place to start shopping. You can enter in your location, and it will give you a range of possibilities.

What We Ended Up With
Earthwise Windows from PVC Industries, just a few hours east of us in Clifton Park, NY. It is a vinyl window, something I really didn't want because of it's very eco-unfriendly composition, but I couldn't come close to the builder's price for a comparable product: Less than 12k for all 52 units! Plus, we'll never need to paint them. Here's a quick summary: all the numbers can be found in the rough spreadsheet (thanks to PVC for collecting this information) at the end of this post:

  1. All units meet or exceed Energy Star Standards for our climate.
  2. Triple glazed windows on the West, East, and North walls. These units have pretty aggressive U values of .21-.22, and are offered in double hung units only. We changed the glass from the company's standard Solarban 70 to Solarban 60 (both PPG products), in order to improve the VT for the units from .28 to .35. While this doesn't hit the optimal VT of .40, it helped a little, without compensating the overall efficiency of the unit.
  3. Double glazed units on the South wall, main house in order to maximize the SHGC. We were able to get the numbers up to .38/.39 (target for optimal SHGC is closer to .6). Again, we'll use the eyebrows and shades to control light on this side. These are all single hung units.
  4. Argon gas in all the spacing. Here's the scoop: you can pay for more "efficient" krypton gas, but ultimately, it doesn't boost the performance as much as you would hope for the price differential. Also, the sad fact is that over time, all this gas will eventually leak out, so you'll end up with a unit that simply relies on air anyway.
  5. They don't manufacture sliders in triple glazing (too heavy for the frame), so our three west side sliders have a slightly different look as their VT is almost twice as high as the fixed/awning assemblies adjacent to them. This REALLY bothered me when I first saw it, but I'm used to it now. 
  6. All windows have "foam filled spacers" to reduce thermal bridging between glazing, as well as a butyl seal around the glass assembly. They also spray foam around the unit before trimming it, in order to stop leaks, and in the case of vinyl, to add some structural rigidity so that the plastic doesn't twist or warp over time.

The problem with smaller manufacturer’s like PVC is that they tend to only carry one or two glass products and they can’t “special order” glass to meet customers needs. I'm sure as the sustainable building movement continues, more companies in this country will be able to tailor windows to meet specific project needs and will offer better performing units, but I didn’t find them in time for my project. However, I'm sure there will be a premium for this.

Remember: all 52 of our windows cost just under 12k. As a comparison, our Pella replacement windows in our former house (Architect series, double glaze) cost more than twice as much, for less total glass! I did get one other quote for our project from SeriousWindows in CA, but for their vinyl window with comparable specs, the price was nearly 18k. Serious does, however, offer a 725 series that offers U factors that equate to R values as high as 7....for many multiples of the vinyl window packages.

Fiberglass is also a new option, which is a greener choice than PVC, and even wood, if you consider the embodied energy and durability of the product. It won't warp or twist, and can come in different colors. 

In short, we chose the best option for the best price, and if we happen to be living in this house in 20 years and we are dissatisfied with their performance, well then we can invest in replacements while finding somebody further south to donate our vinyl windows to. Like all decisions effecting the envelope of the house, make sure you think about your window’s performance and the look you want to achieve early on as it is a decision that needs to be made in the very early stages. Especially if you are working with the companies that create more custom packages: lead time can be a couple of months!

A Summary of Window Specifications for Our House:

Type Location U-Factor SHGC VT

Patio Door 0.28 0.32 0.59

Single Hung Basement S 0.3 0.38 0.58

Picture Window Garage 0.29 0.39 0.6

Awnings Garage 0.29 0.38 0.5
PW/Awning Foyer S 0.2 0.24 0.38
0.21 0.15 0.32

Picture Window Foyer N 0.2 0.24 0.38

Picture Window Kitchen 0.2 0.24 0.38

Casement Kitchen 0.21 0.15 0.32

Double Hung Dining 0.22 0.23 0.35

PW/Awning Living 0.2 0.24 0.38
0.21 0.15 0.32

Single Hung Living S 0.3 0.38 0.58

Picture Window Living S 0.29 0.39 0.6

Double Hung Workshop 0.22 0.23 0.35

Awnings Garage Gable 0.29 0.38 0.5

Single Hung Bed 2,3,4, S 0.3 0.38 0.58

Double Hung Bed 2 Utility 0.22 0.23 0.35

Double Hung Hall 0.22 0.23 0.35

Awnings Master 0.21 0.15 0.32

Double Hung Master bd 3 0.22 0.23 0.35

Monday, July 25, 2011

Some final house pictures

It will be cleaner, but it might not be neater in the future so I thought I should post these photos of the house. We are still waiting for the kitchen counters (stainless steel) and bathroom mirror in the guest bath. All lights, interior and exterior, with the exception of those in the family/guest room and dining room, are CFL or T8/T5 florescent fixtures. All recessed lights are CREE-6 LED retrofits.

Landscaping will come, but for now the area of the site that was disturbed will be seeded to prevent erosion. Of course, it has barely rained in the last two months. We don't expect to plant anything until the fall, when the temperatures are lower, and hopefully, the rain returns. There's no sense wasting water and stressing plants to get things to look greener. We also want time to mull over the landscape plan that we expect to receive by summer's end.

View from the east, road side, gravel drive. Remember the cottage that was to the left?
Northwest side, with new porch. This still needs glass panels and additional trellis rails.

South side with new retaining wall. 
Master bath. There's a 36" base, neo-angle shower. Not a lot of space but we don't hang out here.
View of master bedroom from bath. Windows at right are on the north exposure,  so smaller.
At the top of the 3rd floor staircase, looking down hall to bath and downstairs to main level. Sconces have LED lamps.
Kid's room 1: looking out West window. 
Looking out west windows end from the end of the hall on third floor.
Kids bath sink area, with laundry spot in background. 
Kids toilet and shower room, adjacent to above space. We installed an occupancy sensor on the light since they tend to forget to shut it off.
Kids bedroom 2, looking East.
View from north wall of dining room looking along west (porch) wall, main floor.
My office nook, on the east side of living room area overlooks the entry porch.
View from my office out west windows, living room.
Stainless steel countertops in kitchen manufactured locally. Should withstand every abuse, and can be recycled when the next occupant decides they're not what's current. Yes, they will scratch, but if we get enough scratches, we won't notice! Or we can buff them out with an abrasive pad.  The vent hood is made by Whirlpool, and other than an Air King, is the only chimney hood that is Energy Star certified.

Looking down to the lower, walk-out level from the west wall of main level.
Looking up the same staircase to main floor, and out lower level slider on west side.
We still need the mirror and the tile backsplash on the counter, but this is the guest bath. We put an occupancy sensor on these lights too. No loitering!
Open play/work out room on west side lower level. Slider is at right.

Hard to photograph, our guest/family room overlooks the south lawn (under the eyebrow). 
The unfinished entry porch. We'll add to the pavers and will landscape this. But for now, we can get in!